Hell on Wheels Episode 4.05, Life’s a Mystery, is the first episode in quite some time that endeavors to be more than an episode of a good television show. Which is to say, the show has broad themes: About the American Dream, about transcending the past, about being an outsider; but it doesn’t often do that theme-per-episode thing like many other excellent shows (including Mad Men).
Life’s a Mystery, though, is different. It’s a tour of the Spaghetti Western, Clint Eastwood via Sergio Leone, with an opening straight out of Hang ‘Em High, music courtesy of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, and slo-mo bullet holes borrowed from The Wild Bunch. It roots itself, not just in “the Western”—a genre that traverses literary and film history—but a very specific era of the Western. The spaghetti Western and its brethren are almost always set in Mexico or near the border, are invariably bloody, are highly stylized, and have a distinctive sound.
From the opening scene and our first sight of Sid, I thought the casting of Jonathan Scarfe was interesting. The man is unusually pretty, he’s got kind of a sparkle to him. My initial impression was that he was cast as a ladies’ man, and that was reinforced by the reason for his (attempted) hanging—messing with the wrong girl. Soon I realized it can be no coincidence that Clint Eastwood’s character in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, while often called “The Man With No Name,” is actually named Blondie.
What’s so interesting about this episode is that it isn’t a send-up, or an homage; it’s a juxtaposition—something Hell on Wheels does exceedingly well. While every scene with Sid or his pursuers looks and sounds like a spaghetti Western, the rest of the show looks and sounds like, well, Hell on Wheels. It is dirtier, dustier, more Northern, and more hard-working.
Every time Sid provokes Cullen to behave like a Western anti-hero, Cullen declines. He doesn’t want to ditch work and ride West. He doesn’t want to honor old war-buddy bonds over his obligation to his family. He doesn’t give a shit about Southern hospitality if it endangers Naomi or William. He doesn’t want to drink heartily while celebrating past violence. And when confronted with a man who may kill his wife and child, he has him arrested rather than shoot him down.
(Who was that boy who was killed? Was that Ezra? If it was Ezra, why didn’t anyone say so?)
The entire spaghetti-versus-Hell on Wheels contrast boils down to the scene of Sid telling his grotesque war story. It is, on the face of it, everything that a hero—even an anti-hero—is not. Sadistic, one-sided, cruel, and dishonorable. Even Cullen’s initial role as a vengeance-driven gunman in Season 1 is a typical hero/anti-hero trope: In the language of the Western, it is honorable because it is on behalf of his wife and child. Yet, even then, it violated the customs of the genre, killing people with their guard down, without a “fair fight.”
Cullen lives with a depth of remorse over these killings, a remorse that begins, in the viewer’s eyes, when he realizes at the end of Season 1, in the brilliant God of Chaos, that he killed an innocent man. In the war story we hear this week, we sense the regrets might have begun earlier, but his determination, his drive to kill, certainly hadn’t waned until that moment.
When we’re introduced to Sid, he’s the perfect anti-hero. Death-defying escapes are designed to put us on the side of whoever escapes, a twinkle in the eye engages the audience, and there’s a not-so-subtle racism in the blond American escaping from incomprehensible Mexicans (the incomprehensibility is emphasized by the absence of subtitles for the Spanish). Television writers know that playing to racism works, that’s why Orange is the New Black casts a blond in the lead of a show that’s largely about women of color. No one wants to perceive themselves as racist, and so the message cannot be overt, but if the white guy escapes from the brown guy, audiences are more rah-rah about it without even knowing we’re being played.
But then the tables turn. Sid becomes overtly racist, using language we cannot bear to hear. A script structure that favors the white guy appeals to unconscious racism, once he actually says “nigger” we are repelled. Then there’s the war story, which is meant to disgust us; it’s beyond anything we can accept. It’s well-calculated, because recent experience shows that audiences will accept quite a lot from their television anti-heroes, so the script makes sure that Sid pushes every button; racism, unrepentant murder, and shooting witnesses. Suddenly his desire for freedom is lazy, his war stories are vicious, and Cullen’s remorse and restraint become the right way to live.
The fight to the death between Mickey and Marshall Jessup is the whole story condensed into a pair of horrifying battles. The script pushes you to root for Mickey—the carpetbaggers have stolen his casino out from under him, and then treated him like scum and called him an ethnic slur to boot. But wait a minute: this is Mickey McGinnis, Serial Killer. And going after the marshall with a knife, from behind, was not exactly honorable revenge. Maybe you’re ambivalent at that point, but then there’s the second attack; Heckard versus Durant. It’s completely one-sided. Durant is in his 60s, not particularly fit, and unable to fight back. He’s attacked in his bed and brutalized.
Innocents being the victims of violence, and no real heroes, just killers. It’s clearly one story we’re telling, while still moving the plot forward.
Also, Brigham Young. I guess Hell on Wheels doesn’t want to keep its Mormon audience, by painting one of their saints as someone willing to set aside justice for gain. I can’t say I know this part of the history, and Professor Spouse had to go out and rescue my son from an evil train station halfway through the episode, so I didn’t have professional help. Suffice it to say I’m interested to see how it plays out. I did love Gunderson’s plea for himself. He really does believe his own bullshit at this point. Bravo!