Let’s recap Hell on Wheels Season 4 so far: Episode 1, snoozefest. Episode 2, interesting, exciting, with a really great, really weird pivotal scene. Episode 3, Chicken Hill: excellent, straight-ahead television. So far, so good. I’m inclined to completely forgive the season premiere.
Chicken Hill (and next week’s episode as well, according to IMDb) is directed by Dennie Gordon. Instead of Neil LaBute’s inconsistent artistry, we have a director with a not-particularly-flashy resume of solid, reputable television. I’m on board with that. This episode was written in a more conventional way, while still showcasing plenty of the cinematic beauty we love about Hell on Wheels—shots that come to mind are the slow ride into town pictured above, the dropping of the guns into the water, the eerie maze of sheets, and of course the long pan back from Cullen’s savage beating that ended the episode.
That beating took me by surprise. Certainly it was foreshadowed out the wazoo, but everything about its presentation ended up shocking: The attack from behind, in the dark, at a peaceful moment, the pure brutality, Cullen’s inability to ever catch his breath or fight back in any way, and then, of course, the intensity of the visuals. However, I fear this will end up being a “television beating.” You know what I mean—in real life, a week in bed and then a slow return to health, on TV, an afternoon in bed and then full health the next day with, perhaps, an occasional wince as a nod to reality.
Structurally, Hell on Wheels has settled into a pattern of tight focus on its hero, Cullen Bohannon, with visits to the rest of the somewhat sprawling cast about every other episode. The show has played around with structure from time to time, but this fairly conventional pattern has taken hold and works well. We’ve taken some surprising turns; it’s almost unheard of for a main character, a sexy loner at that, to marry in the course of a series. In general, this sort of thing means a death sentence for the woman, the baby, or both. Consider poor Lily. Sexy loners are written as unattainable. Naomi has survived four episodes so far (including the Season 3 finale)—five if you count her introduction as the Mormon’s daughter at the beginning of last season. I don’t think her future is bright, but I find it interesting to have Cullen focused on, and committed to, his wife and baby. This is part of who the character always was, of course; the family man whose life was blown apart by the war.
Such a character is a standard Western hero; from The Outlaw Josey Wales to The Naked Spur (both favorites of mine) to The Searchers, the Western is traditionally laser-focused on the post-Civil War period and the way the war changed everything and everyone, and this is frequently seen through the eyes of a former family man—a veteran—who is now a loner. To make that hero a family man again is unique.
One of the reasons Hell on Wheels is so great is it takes an incredibly significant historical period, and addresses it in a brand-new way—this despite the fact that it’s one of the most looked at periods of history in terms of movies and TV. Yes, the outlaw loner is a Western trope, but there’s little in Westerns about building the railroad, and virtually nothing about the life of freed slaves.
Speaking of freed slaves, nice job you got there, Cullen. Of course, he can’t resist speaking his mind and showing up the engineer, but he’s also taking seriously the quandary of being the only white working among the freed men. And while we’re on the subject of doing things unusual in a Western, how about that ice-breaking joke? Think about what you were expecting—the taciturn man, the tense silence, some kind of grunting stand-off. Instead, he cracks a joke and then says “Come on!” when the others don’t laugh. What a great little moment.
Naomi has a tiny little bit of brass, bitching Cullen out about turning down jobs. Good for her. His response, that he can only work on the railroad, because only the railroad makes his life worthwhile, was sort of staggering. You can easily forget the twists and turns of Cullen’s journey, but the railroad isn’t just the driving plot of this TV show, it’s the driving plot of Cullen’s life. How else can he justify the murders he committed, or losing Lily, unless he can come back and say, yes, but I created this?
So far, the carpetbagging villains aren’t quite working for me, in part, because the characters don’t stand out. Jake Weber as Campbell is blandly good-looking, and his cronies are equally nondescript. With Chris Heyerdahl, we have a character actor with strong, unusual features, standing out against the muddy landscape. We need more of that. The plot that the carpetbaggers bring is interesting, but the characters don’t do it for me.
Louise still functions mostly as a narrator, and I wonder if she’s written as a lesbian to keep her focused on work and not entangled in romances. Campbell’s apparent romantic interest in her is thus threatening, not just because he’s a villain, but because we know she’ll reject him and that can’t go well.
Eva is a lot harder to love this season. She’s spinning her wheels, and we are not getting a clear picture of who she is. We’ve seen Eva depressed, Eva traumatized, and Eva tough and surviving. All of this has been powerful, but Eva stupid, confused, and irrational is not easy to be with, and it doesn’t paint a clear character picture. I feel like we’re in a waiting game for a plot point to be introduced.
By the way, that wasn’t faro they were playing. Poker and faro are two entirely different games, and I’m a little confused as to why they should so carefully establish faro (showing us the sign, name-checking it in dialogue) and then cut to a poker game.
What did you think, Basketcases?