The truth is, I think some people are beyond redemption.
When Ruth said the quote above, it went straight to what Cullen Bohannon has wrestled with since almost the inception of Hell on Wheels. Cullen fears he is irredeemable, and longs for the touch of redemption. This episode stands on the cusp between those two states of being.
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.
In this episode, redemption is available in the form of love, specifically, in loving a woman. To a great extent, it’s objectifying; Lily, Ruth, and Eva are objects in the subjective lives of Cullen, Sean, and Elam, each of whom chooses a better path because of the woman he loves. This is woman-as-muse, or manic pixie dream girl without the “manic,” the subject of the tale is the men. Hell, Eva didn’t even appear in the episode; the idea of her was enough.
Still, Hell on Wheels is rarely a sexist show, and while Redeeming Womanhood is a sexist trope in fiction, and Redeeming Pregnant Woman transcends “trope” like the ocean transcends a bucket of water, two of the women are also on a path of redemption. Ruth and Lily are struggling to free themselves from protective and oppressive men, and make choices more consistent with who they really are. In Lily’s case, it’s a sexual choice, but in Ruth’s case, it’s her church (preached her way; Joseph isn’t around to tell her she has to straighten up and chasten up if she wants to preach).
When Cullen went to the preacher in God of Chaos, he did so because Lily told him he could change, and again, this episode parallels that one. Lily has been, not a muse for his redemption, but an active force asking him to change, all along. This time, she lays it all out, ‘I’m asking you not to run, I’m asking you to change,’ and so does he: ‘I only stay because of you.’
I thought they’d drag out the smolder a little longer; but this show isn’t one to drag things out. So many times, I’ve thought this plot-point or that would last for several episodes or an entire season, only to be resolved the following week, or later that episode. Granted, the sexual tension between Lily and Cullen has been hanging in the air since they met in Episode 1.03, but the writers could easily have dragged this out if they were so inclined. On this show, people change in permanent ways, as evidenced by killing off a main cast member: Tom Noonan (Reverend Cole) remains in the opening credits.
The reason you hate me is that I am a constant reminder of the capacity for evil that resides within you.
The redeeming power of love is a counterbalance to the capacity for evil. The final montage of three redemptions (Lily and Cullen having hotness, Sean watching Ruth preach, Elam enjoying his plot of land) ends with the Swede, riding off into further “invigorating” evil. The dividing line is clear. Lest the show become impossibly dark (something it miraculously avoids), there’s a note of hope in the sunlight of morning for Lily and Cullen. We wonder why he’s sneaking so quietly–not to wake her, or to get away from her? But we don’t wonder too much, because the sunlight itself seems full of love and kindness, and he ends by going off to do a day’s work. Beautiful.
Every time we see Lily’s face in this episode, there’s a look in her eyes like she’s not quite tough enough. She doesn’t show steel; she doesn’t look like a woman who longs to be running a railroad. She left England and came West for freedom, not for toughness. On television, whenever we’re shown a woman bucking convention, in any genre, she’s a badass; a gun-totin’ mama. Intriguing, then, that Lily Bell is not some “woman toughening up” character, but more herself.
I confess: I watched the love scene twice. It wasn’t the hottest love scene I’ve ever seen, but there was that one moment when he pulled away from her so he could stop, and look, and then kiss her again…dayum.
Even though Eva was an invisible object this week, there was one moment that was quite lovely. In a previous episode, Eva took a picture of herself and Mr. Toole and used her thumb to cover her tattoo. Now Elam takes the same picture, and uses his thumb to cover Mr. Toole. Pictures let us imagine ourselves…as loved, as beautiful, as redeemed.
Where did the Swede go in the night, in the direction of evil? To the Sioux? We’ll soon find out. His meeting with the Sioux and his appearance as “the White Spirit” is as yet unexplained. A series of striking images like the one above, it will doubtless become a crucial plot point.