Hell on Wheels Episode 4.06, Bear Man, screamed “tonight on a very special Hell on Wheels.” Sorry. There was good stuff in the episode, and we can discuss, but a lot of it was…perplexing.
I had assumed that the fact that Elam lived was a secret, and that his return would be some kind of big reveal. But showing it in previews seemed to throw that notion away. I certainly have never seen a regular series change the opening credits the way this week’s Hell on Wheels did. Each week this season, we’ve had the full cast, minus Common. This week, only Common (Elam Ferguson) and Robin McLeavy (Eva) were listed. Not even the star of the show had his name on-screen.
If they’re going to have someone survive a bear attack, I guess you have to show how incredibly serious it is. The gravity of his injuries, including, apparently, brain injury, and the length of his recovery, were plausible. As always with Hell on Wheel, Bear Man had some beautiful shots, including the pan out as Elam lays on his back, merged with the mud, and the gorgeous foot chase through rolling green. Fundamentally, though, there was just not a lot of there there.
One part of that is just confusion. I understand that an inability to understand the language being spoken (we had no more benefit from subtitles than Elam did) mimics the confusion of the injured man. I also understand it makes for a difficult hour of television, and needs some sort of justification. Throughout the episode, our understanding of Elam’s thought processes kept shifting. He’s hallucinating. He’s brain-injured. He recognizes his own badge. He doesn’t recognize his own badge. He’s planning his escape. No he’s not. For any of this to be compelling, it has to be just a bit more linear. Otherwise, it builds towards…what, exactly?
Another part of the problem is that the episode seemed dragged out to me. I like slow television, and am not inclined to enjoy other people’s complaints about “dull” when I see “thoughtful” or “stately.” But you know what’s a legitimate complaint of “dull”? “Stalling for time.” This episode had all the earmarks of a filler to make sure that the season finale lands where it should. This happened last season, dragging out the confrontation with the Swede to the finale, for insufficient payoff. Here, I feel like there’s a Season 4 roadmap, and in order for it to work, a full episode had to be devoted to Elam’s recovery. That sort of excuse doesn’t make it right for the writing or the audience.
I like Common as an actor, and Elam as a character, and I’m glad he’s back. I find his recovery just edges the acceptable side of plausible, and I’m okay with that. But we saw a half-hour of scenes stretched into an hour, and I’m definitely not okay with that.
What do you think? Are you glad Elam’s back? Are you buying his bear story? How long do you think they’ll drag out his brain injury?
R.I.P. crazy old Jake.