Choo-choo! We’re three episodes into Hell on Wheels and things are finally starting to move. Characters are developing, motives are becoming clear, and, for me at least, expectations are lowering, making “A Birth of Freedoms” easier to enjoy than the last two episodes.
It just takes a willingness to stop rolling your eyes at Doc Durant’s over-the-top bloviating and Cullen Bohannon’s never-ending list of cowboy superpowers and accept them as quirks of a show that as much as we want it to be, just isn’t Deadwood. I’m there.
So this week opens with Bohannon still rummaging through the belongings of the camp’s dead foreman, who also helped kill our hero’s wife. He rummages. He sighs. He almost gives up. And bam! There it is. Class photos from Johnson's military unit. There’s the guy whose brains Bohannon splattered across a church floor! And the poor bastard Bohannon popped mid-poop! More importantly, there's Sergeant Harper, the man directly responsible for stringing up Mrs. Bohannon who just so happens to be in the very camp Bohannon is now running. Time for some revenge.
Out in the tent city, the boring Irish brothers take a break from boring talk of their financial woes to provide the backstory for a new character. Her name’s Eva. She’s a prostitute who once lived among the Cheyenne and she’s got the face tattoo to prove it. She’s also one of the more original characters to show up in this largely by-the-book Western and a reason for optimism.
Meanwhile, as Bohannon is handing out work instructions, The Swede rides up looking for men to help find Lily Bell, whom he sarcastically calls the “fair-haired maiden of the west.” At least I’m pretty sure it was sarcasm. Did they have that in the 1860s?
After battling Bohannon over the men, The Swede finally gets his searchers and they ride off to find Lily. Bohannon’s setting out, too, but he’s after Sergeant Harper. Before leaving, though, he makes sure to loudly announce whom he’s looking for; that way when Harper shows up with a bullet in his gut, no one will have to search for the guy who did it. Bohannon is nothing if not a considerate murderer.
He’s also super cowboy, made clear once again when he finds Lily first even though he wasn’t even looking for her. Joseph Black Moon is tending to her in the woods. Hey, maybe this show DOES realize all Indians weren’t scalping heathens. Gotta say it’s a bit frustrating, though, that the only one who exhibits any humanity is the one indoctrinated in the white man’s ways. Anyway, Lily’s clearly still hurt from that arrow she took in the shoulder. With his X-ray superpowers, Bohannon determines it’s because there’s still some arrow stuck in her. He goes all Tent MD on her and cuts the arrow out of her arm while liberally drinking from his flask. The whole scene I kept waiting for him to pour some booze on the wound, since other movies tell me that’s how you sterilize cuts. But nope, the only thing sterilized was Bohannon’s throat.
This is a good time to mention the show’s music, which has largely been excellent. The bluegrass-y, instrumental tunes that pulse over scenes like the prairie surgery and Bohannon’s murderous reminiscing at the beginning succeeds most. So much so that when music with lyrics plays it feels like a mistake — more bluegrass, fewer lyrics, guys.
Back on the railroad, it starts to become clear that Elam — who’s somehow become the leader of the freed slaves — is different from those who work under him. He longs for acceptance. He wants his freedom not just on paper, but IRL. In a speech, this show’s preferred method of communication, he tells his men, “White man ain't gonna give you nothing because they want us to fall." So the black men have to take their freedom. That starts with a trip to the whore tent, where Elam insists on going despite the protests of his masturbating friend (I think the jack-off joke was the first joke of the whole show. At this rate, we’ll get a whole chuckle by episode six!).
Inside the tent, he encounters a racist Irishman and the face-tatted prostitute to whom Elam introduces himself as her next customer. She laughs in his face. But when the Irishman insults her, it’s clear she and Elam are in the same position — both second-class citizens in a muddy town full of degenerates.
Over in his train car, Durant is getting drunk and going on about how he needs to “fuel the conflagration” in his belly with booze. It’s the kind of oration we’ve come to expect from Colm Meany’s character, but instead of delivering it to no one in particular, he’s talking to his manservant Henri, who thinks Durant’s full of shit and just making excuses for being a sloppy drunk. Turns out, Durant’s wife back in New York thought the same thing. Seems the former soldiers and former slaves aren’t the only ones running from something.
Out among the regulars, Durant goes to the Irish brothers’ theater. He's less interested in their photos of home than in why these nice Irish boys traveled all the way out into the muck of Hell on Wheels to run their business. Why not Boston, New York, or Chicago? Their discomfort when he asks hints at something that's been hinted at before — something went wrong when they were in Boston that’s caused them to flee. Mysterious!
Back in the woods, some of The Swede's searchers come upon Lily while Bohannon is off taking a leak. Just as one is about fling her over his shoulder and carry her back to town, Bohannon emerges from the brush. He does that superhero thing where he walks right at the other men as they shoot at him, each bullet missing. Of course Bohannon picks them off one by one, proving he’s both a crack shot and kind of an idiot. Why shoot these guys? The Swede already has it out for him, now he's shot three other men from the railroad crew. I guess if this means there’s more Swede in the next episode, I’ll go along with it
Things start to wrap up with the preacher's sermon for the dead white folks who were murdered in the territory. He talks about how killing is not the answer. "Haven't we had our fill of war, our fill of killing?" No, Durant answers defiantly, taking over the funeral to tell the unshowered masses that, "We cannot let that freedom be threatened by ragtag bands of marauding Stone Age primitives." He wants to murder every Indian in the territory unless they make the choices that Joseph Black Moon made and assimilate. But as Joseph stands there, a prop in Durant’s bullshit speech about the railroad bringing freedom (this man is concerned with nothing more than money), you hope he rips off his suit and scalps Durant right there. Instead, he looks down and sulks, yet another outsider looking for an identity in this depressing town of shit.
The episode ends with Bohannon taking Lily back to camp. He lets her ride alone. He doesn't want the bounty and he's got a man on the logging crew to murder. As he rides off into the sunset, literally, Lily stares him down in a way that makes it clear it’s not going to take her long to get over her husband’s death. These two are going to be humping by episode seven.