Hell on Wheels Recap: The American Way

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Colm Meaney as Durant. Photo: Michelle Faye/AMC
Hell on Wheels
Episode Title
Gambit
Season
5
Episode
11
Editor’s Rating
3/5

The ghosts of Hell on Wheels' past spirit through Laramie this evening. Governor Campbell arrives on the scene, with Doctor Major Bendix's cavalry and Native American trackers in tow, eager to exercise swift justice against the man who allegedly kidnapped Thomas Durant. But it was the specter of Sean McGinnes that haunts Mickey in "Gambit," taunting him with the moral equation of cause and effect. By midway through the episode, Mickey knows the jig is up: He and Dandy John will be duly outed as Durant's co-conspirator in the latter's cockamamie self-ransoming scheme. He's not an especially spiritual man, but he seems to appreciate the inevitability of his past misdeeds manifesting themselves in this ghastly predicament.

Eva, despite her complicated history with Mickey, feels a bit toward him like she does that dotty horse — inclined to impel him toward goodness through two parts tenderness and one part tough love. Who knows why, other than the series' prevailing need to partner up surviving regulars as a concession to the audience after killing so many off, beginning way back with Lily Bell and onward through Elam, Joseph, Ruth, and now Maggie. (At what point did she became gaga enough over Thomas to ostensibly take a bullet for him, anyway?) By the hour's climax, Mickey — a slobbering mess after dispatching of his cousin Johnny when their epic boondoggle of a heist met its inglorious end — brings himself to orgasm mere feet away from the steed she'd so dutifully tamed.

But mostly, horses are on hand throughout "Gambit" to escort casualties back to their camps. Bendix's crew retreats back to Laramie after Mickey and John's bomb-rigged cabin blow a soldier to smithereens, and in a bit of karmic quid pro quo, Durant slogs his way home after the cash-for-tycoon swap goes awry with Maggie slumped over a saddle, lifeless. You almost believe Thomas when he testifies to Campbell that he's weary from all the death, just as Mickey rings a convincing tone when he cautions John that "blood brings guns, not money." Sincere as they may seem in the moment, their transgressions has rendered any eureka revelation too little and much too late.

And so, Mickey is condemned to a damnation of sorts, stuck with his wagon hitched to the fortunes and failings of this godforsaken transcontinental railroad. (Hell on wheels, indeed.) Durant, meanwhile, watches Nobles walk out the door of his train car with a bag full of $50,000 that literally cost Maggie her life, knowing all too well that he's finally sold his soul. It's the first bookend to the remaining chapters of his legacy, fated to be bound — as we know via a startling flash-forward cold open — by a lonely death with little to show for it but a working knowledge of high-society hangouts and a log-pile home kept lit by matchsticks and little else.

Louise — irksome muckraker that she is — has a point when she bemoans the pricelessness of humanity, even if she's the only one particularly broken up about Delaney's murder. As revealed in the aforementioned cold open, Durant's old rival Jim Huntington never really had to reconcile that ethical dilemma, on account of having always bore in mind that, "Only a fool doesn't diversify." He and his peers will become the hedge-fund hogs who precipitate economic recessions more than a century on, ensuring that a few careless capitalists' sins might harm them, but the rest of us will carry on in a polarized culture that prizes cavalier fortune and plays passive witness to majority struggle. This is the American way that Durant so brazenly boasts of, and eventually finds himself humbled by: In a pawn shop several years after the Panic of 1873 (a crash he partially triggered), a man with half his education all but nails the golden spike into his coffin. With three episodes remaining — and to invoke both this episode's tragic leading men — the most compelling loose end is whether, by the mid-1880s, Cullen Bohannon will carve out something of a middle class.

Apart From All That:

  • Raise your hand if you wanted Campbell back. Anyone? Bueller?
  • "It must be exhausting being so consequential." Mickey gets all the great lines in this one.
  • I'm beginning to wonder, in retrospect, how well this show's done by its women.
  • If Sean got his due, there's gotta be some nod to Elam soon.
  • Thoughts on the bold choice of a Bohannon-less episode?