The theme of this week’s Hell on Wheels, Two Trains, is alliances. Even the title, ostensibly about the final battle between Cullen Bohannon and Sydney Snow, suggest two different conveyances to an ultimate goal, and choosing how to get there.
The show has been working overtime to make sure we understand that everyone is compromised: Cullen tells his wife, and therefore the audience, that he’s a killer, and she’s finally decided that’s good enough for her, it’s time to leave such a compromised person. Now the audience is almost dared to stand with Cullen’s “black and white” position, although I’d say it’s far more complicated than that.
Bohannon isn’t in it for the morality, he’s in it to build the railroad. He has a specific goal for which he works. He, too, compromises, despite what Louise said. Bohannon knows that Mickey is evil, and that working with him is a compromise. Ruth knows no such thing; she’s the one who sees in black and white. Having the bad guy insult Jesus is a cheap shot to get the audience to see in black and white as well, but otherwise, I think there’s a real contrast between Ruth’s “good or evil” vision and Cullen’s “get the railroad built” obsessions. Cullen chooses a vicious killer (Mickey) to go after a vicious killer (Sydney), not because he likes one better, but because he is working to get the railroad built. It doesn’t hurt that like him or hate him, Mickey is a known quantity, and that means Cullen can work with him.
Alliances, then, are not based on morality, and we shouldn’t perceive them as such. They are based on getting the railroad built, and on personal history. Mickey doesn’t care about the former, only the latter; he has his own motivation. But Cullen Bohannon will side with Thomas Durant for the railroad alone—neither likes the other. Throughout this season, Cullen has believed that Durant would see they were natural allies despite their antipathy because they want to finish this work. (That’s the fictional Durant, mind you; the real Durant had no second act after the Credit Mobilier scandal took him down.)
I’m emphasizing the purpose of these alliances because Louise allying herself with Campbell stands out as an anomaly. Her “shades of gray” argument holds no water at all. The entire thing could be a ploy, of course, and at first I thought it was. Her post-coital delight, though, seemed genuine. Sweet contentment is harder to fake than willingness or desire. Still, the audience was as surprised as Campbell by Louise’s change of heart, and we may yet have another surprise in store.
This episode turns into Cullen’s High Noon, he must go from person to person, looking for allies. Meanwhile, Campbell’s forces seem so overpowering, the tension was often difficult to bear. Scene after scene, even the talking, even the sex, skillfully built the tension, pushing us to a conclusion that was, unfortunately, not quite as satisfying as the build-up.
Don’t get me wrong, I liked it. I liked the classic movie machismo of Bohannon leaping onto the train, like something from the Silent era. I liked Delaney appearing with the Gatling gun, and then panicking. I liked the chaos after all the careful planning. But there was something static about the physical blocking of the stand-off. I also found it hard to believe that Cullen just intuitively knew that Sydney would be the last man standing. It’s like he sees a lot of TV or something. Other than these quibbles, the tension and action in Two Trains were outstanding.
But, a cliffhanger, alas. Apparently, this is it for the season until November?
What did you all think, Basketcases?