The whole of Hell on Wheels has been building toward the bromance that was finally consummated this week. Even when Elam and Bohannon were pounding each other’s flawless faces, it was clear that these two would soon team up to form a Wild West version of Will Smith and Kevin Kline from Wild Wild West. This week it happened.
But before the bromance, a flashback. And before the flashback, some nitpicking. Can we get some consistency with the flashbacks, please? Either use them more regularly or not at all. Pulling one out of the magic bag of story-telling tricks every third episode is disorienting and lazy. OK, nitpicking over.
Onto the flashback. We're in the Antebellum South and a beardless Elam (he’s only nine but I thought the man was born with a beard) is reading the bible to some old white guys. One warns Elam's owner, who’s also his father, that teaching a slave boy to read is dangerous. The smirking slave owner brushes him off. Elam might be able to read, but he can’t understand any of it, he says. That claim is quickly refuted as Elam sits down with his family and reads a story about God delivering the Israelites from Egyptian bondage.
Back in the 1860s, Durant is preparing a trip to Chicago so he can see Senator Crane and return Lily to her dead husband's family. When The Swede learns they’re traveling together he gives Durant the 19thcentury equivalent of a nudge to the ribs and an eyebrow raise. Lily's got the hots for him, The Swede says. But there’s no way that’s true. No one could have the hots for Durant. The man looks just like Colm Meany! My guess is that The Swede is playing Durant. Maybe he sees the actual spark between Lily and Bohannon and wants to turn Durant against the foreman, who he really hates.
While Durant dreams about driving his train into Lily's tunnel, Elam is about to die. Toole, the camp’s resident racist Irish, is going to hang him and Mr. The Swede himself has given him permission. He says it'll help the boys “blow off a little steam.”
After Elam drives off the friends who came to rescue him, Toole explains himself, because that’s what people do on TV. "I don't know if you're aware of it, but we Irish are the niggers of the British Empire," he tells Elam. But what he doesn’t realize is that killing someone below him only reduces the number of people below him. He’s not the sharpest Toole in the…never mind.
Just before stringing Elam up, Toole asks him for last words. "I'm going to kill your lily white ass," Elam says. Of course, that makes no sense. The man's about to die. He just drove off his only friends. He’s got a noose around his neck. He's a total gon...WAIT! There's Bohannaon! On a horse! Shooting people in the head!
Bohannon orders Toole to cut Elam loose and before riding off warns, "Any of y'all thinking about coming after me best get fitted for a shroud and a box." And thus, our action hero team was born.
In the aftermath of the failed lynching, The Swede is pissed. Bohannon, he says, has upset the balance once again "and he must be dealt with." That means Toole's got to kill him. Toole, being a coward, doesn't want to. The Swede, being nuts, stabs Toole in the face with a fork. That does the trick.
Out in the wilderness, Bohannon and Elam set up camp and start wildly depressing story hour. Elam goes first with a hypothetical tale about having a baby with a white slave. "Would I own him or would half of him be free?" he asks. Then he wonders what it would be like to make the boy feel different from the other slaves by, say, teaching him to read. Would it make him different? No, he concludes. "He's just a mule.” This is Common's Emmy moment, just like Wayne Campbell’s Oscar moment, but it was kind of ruined for me because the whole time I was waiting for Bohannon to interrupt him and explain what it all meant. “So you’re actually talking yourself and how your father was your owner and how he taught you to read like we saw in the flashback at the start of the episode, right?” That’s how this show works.
He didn’t though. Instead Bohannon launches into his own depressing story. His is about returning from the war and finding his dead son in a burnt out barn. One of his former slaves, also dead, had her arms wrapped around him. She died protecting the boy. And that’s how Bohannon learned slavery was wrong.
Out on the train to Chicago, Durant joins depressing story hour, telling Lily about his shitty childhood. He’s overcome so much, he tells her, but can’t figure out how to overcome Crane’s blackmail attempt. Lily steps in for a pep talk and it works. In the morning Durant has it all figured out.
That didn’t matter though, because before Durant can offer to tell Crane which railroad he plans to connect to, Crane asks which railroad Durant plans to connect to. Durant tells him but the look on his face says he’s lying. Thanks for not surprising us. TV viewers hate surprises.
Meanwhile, Lily arrives at the home of Robert's family and they're all wearing black. Lily’s not. She’s wearing some red curtains and that pisses off Robert’s sister Charlotte, who says she’d like to "give [Lily] a good drubbing." Man, is Charlotte the worst or what? She goes on about how Robert should have never married Lily and how he could have saved himself if he wouldn’t have been worried about saving Lily. Of course, Lily’s standing right next to her the whole time and tells her to shut up. Charlotte calls her a brat and Lily smacks her. Then she tells stupid Charlotte what really happened in the woods. If action heroes Elam and Bohannon need a lady action hero to help out, she’s totally up to the task.
Back in the woods it's time for a gunfight. Toole, his fellow drunk Irishmen and The Swede’s deputies find the spot where Elam and Bohannon camped the night before. Just as one of them picks up a piece of horse poop, Bohannon walks out of the woods firing. Ambush! Being action heroes and all, he and Elam kill everyone except for Toole, who Elam chases into the woods.
After lots of missed shots, Toole emerges with his gun inches from Elam's chest. Elam smiles. He was counting bullets, just like Bohannon taught him. Toole squeezes the trigger and nothing happens. So Elam raises his to Toole’s mouth and asks if he has any last words. "Go to hell you black…" BOOM. A bullet goes through Toole’s head. He falls to ground and smoke pours from his mouth. Yes!
Look, at this point we know that Hell on Wheels isn’t going to be the tension-filled, character-driven drama we all wanted it to be. But if it can at least provide some gratuitous action, I’m OK with that. An over-the-top gun battle with an invincible Bohannon that ends with a bullet going through the head of an asshole is a good step in that direction.
Back in Chicago, Durant returns to Crane’s office and sure enough, he was lying. He decided to connect his railroad to a different line than the one he told Crane about. Crane lost all his money and Durant made a ton. Tables turned!
As the newly confident Durant heads back to Hell on Wheels he decides to see if The Swede was right about Lily. He tells her he wants to hit it and if she wants to hit it too, that would be awesome. Lily doesn’t respond but she looks like she’s considering it. Ewwwww.
We end with our action heroes reading the 23rd Psalm over the bodies of the men they just massacred. They saddle up and head back to camp. Into the sunset, of course.