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?

Comments (13)
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plz I have searched high and low. The song they play in the previews "Lay My Body Down" I can only find the one by glen hughes and that is not the one. Does anyone know who sings this and where I can find it plzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz
Really, I don't understand how "HoW" doesn't can the credits it justly deserves. Only in this episode: great storyline and acting, beautiful scenery shots, unbelievable production design (the slaughterhouse was right out of a nightmare), so many levels of interpretation... Yet not that big of a following. It's fun to be in on what is turning out to be a great secret, but it's a damn shame so many people are missing out on it. Hell, their loss.

- Ruth gonna dump Joseph, guarantee. You all seeing how this girl is playing 'games' with Sean, obviously a better suitor for her than that 'savage', right? To think that she totally came after him... Poor bastard. 'Know what? Her daddy was right - she is a fornicator!

- Not before he finish sucking her tongue right out of her mouth. I mean, holy crap... rarely do you see such a passionate kiss NOT resulting in lovers 'doing it' immediately afterwards. No way Eva can stay away from Elam for too long, and, obviously, that will end in Toole's earlier demise... Goes to show: never marry a whore you know ain't that much into you.

- Elam got a lot on his mind right now, a lot more to think about than during the first season: lost his woman, can't get no respect from his boss, his hands more bloody, about to get even bloodier, and, lo and behold, the return of his buddy/main-competition-as-the-biggest-baddass-in-HoW, completely overshadowing him... So let the man drink a little - he needs it!

- Lilly's the answer, obviously... but is she a permanent solution or just a Band-Aid who will help him stop bleeding for a while? I personally think it's more the latter - this man has grudging ghosts in his head that ain't going away for no one, even a great love...

- There's no way anyone can hate Cullen more than he hates Bohannon (... see what I just did here?)

- If, from now on, he keeps walking in the church with that sword, I would say we just saw the last of him getting push out of it.

- ... Hey, the Irish Mafia in America must have started somewhere, right? Why couldn't those McGinnes boys be behind it? Ultimately, I'm pretty sure most people will know what really went down... but nobody will do a damn thing about it.

- Yes, "Deadwood", but it also happened on "Justified" too. And probably "The Sopranos". What I'm saying is that pigs are a very efficient way to get rid of bodies. So I guess my final answer will be: countless times.

- Once again, please read Shreela's flawless answer.

- Business is always a corruptive force, and, back in those days, they weren't that many businesses bigger than railroads business.

'Til next week.
No pork for me for a while! :-)
Ha - deal!
Fantastic episode and a good review too.

- Either that or they will leave Hell on Wheels together.

- He will beat the crap out of him.

- No. Killing makes thirsty.

- What Lilly gave Durant.

- Yes. I mean no. The Swede thinks he does but he underestimates Bohannon's self-hatred a lot.

- Was it the 4th or the 5th time?

- No they won't. But they will fear these crazy Irish brothers for sure.

- ...

- See "Shreela"s comment

- You bet! But maybe it's not the railroads ...
"Are you excited to see a bridge get built?"

No, but I'm looking forward to seeing it get knocked down by Indians.
Great show and a great episode. I dont really have anything else to add just wanted to comment so you people know that this got read and to keep posting reviews/recaps
Damn this episode was good. I knew the Swede and the Preacher was going to start up something sooner or later. Now we know what happens when a former white confederate officer, a black guy, walk into a slaughter house to save two Irishmen from a bunch of germans. Hold up Eva, aren't you married probably not for long anyway. It was kind of funny seeing Durant going off on Lily. Hey Finnegans, THE MAN WAS LEAVING TOWN. WTF! Bad move guys. Well at least they got rid of the body in the most gruesome way possible. Cullen, Cullen, Cullen, even though you didn't do to much this episode you were still one magnificent bastard.
I'm okay with Cullen being pushed to the sidelines now and then if it means he gets to fight and sass his way back into the spotlight, but it's only a matter of time before he and Lily share some romance, and Durant loses his crap.
Another great episode. Favourite bit has to be "This is a free country, by God!" Bauer complained, to which Cullen laughed "That's about the funniest damn thing I ever heard." Cullens laugh here was perfect.

The love triangles are so interesting. We have a whore playing wife, and a female preacher who is the real whore. Elam is probably going to get in big trouble by the end of this season over Eva, and ditto for Joseph.

Nice to see the Swede getting back to form, and you can't blame him for wanting a bit of revenge. That tar and feathering didn't look too pleasant. (I love the way he says 'murder', such a cool accent.)

I'd like to know what happened the Irish brothers in Boston(?). What did Mickey do there? And now that they have killed will they become tougher players?

I like the Swede's accent too - I'm this close to making a ringtone out of his saying "gentlemaan - this man-of-God-is-not-your-en-e-my" at the funeral
I continue to be impressed. Another very good, deep episode. The cinematography is excellent.

Loved your insight on the power paradigm and the Wizard of Oz comparison, Ryan. Knowing this, Lily perhaps would have been better served to appeal to Mr. Durant's business-side: i.e. if the whores are afraid of being murdered, they will refuse to work or leave altogether; if the men can visit the whores, they will take their frustrations out elsewhere; the rolling town will turn to chaos and work will suffer; therefore she was only thinking of the business and Durant and begs his forgiveness (while not exactly true, it would have fed Durant's ego and sated his power hunger.)

My takeaway from the final scene was the irony that Bauer's death was not a "wasteful" one after all, as he had lamented about his friend.

To your questions:

1 - I don't see Joseph dumping Ruth, but I do see a future between Ruth and Sean McGinnes, so we'll see how that plays out.

2 - Yes, Mr. Toole probably won't make it to season 3.

3 - Appears so. I expect it to become more of a problem as the season progresses.

4 - Lily.

5 - Not sure if that's possible right now, but at some point will be true as Cullen starts to feel better about the work that he's doing.

6 - 4, no wait, 5.

7 - I think they've sufficiently covered up his murder and will get away with it. I'm more concerned about how this will affect their psyches moving forward, having committed this terrible act. Quite the step up from fixing fights.

8 - Love Deadwood!

9 - Haven't given it much thought. Might be cool.

10 - I think that's just human nature, not the railroads' doings.
Durant still has a long way to go if he wants to compete with Swearengen as Baddest City Father in the Ol' West

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