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.
Watch Hell on Wheels – Scabs Online
Hell on Wheels S02E04: Scabs
How is power consolidated? People have to be broken, like horses, which is why Mr. Toole’s humility is so important, and why Elam ends up coated in mud. Mr. Toole knows who is being broken, and who the rider is, but Elam doesn’t yet know that; that’s why he got his ass whipped. Cullen demonstrated power over Lily and Durant, Psalms had power over Elam, Toole had power over Elam, Eva had power over Toole…the list goes on.
Indeed, his beating at the hands of Psalms is still only the second worst thing that happens to him in this episode. Mr. Toole absolutely eviscerates Elam when he tries to threaten Toole into treating Eva right, as the violent, drunken bigot calls Elam’s bluff and ably demonstrates he’s now more of a man and, worse, more of a father than Elam is. While the unexpected pregnancy story has been done countless times before, at least Hell On Wheels decides to zip through the well-worn story beats at lightning speed, with Eva confessing the truth to Toole (give or take specifically naming Elam as the father) about five sentences into their evening conversation.
Then he leaks news about the arrival of new workers to Reverend Cole – who, of course, spreads the word while cadging drinks at the local watering hole. When the replacement workers arrive late at night by train, they’re given a brutally harsh reception by the Irish laborers – and their black co-workers. The replacements get back on the train to beat a hasty retreat. But the Irishmen recognize that, despite their temporary victory, Cullen could easily bring in another group of scabs at any time. So Toole – evidently the unofficial leader of the Irish workers – agrees to lead his fellows back to work, provided they are given protection. And, yes, they agree that Cullen should arm the black workers to provide that protection. Cullen is too smart to flash a self-satisfied smile. But you know he’s happy to see everything has gone according to plan. His plan.
I still may laugh at some of the exchanges between him and Eva, but I was a bit surprised that by the end of the episode it was Mr. Toole who came to her side. The guy may be obnoxious and the infidelity could be enough to upset anyone, but he still has the decency to want to help her through it.
As he tries to explain to Elam, this is what working for Durant means, and it suits Bohannon just fine. Durant himself is sidelined for another episode, becoming the obstinate buffoon so that Cullen’s genius is all the more obvious. Admittedly, it makes sense that Durant would know far better how to control senators than he would a rowdy workforce, but Colm Meaney deserves more to do than just being a foil to Bohannon or Lily.
And there’s the Swede, drinking with the Irish at Fleming’s funeral. Last week he said he must side with his “Nordic brethren” against the Celts, this week, he drinks with the Celts. People seem to be losing awareness of him; he’s like a shadow, creating havoc without drawing attention to himself. This was, in some ways, a placeholder episode. It was powerful, but I think it was a breathing space between the brutality of last week and the coming war with the Sioux. We shall see.
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