Hell on Wheels
“He’s dead.” And not a moment too soon, though Thor Gundersen certainly squirmed a bit longer than that snake Cullen beheaded for his little demonstration on life and death. As Thor foamed at the mouth while succumbing to the executioner’s noose, his expression was no less mortified-looking than his adversary’s when he stood over him with that wriggling reptile. Granted, the villainous Norwegian’s final breaths were drawn out to comical proportions, befitting his preternatural resilience throughout Hell on Wheels. As he advised the young private watching over his cage, a human’s capacity to inhale and exhale is our greatest inborn gift.
Now that we (and Cullen) can indulge in a sigh of relief, let’s be honest: It’s probably for the best that the show finishes up without a Thor’s fate hanging in the balance. This is, after all, our final journey across the Great Plains with TV’s most underappreciated anti-hero — the sullen, soft-spoken Mr. Bohannon, as estimably played for five seasons by duly overlooked Anson Mount.
But first, let’s not fail to recognize those who met their demise in “Two Soldiers” via the business end of Thor’s axe. Aaron and Sara Hatch were good, Jesus-fearing Mormons, whose blind religiosity left them vulnerable to such an interloper. Their deaths may as well be a harbinger of the ways in which newfangled Western faith would prove so fertile for malcontents (see: Brian David Mitchell). Fortunately for Naomi and baby William (oh, baby William), Thor can’t quite reload his shotgun before Cullen arrives on his steed. What ensues is a classic bit of backwoods cat-and-mouse, calling to mind that great bit of frenemy foreplay between Raylan and Boyd in Justified’s penultimate episode.
As Naomi races with William toward the water, seeking cover beneath an earthen embankment, Cullen spares us any further fretting over William’s fate by locating wife and child before that wackadoo Scandinavian could go all Jack Torrance on them. A single click of Thor’s gun is all it takes to lace a slug inside Cullen’s leg, sending him tumbling into the creek, inciting a knockdown, drag-out fight that seemed to end in his nemesis’s drangulation (i.e. drowning while being strangulated). Lo, that was but the first round of several to come between these foes, thanks to Cullen’s insistence on dragging him to proper prosecution at Camp Douglas — a name inspired by this notorious site, perhaps? — despite days of desert trekking with an oozing wound and dwindling supplies. They’re like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, bound less by a shared desire to flee the law than some sickening need to share allegorical insights about each other’s war-torn psyches and inflict near-fatal injury when the other flashes momentary weakness.
It is, in some senses, a very silly 50 minutes of Hell on Wheels, a distillation of the strange space the series occupies between richly detailed prestige Western and the kind of satisfying prime-time escapism that Bill Haverchuck might have sworn by if he were growing up today. There’s yet another ghoulish leg surgery with no anesthesia scene, performed by none other than Jeff Fahey as a gloveless, whiskey-swilling doc. And neither Cullen nor Thor should have lived to arrive just west of Gobbler’s Knob (to say nothing of Naomi and William’s miracle flight from the Hatch estate), just so Cullen could get the outcome he felt was merited and most confirming of his goodness.
Yet this mid-season premiere worked, in no small part because of director Michael Nankin’s efforts to authenticate and escalate the delirium with horror-movie perspective shots of Cullen’s disorientation and dirt-level cameras placing us parallel to Thor’s pitiful Camp Douglas cell. And that terrific cold opening, which foretold the Swede-Norwegian-Mormon pastor’s demise, giving us a glimpse of his initial guise as a buoyant Union solder and, less pleasantly, of the squalid Confederate prison that turned him into a monster. War does funny things to a person. That may not have been what Hell on Wheels set out to convey, but “Two Soldiers” won a hard-fought battle to make its point.
Apart From All That:
- James Goodwin could have been a contender.
- The shtick Cullen pulls off with the bullets and flaming stick would make quite the party trick.
- Odds are, Cullen will be reminded of Mary and Josh quite a bit from here on out.
- Loved how Cullen’s pupils dilated as Thor sermonized one last time.
- Cullen isn’t his judge or his maker, but what about his jury?
- “A man who can make music will never be lonely,” Thor says. Guess that Confederate prick who took his harmonica is doing mighty fine.
- So should we assume that Naomi’s been relocated back with Cullen?
- Are we looking forward to the gang’s reunion next week, or did we prefer this more insular teleplay?