If you're anything like me, whenever the Hell on Wheels theme song starts up, you set to boot-scooting and playing the hambone all lively like. Maybe it’s because I recently visited a county fair featuring livestock awards, bales of hay for sitting, and carnies who looked like cowboy bandits who'd shoot you in the face for a bite of your deep-fried Oreo, but there's a rollicking, nostalgic, and violent patriotic element to the series that's always exhilarating. This is our history, folks! Hell on Wheels is as much about the national backbone that is a transcontinental railroad as it is about the human spirits behind that contstruction of that railroad, while America itself forms its own identity. It's an enthralling look at the push and pull of wills, the taming of wild land with manmade industry, the struggle for power, and the various institutions that shape and confine.
Written by Mark Richard and directed by Neil LaButte, "Escape from the Garden" gave us a taste of religion, family, and law while revealing how this season’s rivalries will play out. Pacification threatened citizens' freedoms across the board, as the United States government enforced itself through taxes, entitlement, and physical bullying. I recall last season’s first two episodes functioning as a singular story, with the first hour catching us up (Cullen had become a wild man living in the snow) and the second hour putting a finer point on the players and the game to come. The first two episodes of Season 4 were no different (well, except that they aired over two weeks, whereas Season 3 enjoyed a two-hour premiere); this second installment saw John Campbell and his cronies finally arriving in Cheyenne to do their dirty deeds. They're like the Earp brothers if the Earp brothers were also killer carpetbaggers. Kind of like the Agent Smiths from Matrix Reloaded. Man, that was a cool fight...
Got to say, a lot of the enjoyment to be found in this show comes from its attention to checking off the boxes of the Old West: Period-specific technology is as fulfilling as all the different types of old-timey accents, and Jake Weber’s got a gravelly voice that's perfect for this setting. I love how two classic American icons—a voracious businessman and a powerful politician—are played by the Irish Colm Meaney and Weber, who's a Brit. Great job as old-school Americans dudes from across the pond, gents! And their battle looks to be focused on city ownership, as if they're two warring city fathers. I hate it when city fathers fight in real life, but in the world of Hell, Weber brings the perfect amount of villainy, and his intimidating fixers are an organic escalation of the show's themes.
I mean, technically we should want order and peace in our towns, BUT AT WHAT COST? Hell on Wheels has been no stranger to positioning the federal government as a bad guy who just wants to stop everyone from living the life they want to live. Like for instance, I want to be able to shoplift, but there are some laws against that. Or take Cullen's fix with the Mormons—he is subject to the governance of Bishop Dutson under penalty of death, and if that's not a fix, than I don't know what is.
This guy has ended up in more fixes than a good mechanic shop. I swear I once saw him in some red long johns with the ass part on fire, running for a bucket of water. Well, not literally, but I'm appreciating more and more how Cullen's overall story constantly has him regretting his choices while also acting on instinct and getting into and out of tight spots. He's also a tough hero with believable emotional depth, which is always on display during such moments as when he learned Elam's fate. I miss Elam a lot, and I'm hoping that Cullen's next mission might be to find his missing friend, which is just a good clean goal that's well-suited for this show.
Come back already, Elam!
Hey what do you know, another situation where our hero just wants to ride free of the confines of an institution’s rules (Fort Smith/domestic life)! The Swede has been fun as Bishop Dutson, but I’m happy to see his false identity run its course. He's so crazy that his secret was going to come out eventually. Even the Mormons were like, "We believe in heaven planets, but also this guy's nutso balutso!" Who knows what they have planned for him? Maybe Cullen has to rescue him too? There’s a fine line between keeping a character trapped so that all we want to see him do is escape, and straight-up story stagnation. Cullen’s time with the Mormons was starting to feel like the latter, even though we’d only seen a few episodes' worth of this situation. Although the Swede was killing it as Bishop Dutson, via TONS of impassioned eye rolls.
Of course my favorite scene of the hour was the crux of Cullen's escape from the looney Swede. Sure, it was a little unrealistic that Cullen would be able to sweep up the impostor Bishop in enough religious fervor to out him in front of the whole congregation, but I loved the theatrics of it all. Back then, religion itself had a larger presence in many people's views of the world, filling in the dark blanks of a limited universe. So I could see how the Swede might've convinced them, but I'm happy they're catching on. Probably too I just wanted Cullen out running free again like a stallion (P.S. nice touch with him whistling Dixie on the amble-out). Cullen may be returning to Cheyenne with a wife, but I bet Ruth has a thing for him. If there's anything in this world that can torment two church ladies such as Naomi and Ruth, it's the love of one man, Cullen Bohannon, who may not even believe in any God at all. I wonder how many nods to the bible story they'll do.
Meanwhile, Durant is in one of the most entertaining positions to see him in: nearly friendless, catching some hot hot heat from the government, and struggling to hold on to a veritable fire sale of assets. Nothing’s better than watching the bold mogul (who we learned was once an orphan) scramble like a plate of eggs to maintain power. And the government is a formidable opponent, so Durant will really have to kick things up a notch. All I ask is that the pepper box makes an appearance.
But even though Durant is on the outs, but the Poor Sap Award goes to the card player who got hung for shooting a cheat in Mickey's saloon. There was a time when a gesture like that would earn you a free round and pick of the prostitutes, but not so with Uncle Sam chaperoning the party! So yeah, bad timing, poor Card Player Vigilante. It’s one thing for a mass tide to change, but to be the very first "guilty" criminal heralding in a new era is especially chilling. Did I ever tell you that a similar thing once happened to me during a game of Uno? What better symbol of occupation than enforcing government law in a house of revelry, drinking, and gambling. A tumbler was even used as a gavel. A jury of your beers! The whole time the hanged man had this look on his face like, "Tell him Mayor Mick, tell him this is how stuff is done here." It was like watching people speak two different languages of justice, and probably a little reminiscent of the fates of a few natives who used to occupy the Cheyenne territory, before "Hell on Wheels" came their way [spits into spittoon].
I wonder if the wounded native Cullen passed on his way back into town was a visual reminder that just as one ruling class now wanders, damaged and dying, the settlers who unseated them are destined for the same fate. Little House on the Prairie never had this many violent power grabs. Different town, different struggles I guess. One townsperson to keep an eye on is Eva. She’s got connections to Durant and Mickey, and she possibly has the former sheriff coming back home to her (there's no way Elam’s dead; again, TV viewers are smart enough these days to recognize a false end to a character). If she wanted to, she could easily become a spy for Campbell, then become a double-agent right back. Sorry, I've been watching a lot of spy shows lately, but Eva has a certain coolness about her and I think it's time she got a meaty plot line.
Something to make her a real human being, AND a real hero...
What did you think of "Escape from the Garden"?
AIRED ON 7/23/2016
Season 5 : Episode 14