The most violent, the bloodiest, the most vulgar episode of Hell on Wheels yet, Bleeding Kansas was also one of its best. Episode 4.11 moved at breakneck speed, so that when “Next On…” appeared on my screen, I was surprised.
It’s fitting that Bleeding Kansas moved so quickly, because it seemed that the whole point was to show us consequences, tumbling downhill too fast to catch.
Did any of us remember that Mickey had said he had a backup plan; that he’d returned to town because people were coming who would help him? Before we’d ever had a chance to consider that, he was involved in Cullen’s fight against Campbell to free his workers, and then the fight against Sidney, and then there was the fire, and we all know what happened next. The audience can be forgiven, then, for our surprise when a gang of Dead Rabbits shows up in Cheyenne. Mickey sowed the wind and reaped the whirlwind with Dandy O’Shea, as gruesome a “brawler” as we’ve ever seen. O’Shea and Snow are parallel monsters here, hired for a single job that each took much farther, and to a much more brutal end, than intended. Campbell takes no responsibility for Snow’s murder of a child (two children, actually) and Mickey will surely want to do the same about his cousin. But hiring either of these men led inevitably to the next horrific act. It’s not fate, it’s consequences: Both Campbell and Mickey have chosen these paths, perhaps avoiding knowledge of what must come next; perhaps purposely so.
Meanhwile, Ruth contemplates. She remembers. She thinks about God.
It’s a little surprising that her flashbacks did nothing to slow down the episode. The direction, by Roxann Dawson (Belanna Torres!) was spot on—the use of black and white to fade into the present was clever and seamless, and isn’t something I’ve seen before. Tom Noonan’s return as Reverend Cole was extremely effective. What I especially appreciated was that the flashbacks didn’t serve as a facile explanation for what Ruth did, rather, they reflected her emerging understanding of her own culpability. By the end, she knew she had not acted as an angel of vengeance, or done right, or done God’s will, she had merely done what she absolutely wanted to do. Ruth, sitting quietly frozen, remembering, understands consequences.
During this wave of violence and intensity, we get to contemplate ideas about justice and revenge. No jury will convict Ruth, Durant says, but Campbell seems unlikely to grant her a trial by jury, telling the judge how the trial must go. Everyone believes that Ruth did the right thing, yet Ruth herself does not seem to share that opinion.
It’s fascinating to me that, for all the action, nothing really happened (Mickey’s story excepted). At the end of last episode, Ruth, staggered by grief, appeared to have killed Sidney, and Campbell was clearly intent on prosecuting her. At the end of this episode, Ruth had indeed killed Sidney, and Campbell is intent on prosecuting her. Cullen’s desperate attempt to save Sidney failed, and the whirlwind of movement and gruesomeness surrounding that attempt amounted to nothing. That’s not to criticize the episode; it seems to me to be a comment on all we do to prevent things playing out as we know they will.
The one false note in the proceedings was yet another confrontation between Eva and Cullen. She is clearly aware of how desperately Cullen wants to do right, and to help, and yet she will hold on to her rage despite that. And tell him about it at every opportunity. Even though we’re really tired of hearing it.
Two episodes left this season, and Season 5 already on the books. I can’t wait!