Hell on Wheels Recap: Fuse Your Illusion

By
Anson Mount as Cullen Bohannan. Photo: Michelle Faye/AMC
Hell on Wheels
Episode Title
Degrees
Season
5
Episode
10
Editor’s Rating
4/5

Last week, I asked, "Who's better than Delaney?" Now, we must all silently contemplate who, in fact, is deader than poor Marty, Mr. Durant's put upon right-hand man. (No one, yet.) More blood will be shed and limbs lost, that's to be sure. But if all Delaney had left was his self-respect, he died with it intact, coming gallantly to Louise's aid — even if it was a fool's errand, deployed amid a contrived kidnapping Durant orchestrated to raise ransom money and pay off Jack Nobles and his surly ranchers.

This is the price Durant must endure for — as Jim Strobridge might characterize it — pulling stubbornly against that hook like a fish that never learns, thriving and dying on its short-term memory. In "Degrees," we learn the full extent to which the Union Pacific's steward has been robbing Peter to pay Paul across America's vast expanse. Much to Maggie's horror (and titillation), Nobles and his colleagues' squandered land-acquisition funds were used to finance a lumber deal in Maine, which in turn covered the expenses for a steel mill in Chicago, which itself supported a cotton operation in Virginia, and so on and so on until Durant's hubris caught up with him via a uniquely Western version of karmic comeuppance.

In fairness to Thomas, Mickey might have exercised better judgment than sending psychopath Dandy Johnny (a returning Andrew Howard) to do a tactician's job. Alas, desperation begets panic, which creates a vicious cycle of violence, threatening the lives of innocents so that a nary few can forge on and prosper. When Thomas reminds Maggie, "You knew what you were getting when you waltzed through the door," he's very much reflecting a truth. Though if he doesn't get himself out of this hole, he may never again cast his eyes on her "hard-fought assets."

Speaking of holes, there's one in a mountainside along the Eastern Sierras that's been giving Huntington and Strobridge fits, making Bohannon's return a source of bemusement to his boss and cohort. For Huntington, that consternation comes around rather quickly to good faith when Cullen declares his plan to blow craters into that granite with nitroglycerin sticks. Jim, conversely, is none too pleased, having lost an eye the last time he messed around with the stuff "back in '65." (What, you thought progress stopped just because the President was assassinated?) The writing's on the impenetrable wall: Strobridge's days as Central Pacific Superintendent are numbered. Huntington, though less cavalier than Durant, is similarly antsy to plunder whatever lies west of these pesky ranges, and he'd rather roll the dice on a man with nothing to lose but the scars symbolizing those he's lost than someone still moored to his domestic duty.

Let's be real, though: Jim's speechifying about family and common sense are all well and good, but the guy was a self-righteous hypocrite who saw little value in the survival of anyone but his own kin. When he stung Bohannon with a rebuke about having been his only friend, Cullen would have been well within his rights to go all Bachelorette on him and reply, "I didn't come to Truckee to make friends."

He certainly didn't come to get himself embroiled in a dangerous liaison, but who dare suggest that anything — even a rickety worktable teetering with explosive nitroglycerin — stand in the way of love between a hobbled gunslinger and his cross-dressing siren? Bohannon and Fong's fiery affair is a fun little shot in the arm for a show that often lacked in soapy passion, but in tried-and-true Hell on Wheels style, it's primed to set off a chain reaction more explosive than a sensitive nitro fuse going off in the hands of a Chinese worker.

Man, that was a grisly scene, with body parts strewn about and twitching torsos scattered about. It had the makings of a historic tragedy, though — whether owing to narrative compression or commitment to the grim realities of dispensable human labor — Bohannon's botched live rehearsal seemed more resonant with Jim's eminent departure than the damage it had just caused.

It's unlikely even Mr. Chang would have idled long in honor of his dead countrymen. The sooner Huntington and Bohannon settle in on the Left Coast, the quicker he can maneuver to expand their cross-country connector into a trans-Pacific shipping empire. How he plans to use the looming discovery of Cullen and Fong's secret romance as leverage — or even justification to finish what he started with Fong's late father — is one of the series' most compelling loose ends as it winds down. Still, something tells me these two crazy kids are gonna make it. Love might be the lone exception to Chang, Huntington, and Durant's shared cynicism that "a man who desires one thing will never be satisfied."

Apart From All That:

  • Bohannon ensuring the nitroglycerin stays below 60 degrees is like Sandra Bullock trying to keep above 50 miles per hour.
  • "Every breath you take with one of these in your hand is a challenge to god." Jim Strobridge, drama queen.
  • Maggie's transformation into tycoon hanger-on seems a bit hurried.
  • When Jim tells Cullen, "The railroad might be the most important thing to you, but it ain't for me," he's being a bit of a dick, but who didn't consider hear that line and consider their relationship to their job?
  • Eva and her horse. Meh.
  • I did love seeing creepy redhead Mohawk guy cower in front of Eva.
  • Hey there, Stagecoach Mary.
  • I'll have what the Chinese laborers are having.
  • Light at the end of the tunnel, eh?