So. That happened.
Hell on Wheels Episode 4.04, Reckoning, was about what happened. It was a plot-builder, laying down groundwork for future episodes. None of the character work we saw (and we saw some good stuff) was meant to stand on its own; all of it was there to lead us to future episodes. This is a normal problem with even the best episodic television, sometimes you have to set things up in order for a pay-off to be worthwhile. An episode like Reckoning doesn’t make for thrilling television, but it has its rewards.
Obviously, we’re seeing how Cullen worms his way back into a senior position in the railroad, although I thought it was odd that he did all that surveying and so on without discussing a pay raise with Durant. He’s said he has a wife and child to provide for approximately 43 times in the past two episodes, so it’s reasonable to imagine he cares about that. I love any of the stuff about Cullen working. I think it’s because work and intelligence are so rarely depicted on television or in the movies, except for detectives. We see detectives being smart, but so few other jobs even exist. In a Western, the stereotypical jobs are land baron, casino worker, hired gun, and whore. We’ve seen all of those on Hell on Wheels, but we also see engineers, butchers, political operatives, carpetbaggers, surveyors, and clergy. It’s a rich tapestry.
Now, as interesting as it is to see Cullen working—to see him understand mining and engineering and so on—it’s less interesting to watch work interfere with his marriage. I promised my wife I’d meet her but I worked and I showed up too late. I mean, this is such a TV trope; I think it’s happened to everyone from Don Draper to Fred Flinstone.
There’s all sorts of things going on in that marriage, and in its relationship to the rest of the Cheyenne world. There’s religious prejudice against Mormons, which is being played with some interest. There’s Naomi’s hopes and expectations for marriage, and there’s the particular shotgun nature of this marriage. Part of Cullen’s character is shaped by the fact that at one time he was a family man. He wants a wife and child, and he’s from a world in which any man who fools around with any woman other than a prostitute knows he may have to “do the right thing” one day. I think Anson Mount is acting his heart out in these scenes, and brings much more to the table than MacKenzie Porter (who’s not bad). But playing the whole thing out against her resentment of him being a workaholic is a yawn.
Eva is being written all over the place. I just feel like the writers don’t know where to put her. Right now, it doesn’t feel like characterization so much as maneuvering of a chess piece. I think the touch of having her be traumatized by bathing because of what Mickey did to her has an elegant horror to it, but mostly she’s all over the map. Her friendship with Durant has always been a sort of oddity for them both, so we’ll just have to see where it leads.
Alfred Hitchcock once delighted in turning an audience’s loyalty in a direction they would not choose, getting them to sympathize with Norman Bates in Psycho, getting them to root for him that Marion’s car will sink. The creators of Hell on Wheels are not geniuses of Alfred Hitchcock’s caliber. They want us to side with Durant against Campbell and the carpetbaggers, but as evil as the new Provisional Governor of Wyoming appears to be, he does nothing to make Durant a more appealing alternative, even with Eva’s softening presence at his side.
Similarly, now that we know Mickey is a serial killer of women, it’s hard to feel awful about Campbell stealing his casino, or see him as an exemplar of immigrant ingenuity. Sure, the show can tell us that they’re all bad guys, and that’s valid, but serial killer of women. There’s bad and there’s beyond the pale. Campbell and Durant are more or less equal on the scumbag scale, but Mickey is in another category altogether.
The “Bishop Dutson” storyline is annoying. It’s played out. I want Gunderson to move on, create a new identity, do or become something else, somewhere else. The internal struggles of this frontier Mormon community, with piety used as a weapon, are not fundamentally interesting.
Hell on Wheels continues to excel at great opening scenes, with the “muck wagon” earning its place among them.
So, what did you think? Who’s going to win in the epic battle between The Swede and Cullen’s father-in-law?