After three episodes of meeting the characters in the Hell on Wheels universe, we finally got to see them all in the same mud-caked town this week, manipulating each other, falling in love, and telling creepy stories about hacking bodies apart. More important, we saw some layers in what previously seemed like a batch of one-dimensional clichés. Bohannon isn’t the superhero he pretends to be; Durant isn’t as in control as he’d like others to think; Elam isn’t as unrepentantly grumpy as he lets on; and Reverend Cole isn’t as righteous as his flock of one believes.
The train starts rolling with Bohannon, who’s still on the hunt for Harper, the Union sergeant who killed his wife and is now working on the railroad’s logging crew. Bloodthirsty vengeance seeker that he is, Bohannon accuses the first logger he sees of being Harper. He’s not. Or at least that’s what he says. So Bohannon rides off to find another face to stick his gun in. Instead, he finds a guy on a horse. The guy shoots at him, Bohannon shoots back, the guy takes out Bohannon’s horse and rides away. Bohannon is left to put a bullet in his horse’s head and walk back to camp. Thankfully, we don’t have to watch either.
Back in Hell on Wheels, Bohannon takes out his frustration on his liver and the testicles of a one-eared man who pissed him off. Just as Van Gogh is about to put a bullet in Bohannon’s beautiful head, The Swede emerges to calm tensions and, in what is starting to become a regular occurrence, provides one of the episode’s best moments.
A man who prides himself on being able to figure out puzzles, The Swede can’t nail down Bohannon. So he wistfully asks what anyone in his situation would: “Who are you?” Bohannon says, “You let me know when you find out.” The Swede responds, “By golly, you’ll be the first to know.” Then he lets out a sadistic, maniacal laugh that makes you wonder whether Tex Richman shouldn’t hire him as a new henchman. Post-laugh things get confusing for a moment as The Swede bribes Bohannon to look the other way when he steals a few barrels of black powder from a shipment coming in the next morning. But why? Even if he were awake after his bender, Bohannon probably wouldn’t see or even care that The Swede lifted the powder, making this a ham-fisted way of telling the audience that The Swede isn’t the loyal servant Durant thinks he is. Okay, got it.
Speaking of Durant, he spends much of “Jemais Je Ne T’oublierai” showing that the polish he so desperately wants everyone to notice is covering up a fool. After finding Lily Bell just outside of town tending to her husband’s grave, he invites her back to his luxury train car for a bath. “Your ordeal is over,” he says in a way that makes one think her ordeal has just started. Still, Lily follows him, gets cleaned up, and puts on her best velvet pillowcase to share dinner with the most powerful man in this pit stain of a traveling town.
This is where the shine starts to come off Durant. He tells Lily how difficult it is to be him, how he has to beg Washington for troops and constantly gets denied, how he has to deal with a lowlife workforce. And Lily plays him like Colm Meany plays blowhards — excellently. She’s coy as she asks about the railroad and the work her husband was doing. And she gets Durant to admit that he’s after Robert’s maps, which he was sad to see she didn’t have upon her arrival in Hell on Wheels. Only she did have them at the end of the last episode. So, where are those maps? My best guess: She buried them with her husband. All this map talk gets Durant horny, so he grabs Lily’s hand, she pulls it away, and things get awkward. Then Durant asks his manservant to sing a song, making things more awkward. And that’s followed by a montage of characters that includes about three seconds of The Swede scrubbing a floor naked. Even more awkward.
The other big story of this episode is that Common was finally given the chance to smile — not before getting pissed at that mangy Irish racist from last week, though. Apparently drunk Danny Boy got it on with the town’s only face-tatted prostitute and he tells his friends about it in what might be the best monologue of the series. “The scarlet whore of Babylon had nothing on this lass, I tell ya,” he says. He goes on about how she’s slept with all kinds of “beasts and men,” except for one. “The common American nigger, of course.” Cue Elam’s angry face! The short-tempered former slave is stopped before smashing the racist’s head on a railroad tie and later meets up with ol’ face tat herself in a back alley. She’s not racist, she says, she just wants to make sure she doesn’t offend her clients who are. If Elam’s got a buck, then they can, you know.
He does have a buck and so they do. They also seem to fall in love. As Elam and face tat get dressed, he rubs her chin, she kisses his mouth, and they bond over their shared experience as property (she of her Indian captors, he of his white masters). It’s far more ridiculous than romantic. Face tat sleeps with guys for a living! She’s not going to fall in love with one because he looks like Common. But nothing about this scene hurts as much as Elam’s “Your eyes are worth 100 horses alone” line? Please! He probably tells that to all the former Indian slaves.
The last character who gets to show he’s not who we thought is Reverend Cole, who tries to convince Bohannon to put down the bottle and seek salvation. Like any drunk who’s ever told to come to God, Bohannon bucks. Cole responds by telling him that he too used to be a drunken idiot. During the war, when he rode with the abolitionist John Brown, he was once so drunk he didn’t sharpen his blade before an all-night session of slave-owner hacking. That made the work hard, but it was still pleasurable, and Cole rather chillingly tells Bohannon that he should be glad he wasn’t there that night to get hacked up himself. The lesson: No one does creepy like Tom Noonan does creepy.
The episode ends with Bohannon waking from his drunken stupor when black powder starts exploding outside of his tent. As everyone runs away from the danger, he walks right into it. Naturally, he finds the one-eared man trapped under a wagon wheel. Cue Super Cowboy! Bohannon lifts the wheel and carries the man off. And we’re left with just one lingering question about this episode: Why was The Swede scrubbing that floor naked?