Hell on Wheels Episode 5.07: False Prophets, sets itself a number of challenges. For those who know the history, things like the eventual terminus of the Transcontinental Railroad, which railroad reached Ogden first, and the life and death of Brigham Young are already known, yet the show must still make the playing out of this history interesting. (Hell on Wheels doesn’t adhere strictly to the true story–Thomas Durant, for one, never came back from his arrest during the Credit Mobilier scandal. Yet the broader strokes of history are represented fairly, and I fully expect the golden spike to be driven more or less as really happened.) On the other hand, people who don’t know the history have to be kept entertained by a bunch of negotiations around a conference table with a bunch of angry bearded men going over the fine points of a part of Americana they may have barely heard of.
Most fans of Hell on Wheels, I suspect, aren’t watching it with a history professor (I’m blessed). Although the show doesn’t get Emmy or Internet love, its ratings are consistently good, but the viewers are not really skewing demographically toward over-educated history buffs. Westerns have other charms.
So let’s just say it’s a minor miracle that False Prophets was such an excellent and engaging episode. It was smart, it was exciting, it ended on a cliffhanger in the best Western serial tradition (two horses racing towards a single spot! Huzzah!), and as ever, it was visually lush. Seriously, in terms of cinematography, this show is an embarrassment of riches. Gunderson embracing Phineas Young with the sunlight blazing in from behind them? Eva with blood on her cheek? The extraordinary Rocky Mountain view behind Brigham Young? This would be a good show if it was nothing more than a collection of stills.
What happened in Salt Lake City this episode strongly paralleled what happened in Laramie. The “A” Story/”B” Story thing doesn’t always tie together on this show, nor does it have to, I suppose, but this week it did. Cullen Bohannon, as well as the Central Pacific and Union Pacific Railroads, are in roughly the same positions as Eva and Mickey. Eva has a wolf in the fold trying to usurp her power. She can act like she’s in control but it’s the inmates running the asylum until she pulls a gun. Her enemy (Josie) will keep undermining her and robbing her, making the rewards of Eva’s hard work seems to be slipping away at every turn. Mickey, too, has a wolf at his heels–his cousin Johnny. Mickey and Eva are fighting for their livelihoods while acting as if everything’s under control.
This is no different, really, than any of the railroad players, or the Mormons for that matter. Huntington at the Central Pacific is fighting for position in a battle for which geography (topography, technically) favors his opponent. Durant, Huntington, and Bohannon all have reason to fight Brigham Young, and Young is fighting for the survival of his city. Meanwhile, the wolf in the fold, Gunderson, aims to destroy both Bohannon and Brigham Young. It’s a complex set of machinations in which only the sheep with fangs and claws survives. Poor Phineas, he never had a real set of fangs, did he?
It’s a scramble of wolves versus sheep, and people who have tried to do the right thing will be wolves or will not survive, as we’ve seen again and again in this series. Brigham Young, the “Lion” of God, is clearly a wolf, and I think it’s no coincidence that two people scrambling to retain position survived being stabbed this week.
I have no idea (nor does anyone in the media) when in 2016 Hell on Wheels will return to resolve the cliffhanger, bring back Naomi (yaaaaawn), resolve the potential love triangle between Cullen, Mei, and Naomi, and finish building the damn railroad. I do know that when it returns, I’ll be right here, writing about it.
What about you, Basketcases?