Hell on Wheels 4.07: Elam Ferguson

 Posted by on September 14, 2014 at 10:14 pm  Hell on Wheels
Sep 142014
Hell on Wheels "Elam Ferguson" Elam on horseback

Photo Credit:Chris Large/AMC

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.


  15 Responses to “Hell on Wheels 4.07: Elam Ferguson”

  1. This episode screamed, “I want out of my contract!” That’s about all I could take from it. I don’t know if that is the case or not for Common, but it didn’t feel like much of anything else as it was happening. Even if Cullen is an expert on war trauma, he wouldn’t have given Elam more than fifteen minutes and a single afternoon of two situations to reach his scarred mind? Tell Bear Killah he’s actually Elam Ferguson a handful of times, mark him hopeless, shoot him dead. “I can’t waste a full afternoon with this shit. All in an hour’s work.” As half-shot as this all was, I have a feeling it is going to be gold in comparison to the asininity of the Swede again walking away unscathed. Can we please just go back to building the railroad? I’d prefer to watch them pound spikes for the next couple episodes than any of the possibilities with the Swede.

  2. Given the brouhaha on FB in that fans still miss the character of Lily (for whatever reason), I think they were determined to draw this out to make sure that nobody missed the point that the character was that far gone, and was on his way out — it was simply a matter of how it was going to go down. As you pointed out last week, killing Jimmy Two Squaws showed how far gone Elam was. Neither Eva nor Psalms could reach him — or Cullen, for that matter.

    I also think that, in my raw naive perception (in that I’m not a writer), some of the more recent episodes have been an effort to address modern situations, like Star Trek has usually done well. We’ve got our share of vets coming back from war very disconnected (high suicide rate). We’ve also got mass shootings instigated from those who, for whatever reason, have “split from the program”. Can these people be saved from themselves? Can they be reintegrated into society? If yes, at what cost?

    Cullen wailing at the end was cumulative — he wasn’t just grieving Elam. Someone on the FB invoked this ancient Irish ritual, and it makes complete sense to me. Or maybe the wine hit too hard this evening….


    • I kept waitin’ for a knock on that casket Cullen was sittin’ on … for if a bear couldn’t kill him …….

    • I agree. If you’ve ever been very grieved, all the grief from prior parts of your life resurfaces. I suggest he was grieving his son, wife, Lily, his decision to go to war, his decision to protect the railroad over Lily, his regret over lying to Elam about freeing the slaves, his regret that Elam had to endure being a slave and finally his regret over not being able to save his friend. That wailing came from somewhere very deep and Anson needed to show that.

  3. Hi, I’m just going to barge right in with no introduction other than to say that I’m delighted to have found your site with such intelligent conversation about a lot of the shows I’m watching. (I had a login but it doesn’t seem to be working so I hope this gets posted.)

    Now, see, I liked it. Everyone moaned at the end of last season when Elam appeared to have been involved in a murder/suicide with the bear. It was such a truncated ending for Elam; just a bit of the fight with the bear and then “dead” Elam in the mud (and, while I’m discussing last season’s finale, it never rang true to me that Elam, who worked so hard to learn to shoot, and had the discussion with Cullen about counting shots, and was going off into a potentially dangerous situation, would not have taken the time, before even dismounting to go scout Ft. Smith, to reload his weapon). I liked giving this major character the time he deserved for his exit. I also think it was the writers showing the lessons learned from the exits of Lily Bell and Joseph Black Moon. Dirigentin mentioned the brouhaha on FB about the near constant whining over the death of Lily; wanting Joseph to come back runs a close second. The writers wanted to spend some time on Elam’s death and, also, make if very clear that he was gone (you might be amazed at how many people seem to think that he will dig his way out of his grave).

    I liked spending all the time last week showing that what little was left of Elam’s mind was too scrambled to do any good. I liked that the proof of that was not in Elam’s killing of the Native American (who was threatening), or even in going after the Cavalry, but in the killing of a no longer needed (because the railroad continues west) but vastly entertaining character in Jimmy Two/Three Squaws. The juxtapostion of Elam trying to sell slaves and, at the same time, thinking that he was still a slave himself was tragic. Sure, in a perfect world ,where Common didn’t want off the show to devote more time to his music, Elam could have been wrestled to the ground and carted off to a doctor to recuperate, but then wouldn’t we be complaining that the state of 19th century neural medicine was not up to the job of treating holes in the frontal lobe and the accompanying infection? Perhaps I’m just giving the whole thing a bit of a pass because my heart broke a little when Cullen yelled “WAKE UP!” To me, that was the most emotional moment. Cullen wailing on the coffin was great and sad and moving but the desperation of that “wake up” is what killed me.

    Like everyone, I’m ready to get back to building the railroad but I didn’t mind a little detour for Elam.

    • Lexie, welcome to this brilliant and fun site– and your comments are exactly fitting for the kind of discourse I read here!

      I keep recalling the “Burt Cooper Soft Shoe” scene that ended the “Mad Men” ep when that character passed. It was unlike anything that had ever been on the show before, and not even necessarily something that could (to me) be plausibly explained in context as being Don’s hallucination, given his state of mind after recent personal and professional crises. No, the moment was so jarring and unexpected that, at first, it took both myself and the viewer seated next to me right out of the show. We looked at each other with an little half-laugh– “WTF?”– but in the next seconds, we became so entranced by the beauty and genius of that scene all by itself. It was magnificent. We both immediately concluded (after wiping our tears) that it was meant mainly as a tribute to Robert Morse. And thank you, Mad Men, for one of the most memorable moments in the entire run of the series.

      Sorry, got off the HOW topic (wipes another tear.) No, HOW is not Mad Men by any stretch. There’s no auteur with a driving vision, for one. Much of the audience is different (as you allude to in your comments, Lexie– there’s quite the fandom on FB, and a lot of comments are well into SMHx3 territory). And unlike Mad Men– where their seems to be much more cohesion amongst fans about the best and least-satisfying eps, characters, and plot developments– I am enjoying discussion here and elsewhere about HOW, when opinions can sometimes radically differ. And they really do with this show.

      It’s clear, from Twitter posts by Anson Mount and showrunner John Wirth, that many of the HOW creators want to deliver an artistic and challenging show (look at that director roster) when possible. It’s not clear how much or how little AMC backs that. And it’s real clear that some viewers don’t believe that’s what HOW promised them. At this point, I like that the first directive seems to be surfacing the most as this season rolls along. But I can see where the other two imperatives assert their influence, as well. (Well, but that certainly might have been the case with Mad Men had not that show’s all-powerful God, Matthew Weiner, drawn a line in the concrete from which he would not budge. HOW has no such deity.)

      Deborah is right that some of the scenes in “Elam Ferguson” were more disjointed and pointless than necessary. At the time of viewing, I thought that the drawn-out corral scene might reflect the actual confusion and panic of how such a scene might play out in real life. Now I’m not so sure. I’m still unsatisfied with the character of Campbell– his motivations are unclear– and while the actor is fantastic, the character sucks the air out of every scene he appears in. That happened here too.

      I adored the character of Elam and how Common played him. I read all the available info about how he wanted to leave HOW– chiefly because the long, spring-and-fall shooting schedule in an extremely remote area of Canada made it impossible for him to pursue his first, and still primary, career. I wanted him to stay in some capacity, but knew in my heart he wouldn’t. Would I have liked for him to exit in a different way? Yes, personally.

      But I was deeply moved and stunned by the last two episodes. I believe, as was done with Morse, that the writers wanted to give the actor a meaty sendoff. And I think it’s brilliant and thought-provoking that the entire arc was centered around how some events are so traumatic that when the “thinking” part of our brain is subverted somehow, that deep trauma is all that remains, sometimes. We’re all damaged. Only compassion will save any of us from others of us. Even if it’s merely mercy, in the end.

      • I think you’re very right about the cohesiveness of MM fans and the total lack of it in HOW fans, although it’s not really surprising. Mad Men is marketed to smart people who don’t require constant action and are able to pick up subtleties fairly easily while Hell on Wheels is marketed as a Western and thus brings in a pretty broad cross section of viewers. Mad Men is a gourmet meal filled with odd things that not everyone likes; Hell on Wheels is barbeque and cornbread, it’s got a broader appeal but sometimes you can elevate it without too many people reacting negatively. I like gourmet AND barbeque, and I like it when barbeque steps up its game.

        I’m with you 100% on Campbell and love the description of him sucking the air out of a scene. I know that not everyone here watched or loved “Deadwood” but Campbell is no Al Swerengen, or George Hearst for that matter. He’s a bad guy, no doubt, but he doesn’t inspire strong emotion at all.

        Now, if I could just go back a bit, since I just started posting, to something that has been driving me crazy: am I the only one who recognized that the hulking big guy who raped Eva earlier this season is the same guy who assaulted Louise and gave her a black eye last season?

        • I was with you right up until you said that Mad Men was marketed to smart people, while Hell On Wheels was meant for folks who, well … like constant action.

          I suppose it’s difficult to express an aesthetic judgement without maybe condemning other people’s tastes, be they the sophisticated subtleties of Mad Men, or the grim n’ gritty violence of Hell On Wheels.

          While I do enjoy hearing a different perspective, and I don’t think you meant to come across as disdainful in your comparison, I’d like to say that I enjoy both series tremendously. They each have their own version of scheming, ruthless characters.

          I don’t think I’m so odd really, having different if weirdly conflicting taste in television.

          My comments here sometimes sound “corn pone” — the actress in me too easily slips into a character — but I do enjoy stretching my mind by playing with different intellectual and emotional styles, ideas, and tastes.

          I say all this respectfully, and enjoyed your comments.

          • I hope it’s not meant disdainfully, soonerblue, as I’m happy to write (intelligently, I hope) about both shows. Indeed, we don’t feature any show on this site that doesn’t fit our tagline.

          • Oh, please, don’t misunderstand me. I, too, have a quite varied list of television which I enjoy and not all of it is required to be intellectual. Hell, not even most of it. What I meant to say was not that HOW only appeals to people who like constant action. I meant to say that MM does not appeal to those who like constant action, while HOW could appeal to them, as well as a number of other groups from the period drama people to the gun enthusiasts and many things in between. I meant to say that HOW does not have as cohesive a fan base as MM because it’s fan base is pulled from such a varied pool. I’m a varied pool myself; I grew up watching “Upstairs/Downstairs” AND “Charlie’s Angels”. I didn’t mean that intellectual people couldn’t or wouldn’t like HOW, only that non-intellectuals were unlikely to enjoy MM. I wasn’t denigrating HOW, I was elevating MM.

            Sorry to have gone on so, I just love the conversation here and don’t want to start out on the wrong foot. And you don’t sound “corn pone”; I understand slipping into the language and style of a show (or book, my syntax changes entirely if I’ve been reading English novels).

            • Professor Spouse, whose field is history, enjoys watching HOW with me. We both wish they’d get back to building the railroad and the first season themes of building America and what it means to be an outsider (freed slave, Irishman, post-War Southerner, tattooed whore) in America.

  4. There is a very cohesive and active fan base for Hell on Wheels. It tends to use Twitter (interacting with many of the actors, writers and John Wirth the showrunner) as well as four or five Facebook groups that have actors and production people included… sharing set photos etc. (Hell on Wheels and Then Some in particular has many of the cast interacting, if you’d like to join us, leave your email address here, its a closed private group but we’d love new discussion points of view). There is also a podcast call Talking Hell that is featuring many of the cast members. Listing their character names, Ruth, Ezra, Father Hatch, Naomi, Psalms, Eva, Doc, and two of the Governor’s men have been on the show. You can find it here: https://www.facebook.com/TalkingHellOnWheels
    or search iTunes for Talking Hell. There was an extensive show after Saturday’s episode with Don Norwood who plays Psalms. http://www.spreaker.com/user/indyradio/elamferguson .. When Talking Hell started last summer, it was just two guys who love the show wanting to talk about it with others. On their second show, they were knocked off their chairs when Anson Mount called in to say hey.

  5. I guess I’m viewing things different than many. Firstly I think the depth, in modern terms at least, of Elam’s wounds were far graver than PTSD. I believe the bear did physical damage to his brain (remember the tooth being pulled out? And don’t forget the bite pressure of a bear that size…). I don’t believe this was readily apparent to most who encountered him, despite how we might see it as obvious these days. I back that with Cullen’s call to “Wake up!” and his reference to war trauma in a more PTSD manner. All of this is secondary, however, to the two primary things I believe the final episode was trying to show. Firstly, as already mentioned, a great love for Elam. Secondly that Cullen desperately DID want to rescue Elam. Remember that he was pitted against Campbell and his men who were dead set on killing Elam. I think Cullen knew this – that they were going to kill Elam no matter what and he was hoping he might at least settle Elam enough to get him safely away from Campbell in a manner that he couldn’t easily be shot. I think that he wanted to get Elam away specifically to try and work his broken mind back into something resembling the former man. In the end, however, I think he did realize that there was almost no hope of getting him away safely and shot him for two reasons: 1.) Because deep down he did finally realize that Elam was too physically damaged to be helped (I mean that man was screwed up – the more he spoke the more screwed up you realized he was) and 2.) He did not want Campbell’s men to be the ones to shoot him. Cullen was his friend and when a friend needs help – even if that help is to put an end to them for their own good – it ought to be a friend doing it out of mercy/love/et al and not the gang that was waiting for him. I’m mixed on whether knowing his mind during the healing would have helped or hindered. I rather liked, in a heartbroken kind of way, his last memory image after the bear scene of Eva. As for the lone burial – I agree with many others – I didn’t get that. I’m glad somebody explained the wailing ending by Cullen, however, as I was left thinking “that actor does not know how to weep/moan/cry/whatever” and I was put off by it. Hearing the explanation above made perfect sense and restores my respect for Cullen (which I admit fully was quirkish and knit-picky on my part – but still…). Nice discussion!

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