Hell on Wheels "Durant, Nebraska" Review: Romantic Knife Murder

Hell on Wheels S02E02: "Durant, Nebraska"

Howdy buckaroos! Uh, what if there were separate strains of currency with different purchasing values depending on the money's moral history? Like, a $5 bill at one time used to pay for murder would be worth less than a similar note with a clean past of ice cream purchases for orphans? Let the eggheads in Fort Knox worry about how to keep track of all this somehow. Finances bearing the mark of ethical transgression could be treated like a foreign economy with appropriate exchange rates and there'd be a tangible incentive to behaving in the best interest of human nature: less crime and a clear conscience. World peace, solved! Burn Band-Aid's instruments! Glue Bono's lips shut! There'd be so much fulfillment via mass good will, no one would even think about scoring a little extra life quality by spending benevolent smackeroos in a discounted criminal market (and hooking up some cheap boots and stolen spurs with that strong cash)— oh wait, that's exactly what would happen. There'd be no point in separating the two markets because the human spirit is always going to look for a way to become top dog by any means necessary (—Chucky Darwin). Those with money (and usually power) can dilute personal blame or guilt by paying off the less fortunate to perform evil deeds or even use economic sway to redefine "evil" itself. Last night's satisfying "Durant, Nebraska," illustrated how reckless ambition in the name of a greater good can justify murder and questioned who ultimately settles the bill when the buck of "moral debt" gets passed through different levels of society.

Following an excellently filmed Native American attack on Mr. Durant's namesake camp, Hell on Wheels had to absorb the displaced refugees. Seriously, that was like the opening to a tense slasher film where the killer is American Indians. Also, kudos to Eva for having the ear for such a thing. The assault came courtesy of a Sioux "murder raid," as a warning to those who might trespass on their land (Mr. Toole was too busy saving his "lily white arse" to distinguish the tribe—possibly hinting at more racism on his part). Looks like prosperity for this new westward-bound nation will come at the cost of another, but not without casualties for both. Luckily, this show isn't so much concerned with laying guilt trips about whether or not it sucked for natives to be at the tail end of dominance, as it is putting on display the sort of complex emotions involved on either side of the frontlines. At the end of the day, a cutthroat businessman like Durant has no vested interest in preserving a culture that understandably rejects new money and faith. He's not commanding the deaths of innocents, he's defending his way of life.

Meanwhile, Cullen was set to be killed unless he gave up his Confederate compatriots and he couldn't have cared less. Imminently close to the wrong end of a firing squad, Bohannon confessed to Doc Whitehead that he didn't feel a damn thing about murdering the wrong man last season—except he WAS shaking the whole time, so he might have just been talking tough (or suffering from a first-class ass-whooping). Even though we've seen less Cullen this season than last, the current iteration of our hero as a double-crossed bandit with nothing to lose is already way more fun than the pitch-friendly "haunted former slave owner railroad employee revenging wife's death." Of course, we never would have arrived at this point in Bohannon's life were it not for that initial task of vengeance, and there's nothing to say he won't continue that mission sometime in the future, but at least when he does, dude'll be more of a wild-eyed sass-mouth about it.

With the refugees taking up more space than they could afford, Lily compassionately settled with Sean McGinnes who tried to sell them lots on Mr. Durant's behalf. That the absentee railroad baron's conflicting interests of business opportunity and consumer relations (after all, he gets some cut of everything eventually) could manifest and find resolution without his presence turns the town of Hell on Wheels into a living embodiment of his character (in modern terms, a Sims of the soul). When a temporarily rescued Cullen remarked, "Playing God comes natural to you, don't it?" it was in keeping with Durant's grandiose and duplicitous nature that he responded, "Well, yes. But like any benevolent God I'm here to help you," and when Cullen questioned the rescue, admitted "...my motives are purely selfish."

At heart Durant's in it for Number One, as long as Lily makes him appear decent in the eyes of the public, and his enemies are kept at bay—all that's left to define the man are his inner demons, and he seems to have effectively silenced those so far. Who better to act as the moral core of Hell on Wheels than a compassionate judge who experienced firsthand the horrors of the West? She knows the emotional cost of survivalist murder, so when Bell convinced Elam to avenge the dead town whore, it wasn't without friction... on both sides (funny how communication breaks down at the tip of the spear). She didn't want to speak the words that would end a man's life, and Ferguson wouldn't agree without her taking that slight responsibility ("...oh, you want me to give him a talking to?"). But what she lacks in assassination etiquette, Lily makes up for in relationship savvy. How clever was she in being all, "Fine...but I bet if you killed this dude, Eva would be psyched"?

Meanwhile, a drunken, pistol-wielding Durant was even less overt with his reasons for saving Bohannon and bringing his proven enemy back to town. After that ominous fireside chat by the American West's favorite loons, the Swede and Reverend Cole, it would seem Durant expected Bohannon to thankfully accept his offer to defend Hell on Wheels from violent Native American threat. "Sometimes it seems one has to make a deal with the devil," slurred the railroad baron, to which Cullen quipped, "Who's the devil in this deal?" further highlighting just how much of a wrong-right stew this frontier business was, depending on what hand was serving and who's mouth was eating.

Every other show on television should take note of the penultimate scene in "Durant, Nebraska," because it involved something we as an audience never knew we wanted: "romantic knife murder." Seriously, have you ever seen someone kill not only for justice, but also in hopes that word would get back to his crush, high school cafeteria-style? "OMG, did you hear what Elam did to that whore-killer? So hot. I wish somebody would stab someone to death for me..." Beyond the mushiness, there were a lot of interesting reversals going on here. Schmidt, the privileged white foreman, invoked his racial and social status over both an African-American and female prostitute. He taunted Elam with the assumption that the hired gun would not shoot out of fear of making noise, and that the public would have even less sympathy for someone of Elam's race. So, Ferguson did what anyone would when presented with such circumstances, and passionately stabbed the man to death in silence. Sure, when Schmidt's body was strung up with the sign "Woman Killer" it was ultimately to encourage the town whores to get back to work and make Hell on Wheels a happy place to spend money again, but at least this business-minded railroad burg gets occasionally progressive results. With Cullen Bohannon's return, the kind and enterprising folks have one more soul willing to take on—and account for—society's moral debt.


"There names were Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, Jeb Stewart, Nathan Bedford Forrest..."

"God is at work. His ways are mysterious."
"Your God works too hard."

"Surrounded by six horny sailors..."

"Who's the executioner now?"

"Have you heard of the White Spirit Reverend Cole?"



1. Does Cullen have anything to live for?

2. Should Cullen trust Durant?

3. Will the Reverend ever become sane again?

4. Where was Mickey in this episode?

5. Do you like/dislike the contemporary music on this show?

6. Is Hell on Wheels a distillation of the American Dream?

7. Will a main character be killed by the Sioux?

8. Are you a member of the Sioux nation?

9. Are there drawbacks/benefits to showing a new town develop at the same rate as a new show?

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