"Bread and Circuses" comes from a Latin phrase meaning more broadly "food and spectacle," and "Hell On Wheels" certainly delivered the latter in spades … on the surface, anyway. I have to admit that I was looking forward to some shirtless sparring between Anson Mount and Common (the second of whom said on Twitter this week, "we don't spray" in reference to the hard work the actors put into their incredibly toned physiques; also a dig at Robert Pattinson in the Twilight films who, in the second movie, had a spray-on six pack). "Fetch my smelling salts!" I demanded, and the showdown did not disappoint … for the first five minutes. At some point I realized we were watching umpteen rounds of this fight essentially in real time. I don't know if the actors said, "hey, we look amazing, so don't you just do some jump cuts and a montage of this fight - we want screen time!" And screen time they got.
This is not to diminish the importance of the fight itself. I thought it was a genuinely moving moment when everyone realizes than Elam is not fighting back because he's never hit a white man before. Once he's given a pep talk on the subject, Cullen to him comes to represent not just a white man, but the white man, and a pummeling ensues. Of course that's only the tip of the iceberg of the subtext and also the unwillingness of the white men in the camp to accept the black men in any way, or to give them any due credit. Even Cullen, whom we have come to regard as perhaps more "enlightened" than other men, makes some crass racial comments to and in regards to Elam. It's a reminder that we are existing in this Reconstruction world, and not in a modern or revisionist one. They were small moments, but they felt true.
But what "Bread and Circuses" was really about was people feeling cornered.
Elam feels he must take on Cullen and try to win to prove himself. "Either way," our tattooed friend tells him, "they're probably going to kill you." Cullen, too, feels that to restore order with the men he has to put Elam in his place, and he's forced to by Durant who, because of lack of payroll funds, is looking for a way for the men in the camp to be distracted. Lily strikes with the information that she has her husband's maps, something Durant clearly suspected, painting him into a corner (that I have little doubt he will easily weasel out of). As for my least favorite characters, the McGinnes brothers, the two redeemed themselves a tad this week by not only sparring with the Swede but turning against one another over who to bet on in the fight, and coming out of it all with a hefty load of cash. What their next move may be is now of some interest. And let us not forget the Reverend Cole with his daughter as well as the clash between the railroad and Pawnee. These are desperate times for all!
"Bread and Circuses" had the meta effect of being both the theme of the episode and the raison d'etre for it, too. It provided us with a little bit of sustenance - that being the narrative maneuvers that are laying the groundwork for dramatic and character tension for the remainder of the season - as well as a circus-like distraction of two shirtless men in a brawl. Peppers optional.
Like Durant's railroad project, I'm starting to lose steam with "Hell On Wheels." The show still has a great deal of promise, but it lacks a certain finesse or compelling reason to keep watching. One of the things I initially liked about it was how familiar it felt - because its characters fell into clearly delineated tropes, it was easy to immerse oneself into the world the show had built without much explication. Here is the vigilante, here is the freed slave, here is the villainous railroad baron, the pretty but strong lady, the cunning immigrants, the morally corrupt foes. And while this can work well for a certain type of film or even a miniseries (because it gives us a certain comfort with the material) this is TV. And it begs the question: where do we go from here?
Next Week: Cullen wisely advises that people not be afraid of the Native Americans so much as the politicians.
Musings and Miscellanea:
— "Your troubles are mine today. But you enjoy your pic-i-nic" - Cullen and his fabulous accent.
— If I ever have an animal that I need to call from across the fields, I will name it Bohannon. How great was Durant's call to him? It just rolls so easily off the tongue!
— "White men have always told me who I am. Slave, free. Tonight, I say" - Elam
— "I see a field hand acting like a house boy" - Cullen suddenly being racial!
— I don't know what to say about what we saw with the Pawnee this. I think it bordered dangerously close on caricature, but I could be analyzing it from too modern a viewpoint. Mostly I was just thinking how if you were chained up in front of the sun like that for a day or more, you would have a hallucination, wouldn't you? I am afraid the vision of defeating the metal warrior shall come to nought, though.
— What of the Reverend Cole's daughter attending the fight and seeming to sort of like the blood spatter on her face? That child is going to be trouble! I felt sorry for her, though.
— I was, in a way, surprised Cullen didn't make a quip to Elam about the pepper. I wonder if he knows Elam was not to blame for it.
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