Hell on Wheels "Purged Away with Blood" Review: Parents Just Don't Understand
Man, there was something in the air this week that had the whole Hell on Wheels gang thinking about parenthood: Durant and his dead son William, Cole and a certain blood legacy to Joseph plus some regrets with Ruth, and Elam's changing feelings toward his unborn child... which all amounted to an examination of different parenting styles disguised as a hostage situation in "Purged Away with Blood." Only this sixth episode of the season featured no helicopter moms, just woeful daddies whose varying patriarchal decisions were to result in maiming, killing, and the hope for a new beginning.
Things started off with the reveal of the Swede's big sneaky plan: arming the local Sioux with stolen guns. Turned out, way back when the Swede got ran out of town, his life had been saved by the local natives and they mistook him as the White Spirit. Easy mistake, I guess. This season has touched on the equalizing effects of gun possession (with Psalms at one point mentioning as much), so there was an odd ritual in Cole and Tor Gundersen divvying the boomsticks. Would the ability to kill efficiently level the playing field? If the normally subjected people of this land ever had a chance, this was it, as Durant lay helpless as a baby, and suffered pain hallucinations in which he showed his dead son the railroad. Let's hear it for the first fantasy sequence of the series! In an image that would set the tone for the further exploration of father emo, Durant's boy disappeared while walking along the very tracks of the Pacific. When the railroad baron opened his mouth to shout, a train whistle sounded instead, illustrating a fear that he had replaced his family with the mad pursuit of industry. Durant wanted Lily to stay with him, but she had to keep the railroad running. Also, it'd probably be weird to meet his wife. Who else is guessing Mrs. Durant will be played by Kathy Bates in character as Molly Brown from Titanic?
Nobody wanted anybody to go to Chicago: Elam/Eva, Cullen/Doc Whitehead—nobody. Ever since last week's shootout, Whitehead had some government heavies on his tail coming to exact justice, but the shaggy dog sawbones seemed at peace with it all. Joseph discovered a Bible at the end of his bed turned to a passage that read, "Jesus said to them if you don't have a sword, sell your cloak to buy one." Really, there was only one loon who could have left it there and next thing you know the Chicago-bound train was getting ambushed. Cole stepped on board with his trusty sword (a this point I wouldn't recognize him without it). If there was a Reverend pull-string doll, he'd spout ominous verses like, "The glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all people will see it for the mouth of the Lord has spoken." I'm starting to think the true purpose of the Bible is to give creeps something to say before engaging in violent behavior. But the speechifying didn't stop there: Cole wanted Durant to publish his manifesto (special thanks to the White Spirit) on the front page of The New York Tribune (typical whig party mumbo jumbo), or else everyone on board the train would die, starting with Eva and her unborn child.
Even in his sickly state, Durant cleverly telegraphed the manifesto back to Hell on Wheels, which quoted America's original abolitionist, John Brown, with, "The crimes of this guilty land can only be purged away with blood…" Oh, so that's where this episode title came from. Luckily, Elam and Cullen rode out to get a better read on the situation, and Bohannon gave us a taste of his shouting voice. Good shouting voice, really like it. Cullen tried to level with Cole, imploring him to "pray on it" and insisting that God would lead him to do the right thing. Then Cole did what Cole does best and stabbed a train employee. "Blood is God here," said the man who was now irretrievably crazy.
"Sober as a judge, mad as a hatter," argued Cullen to Lily, describing the Reverend's inability to be reasoned with. She accused Bohannon of just wanting to save Doc, but that position felt a little weak. We just saw a conductor (or coal shoveler?) get sworded, so I'd say the time for calmer measures had ended. Nice try, Lily Bell. Night fell, and Durant initiated the first dad-off of the episode, half attempting to talk Cole down from his cuckoo-stoop, and half making death-peace. "We are both men with a mission in our life, willing to sacrifice anything to achieve our goals, even our own families," said the railroad baron, coaxing Cole to admit that he too had "…been a terrible father." "Great men, often are," responded Durant, trying to butter up Cole even further. Turned out, Durant's son William (the ghost kid from his dream) died at the age of 12 from cholera. Durant's wife had never forgiven him for not being there, probably because his doctor talents could have saved the boy's life. Durant justified his absence by claiming that the railroad was to be a legacy to William, which is a pretty common set-up with the breadwinner of the family. On the one hand, you've got to insure a nice future for junior, but on the other you're sort of missing the point of parenthood. What good is knowing your child to be well off if you don't even know your child? It's a give-and-take, people. Then just when it looked like Durant was making the slightest of progress, Cullen and Elam slaughtered all the natives on the train, while Eva and Doc Whitehead even got in on the action. Then Cole requested to speak with Joseph and Ruth. Uh-oh!
So while Lily rode back to get the Coles, Cullen gave advice to Elam about fatherhood. Something about Eva being pregnant and in peril of death—plus Cullen reiterating how that child wouldn't have a chance in this world—made Elam change his tune about being a parent. Abortion is one thing, but to lose an entire potential family in one fell sword swoop was enough to get Mr. Ferguson thinking on ways to raise this child. Hell, that's how evolution works! Say he is successful at getting this child to adulthood; then there's this person who's tough, humble, and hopefully ready to improve the world for the better. Not to mention Elam's contrarian relationship with Cullen. All it took was for Bohannon to say one thing, and Elam was already planning for the opposite because that's just his outshine-at-any-cost nature.
Then Ruth and Joseph met with Cole, and the latter immediately apologized with, "You and your mother didn't deserve the way I treated you." A parent submitting to a child for forgiveness certainly confuses the power dynamic. On the outside, the Union Army arrived to take Doc Whitehead into custody, courtesy of the Swede ("Just doing my duty as a citizen"). Cole admitted to Joseph that he was going to get his murder on for his son, but Joseph did not want that so he stabbed the Reverend to death. Honestly, this character was on a collision course for destruction ever since the whole beheading incident, but it'll still be sad to see one of my favorite kooks go. He had turned his back on consequences of his own design (i.e. abandoned his family), and instead of repenting, decided to wage further war. Bad parenting. I bet Daniel Plainview from There Will Be Blood could really relate to this episode.
Anyway, at least Joseph got to walk off to some badass heavy guitars, hand a knife back to Cullen as if to say, "This murder belongs to you people," then ride off. Wow, first his brother, and now his fake dad. I'm really liking his trajectory and am raring for him to team up again with Elam and Cullen. Speaking of which, Elam begged Eva not to go to Chicago and said when she came back they needed to talk about that baby. She corrected him, saying it was "his baby," and he kissed her on the head, as if to say, "Yes, dear." Surviving through it all, Durant felt lousy about being a bad father and husband, and decided he needed his wife's forgiveness. It was essentially over between Lily and himself (good). Now she's free to start up a torrid love affair with Bohannon, and then the railroad baron will be all pissed and things will be rad.
In a final touching scene, Whitehead requested that Cullen pull the trigger while lamenting that he never got to bury his three sons who all died in the war. Hell on Wheels is quite good at showing how the Civil War really messed up a generation of people, so much so that Cullen didn't know if he could do the deed. Doc Whitehead encouraged him with, "You be strong, son..." and with the pull of a trigger, Cullen ended his closest familial relationship while the heart-wrenching gun crack echoed through the land. Clearly the best way to parent in the old west is to be there every step of the way and not make terrible decisions. In a world where death is so prevalent, a child could really use a helping hand. Whether it's in teaching how to aim a rifle or host a party, a parent gains just as much fulfillment as the nourished child, knowing he or she has done their level best in supporting a personal legacy. Or at the very least, offering up some new blood for the land.
– What were Sean and Mickey up to this episode?
– Will any of the original inhabitants of HoW be alive to witness this train reach the Pacific?
– Did Lily try to slap Cullen because she has a crush on him?
– Will Lily and Cullen finally get together next week?
– Will Elam have to kill Toole to be a proper dad?
– Do you miss Reverend Cole?
– What will the Swede think of next?
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