After taking a holiday hiatus, "Hell on Wheels" returned last night with a bang, literally, and a very sudden stand-off. With Bohannon's hat riding low on his brow, and the camera focusing on the barrel of his gun, he decides after a day spent out on the prairie that life as a vigilante is overrated. He then shows up right as a passenger train is horrifically derailed. Bohannon has no care for the suffering of the wounded around him, though! He need not bother to consider, "well maybe this isn't the best time for a revenge killing" - he just rides up, cocks his gun, and the Swede is reduced to a sniveling and pathetic figure, pleading for his life as Elam looks on in satisfaction. There's something about this scene that sums up the show entirely. If it looks like a Western and acts like a Western, it's a Western! Right? Eh. It feels like a show that wants to be a Western, but is too self-aware of being a "progressive" type of Western (minus the use of the N-word) that it gets confused in the swirl of modern preoccupations. This is embodied completely in that later scene set to swelling score of the Rainbow Guard: Bohannon, Elam and Joseph Black Moon riding up like 1860s United Colors of Benetton Musketeers, heralding unity among the races! All those who challenge this shall be pistol-whipped into submission!
A highly criticized and praised aspect of the show has been its attention to race. But is the very preoccupation with race, both on the show and in discourse about it, distracting from a real sense of the show? It's been two weeks since my television series have been on the air - a long, cold, lonely two weeks - and I should have been far more excited to hop back in the "Hell on Wheels" saddle. But it's an odd sensation: as the season has progressed, the viewing has started feeling more like an obligation than a pleasure. Yet, once the show gets going (which - sidebar - how many friggin' commercials were there last night? The show could barely get through one scene without being cut off for an interminable ad break), I find myself becoming, if not engrossed, pretty entertained. There are always a few moments of redemption, mostly revolving around Bohannon or the quickly developing Eva. Bohannon's takedown of every jerk in the camp - and there are quite a few of the - is always satisfying. Even though I see it coming from a mile away, I relish in its execution. But it's much too easy to get pulled out of the historical world of the show by the more modern issues it dwells upon, and the "heck yeah!" moments don't hit the sustain pedal hard enough to keep a decent momentum into the next episode.
Back to the themes of "Hell on Wheels," there's race, and then there's gender. And the latter brings us to Lily. I want to like you, woman, but you make no sense. She comes back to the camp to Durant to see the completion of the project her husband gave his life for. This is already on shaky ground, but it's not so far-fetched that it's utterly unbelievable - she's lonely and confused. Then, because Bohannon ribs her about it, she decides to turn her back on cleanliness and safety from rape and murder to pitch a tent in the mud. Of course, Lily doesn't actually pitch the tent, she gets some gentlemen to do it for her. Except gentlemen are hard to come by in the encampment, and everything has its price. Lily thinks that without money she can do things. Really, Lily? The "gentleman" tells her she can barter something else, and apparently in the currency of Hell on Wheels, a tent will cost you a romp, but wooden floors will cost you two.
At the end of Day One we see a hungry, confused and tired Lily trying to arrange floorboards in her tent. When Durant came by and clicked open that pocket-watch, I was certain it was because he was timing her, thinking something like: "it's been five hours ... I think this farce has gone on long enough." In fact, it was Robert's watch (how did he procure that?), which he leaves tied to outside of Lily's tent like a shining silver star that says "steal this and attack the woman inside!" The bottom line is that if Lily has a crush on Bohannon, well, I get it. I think even the Swede has a little something for him. But the confusion with what Lily wants to do in the camp and why she's doing it is poorly considered. Durant claims Lily has played him like a fiddle - has she? What is her end game? How is she benefitting from this situation? Less Lily and more Eva, please. A sassy wench is more fun, don't ya know?
Ultimately, "Derailed" was pretty much back on point for the show, which had its second-best (after the pilot) episode two weeks ago. Again, the show excels when the focus remains largely on Bohannon. Note that the McGinnes brothers were absent again this week, did anyone miss them? I see them lurking on the previews, but perhaps their inclusion is best downplayed until Season Two at least. And for those who didn't know, with just two episodes remaining in this season, the show has been picked up for a second go round next year. "Hell on Wheels" has been fine fare at a time on the TV schedule where not much else has been worthy of viewing, but will it be palpably missed when it's gone?
Next Week: "Mad Men" fans will know the joke about AMC promos - that they can be so vague and ridiculous they might as well not even exist. Somehow they went the other way with "Hell on Wheels," though. This episode ended with the posse being utterly surrounded and outnumbered by the Pawnee in an open field, then showed Elam and Bohannon in the promo surveying the carnage. I'm not saying we couldn't have guessed this outcome, but seriously? No question as to their success?
Musings and Miscellanea:
- The Reverend Cole is taking an all-too-predictable turn away from his faith. It looks like his daughter Ruth, however, may be the one to pull him out of it. Or at least slap it out of him. I already find her one of the most interesting characters on the show - not on the surface, but there are plenty of things bubbling underneath.
- Of course, I love Eva. Fantastic. "Monday is my favorite day of the week, because that's when I give my patootee a rest." "I had to throw my leg over that cross-eyed carpenter twice before I could get him to set those floorboards right." The way she told her terrible tale (based on a real story), was also perfect in its matter-of-factness, despite the horror.
- Speaking of horror, I don't want to talk about the body. No not the burned one, which made me feel desensitized because I thought, "I bet the corn syrup covering that jello head is pretty tasty," but the other body. Something about gouged-out eyes really gets to me, call me crazy. Also, I covered my own eyes quickly in both pain and horror, but was that his knob stuck in his mouth? Poor bastard.
- "Revenge and justice - different words for the same thing." - Bohannon
- Bohannon tells Elam he is one of the few men he trusts in the camp, and I had not but a few moments earlier said "if you were in Hell on Wheels, who in that WORLD would you trust there??"
- I pick on Lily's story a lot, but I'm also a bit disappointed in the Swede. If there is one place where no one cares about your past, its Hell on Wheels. The only person who might care is Durant, and he proved last night that whether Bohannon was the most infamous revenge killer in the U.S. he didn't care, as long as he did his bidding (which he does). I also like that Durant doesn't care for the Swede attempting to hang Elam in a saloon. Why even keep the Swede on at this point? There needs to be some more explanation and some kind of redemption of this character in the coming weeks. The mystery of naked floor scrubbing will not carry us long!
- My "Heck yeah!" moment of the week: "Carry them yourself" - Durant to Lily.
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