Okay, first things first. This episode did nothing to explain why The Swede was scrubbing the floor naked last week. Sorry, Swede lovers. Instead, “Bread and Circuses” was all half-naked Common and half-naked Anson Mount working through hundreds of years of slavery with their fists while proving that building a railroad is much more effective than P90X.
But first we meet a half-naked Cheyenne, whose flabby chest suggests he could use a few swings of the hammer himself. He’s taking part in a Sun Dance ceremony, which has a lot less dancing and lot more chest piercings than its name implies. For the first time, Hell on Wheels shows the Cheyenne as more than marauding madmen singularly obsessed with scalping whitey. It’s a welcome change of pace that would have been a whole lot more welcome if they didn’t speak English. Come on. Subtitles can’t be that expensive.
Back in town, Bohannon walks around a newly minted hero, after running toward that black powder explosion that everyone else ran away from. He runs into Lily Bell, who notices his strut and likes what she sees. When Bohannon greets her all gentlemanly like, she tells him, “It’s your manner, not your manners” that impresses her. It’s a solid line that viewers can turn over in their heads and move on from. But not in this show. Bohannon is all, “Uhhh, I don’t know what that means.” And Lily’s all, “I’ll explain.” And I’m all, “Oy.”
Across town, Reverend Cole and Joseph Black Moon are preparing to ride out to tell the Cheyenne of a coming attack when another fair-haired maiden of the West shows up. It’s the Reverend’s daughter, whom he hasn’t seen in “twelve or fifteen years,” and he greets her like she’s got syphilis. It would be a stark, bummer of a scene if we cared much about Reverend Cole or the girl. Instead it leads to, by my count, the second time this show has been funny. After sending his daughter to wait for him in the church tent while he rides off, Reverend Cole decides to go back in and say something to her. “There’s something I need to tell you,” he starts. Oh, he’s going to tell her he missed her, or he loves her. How sweet. “There’s bacon in the bear box,” he says. I’ll admit it. I laughed.
Out on the cut crew, they wish they had bacon; instead, they’re working for nothing at all. For the second week in a row, Durant is going to stiff them. So Elam walks off the job. Bohannon tells him to get back to work, Elam says make me, and they start wrestling like the 8-year-olds they sound like. Durant, enjoying a nice picnic with Lily overlooking the scenic view of sweaty workingmen, stops them and asks Bohannon what gives. He yells back, in front of everyone, that they’re fighting because payroll hasn’t come in. Durant denies it, and as a show of goodwill offers to supply the whiskey as Elam and Bohannon settle their dispute with a pugilistic bout. What he doesn’t do, though, is yell at Bohannon, who’s undermined him once again. Sometimes Durant comes across as a grandiose villain, hell-bent on killing Indians and milking as much money from the government teat as he can, but when it comes to keeping his men in line, he’s harmless.
Annnnnnd, it’s fight night. The Swede, playing the role of Michael Buffer, introduces the two men. Bohannon is the favorite and having a guy named Mickey in his corner can only help his chances. Elam is the underdog and the prostitute with the face tat, who’s his girlfriend now I guess, essentially tells him to throw the fight if he wants to live. Let’s get it on!
Round 1: Bohannon comes out fast, landing two right jabs, then a combination that sends Elam stumbling back into the crowd. He’s stunned. This might be over fast. Elam’s back in the circle, but not for long. Bohannon works the face, then the body, then the face. Elam’s down.
Round 2: Both men come out slowly, then Bohannon connects with an uppercut that puts Elam down for a second time. The round ends and Elam’s corner man is ready for his big moment. He realizes Elam isn’t throwing punches because he’s used to getting punished by the white man, not fighting back (psychologists make the best corner men). So he plays to Elam’s emotions, telling him to see Bohannon as the same man who held him in captivity his whole life.
Round 3: The pep talk worked! Elam comes out firing, stunning Bohannon for the first time and drawing blood. Bohannon Drago realizes he’s human and Elam doesn’t let up until Bohannon is on the ground.
Round 4: Things have slowed down. The gladiators are spent. They trade body shots then head shots. A brutal right from Bohannon splits Elam’s head and sends a splash of his blood onto the preacher’s daughter face. Why? Who knows.
Round 5: Bohannon looks dead. Elam looks deader. They can barely muster the energy to hug. Bohannon manages a few uppercuts, and then Elam catches him in the eye. Bohannon’s stunned — largely because Elam’s corner man laced the tape on his hands with chile peppers provided by one of the Irish brothers. One more left hook and Bohannon is down. Knock out, fifth round. Elam wins.
Outside the fight, the cheating Irish brother tells the righteous Irish brother that he bet all his money on Elam. They’re in the money, which they desperately need after their inability to pay off The Swede earlier in the day led him to chop down their tent like an evil Scandinavian lumberjack. But the righteous one is pissed about the cheating. Bohannon, he says, is their only friend, which is sad considering the only time they’ve interacted was for about 30 seconds on a train.
Meanwhile, Lily runs into Durant outside the fight and reveals what we already know: She has the maps Durant so desperately wants. That’s supposed to be important, but the whole map hunt is exactly as unexciting as it sounds. What’s more exciting is the budding rivalry between Durant and Lily, his only intellectual equal, if not superior, in this diarrhea-inducing town. She shows off her brains by calling the fight Durant so shrewdly organized “bread and circuses,” a simple distraction so the workingmen don’t think about how they’re not being paid. Of course, as is this show's wont, she then spends a few lines explaining what she means and providing an example.
After all the spectators have gone, Bohannon is still on the floor, bloodied and swollen. When he wakes up, there’s a chicken in his face. Why? Because this place is unpredictable. Bohannon punches the chicken away, and as he cleans blood off his face realizes either that chicken was trying to blind him or Elam cheated. Except Elam didn’t know he cheated. So did Elam really cheat? Bohannon doesn’t seem to care. He laughs off the taste of the chile that helped Elam knock him out, and it’s easy to see the two of them laughing about this story later. Because if there’s one thing clear about this episode, it’s that the sparks of a serious bromance have been ignited.