The snake oil salesman promises an elixir of life, and then commits murder. Thor Gunderson, whom Bohannon still calls “The Swede”, promises eternal life while stockpiling rifles. Elixir of pennyroyal is an abortifacient, which Louise ultimately eschews in favor of a more invasive technique. The symbolism all seems rather heavy-handed in Hell on Wheels episode 5.05: Elixir of Life, yet I don’t see it adding up, thematically. These are components of a story; brought together, they don’t serve to tell a story, which is how I’d define a theme.
Cullen Bohannon: What’s your business with Thor Gunderson?
Chang: I didn’t know it was your business to keep an eye on my customers.
Bohannon: Just the bloodthirsty, crazy ones.
Bohannon is being successfully manipulated by both Chang and Gunderson, because each can tell him simply that the other cannot be trusted, and since both are right, he runs ineffectually back and forth between them. It’s all rather frustrating. He’s supposed to be smarter than that, but when the plot demands it, he sure can be a fool.
Apparently, we’re building some kind of budding romance between Mei/Fong and Cullen? I don’t buy it. Isn’t he supposed to be trying to find a missing wife and son? Whom he doesn’t even love? And the more I think about it, the more I believe that Fong could not successfully maintain the male charade under these circumstances. The workers on the Central Pacific often lived in these holes they dug. Certainly they relieved themselves there, and there was no privacy to be had, and Fong’s disguise requires privacy. What happens when she has her period? How is she excusing herself without being spotted? This just seems impossible with a group of laborers living and sleeping in very close quarters. How does the makeup she uses to make herself look a little stubbly not wear off by the end of the day?
So, while Gunderson is fomenting revolution in Utah, Durant is inadvertently fomenting revolution in Laramie. He’s just conned all his African American workers into buying worthless land. This can’t end well. Not that I’m interested. I mean, I still like Psalms (excuse me, Mr. Jackson) quite a lot, but I don’t see how this land-grab plot, although historically accurate, can become interesting television, and this week’s episode didn’t help.
And what’s the deal with Louise? The man who impregnated her is no longer in the cast, so there’s a dead end there. The shift from herbal abortion to dilation abortion doesn’t, in and of itself, provide a lot of drama or make a lot of sense. The look at how women of the era handled this situation is interesting, but what’s the point? Will Louise die tragically of hemorrhage? If so, leaving her off-screen for the first three episodes of the season, and then giving her nothing particularly vibrant to do is not the way to make us care.
Elixir of Life was a fast-paced episode, visually lovely as Hell on Wheels always is, but it did nothing to really make us eager to tune in next week. Tao’s death was powerful, but it removed an interesting and, to me at least, loved character from play. How does that further my interest in the show?
Don’t worry, Basketcases. I’ll continue recapping this show through its end, but this was surely the weakest episode of the season.