Hell on Wheels "Scabs" Review: Man Up or Shut Up

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Hell on Wheels S02E04: "Scabs"

Yo gang, let's turn our chairs around, circle up like some wagons and rap for a second: So what makes a person officially "equal" in the Old West? Is it the freedom to do and have the same things as the next fortune seeker? Is it being respected and/or feared by the exact same people who respect/fear some other dude? Or what? Last night's relatively bloodless "Scabs," took a stab at answering these questions as Cullen tangled with a workforce on strike and Elam once more faced the tethering effects of romance. The episode at times overestimated just how fascinating an actual labor dispute is (not very), but the overall lull in action—save for two brawls and a mercy kill, allowed for a focus on some unexpected perils awaiting Elam in his overambitious search for equality.

If there's one good reason to go on strike (as a railroad worker, or even as a Yogurtland employee), the threat of death by arrow, scalp-removal, bludgeoning, fire, and the like has to be right up there. Led by Mr. Toole, the employees of Union Pacific felt similarly after having witnessed Bohannon snipe-kill their coworker out of the clutches of some ill-meaning Sioux (very cool period rifle BTW). Based on the abducted's blood-curdling shriek, the sharpshooter probably spared Fleming from a lot worse, but this much was clear to the men: Laying track in these here parts meant pushing daisies, either by the boss's hand or the natives'.

Meanwhile, after some solid wilderness sex, Eva told Elam she was carrying his child. He responded in the second worst way possible (the first would come later), and wordlessly hitched up his drawers and then walked off through the trees. In an odd way Eva's love triangle between herself, passionate-yet-flaky Elam, and the somewhat stable-though-loveless marriage to Mr. Toole resembled the choice Cullen's men now had to make between unpredictably living without pay versus working for Durant's company and potentially winding up in a casket like Fleming. It's worth noting that before this whole debacle all kicked off, Cullen was heard to tell Lily, "You're starting to sound like a man," commenting on her expressed "business first" mentality and introducing the idea that manhood is somehow tied to industrial success. We also know that Cullen views railroad-building as war, suggesting that manhood is essentially based on ending lives. But would Elam find the same to be true?

It seemed like Elam had designs on doing the honorable thing, first by helping Eva carry a bucket (classic show of affection), and then starting off with "All the gold eagles in the world ain't worth a pinch of coon shit if you can't use them to help the people you care about." Swoon. How did he further express his love? Launching into a sonnet? Getting down on bended knee? Wait that's right, he offered to pay for an abortion. Hmm, don't think Romeo ever said that. Obviously Eva was miffed at Elam thinking first about his freedom in the same breath as "I lo'ya woman." One of the most fascinating elements of Elam's stubborn pursuit of the American Dream is how mimicking the greed of his former overlords in the name of equality has brought the ex-slave problems normally reserved for the "free" individual. More choice, means more ways to screw up, so best to just suck it up and do as one's told, aka what Cullen tried to convince the crew of at Fleming's wake.

"Life ain't fair...finish this road," he shouted to the sad party mere steps away from the coin-eyed corpse. Was it just a known thing back then that gatherings around the deceased were the perfect time to convince mobs of stuff? Oh wait that's right, it wouldn't be a proper Old West rabble without a splash of bigotry, and so the ex-slaves barged into the fray, volunteering to carry guns, thus protecting rail's end and the bridge site. Everyone was like, "Nope, we know how messed up we've been to you and yours. Not gonna take that chance."

The next day things got even worse, when a mob burned an effigy of Durant in the street (it had the same tum-tum and everything!) Meanwhile a few tents over, with heartbreaking insight Eva covered her chin in a non-smiling wedding photo, implying that if she had her druthers, those little markings would be gone. So sad, perhaps then she could do better than both Elam and Mr. Toole. Kindly(/drunkenly), her husband offered, "you'd be a vision even if your whole body was covered in them things." Rebellion against the familiar must've been in the air, because she told Mr. Toole she was carrying someone else's child. Pretty sure this was just a frustrated move on her part to exercise some control. Why should she be the only one who hurts? Sounds like someone's looking to stake a claim in single mom territory.

That night in true waffler fashion, Elam threatened Mr. Toole saying that if he ever laid a hand on Eva, he'd kill Toole (make up your mind dude). Toole called his bluff, though interestingly his quibble with Ferguson wasn't presented with racial criticism. Instead by asking, "What kind of man are you?" Toole spoke to the high-rising ex-slave as an equal. As a potential man. "Most of us would give our life to be a father. But look at you, you didn't even stay by her side," In modern lingo that translates to, "Anyone can be a father, but it takes a real man to be a dad." Toole continued pointing out to Elam that the ideals of freedom are ultimately in place to protect family - the true measure of manhood in the West. Unfortunately, Elam's too busy indulging in the bells and whistles of even the slightest status that he's missing the bigger picture, but then again he can't really be blamed for being curious. Hopefully though he figures out life ain't all showing people a gun tucked in his waistband and listening to jangly piano music till the sun comes up.

Then Cullen's piping hot shipment of scabs blew into town at an odd hour of night, and almost fought their way off the train and into the world of gainful employment. Thanks to the crew of rallied up freedmen though, the replacements got their asses soundly kicked right back out of town. This convinced the railroad workers that the "Negroes" were now cool enough to carry guns. The fire-lit, trainside slugfest was awesome in theory, but in execution felt a little restrained. Basharamas like last night's are always welcome, but it takes a special attention to detail and a few choice crunch-shots to make an honest to God punchapalooza really sing like an angel's uppercut. This looked like a cheap History Channel dramatization. The ONLY way Hell's showrunners can make up for this lackluster scuffle would be an episode featuring a town-wide fight that lasted the duration of all 43+ minutes. These bros know what I'm talking about:

A fun brawl to say the least, but there was still some fight left in the crew, as Elam learned the next day via multiple punches to his own groin. Yeesh, after that crotch-walloping Elam might not have a second chance at kids, which was probably a visual point: Elam turned his back on manhood by abandoning Eva, and now the very symbol of maleness was being knocked to kingdom come (though it's likely his testicles were now somewhere by his lungs). After some retaliatory punches to Psalm's kidney (Dohn Norwood), it seemed like the hired gun would take this fight, until he called his former coworker the n-word (rookie mistake) and got KO'd.

The usage of this historically demeaning term further highlighted how Elam doesn't just want a level playing field, he wants superiority (a.k.a. doesn't want to be A man, but THE man). After a whole lifetime of oppression, it's easy to see just how one might covet status, but at the end of day obsession is color blind and equally destructive, to any man.


BUCKSHOTS:


Did Twilight director Catherine Hardwicke think of vampires during this picture?


MMmmm, keep the hearty meals coming.


Not a lot for these goobers to do this episode, but the Swede did warn, "Now is the time to see things clear. We must decide which side we are on."


Psalms, your days are unfortunately numbered buddy.


QUESTIONS:

– Is equality based solely on a society's given values?

– How do you be a real man?

– Why is Cullen so insistent that they do not reroute the train? Does it have to do with revenging his family?

– Should Eva be with Toole, Elam, or no one?

– Just what in the "hell" were Joseph, Ruth, Sean, and Mickey even up to this episode?

Is the Swede trying to stop Cole from drinking because he doesn't want the Reverend dependent on Cullen? Are you stoked to see some dude's build a bridge? Are you stoked to see some dude's get killed by the Sioux? What kind of old-fashioned guns do you hope appear in the coming episodes? A machine gun in a caboose?

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