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