There’s a part of me that just wants to say, “What was that?”
Hell on Wheels episode 4.07, Elam Ferguson, focused on Elam, but not really. It was much more about the people affected by Elam; people he did not recognize. Elam did not understand that Cullen, Eva, and Psalms all loved him and wished to help him. He did not understand who he was or where he was or what year it was. In that way, Elam Ferguson was entirely absent from the episode that bore his name. Just as Eva said that Elam wasn’t in the coffin, he was equally not in the person who brought slaves to sell in Cheyenne. All of the theater that happened in the cattle yard where “Bear Killer” was trying to auction off slaves was about the people who loved Elam.
And given the powerful, moving ending of the episode, I feel kind of shitty criticizing Elam Ferguson. But it deserves criticism. Fundamentally, I just fail to understand the purpose of the past two weeks of Hell on Wheels. “What was that?”
What was two episodes devoted to killing off a character who had already been killed off? What was showing us the loss of his mind, without ever giving it any interiority? We never truly knew what Elam, or “Bear Killer,” was thinking or feeling, so why show so much of what happened to him? Why spend a week watching him painfully recover from wounds without giving us any insight into what he was thinking, or not thinking, or what the Arapahoe were doing, or not doing? What was all that?
And then, why spend a second episode acting out a dozen or more attempts to reach him, before reverting to the notion that he’s unreachable, that he’s dead to the world, and then kill him?
The whole thing was inelegant and repetitive, almost a master class in poor timing. Bear Man and Elam Ferguson could easily have been done as a single episode. Both the content and the context would have worked in half the space—better, in fact. Tighter construction would have let us care more about Elam, because nothing strips out compassion faster in an audience than letting us realize we’re being played. If we are left to stew in our own frustration, aware that some of this drama is just running down the clock, it’s much harder to care about what’s happening.
It’s been a long time since we’ve seen Elam on the show; a long time since we’ve been given an opportunity to like or care about him. Now we’re expected to grieve for him as he behaves monstrously and mindlessly. His confusion over slavery, over who is and is not owned or sold, could have been tied in with his past. Flashbacks could have been used to show some connections—both to his past as a slave and his more recent relationships with the rest of the Hell on Wheels characters. Instead, we’re left to muddle through his lunacy. His kidnapping of the three women last week didn’t actually tell us anything; did you realize he was planning to sell them? I sure didn’t.
From there, it was just repetitive and stilted. Campbell won’t help or intervene, but he will, but he won’t. Cullen will try to reach Elam, which doesn’t work, so Eva will try, which doesn’t work, so Cullen will try again and Eva will try again, and meanwhile Louise will ask Campbell to intervene again, which he both will and won’t do, and Psalms will try, and then Cullen will try, and meanwhile there will be many, many attempts at an auction and also, his name is Bear Killer, not Elam.
No one’s behavior makes much sense. Campbell is nothing but a prop to let the whole mess play out, and Cullen could have shot him halfway through if that was his intention. Or not. I thought he was fighting hard to try and save Elam’s life. Why not, then, bring him to a doctor to work on the stab wound while still trying to reach his mind? Or, if mercy killing is all you’ve got left, then kill him sooner.
Finally, there’s no rational reason to leave Cullen to bury him alone. Surely Psalms and his crew would have wished to accompany him, to pray for Elam and say their goodbyes. The “purpose” was to give Cullen that solitary moment to break down, and it was surely beautiful to behold, and yet, the character should have been given that moment elsewhere in the script, while still giving the freed slaves time to say goodbye to one of their own.
All in all, Elam Ferguson was a tremendously frustrating and unsatisfying episode, and I hope this show gets its tempo back next week. We’ve had a few great episodes this season, but no real consistency.