Hell on Wheels: White Justice and Struck

 Posted by on August 9, 2015 at 9:58 pm  Hell on Wheels
Aug 092015
Robin McLeavy as Eva Toole and Phil Burke as Mickey McGinnes - Hell on Wheels _ Season 5, Episode 4 , "Struck"

Photo Credit: Andrew Bako/AMC

It took until the fourth episode of Hell on Wheels Season 5, Struck, for me to feel that the season has really gotten going. Not that the season hasn’t been good so far–it has. But it hasn’t made me sit up and take notice. Hell on Wheels is intriguing, it’s got great characters, and it’s always a visual treat, but the first three episodes this season–including episode 5.03, White Justice–have been laying groundwork. Then, with 5.04, Struck, it feels like we’re really moving.

Partially this is because the return to Laramie is bringing us a return to strong, well-established characters, and the new character of Mary Fields hits the ground running. Anson Mount is doing great work, and the three Asian leads–Byron Mann as Chang, Tzi Ma as Tao, and Angela Zhou* as Fong/Mei–are all strong. But Huntington and Strobridge are just not that fascinating, and there are no women at all in Truckee except for one in disguise and some prostitutes (and Strobridge’s wife, whom we haven’t seen since the season premiere). There are no minor characters who stand out. Gunderson (aka The Swede) is absolutely fascinating, of course, but he’s separate from the main action. None of the Mormons have any real screen time or personality, except for Whiny McWhinerson. This makes the happenings in California dependent on action, and events, rather than character development or dialogue. Fortunately, there have been plenty of events, including that awesome roll down the mountain in Mei Mei, but whenever the action stops, there’s a kind of tap-tap-tap waiting.

*She’s been listed as “A. Zhou” in the credits all season, in order not to reveal her secret prematurely.

What makes White Justice a little weak as an episode is placing the bulk of the drama upon three new characters (the Angry Irishman, which is probably already the name of a band) and Strobridge. Yes, they attack the fascinating Mr. Chang, as well as the Chinese railroad worker equivalent of a Redshirt–never before seen, no name, just Hi/Bye strung up. We feel this tragedy, yes, but wouldn’t it have been more deeply felt if it was someone we knew? The important stuff happens without Cullen Bohannon’s direct involvement, and he’s the most interesting person in Truckee.

The injustice of White Justice is rooted in the complex history of the Chinese people in the United States. Most came here during the 1849 gold rush, and were systematically shut out of all kinds of work, as white workers felt their jobs were being stolen. The three murderous Irishmen captured history in microcosm.

Meanwhile, Gunderson is secretly planning a war, and colluding with Chang in order to do so. His manipulation of Phineas McWhineybrat is compelling. Unfortunately, he has to be in Milquetoast mode in order for it to work, so Chris Heyerdahl isn’t doing much to raise the star power of his episodes.

And then along comes Struck. We’re still focused on Truckee, and Cullen Bohannon is still our main character, but now we’ve got a host of strong characters with powerful backstories: Mickey, Eva, Durant, Louise, all known to us, all able to hold our interest. Three interesting women (as women) this week, practically out of nowhere. Louise, struggling with diminished status and still a part of Laramie, Eva, now the head of a brothel and as much a businesswoman as anything, and Stagecoach Mary Fields (whose story here diverges from history a bit). Plus, Psalms flirting was great!

The strike also diverges from history just a bit, as the real strike of the Chinese workers against the Central Pacific was settled after a week by starving the strikers. The compassionate solution made for good character work, though.

In case you’re wondering, tincture of pennyroyal is an abortifacient. Louise is apparently pregnant and trying to figure out what she wants to do. This can go in the direction of good drama or massive cliche, so we’ll have to wait and see on that one.

Anyone watching but me? There were no comments last week. Do you welcome the return to Laramie?


  7 Responses to “Hell on Wheels: White Justice and Struck”

  1. I’m watching! And I was worried that you’d found that with eps 2 and 3 continuing in the new milieu of Truckee, you’d jettisoned the show from your schedule. Happy to see that’s not so!

    Judging from comments elsewhere, it does feel a little lonely to be liking the CP eps so much. Sure I missed the compelling characters I’m familiar with… but I knew they’d be back. HOW is now richer than ever with fantastic actors. I love the three new cast members playing Chinese immigrant workers very much– they’re wonderful to watch. I’ve often wondered if– despite its lack of ever gaining mainstream cultural cachet– HOW has a reputation among professional actors for being a good show to work on, and where one can stretch one’s acting craft. Sometimes I re-watch scenes just to see performers performing.

    But it was nice to spend a little more time with the old crew. The first scene with Louise and– that guy (forgot if we know him)– not a lot of dialogue, but so much was implied about how they have come to know one another and how they regard one another at this point in time. And Stagecoach Mary with Psalms (one of my favorite characters)… man, I’d watch a whole hour with just those two.

    Hoping that when we do cut to Laramie in the future, we’ll see Eva, Durant, and Mickey do more than just react to stuff. And I’m sure we will.

    The only thing that’s holding me back from enjoying these episodes completely is knowing that AMC has pulled the plug and will be showing this final (fuuuuck) season in two brief segments separated by a full year. Sure the railroad was going to get a spike put in it eventually– but there could have been workarounds. Anyway, glad to know my favorite thoughtful HOW reviewer is back!

    • Thanks for the compliments on my reviews. My schedule has been incredibly demanding. Roberta is going to post soon on a joint writing project we were involved in that sucked the life out of the blog temporarily–but you’ll all love it!

      The guy Louise was talking with was the chief engineer of the UP, and, like Huntington, he’s too blandly handsome to make much of an impression, although he had some great scenes last season.

      Hell on Wheels gets no awards attention, doesn’t have much going on out there in Internet fandom, but has great ratings. I think the plug has been pulled because filming is demanding and difficult. Remote locations and so on. I think that’s why they’ve lost so many cast members.

      • I’m so glad to see HOW reviews again.

        Of course the storyline is also limited by history. Technically the story of building the railroad comes to an end with the Golden Spike. How they end these stories (or set up for spinoffs) will keep my interest.

        I really like the Chinese storyline — why we didn’t ask how the Chinese came to work on the railroad is such a mindboggling historical omission. I’m glad it’s getting some dramatic exploration.

  2. P.S. I would like Eva to please pack up that outfit and send it to me.

    • Oh wait, was that the guy with the steampunk glasses and unexpected Gatling gun prowess at the rail car standoff last season? HOW COULD I HAVE SPACED THAT OUT?! He’s a fun character. I must have been just hurriedly flouncing into my seat when last Saturday’s ep started, and failed to focus on his face as he played laconic with Louise.
      As a fan of the show who follows along online, I’m still trying to figure out why it is “ending” when it has been a far more solid performer than AMC could have expected in their wildest deadwalking dreams when they moved HOW to Saturday nights. To my recollection, certain tweets from some major names (both sides of camera) expressed a bit of surprise when the finality was announced. Your theory makes more sense than most I’ve read.
      Congratulations on your additional endeavors, and I hope it all goes wonderfully! It’s great that you’re still able to find time to review this show– thanks!
      Eva’s dress is possibly the most beautiful inanimate object in the entirety of the series so far.

  3. The Chang character is very interesting. I’m waiting for more background filler on his character–or did I miss it ? What makes him “special”?

  4. I just discovered your blog today, you’ve done such a wonderful job of laying everything out in detail that I won’t have to figure it out for myself when I watch the episodes again. Thank you! It’s been harder to be as enthused about HoW this season since the splitting of the season means we only get 6 episodes then have to wait another whole year for the end.

    Your explanation of the location perhaps being responsible for the series cancellation is sound but I still object. There’s plenty of jobs with difficulties, suck it up people! There isn’t all that much time left for the RR to be completed so why can’t we stick it out until the end?

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