Hell on Wheels "Slaughterhouse" Review: Don't Judge

Hell on Wheels S02E03: "Slaughterhouse"

Have y'all heard that come future-times, the U.S. will beef up the Supreme Court's ranks from nine judges to 39? The logic is that with over four times the amount of unique perspective, justice levels will be at an all-time high. Fairness depends a good deal on personal values, so the greater variety of those represented, the more considered and precise the verdicts. Sure, it's estimated each case will take four times as long to resolve, but citizens will just have to be patient or stop committing hard-to-figure-out crimes. Your choice, citizens! In "Slaughterhouse," Hell on Wheels—the little railroad town that could—did not have time for such discursive luxuries, and instead held swift court over slain foreman Dieter Schmidt in the bloodiest way possible, which culminated in a sledgehammer vs. meat cleaver fight to the death between the accuser and the accused ("Shut up, you had me at 'sledgehammer vs. meat cleaver fight to the death'"). The grisly result illustrated how in a society with no overt governing body besides those able to manipulate public opinion—either through wealth or subterfuge—the concept of justice is as ephemeral and personal as a gavel that constantly changes hands only to smash out the brains of anyone deemed guilty along the way.

In an intro befitting of the Swede's masterful creepiness, Gundersen spoke prophetically over an ominous sequence of pig death, setting into motion the camp town's latest debacle, and introducing the episode's overall theme: identifying the true nature of justice. "In the beginning there was blood," he preached to Bauer the butcher (played by Timothy V. Murphy—Galen in Sons of Anarchy/guest-star extraordinaire), "the land demands it. Every new land demands blood and we relent. It is our nature." Though much would come of the cannibalistic effects of lawlessness (starting with pigs eating pig guts), the Swede looked past all the bloodshed and saw an opportunity for revenge on his enemies, namely Sean and Mickey McGinnes. Those who do best in Hell on Wheels move out of sight of public scrutiny, and by exploiting Bauer's bitterness over Schmidt's supposedly wasteful death (in comparison to that of the "less" useful prostitute), the Swede made a play for power. It wouldn't be until the next day that Bauer compared the situation to justice "finding her way...as a pig to the trough," but between that sentiment and Gundersen's insistence that humans were essentially arrogant animals, the metaphor was established: At its worst, justice is a crude beast that thrives on devoured lives. So goes one theory.

After a night of doing whatever the opposite of combing hair is, Bohannon faced trouble getting the foreman-less employees to work (love when those TNT blasts go off in the background), while Mickey took credit for killing Schmidt and promised further protection for the whore-tent. So this is where Mickey was last episode, whiling away his hours talking big at the ol' brothel? Some folks think this show is slow, but that's just another word for steady. Thank goodness we got to see the immediate repercussions of last episode's climax. It took a long time to lay track, why not apply that same careful approach to this show's pacing? Anyway, just as Schmidt's true killer had hoped, Eva was very flattered that Elam had done something so nice. Did it seem like these two had too much Ol' West lingo to get through in this scene? It was like both were baby-stepping through phrases like "ain't but much" or "take a hand to me." I don't know, but one thing they did not ease into was that sultry tattooed-goatee-to-scraggly-beard kiss. This smooch was romantic, but also right up the alley of anyone who has ever wanted a 3-D IMAX Experience titled "Saliva and Face Hair." Feel free to weigh in, ladies: Is it great to kiss beards, or weird? A few tents over, the Swede continued his killer Machiavelli impression by spinning tales in Cole's ear about how the moneylenders had taken over the town and the Reverend needed to be like Jesus and toss out some fools. Hmm, is the Swede the White Spirit? Out in the wilderness, Durant showed Bohannon a gorge that he wanted the train to pass through and reminded Cullen that he essentially owned him by sparing the ex-bandit's life. Surely, a former slave owner could appreciate the irony, but hopefully he's agreeing to work off his debt to Durant so he can also keep on eye on Lily.

Then the worst funeral in the world took place, with Cole interrupting Ruth's sermon to call her a fornicator and the Swede opportunistically riling up the mob against the McGinnes Bros. He once more encouraged the comparison of man to animal, lamenting that Schmidt had been "...gutted and displayed in the street like a pig in [Bauer's] butcher shop." That's about all the sad Germans needed to hear before Mickey and Sean were dragged off to the slaughterhouse for judgement in the Butcher's Court (where the bailiff is meat hooks). Also, when the Swede was like, "Mr. McGinnes, these men would like a word with you" it was no longer the destitute undertaker talking. This is a man who has calculated his path back via moral math.

At the behest of Mr. Durant, Elam and Cullen stopped Bauer from slicing the McGinnes Bros. into human chorizo and locked the two siblings in a jail cart, chastising Mickey with, "You run your mouth, you take the consequences... Congratulations, dumbass." Cullen could really give a care, but this jaded attitude is the best thing about his character this season. He's been on extreme sides of both right and wrong, and for the time being it's easier to just put his head down and take direction. This willingly ignorant mindset followed him into Durant's Executive Caboose as Bohannon, his boss, and Lily debated just what to do with the Irish Bros.: Lily wanted the matter investigated out of secret culpability, Durant would spare Sean as an employee but send a message to the community about killing foremen with Mickey's death, and Cullen cared for nothing except orders. If these three were a group Halloween costume of Lady Justice, Durant would be the sword, Lily the arm scales, and Bohannon the blindfold.

Heck, even the faithful struggled with compassion, as Cole rescued Joseph from a racist beatdown in the church (a place normally free of judgement) with an always-welcome sword charge (that Jesus speech really riled him up). Ruth practiced a more gentle form of Christianity by bringing Sean and Mickey some delicious-looking pork and beans, plus a tasty biscuit. If Hell on Wheels plays its cards right, wholesome home-cooking like this platter could really become a thirteenth character in a world normally full of mud and blood. Also, did that bean-pork come from the pigs we saw killed? Were we being reminded of the pig metaphor? If so, was Sean the pig?

Racked with a guilt more forgiving than the Old West, Lily confessed to Mr. Durant about her involvement in the murder, pleading, "It was me. I killed the foreman" as if the fair-haired maiden of the West was on trial herself, and he the judge. The ensuing backroom argument over innocence and blame had less to do with defining justice, and more to do with the power held by whoever defines it. The railroad baron's chief concern was not the death of his foreman, but "under whose authority" the action was taken (answer: not his). "You became judge, jury, and executioner... You usurp my authority, put my railroad at risk, kill one of my most valuable employees and you dare to claim that it was justice," Durant lectured. For a man who has defined himself entirely by business achievements and even likened his power to "God," in killing on his behalf Lily compromised Durant's very essence, altered his omnipotence. Big no-no. Acknowledging his superiority through tearful begging, Lily fought for more empathetic reasoning, citing that it was unfair for an innocent to hang. Enraged even further that she would still try to influence his position, her angry boss screamed, "Someone has to hang! Perhaps you would like to take their place in the interest of justice!" In a town literally built around competitive railroad building, it came as no surprise that fairness here is not about punishing the right man, but about satisfying the public enough to keep business moving, something Lily should have learned through her favor to Eva and the brothel.

Wary enough to recognize sneaky handiwork, Bohannon surprised the Swede at his most vulnerable, holding him at gunpoint in a bathtub/aroma therapy session with Gundersen's own rifle ("Beauty"). In a "takes one to know one" moment, Bohannon accused the Swede of self-hatred, to which the bather theorized the two were similar in that sense, and in a way dependent on one another. Perhaps in Season 1 this was the case, but so far Bohannon seems like he's still in a hands-off, thankful-to-be-alive mode. If the Swede were to go away, so would a lot of Cullen's problems, but the more these two continue a rivalry the truer Gundersen's statement will likely become.

Though uncharacteristically lucid, Cole failed in urging Joseph to leave town, while Durant gave the okay to set the boys free (after a frustrated teacup obliteration). Perhaps it was no coincidence his high boots and buttoned vest made Durant look just like the Wonderful Wizard of Oz, considering this display of power behind society's curtain that had lackey Bohannon telling the German to split. "This is a free country, by God!" Bauer complained, to which Cullen laughed "That's about the funniest damn thing I ever heard." The question is, did he do this at Lily's request, to minimize his own work in the future, or out of concern for the McGinnes Bros.? Given that he was willing to string up both of them a few hours prior, chances are his motivations lay somewhere between the first two.

As another day came to a close in this sleepy camptown, Sean and Mickey demonstrated a terrible act of recidivism. Free from the official threat of hanging, the boys celebrated by paying a visit to the butcher in a chilling scene, full of shadow-clad gutted pigs and steely-eyed Irish teamwork. Before Bauer could realize what was happening, he found himself on the wrong end of a sledgehammer. Attempting to defend himself with a meat cleaver, the duo proved too strong, and the butcher was pulverized and separated in his own slaughterhouse. If his comparison to swine wasn't clear enough, a pig squeal that overlapped with the dying cries of the butcher sealed the deal. As he passed realms in the classiest way possible (i.e. pig chow), Bauer could at least take solace knowing he was mostly right about his concept of justice; yes, like a "pig to a trough," justice had found her way. However, the butcher overlooked the part about how in a lawless system, that meal bin can be filled with whatever edibles the feeder sees fit, provided whoever holds the kill-hammer swings it as true as a gavel.


Sometimes Hell is just plain pretty.

Next week, how's about some Frontier Pudding and mulberry pie?

Always appreciate seeing other characters in the background.

Is it great or not great kissing on beards?


– Will Joseph dump Ruth because she's scared of what society thinks of their relationship?

– Will Elam finish off Mr. Toole for domestically abusing Eva?

– Does Elam have a drinking problem?

– What will make Cullen care about stuff again?

– Do you believe that the Swede hates Bohannon more than Bohannon hates himself?

– How many times will Reverend Cole get shoved out of his own church?

– Will Sean and Mickey get in trouble for the murder of Bauer, or will people think he made the train?

– How many times have humans been fed to pigs on TV? Deadwood?

– Are you excited to see a bridge get built?

– Who knew railroads were such a corruptive force?

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