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

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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I don't know about boring.We learn that Tool is a gentleman after having been a prick, that Elam can have his smug ass beaten by some other black man and may lose his position of bossman, and that Cullen is really the one running things.

Why does Cullen want a straight way, because Duran told him as soon as it's finished as soon he be free.DUH?

Depending on one's culture, a real man is expected to first and foremost to be real to his self and never equivocate.Then he takes his responsibilities until can't, then he keeps on taking them. The rest is open to debate.

Last episode, Cullen best translated my thoughts of American democracy, when the butcher told him he is in a free country and Cullen said he never heard anything so funny. Since candidates are chosen by Great Delegates or whatever and not on universal suffrage, there is no democratic elections.Especially as Republicans, the party of white supremacists everywhere, tries at each election to nullify the black vote. Rights are being taken away from Americans every day, if only in observance to the vile Patriot Act.
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"Is equality based solely on a society's given values?"



That would be a serious problem, wouldn't it? That question is part of what caused the Reign of Terror in the French Revolution -- Robespierre and his compatriots talked a big game about equality, but they believed that equality, and in fact all rights, came from the state and/or the majority.



The problem, of course, is that what the state giveth, the state can taketh away. This is opposed to the American constitution, which says that rights and equality are based on a Divine Authority -- what God giveth, no man should take.



This has repercussions for our upcoming election, and all elections: do both candidates believe that rights are inviolable/unable to be taken away, or is there one or more who believe that rights can be removed by the state/courts/government?



Unfortunately I think Cullen, Elam, and all the workers will find out that Durant is the giver of rights when there's no one around to police him.
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Ugh, terrible episode. Maybe necessary but too booring for my taste.

Good review Ryan Sandoval! Cool name too, almost as cool as Anson Mount(both have to be completely fictional I don't know).

- Aye.

- Just don't run away from hard decisions and don't snitch! Not that hard ...

- Good idea. But I think he knows that the Sioux are not about some square miles here and there and if they reroute the Sioux will follow.

- The latter one.

- yeah, I missed some of the lot too. The only thing that might have stoked me was how Bohannon played Durant. Nice one. And I do like the old-fashioned guns of the time so moremoremoremore
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Ha ha - it's my real name, I swear. Can't speak for Anson Mount though!
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Awesome episode, from start to finish.
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This would be the only time I think I will agree with Mr.Toole on anything. Elam she is carrying your damn child, screw the circumstances. If someone got a problem with a white woman (a married white woman to be exact) giving birth to your child, you do whatever if takes to protect you and them. That' s what you got the gun for. But that might be the only child you will have after getting hit in the mommy daddy button countless times by Pslams. Smart move by Cullen there with the workers. I would fight a dude for trying to take my job too. I think Cullen is trying want to reroute the route because he probably wants to find those ex robbing buddies who sold him out though the revenge on the family thing is also probable though. Good episode last night though, loved it.
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I'm really loving your write-ups, by the way. Intelligent, AND funny. Keep it up!



One thing I haven't really seen people note, regarding Elam's reaction to Eva's pregnancy and his offer to pay for an abortion, is that what he says (besides "I love you") is that he's worried for her safety and that of the child. And honestly, it seems like this is a valid concern. If (as seems likely) the child turns out to be visibly mixed-race, then it would be proof that Eva was an adulteress, and a white woman who'd slept with a black man, and even if her husband didn't kill both her and the child for that crime, it's possible someone else would. This thought occurred to me the moment we saw them rolling around in the forest ("are you thinking about what if she gets pregnant?").



Granted, things immediately start turning out not quite as Elam expected. Instead of trying to keep it a secret, Eva tells her husband, Toole. Toole doesn't immediately try to kill her, even though he quickly figures out who the other man is. The ending of the episode at least seems to imply that Toole may be willing to raise another man's child, even Elam's child. But those reactions are kind of surprises, I think. I don't think it means that Elam's fear, which motivated his offer to her, wasn't valid.



Not that I'm saying we should give Elam a whole lot of slack, here. He's a bit of an idiot all over the place in this episode, including in this. It's only that I keep seeing people comment on his offer to her based only on his concern about his freedom or his ambitions, when his actual statement to her in the episode was that he feared for her safety. I'm also kind of wondering what Toole expected Elam to do, when Toole accused Elam of not standing by her. Did Toole mean now, after the news of the baby? Or before, when Elam's rejection pushed Eva in Toole's direction? Did Toole really expect Elam to come to him, along with Eva, to announce she was carrying Elam's baby, and hope that Toole would easily divorce her and clear the way for Elam to do the right thing? I dunno, I guess that seems like a stretch.



I also wanted to comment on your question #3, but only because I watched a behind the scenes clip that showed Anson Mount talking about this. According to him, Cullen's insistence on not rerouting the train is based on the idea that if you show an enemy that their attempt to terrorize you is effective, and will make you change your plans, then they'll keep doing it. Of course, it's war, so they're going to keep doing it anyway. But refusing to give in to terrorism also sends a message to one's own people about not intending to retreat when attacked. I also think, based on the scene where Cullen stabs at the map several times, that he knows that there isn't any place else they can reroute to that the Indians won't similarly object to. In that, I think he's right.



In conclusion: so totally stoked to see some dudes build a bridge!
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Good point about Elam. This show does such a good job of making the struggles of these historical characters relevant to modern times that it's easy to forget all of the oppressive social forces at work. Elam's heart was in the right place - growing up mixed race himself, but tattooed chin or not, probably anyone would be sad if the person they loved didn't at least offer first to protect his own child. You're right, he's not exclusively looking out for his own best interest, and as a former slave, Elam probably has more insight into how terrible the world can be to an unaccepted child, but he should have expounded on this truth in a more sensitive manner. This is the Ol' West though, so I don't expect that to happen.
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Struggling to find some rhythm this season with Hell on Wheels....
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LOL... Man, you brought out "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers" during a "Hell on Wheels" review... THE BALLS ON YOU!!!... Good one though.



- Equality is based solely on what YOUR value in society is - it may not be fair, but, because we hold jobs and pay taxes, we are view as 'more equal' than, say, a hobo. Than again, we're not equals than, say, billionaires or even millionaires, who have the power and connection to be above our level of equality.... 'knowhatisaying? Anyway, it makes sense in my head... kinda.

- Did you mean "In your opinion, what would make some guy a real man?" A real man, in my book, is a guy is strive to always to do the right thing, regardless if it hurts him or someone he cares about. Usually, though, trying to be righteous is always the best decision... because it's usually the hardest path to take.

- You've said it yourself: Cullen sees railroad building as war, and the man never really left the last one he was part of. He's looking for a bloody conflict, the bigger, the better, and the Sioux nation will do just fine.

- Honesty, Eva should be single, but, realistically,. an ex-whore with a baby to feed cannot survive in the Old West. 'Don't see Elam 'man-ing'-up anytime soon, though, so she'll stat with Toole... 'til he dies.

- Based on the previous, all four of them will be right-smack in the middle of next week's bloodshed, so their absence is ultimately no big deal; I doubt the Rev is that important of a pawn for the Swede to want to keep it away from Cullen - he probably just need a friend; SO STOCKED; EVEN MORE STOCKED!!!; I hope they bring out the crank-action machine gun from the Leone movies - that one is always the best, bringing Rambo-esque level of death-toll every time someone uses it.
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Yeah that preview for next week looked like an honest to God shoot-out. Score!
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1. The killing of the railroad scout by Cullen was indeed a mercy killing ... and also sent a message to the rest of the men just how serious he is to get the job done.



2. Bringing in the replacement workers was straight out of Sun Tsu: "Confront them with annihilation, and they will then survive; plunge them into a deadly situation, and they will then live. When people fall into danger, they are then able to strive for victory." Bohannon gave the strikers an "enemy" to rally and team up against. It was sheer brilliant military tactics used in an "urban" environment - which is why he was the only one who understood what was happening. Elam, being far smarter than anyone (except for maybe Bohannon) gives him credit for, started to figure out what he was up to as they watched the brawl. Those two men are very powerful individually; together, they are a formidable team.



3. Equality supersedes the values of a society. Values change from generation to generation ... and from person to person. Equality never changes in and of itself - and when it's changed by man, ceases to be equality.



4. Cullen doesn't want to reroute the train because of the territory they're in; he realizes, even as Lily refused to, that giving in to the neighboring Indians on one thing would make them vulnerable from that point on. Just as Cullen has a healthy respect for Elam, he also has a healthy respect for the railroad's enemies, the Indians. That's why he wanted to have the fight HERE and NOW; settle EVERYTHING in one fell swoop. Again ... military tactics employed in urban settings. Durant kind of sensed what Cullen was getting at, as the episode wore on; that's why he also disagreed with Lily. Durant also doesn't want to back down from ANYBODY; including the Indians.



5. Eva should be with herself; that is one STRONG woman (Lily's equal in many ways), and would be very independent if she lived in our time. That's just how that girl rolls.



6. As for the Swede? His thing is to somehow, someway, get back at Cullen for everything he thinks Cullen's done to him. The Swede is a very sneaky, dangerous person; THE most dangerous in the camp, after Durant, Cullen, and Elam. Cullen recognizes him as a predator, and is keeping an eye on him. Sooner or later, they will go at it again. The Swede's just trying to get all his ducks in a row before he takes on Cullen again.
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Seriously love your answers.

Kinda make my own comments feel quite inadequate, though...
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