Every new land demands blood and we relent. It is our nature. We are, after all, animals. In our arrogance, we forget this, but in the end we rise from the land, only to return.
This season of Hell on Wheels is definitely playing with broad themes. Episode 2.01 was about compromise, and 2.02 about American mythology (last week I said this was the theme of the series as a whole more than of a single episode, but in context of a run of three, I’m going to say I was wrong). The appropriately-named Slaughterhouse, then, is about brutality.
The episode is bookended by slaughter; opening with the slaughter of a pig, which parallels and foreshadows the final slaughter, the final disposal of offal. That last murder is disturbing and utterly unexpected. In between, there’s plenty of brutality: The reverend brutally denouncing his daughter followed by the fight between Eddie and some toughs, the attack on the McGinnes brothers and the counter-attack by Elam and Cullen, even the tension between Cullen and the men working the line—this was a particularly confrontational episode.
One thing that strikes me is the number of rules people have to live by, the number of constraints placed on them. The town of Hell on Wheels itself is almost pure anarchy; as Lily points out, Durant is judge, jury, and executioner whenever justice isn’t simply ignored, or enforced by mob. Yet the social laws are fierce and unforgiving: Blacks, Indians, women, the Irish, prostitutes; all must know their places and be careful never to transgress. This balance, between social restriction and anarchy, is what gives Hell on Wheels its explosive power.
In fact, most of the main characters are transgressing social boundaries. This series at first seemed to be an exploration of the Western archetype of a suffering anti-hero as embodied by Cullen Bohannon, but it has become very much about people using the railroad town as their personal escape from, or exploration of, their own transgressive nature, be it Eddie leaving his Indian roots, the Reverend leaving faith, Ruth fornicating, Eva leaving an undisclosed Indian past and then leaving prostitution, Lily taking a man’s role, Elam taking a white man’s role, or the Swede flipping his social place from the top to the bottom.
The Swede seems to be taking pleasure fomenting just for the sake of seeing what shit looks like all stirred up. With all the sexual, racial, ethnic, and interpersonal tension in town, that’s not hard to do. His ally isn’t his “Nordic brethren,” it’s anyone capable of crossing the line and creating the chaos that will thwart Bohannon. He sought out the butcher, not just because he was a friend of the murdered Schmidt, but because of his ruthless skill with a blade and his bloody yet efficient outlook.
I am torn by the conversation about self-hatred. Unnecessary psychobabble or strong counterpoint to the startling actions that preceded and followed? As always, it’s a scene elevated by its visual content: The steam, the juxtaposition of the bath’s baptismal symbolism with the impure violence of the conversation, the camera angles suggesting power and powerlessness. In that context, discussing hate and self-hatred worked for me.
Hell on Wheels is really playing on the sexual tension/triangle thing: There’s Lily and Cullen triangulated by Durant, there’s Eva and Elam and Mr. Toole, and Sean smolders for Ruth, who is with Eddie. It’s all a bit much, especially since the interesting heft of the show isn’t found in its love triangles. Still, it’s fun to watch and more than a little erotic.
The relationships also matter because they, too, are transgressive. Lily in particular is striking a dangerous and unmapped path for herself (an interesting metaphor for the widow of a surveyor). She greets Cullen with what is essentially an apology for being with another man. There’s nothing particularly new or fascinating about the trope of an upper-class woman loving a lower-class man—we’ve all seen Titanic—but these are compelling characters and actors, and I enjoy the tension between them. The more dangerous tension is within Durant: He’s torn between hating Bohannon for attracting Lily, and needing his skill on the job.
Of course, despite Lily’s weak praise of Durant’s kindness, he gives no true attention to her at all; he simply possesses her. Nothing could show this more delicately than Lily’s red, tear-filled eyes as she prepares to tell Durant that she ordered the foreman’s death. It’s a hollow relationship, one in which he never sees the intensity of her body language, nor even believes her, at first, when she speaks. He doesn’t look up, and then he is angry at her for making a bad decision; he never sees her at all.
Elam is, perhaps, more consciously aware than anyone that he is transgressing the rules, and this seems his whole purpose in life. Knowing that nothing he wants will be given to him, he takes it wherever he sees an opening, and Cullen’s current weakness is a huge opening for him. (“I’m takin’ the front.”) His problem is that his ambition and his feelings don’t perfectly align. Well, a lot of us have this problem. He’s given up Eva for ambition, and enough of his own morals so that he feels the need drink away the knowledge. Now he’s selling his uneasy friendship with Cullen, although we’ll see how this plays out.
For those watching anachronisms (maybe only me?), I looked up two possibilities and found they’re both accurate. “Screwing” (used by Sean) has been slang for sex since the 1700s, and “money is no object” (also used by Sean) is also from that century.