Range wars, the fight for turf in the American West, form the basis for this past Sunday’s Hell on Wheels episode. Turf for cattle to range freely versus turf for the railroad is a historic reality, and leads in to themes about the fight for the “turf” of Eva’s body and child, as well as the “turf” of railroad control—Bohannon versus Durant, and the turf of the new town that Durant and Palmer plan to build.
But Range War was primarily the kind of episode that clicks along and establishes plot points and characters that will become meaningful later in the season. Every continuing drama sacrifices a certain urgency once in a while in order to lay down track that characters will walk throughout the remaining episodes. Quite a lot of track was laid this week.
In our two-hour season premiere, we met journalist Louise Ellison, and I thought she was too obviously a love interest for Bohannon. So it was interesting this week that another potential love interest was introduced in Maggie Palmer, with whom our hero sparked appealingly. As with the late Lily Bell, he could compete with Durant for her attentions just as they compete over the railroad. I don’t love women as turf as a theme, but it cannot be denied that men of that era would see them that way. Again we see a real effort on the part of this show to find interesting roles for women. I like Maggie Palmer! I like, too, that Louise was given a little independent life in this episode, but while I applaud the effort, she still functions as an expository device, asking questions the audience might ask. Her conversation with Eva was one-sided, with Louise asking questions merely to give Eva a chance to have character moments of her own.
(By the way, as far as I can determine, Old Whore’s Sickness seems to be Pelvic Inflammatory Disease.)
Declan Toole is a creepy new villain with a real sense of menace about him. It seems that the Swede will be occupied for a bit, conning (and eventually terrorizing, I betcha) a homesteader family. Doesn’t it just seem like any minute he’s going to use that ax on them? Anyway, without a villain of the Swede’s caliber in Hell on Wheels, we needed Declan.
Sean and Ruth are negotiating a new and uncomfortable space. Again, this episode just let us know that feelings are still raw and laid groundwork for future encounters.
And with all that groundwork out of the way, let’s get to our main characters. Elam didn’t get much to do this episode except play a supporting role for Cullen. And Cullen himself bordered on Superman.
Seriously, how did he instantly know that it was Durant maneuvering against him, and how did he know that Sean was working for Durant? Last week, those seemed like mysteries being built for long-term reveals, yet Cullen…just knows. Because he’s super-smart as well as super-moral and, of course, super-tortured. You can take this Tortured Anti-Hero thing too far, you know, and this episode pushed the boundaries a bit. Still, he’s fascinating to watch (in part because Anson Mount is amazing) and his moral quandary is real. I like the way he’s establishing an uneasy friendship with Ruth, seeking her out for a bit of spiritual comfort.
I’ll try to get back on a normal schedule, with reviews up by Monday, starting with the next episode. Thanks again for bearing with me.