Hell on Wheels "Reckoning" Review: An Arrow in the Horse's Ass

By Ryan Sandoval

Aug 24, 2014

Hell on Wheels S04E04: "Reckoning"

This week, Dr. Michaela Quinn and Sully were shocked to find Matthew running the railroad camp’s saloon, while—oh wait, that wasn’t Hell on Wheels, that was an episode of Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman titled "Hell on Wheels." Easy mistake! But man, that Sully is a dreamboat. 

Regardless, "Reckoning" was a damn great time. From the Swede manipulating his way into Mormon justice to Mickey catching an epiphany-inducing knuckle sandwich, each of the folks on Hell on Wheels lived out meaty storylines that made a strong case for the town as a whole taking over for Cullen Bohannon as the show's main character. 

Also Bohannon’s horse caught an arrow, which is a refreshing Western image and a reminder of this show's more rollicking elements. Yes, sometimes Ruth tearfully struggles with her faith but also saloon fights happen! Most welcome was "Reckoning" serving up a heaping helping of Bohannon as we’ve always known him. Face down in the muck, black-eyed all day long, storming into Durant's office just a mess from head to toe. And as a bonus, we members of the Official Anson Mount Hunk Watch were treated to a pert pair of scrappy pecks. According to Anson Mount's pecks, he comes to work, and that is the most you can ask for in an actor. 

Now, I get that we can’t have Bohannon be free 24/7, because half the fun is watching him work his way into tight spots and then figure his way out again, but there is a difference between adversity and straight-up depressing circumstances, and prior to "Reckoning," his storyline was starting to approach the latter (...Day Saints, that is!). I mean, being Mormon is about as buttoned-down as it gets in a time when everyone had a gun and inhaled whiskey like it was fresh air. So when the dead-collectors mistook him for belonging in the corpse wagon, his jaunty retort of "Not yet gentleman. Not yet" was a welcome glimpse of our old hero. He's married, not dead! But one life seems to come at the cost of another: In the domestic sphere, "Reckoning" saw Naomi calling Bohannon out on that fact that he’s not meeting expectations as a family man. He just wants to work on the train all day long! Which would be a totally acceptable use of time outside of a Mormon colony, but if you were raised with several moms and a dad who sat down for supper with the family every night no matter what the day's work held—like Naomi was—then yeah, you'd think Bohannon was a real deadbeat of a patriarch, too. 

All this time, it's seemed like family life was the answer to Bohannon overcoming his demons, but some people just aren't built for piggyback rides and honey-do lists. We can't ALL be Cody Brown from Sister Wives—and yes, I know he's "fundamentalist Mormon," but the teachings he follows are the same as the ones followed by Hell on Wheels-era Mormons, including scared little Ezra. Hang in there, buddy! Join one of the many wars against indigenous tribes coming up in the next few decades, and learn to drink away your religious woes (worked for me!).

"No one can serve two masters," sayeth Matthew 6:24, a verse that seems tailor-made for Bohannon’s plight. The railroad, or Naomi and William? It's a question of one form of manhood (industrial achievement) over another form of manhood (domestic leadership). I wonder, though, if part of Naomi's pressure comes from her own insecurities as an outcast. Like a "shit flows downhill" sort of thing. Like if you're at a party and the person you came with is getting pissed at you for socializing because it makes them feel more alone. Bohannon's Mormon bride had a "hell" of a time fitting in with the God-fearing folks of Cheyenne. They trash-talked her religion in general, and Ruth pointed out some damning things about how Joseph Smith and his many wives was exploitative of women. I mean, Ruth isn’t exactly living in the most liberated society herself (it’ll be years before she gets the right to vote!), but the point remains: As an indigenous religion, Mormonism (and any other recently come-to-life belief system, for that matter) deserves scrutiny for the things its gets wrong. Did God really instruct Smith to take on more wives in the Sacred Grove, or did the dude just eat some bad chili that night and want more companions to help avoid that sort of thing in the future? These are fair questions, especially in a time without internet or even sanitary wipes. 

Did you see Durant and Campbell’s staredown? That was a good staredown, as far as staredowns go. Both parties unfazed, sizing one another up. Classic. I had a similar staredown this week with a dog. (P.S. any time one guy’s chomping on a cigar, it's a plus). In my scenario, the dog had cat turds in its mouth, as if to say, "Your move." Durant’s always a great source of villainy and hasn’t seemed as rich as his potential. Seeing Bohannon duke it out with an antagonist as skilled in business and the world as Durant is allows Durant to appear both cunning and less hateful, since his quarrel is not tied to Bohannon. So there’s the potential that they could team up again in the future and I truly like it when they do ("Denizenery ain’t a word").

Outside of the individual sphere—and I don’t know if it’s because I’m getting older and nostalgic for simpler times, or what—I am really into the nitty-gritty of how a place such as Cheyenne can go from a frontier town to a government operation. It was one of the first ever to do so, so just from an anthropological standpoint the topic being examined has a relevant value as we continue to question the uneasy relationship between citizen and government. Also it’s cool seeing the carpetbaggers be such dicks. Such dicks! That’s all they exist to be, and it brings the characters we know (who AREN'T dicks) that much closer. Psalms never had a problem with being likable, but he was always on the outskirts. With these dick-carpetbaggers drawing their dick-lines in the sand, he seems like one of the Hell family. And who could forget Durant's pampering of Eva? That was pure charm.

The Swede’s scenes were satisfying as well, thanks in no small part to how much Christopher Heyerdahl sinks his teeth into every moment. Reflecting on the Swede’s past, he has done every kind of crazy twice over and beyond, from being a strict enforcer to a crazy disciple and town outcast to a murderer. He was nursed to health by a Mormon family, he murdered THEM, he assumed the identity of a Mormon bishop, and now he's in peril of being found out. Look, I will be extremely pleased if we get a Brigham Young appearance, but if it's just Colm Meaney with a mole and a grody neckbeard I will be somewhat sad. Anyway, I appreciate the stance that Hell on Wheels is taking on religion with the Swede's impostor act to an unknowing congregation of faithful followers. IS their conviction undone by the fact that its focus is false? Will the Swede adopt yet another identity, that of "Big Bess," a saucy soiled dove of a burlesque dancer who teams up with the recently bankrupt Mickey to create a competing casino and bar to the government-owned Palace? 

"Let’s be grateful Wyoming has not achieved statehood" joked Durant, perhaps suggesting that the laws make the crime and not the other way 'round. Meanwhile, Mickey sat locked up twiddling his Irish thumbs and being condescended to by a carpetbagger guard pissing in a jailhouse cup. That has also happened to me before, though in my case it wasn't a jail—it was a breastfeeding area at the Ventura Speedway, natch. Before Mickey turned super dark (fratricide will do that to you), he was as fun as a pie-eyed immigrant showing slides of Ireland to homesick rail workers. Even though he's not as wholesome as he used to be, seeing him take on some carpetbaggers in a fistfight, slam a dude in the face with a bar, and then get inspired by Bohannon to ditch Durant and start fresh made him way more likable than a creepy, bathwater-fondling mayor. 

He has that American spirit, but somewhere along the way, it got twisted into a nightmare. Now he's back to starting a lemonade stand or whatever. A similar thing is occurring with Eva and Durant, and it's making both parties more likable. Bohannon wants Mickey to change his ways and is nudging MIckey toward his more positive qualities, and Durant wants the same for Eva, and that it's enriching them each, well now, those are admirable qualities. Two men who've tasted American success, warts and all, and now have the goodness to guide others away from industrial pitfalls—that's this country's legacy.  

What did you think of "Reckoning"?

  • Comments (19)
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  • DaveLewis Aug 31, 2014

    Ryan, your reviews are the best! Catch up on Matador.

  • DaveLewis Aug 29, 2014

    Wow, another show I love that Ryan reviews, yet very few comment on (the other is Matador). Love the Dr Quinn references. I really hope this show won't die like Deadwood.

  • RyanSandoval Aug 30, 2014

    Thanks dude! We are a small but passionate force!

  • DaveLewis Sep 02, 2014

    You are the best!

  • antmorris3511 Aug 25, 2014

    The number of comments in no way indicates the quality of the review.

    It seems to indicate waning interest in Hell On Wheels.

    Between moving the show to Saturday, extending the life of The Swede, and disappearing Elam Ferguson , its starting to look like this line aint ever gonna see its completion.

    Is this train bound for Deadwood?

  • RyanSandoval Aug 30, 2014

    Funny you mention Deadwood, I keep thinking of Swearengen up on his deck watching the thoroughfare every time they show Campbell doing the same

  • antmorris3511 Aug 30, 2014

    Deadwood was a damn good show, and it just up and died. It was better than HOW and it still died. Makes you wonder how the hell HOW is gonna stay afloat for another season? The most frustrating thing about HOW is that all the elements are there for a good story. The only thing lacking is the writing.

    Bohannon aint kickin ass, Durant's is twiddlin his thumbs, Psalms' sangin hymns and aint nobody gettin dealt wit. No love connections, theyre not even dealing with the LDS thing in way that is compelling. Its fine as a way to contextualize things, but there's nothing dramatic in the way theyre showing it.

    When Cullen had his first contact with Mormons, that was dramatic. When Swede killed the Bishop it was dramatic. Now we're down to Naomi and Ruth locked in a game of "Dueling Jesuses". When all else failed , at least I had Eva to look at, and she had her struggles. Now its like no one's really doing anything interesting. Except maybe Mickey. His arc has some potential. Cullen's too if he'd get off his flower power and saddle up.

    Western, as a genre has given us some of the greatest moments in the history of film and tv. Hopefully the writers will get on the ball because I've had enough of nothing-vision. HOW is one of only three shows I actually follow.

  • RyanSandoval Aug 30, 2014

    Also just read something from producer John Wirth about Elam's fate, which contains spoilers so I won't link - but answers are out there if you're curious

  • antmorris3511 Aug 30, 2014

    Sometimes spoilers can renew interest in a show. Elam wasn't "the greatest colored ever to grace the small screen", but he made the show more interesting. Not sure why they'd displace him in favor of dredging up the "mormon vs evangelical" dilemma. The boy shouldve told how swede killed his folks last season. Not sure why they'd fling Eva into some bound for nowhere arc. Its all gonna probably build up to nothin'. Theyre totally wasting the reporter chick and Durant. The writers act like they don't give a damn whether anyone watches or not. I'm bored. Tonite it better be good.

  • RyanSandoval Aug 30, 2014

    Also, got to say that I'm "all aboard" for Cullen using the railroad as his narrative arc. I think a man's connection to completing his work is a meaty subject that lines up perfectly with "American Character."

  • RyanSandoval Aug 30, 2014

    Well if you feel that way about spoilers I can attest that tonight's is pretty awesome (maybe my fav of the season so far). Forgive me, I don't know what the "greatest colored..." part is. Is that a quote from a show or interview?

    Yeah I miss Elam because Elam and Cullen started the show together. That was the whole thing, that Cullen was an ex-slaver, and Elam was an ex-slave. If I had my druthers, Elam would be back AND the Mormon thing would be happening (sorry, I was raised Mormon and am actually learning more about church history through Hell than I ever did growing up!) Eva is troublesome. I feel that Robin McLeavey can handle anything they throw at her and she should be rewarded for such. Wouldn't mind her and Mickey becoming business partners!

    I think at the end of the day, you have to basically love the Western genre to be into this show. Like, what other network even cares about the genre?

  • antmorris3511 Aug 30, 2014

    'a colored' is a black guy or girl . Its an archaic term for negro. its sometimes used on HOW but its frequently used on Boardwalk Empire, and much more at home during the B.E. era.

  • RyanSandoval Aug 30, 2014

    Well last season the 4th episode got 2.00 million viewers, and this season's 4th drew in 2.08 million - this season's 3rd episode was up from last year too. However the season opener from last season trounced this year's so who knows. I actually like the Swede having his life extended, and I think measures are being taken to make the characters outside of Bohannon more independent - though yeah, where the hell is Elam during all this?

  • oldrider Aug 25, 2014

    Actually, Ruth gets the right to vote fairly soon. Wyoming was the first territory to grant women the right to vote, and the territorial governor who signed the bill into law was none other than John Campbell, upon whom I believe Jake Weber's character is very loosely based. Wyoming's bid to enter statehood was delayed for some period of years because of its constitutional provision granting women the right to vote, but ultimately Wyoming did join the union, making that state the first one to grant voting rights to women. Wyoming is known as the "Equality State"

  • RyanSandoval Aug 30, 2014

    Wow that's really fascinating. I never knew that about Wyoming. Thank you for sharing!

  • nyclipper Aug 25, 2014

    Since Bohannon's son is named William, I proposed for his nickname in this column: BilBo-hannon.

  • AmyTeves Aug 24, 2014

    This was a great episode. It needed some comedic relief with Bohannan being mistaken for road kill. He stumbled away but as you said got right back in the groove Beaten and bruised he got Durant to agree to give him his job back if he can get the railroad past the hill, and he continues to inspire and disappoint. He is inspiring in the way that he never quits trying, no matter what seemingly insurmountable obstacles stand in his way, but at the same time is brought down by the reality that after all he is still just a man with flaws. He chooses building the railroad over being with his family. He has always tried to keep his promises, but some promises are made to be broken.

  • Laserwolf412_XL Aug 24, 2014

    I could be wrong, but I think the horse was actually just shot in the saddle. Kinda cool actually, because in all the Westerns I've seen, I don't think they've shown a saddle blocking an arrow like that.

    I thought we would finally see Elam again when Bohannon went scouting on his own, and especially when he ran into some familiar Natives, but now it seems clear that Elam's absence is not the choice of the writers but rather Common must be busy on some other project. I'm sure he'll make an awesome appearance toward the end of the season, but it's a disservice to the show that Bohannon is missing his other half.

    I'm also a little curious about the lack of screen time for the current Chief Engineer's wife. They showed her a few times inside the train car where she's living like she would play a somewhat significant part this season, but haven't come back to her since. Also hoping to see more of Pope from Falling Skies as the Doc Holiday-type Gambler. His character seems like a good addition to the show.

  • RyanSandoval Aug 30, 2014

    I think you're right. What are some of your favorite westerns? I'm currently reading a book titled "The Revenant" that I think Michael Fassbender is adapting to the screen. Pretty cool stuff!