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?