This week’s epiosde of Hell on Wheels: Under Color of Law, got us back on track. While not a brilliant episode of television, it was very good and I’m feeling it. Under Color of Law did a lot of things: For one, it looked in on every major character that the show has (and several minor ones). We saw Ruth and Ezra, The Swede (whom we should now just call Gunderson, I guess), Louise, Eva, Mrs. Palmer, Durant, Psalms, Campbell, Mickey, Naomi, and several recent guest characters; Brigham Young, Naomi’s father, Charlotte (the woman kidnapped by Elam), and Sydney Snow. That’s a lot of plot and a lot of traveling among characters, although the episode never felt disjointed. Often, Hell on Wheels gives us about half the regular cast, sometimes fewer, and it’s exciting to see the threads brought together as they were.
Additionally, the episode showcased some fine performance moments. I found the quiet confrontation between Campbell and Cullen, when he interrupted the dinner with Louise, absolutely electrifying. Louise feels like a prisoner at that dinner; we know she dislikes Campbell, and that he desires her, and that this could spell trouble, but so far it’s all been sub rosa. This occurring after she ended up blood-splattered by a killing Campbell authorized places her in the position of victim—traumatized and then forced to “enjoy” the company of her victimizer. Cullen’s interruption in that context seemed more heroic, but also more dangerous. Another great performance was Gunderson and Brigham Young; here on the side of pure hilarity. Gunderson’s sniveling imitation and complex of lies was a tour de force.
When we talk about performances, it’s hard to choose, as I love almost every actor on this show, with the exception of Mackenzie Porter (Naomi), who seems a bit one-note. But in regard to Naomi, I am fascinating, almost against my will, by what they’re doing with that marriage. The scene where she kisses Cullen and then takes the baby to bed, opening a door to reconciliation and then shutting it, had a surprising grace. Cullen chasing after her and then silently going with her: These are well-written, well-thought-out beats in the tempo of a difficult relationship. Every marriage, to a certain extent, is a struggle of expectation versus reality, much more so when people marry who don’t know each other well. This isn’t about whether or not they love or even like each other, it’s about what each imagines married life will be. Naomi, I think, imagined herself perfectly willing to be married to someone she doesn’t know well. But she had no ability to imagine life outside her insular community, with family always nearby. She married a violent man knowing full well he was a violent man (he hung her brother, after all) and now condemns his violence. I think that has more to do with her sense of isolation than with Cullen’s (considerable) moral failings.
The centerpiece of the episode, though, was the mass arrests. As the title says, they are legal, but using the law as a cover to destroy the railroad. We’re talking about the RAILROAD again: You know, the whole point of this series? Cullen working on an engineering problem is exactly what Hell on Wheels needs to feel organic and grounded, allowing the rest of the plot to move forward. Not only that, but we have Cullen strapping on his guns. With the loss of Elam, it’s especially important now to have Hell on Wheels return to its roots: A gunman, a railroad, and conflict between different people, of different backgrounds, with differing visions of what the American West can and should be.
The loss of Elam has seemed to be the loss of the racial component of the show: The fascinating portrayal of freed slaves. Psalms has almost but not quite stepped up to the plate in that regard. Specifically arresting these men because their indentured bond has not been paid brings the issue back, but the writers need to really focus on it, otherwise it’s just a device.
Previous seasons of Hell on Wheel have been ten episodes each. This appears to be the case this year, so there’s only two episodes left. What do you think will happen?