Last week’s Hell on Wheels ended with a battle about to begin. Bohannon, Elam, Joseph, and those bloodthirsty Union soldiers had just rolled into what they thought was an abandoned Cheyenne camp when, uh-oh, the ambush was on. Fade to black. Roll credits. Wait a week.
Last night’s episode began with blood. But not with the over-the-top, eighties action sequence I wanted. Lately I’ve been hopeful that HoW was becoming the only thing it could successfully be — not a gritty meditation on revenge, racism, and political corruption, but an absurd Chuck Norris movie slathered in mud and horse poop.
The slow-motion, Mumford & Sons–scored battle that ate up the first three minutes of “Timshel” proved that I wouldn’t get that. Sure, there was blood splattering, head bashing, and mud-puddle drowning; there was even the absurd shooting accuracy of a man (Elam) who’d just learned how to hold a gun and the murder of one brother by another (Joseph). All enjoyable action clichés to be sure, but ones that would have warranted a few fist pumps if accompanied by the terrified screams of the dying and “Cum On Feel the Noize.” Instead, we get indie bluegrass and mud splatters on the camera lens. Oh well.
When the battle ends and the music stops, there’s more blood to be spilled. Joseph suggests returning to camp with proof of their victory, but Bohannon is too dignified to cut the scalps off dead men. Elam, remembering the $20 bounty on each scalp (that’s like $21 in today’s money), grabs a knife and starts cutting. As he slices into his first scalp he looks like he just sniffed a carton of rotting milk. Makes you wonder which is more unpleasant.
Back in camp, Elam drops the gruesome bounty on Durant’s desk. The shifty old bastard tries to cheat Elam out of some of his money but eventually pays up. Then he offers Elam a cigar and, vaguely, a job. He’s in the market for a new henchman, someone “who wants to be feared and respected.” Elam is interested and The Swede is in trouble. Along with being both the show’s most compelling and most underused character, he’s currently got the biggest target on his back. Not only is Durant interviewing for a job that sounds a lot like his, but the proprietors of mud alley are trying to hire Bohannon to kill him. Speaking of local businessmen, the Irish brothers are back from their disappearance to Chicago, where they picked up some new slides of chubby-backed pale girls. Unsurprisingly, those are drawing a bigger crowd better than the rolling hills of their homeland.
With a pocket full of cash, Elam celebrates his newfound wealth by visiting Eva. Like all men who fall in love with a prostitute, he tries to convince her to stop plying her trade. “I want you to be mine,” he says, in what we can only assume is the 1860s version of asking someone to go steady. Before she can answer with a soft kiss, though, the ghost of the Irish racist Toole calls Elam out of the tent.
Turns out it’s not a ghost. Toole survived that bullet through his mouth. He tells Elam the bullet passed through his neck and an angel saved him. As he was wandering the woods, he says, he realized what a dick he’d been and now wants to apologize. But wait, how the hell is this guy alive? He took a bullet through the mouth and was left bleeding in the forest. And why the hell is he alive? Elam exacting his revenge on the racist caricature was one of the most satisfying moments of the series. Unlike Pawnee Killer, who was killed with little fanfare, Toole’s story seemed complete. Bringing him back now just seems unnecessary. And, needless to say, impossible to believe.
Anyway, after being confronted by a man he thought he killed, Elam understandably needs a drink. He goes to the bar, which falls silent when he enters, and finds Bohannon sitting alone. Elam’s eager to tell Bohannon about his new job as Durant’s henchman. He’s excited, he says, to be the one who gets to do the hurting for once. Just then The Swede shows up and orders a toast in honor of Elam and Bohannon, “the great Indian killers.” Before everyone gets too excited, though, Bohannon stands and tells them that tomorrow he’s going to work them like “mongrel dogs.” For some reason, that pisses off The Swede, who engages Bohannon in a staring contest as he leaves the bar.
The next day, the railroad is approaching the 40-mile mark. That’s a relief. With Bohannon spending days away from camp to kill bounty hunters and then days more to kill Indians, it’s good to see work has continued unimpeded on the railroad. Not sure how it happened without the foreman, but what’s important is that it did. Because that allows Senator Crane to return to camp. And that allows him to give The Swede information on Harper, the man Bohannon tried to kill when this show was still about him avenging his wife’s death.
Over in the cut, hammers are swinging and rail is being laid. Bohannon is yelling and Toole is working, gunshot through the neck be damned. Just as the final nail is about to be driven, completing the 40 miles of track, Durant takes the hammer and taps it into place like a 10-year-old who’s scared of smashing his thumb. Time to celebrate! Forty miles of completed rail means government money for Durant and more work for everyone else. Even the joyless Bohannon is happy.
In the midst of the revelry, Joseph returns to his tent, where he finds Ruth creepily waiting for him in the dark. They’ve only known each other for a few days, but it’s clear she loves her new dark-skinned brother. Let’s hope it’s only in a sisterly way, though. Joseph is distraught about killing his brother and Ruth comforts him. After a couple of kisses, it’s clear her love is much more than sisterly — add another sorta-incestuous relationship to the TV tally.
Night has fallen and Lily has decided to celebrate the day’s success at the saloon, where Bohannon joins her for a drink. Durant walks by and quickly gets jealous. He can’t compete with Bohannon’s mysterious charm and overpowering odor. So he breaks the two up, telling Lily he has to speak to Bohannon about something work related. It’s not work related, though; it’s plot related. Durant tells Bohannon that The Swede has wired the feds in D.C. with information proving Bohannon is a murderer. “I’m giving you a chance to save yourself,” he says. And I’m trying to keep you from stealing my lady, he doesn’t say. Bohannon looks defiant. He doesn’t want to leave HoW. He finally feels like he’s found his calling with this new job of yelling at people while they build a railroad.
As Bohannon contemplates his future, Lieutenant Griggs, the blue-eyed Union solider who set off to massacre the Cheyenne women and children at the start of the episode, returns to camp looking for Joseph. Instead, he finds Reverend Cole, who looks more deranged by the second. After a brief debate about whether Joseph deserves forgiveness or death, Cole decides to make the point moot by taking Griggs’s sword from his holster and slicing his head clean off. That was unexpected! Not unexpected? How awesomely creepy Tom Noonan looks standing over the body with a streak of blood across his face and a half-open mouth.
See you next week for the finale. Don’t be surprised if a headless Griggs comes wandering back into camp asking for the Reverend’s forgiveness.