Crazy Ruth is way better than Regular Ruth, but for much of “Bleeding Kansas” I wished she would just pick one already. After that rad cliffhanger a few moons ago, it seemed like Ruth had finally turned a corner into Awesome Character territory. Finally, the preacher’s daughter was making some bold choices and straying from her usual options of bible-clutching and lip-quivering! That is the Ruth I wanted…
At a critical moment in “Blood Moon”/“Blood Moon Rising,” Mr. Toole reflects on why the lord saw fit to spare his life when Elam shot him in the face. He explains that he assumed he was saved so that he could marry Eva and build a loving relationship, despite all the challenges. And yet, when confronted with what appears to be Eva running back to Elam once again, he decides God is just a cruel, manipulative bastard who has gained some sick pleasure from making him miserable. Faced with this revelation, Mr. Toole turns his gun on himself.
Durant is tearing up a box car where a sick man is lying. Eva comes in and hands him some opium to kill the pain. When he feels better he says he feels bad that he was stealing from a sick man to get the medicine. Hannah wants him to go back to Chicago because his pain is so bad but Thomas refuses because the railroad will collapse without him.
That certainly looked to be case as ‘Blood Moon’ opens on a Hell on Wheels that had been utterly ravaged and more or less burned to the ground. Meanwhile, a seemingly broken Bohannon attempts to provide some kind of explanation as to just what had transpired. In his low growl of a voice, Bohannon gives an account of the town’s final days. Thomas Durant (Colm Meaney) and his wife Hannah (Virginia Madsen) were busying themselves over concern that their duplicity with the railroad mileage would result in a jail sentence, while Lily Bell (Dominique McElligott) was doing her best to secure a future for herself that didn’t end with being a governess. Lily’s plan was for her and Bohannon to continue building the railroad and their relationship, and that plan appeared to be one Bohannon was willing to buy into – even as Durant was looking to buy Bohannon’s loyalty through a permanent partnership.
The weird thing is that the season doesn’t build to this moment—to be sure, it ends with the apocalyptic Sioux raid, but most of the characters spend the first two-thirds of the episode pointedly ignoring the possibility that everything is about to come crashing down around them. The Sioux function as a narrative tidal wave, washing over all the little stories of the camp and reducing them to nothing. By the end of the two hours, Durant is in custody, but we don’t see it, and we’re left to guess what’s next for Elam and Eva, for the McGinnes brothers, for the camp in general.
In the seventh episode of Hell on Wheels Season 2, Lily and Cullen struggle to maintain order in Hell on Wheels in the aftermath of tragedy while Elam makes plans for the future. You can learn more about what happened by checking out the online extras for Episode 7, “The White Spirit”:
One of the most striking scenes this show has ever had was in the Season 1 finale, when Cullen decided, at last, that redemption might be available to him, and went to see Reverend Cole. Unfortunately for him, Reverend Cole had just beheaded someone and hidden the body, and wasn’t in the mood to preach peace. “Choose hate,” he said, leaving Cullen alone in his longing to be a better man. Within hours, he’d taken the preacher’s advice and killed an innocent man. In exact parallel to that scene, in The White Spirit, Cullen goes to the preacher’s daughter, again hoping for redemption, and hearing that it may not exist for him.
A title like “The White Spirit” promises plenty of hot Swede action, and the opening scene, in which the Swede shaves his head, strips off his clothes, covers himself in war paint, and takes his place among the chanting Sioux delivers with lurid gusto. Admittedly, the next time we see him he’s acting altogether sane, at least by his standards, as Lily summons him to camp to make sense of the absent Durant’s finances. With Durant’s life still very much hanging in the balance, the camp is on the brink of anarchy, and only Lily’s unconvincing declaration that all is well and the gruff orders offered by a disinterested Bohannon are keeping things in order. The McGinnes brothers have resurfaced, this time wanting to buy Carl’s saloon. To help them in their takeover bid, Elam and Psalms engage in some seemingly ill-conceived sabotage of the latest whiskey shipment, but it becomes clear that Elam’s recklessness is really his way of severing ties with Lily, Durant, and the railroad once and for all—not to mention getting a cut of all the bar’s future profits now that the McGinnes brothers are in charge.
“You try to tell yourself that you don’t like the killing but you just can’t stop yourself because death is coming for all of us,” the Swede tells Cullen. As crazy as the Swede is, he does seem to have his finger on what makes Cullen tick. Very rarely does he say something that isn’t hauntingly true. You can see the guilt from last week’s murder of his close friend pushing Cullen towards a shaky future.
This episode of “Hell on Wheels” is full of action and a few surprises. At the beginning of this second season Cullen Bohannon was part of a robbery crew. Tonight his old crew is back with a plan to steal $50,000 from the railroad’s payroll.
For Durant, it’s his chance to create an even greater name for himself. Elam is trying to be considered an equal after the slavery of the past. Lily is attempting to continue her husband’s work, even if it will leave her with an uncertain future once the road is completed. But for Cullen Bohannan, his motivation for joining the railroad was revenge for the murder of his family, and he quickly changed to forget about that, instead deciding to solely do the bidding of Durant, while also sometimes working on the railroad.
As much as the episode is superficially about a bunch of Johnny Rebs looting the railroad’s payroll once again, the question comes up over and over: What would happen to everyone should Durant (Colm Meaney) die? The man who controls everything is, naturally, also the man nearly everyone despises – the disparity of wealth and comfort being only a portion of why Durant is looked upon with such disdain. Of course, since Durant’s ability to draw breath is directly related to the future and wellbeing of so many individuals; namely, the freedmen, Elam Ferguson (Common) and now, Lily Bell (Dominique McElligott) – not to mention the future of the railroad itself – it comes time to put the good Mr. Durant directly in harms’ way.
“The Railroad Job” has a decent premise at its center: Hawkins, the leader of the ex-Confederate bandits from the beginning of the season, decides to rob the camp’s payroll while all the workers are off building the bridge. While casing the camp just before the heist begins, one of the robbers doesn’t take kindly to Elam’s presence in the saloon, and Hawkins’ too-generous attempt to make peace with Elam tips him off that something bad is about to go down. While Durant sends for Bohannon to return to the camp, Elam arms the McGinnes brothers and a sick Psalms, but the heist has already begun.
This week’s Hell on Wheels, Scabs, is about the usurpation and exercise of power. It’s about who has rights and who doesn’t, and it answers the question by suggesting those who have rights are those who fight for them.
It took a season and a half, but Hell On Wheels has finally gone ahead and told a story that’s actually, properly about building a railroad. Even more promisingly, the episode that does so places Bohannon front and center, dropping the McGinnes brothers and Joseph subplots for the episode in order to place all the focus on the two protagonists, Cullen and Elam.
During the opening minutes, this week’s episode once again reminds us that Hell on Wheels isn’t your grandfather’s western. Cullum Bohannon is overseeing a construction crew out in the field when work suddenly halts while everyone pays heed to nearby screaming. Attention focuses on a nearby hilltop, where one of the Irish laborers is being tortured by Sioux tribesmen obviously intent on making a point. (That point: The same thing could happen to any of you other palefaces.) Cullen asks for someone to bring him a rifle. Suitably armed, Cullen fires – not to kill a Sioux, but to put the Irishman out of his misery. (Actually, that sounds like something Ethan Edwards might have done in The Searchers.) The other railroad workers – Irishmen and “Negroes” alike – don’t question Cullen’s action. But that doesn’t mean they’re willing to keep working on the railroad all the livelong day.
Not only is there a competition with other railway lines on trying to get to the west first, but the Sioux aren’t pleased people are messing on their land, and the workers themselves have got demands and issues to be dealt with before even striking pins or laying tracks.
Not surprisingly, Durant and Lily couldn’t really do anything to fix the problem leaving it all up to Bohannon. It’s a good thing he’s a man of the people, or at least knows how to push people in the right direction even if they don’t realize it. He’s a natural born leader and his skill with a gun adds credence to his barking orders. Truly, Bohannon continues to show how great of a character he is, no matter what the situation. His scenes are always fantastic.
Well, that certainly lived up to the name “Slaughterhouse”. Returning to the Hell on Wheels camp after being saved from hanging by Durant (Colm Meaney), Cullen (Anson Mount) reluctantly sets out to bring a little more order to the growing community. He even forms an uneasy partnership with Elam (Common), whose murderous actions haven’t affected his pining for Eva (Robin McLeavy). The Swede (Christopher Heyerdahl), still trying to regain power in the camp and still strangely obsessed with Cullen and his crimes, has begun investigating the murder of the line boss Elam killed at the end of last week’s episode. He doesn’t waste time pinning the murder on his old enemies the McGinnes brothers (Ben Esler and Phil Burke) and maintains his creep level as he goes even further off the deep end. Lily (Dominique McElligott) deals with her guilt for her role in the murder, struggling with the decision to tell Durant her part in it, and all the while, Durant is still single-minded in his fight to win the race with Central Pacific Railroad to get his railroad across the Rockies first.
Dieter Schmidt in the bloodiest way possible, which culminated in a sledgehammer vs. meat cleaver fight to the death between the accuser and the accused (“Shut up, you had me at ‘sledgehammer vs. meat cleaver fight to the death'”). The grisly result illustrated how in a society with no overt governing body besides those able to manipulate public opinion—either through wealth or subterfuge—the concept of justice is as ephemeral and personal as a gavel that constantly changes hands only to smash out the brains of anyone deemed guilty along the way.
‘Slaughterhouse’ opens with the Swede seducing the German butcher, Mr. Bauer (Timothy V. Murphy) with the chance for revenge against those who murdered his prostitute-killing friend in ‘Durant, Nebraska.’ Though the Swede likely knows the McGinnes brothers had nothing to do with Mr. Schmidt’s stabbing death, his hatred for all things Irish (and the McGinnes brothers, in particular) is at the forefront of his insidious decision-making process.
Now that Bohannan is back, Durant has put him back in a place of power, placing him to watch over the workers on the railroad. Since Bohannan stole the money the workers were owed, they’re clearly not to keen on this idea. But once Bohannan puts them in their place, it’s time for Durant to do the same to Bohannan. Durant needs the railroad to get to the Rockies soon or all his construction will be for nothing. Once Bohannan can lead the men to this construction, he will be free. But let’s be honest, Bohannan will probably just end up back in Hell on Wheels once again. You’re never quite free of Hell on Wheels.
Hell on Wheels excels as a series of moments, visually arresting, often stunningly original; juxtapositions of people, place, and situation. Durant, suffused in sunlight, holding two documents, while being told he plays God; Lily and Eva across a table, and across the vast expanse that separates their lives, yet each is a woman, and each has survived an Indian attack; the Swede and the Preacher, quoting competing and yet similar mythologies to each other.
“Durant, Nebraska” is written by John Shiban, who also wrote two episodes in season one: “A New Birth of Freedom” and “Timshel.” The reason I point this out is that as I was watching this episode, I made a note that Hell on Wheels is back to doing snapshot scenes.
The episode briefly appears to be the end times for the captured Cullen Bohannon, as the latest band of asshole Union soldiers torture him for the names of his Confederate, uh, confederates. (Bohannon, with a classic mid-waterboarding smirk, tries to name Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson as his fellow robbers.) Bohannon has given up at this point, revealing to his last friend and confidant Doc Whitehead that he feels nothing at all for last season’s murder of the innocent Union sergeant. Indeed, when the soldiers finally blindfold him for his apparent execution, he flies into a rage when he learns the soldiers aren’t about to kill him.
This seems to be the way things are headed, but instead Bohannon is tossed in a horse barn, and not in front of a firing squad. Inside, Durant (Colm Meaney) pops his head out and, after likening himself to God, reveals he literally holds Bohannon’s fate in his hands. Somehow, Durant has used his incredible influence and various friendships to secure a pardon for Mr. Bohannon – with a caveat, of course.
It’s not hard to like the idea of AMC’s western series, Hell on Wheels. The show has a lot going for it: unrepentant, lone wolf in search of those who killed his wife and child, set against the magnificent backdrop of the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad, where freed slaves, immigrant workers and former Confederate soldiers all convene. It is the kind of milieu fans of multiple genres can find a heaping helping of what they’re looking for. The trouble is, during season 1, the series often came across unsure about just what it wanted to serve.
Two black-clad men at a grave, seen from a ground-level angle. Hell on Wheels is most remarkable for its imagery. In Viva la Mexico, the Season 2 premiere, those images are most striking from the point of view of the observer.
The best news about this episode, particularly for those wary of giving Hell On Wheels another chance, is probably how much ground it puts between the end of the first season—which, while I certainly didn’t hate it, never really rose above the level of C-grade television—and where our characters are now. To be sure, the fallout of last season still affects the characters, but the ensuing time (I’d guess two or three months, but I don’t think it’s stated explicitly) has forced everyone to start moving on. Bohannon briefly returned to Meridian and fell in with a bunch of hotheaded bandits, and he’s now hoping for a new life in the Confederate colonies in Mexico. Elam is firmly ensconced in Durant’s inner circle, as is Lily, although exactly where Durant and Lily stand is left a bit uncertain here.
Ruth (Kasha Kropinski) visits Sean and tells him that the church can not pay its rent because her father, Reverend Cole (Tom Noonan) is too ill to preach. Sean tries to imply his romantic interest in Ruth, but she quickly shoots him down. Later, Nell (April Telek) discovers that one of her prostitutes has been brutally murdered. The residents of Hell on Wheels watch in stunned silence as The Swede removes her body. But Sean and Mickey take the tragedy as an opportunity as well. Durant tells Lily about the murdered woman and she insists that the killer be found and punished. But she is taken aback by Durant’s attitude that the woman was worth less than a horse.