For a show about building a railroad, Hell on Wheels sure has been judicious with its use of trains. Before last night’s episode, I was ready to rename it Hell on Hooves because, you know, there are more horses than trains. But then “Pride, Pomp and Circumstance” arrived bellowing enough black smoke to warrant a visit from the EPA. We’ve got trains.
Senator Jordan Crane, whom we met way back in the pilot, arrives on the first train. Durant is stumbling over himself to get a piss-poor brass section and a photographer in place for his arrival. Crane shows up, the band stumbles through ten seconds of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and Durant’s transformation from the boisterous manipulator to total doofus is complete.
When we met this guy, he was feeding a room of politicians shovels of horseshit about the wonders of rail and they were eating it up. He wanted their money and they handed it over. But from that moment on, Durant has devolved into a total boob. If that wasn’t clear in the first five episodes, this one drives it home. First he fails to impress Crane with the Mighty Mighty Railtones. Then we learn The Swede is feeding Crane information about Durant’s dirty deals. Then we see Lily walk all over him like he’s a puddle of mud.
Lily’s Durant dissing moment comes when they share lunch with Crane at one of those tablecloth-covered tables that spring forth so plentifully from the Nebraska soil. She mentions to Crane that Durant’s missing the plans to cross the Rockies her dead Robert drew up. She’s trying to pressure Durant into paying her the money he owed Bob. For now, though, all Durant can do is give her exasperated looks. And those are, I will say, the best part of Durant’s transition from villain to village idiot. Colm Meany is brilliant at turning thoughts like “Whaaaaat?” “Oh, come on!” and “Yooouuu bitch” into facial expressions.
He gives a few of those to Chief Many Horses during negotiations meant to avoid a massacre of the Cheyenne at the hands of the military. Those negotiations are why Crane has traveled to Hell on Wheels. Not that he’s really concerned about avoiding confrontation, though; as he put it, “If these savages want a scrap then, by God, we’ll give them one that they won’t soon disremember.”
Before CMH and his Cheyenne posse come riding into town, Reverend Cole convinces Bohannon to try to keep the idiots who live there from turning the peace summit into a bloodbath. It quickly becomes clear that the town’s resident racist Irishman is going to make that hard. Speaking of Racist O’Hurley — ugggggh. This guy is the most one-dimensional character in a show full of cardboard cutouts. In previous episodes, he’s existed solely to say racist things about blacks. Now he’s saying racist things about Indians. At this point, it seems just as likely that he’ll drive up on a Vespa as speak a line that doesn’t end with a slur.
Further preparations for the Cheyenne’s arrival are taking place in the church tent, where Joseph Black Moon and the Rev’s daughter Ruth are laying Bibles for the heathens. After giving her a look that says he might be interested in laying more than lose Bibles, Joseph tries out his best pickup line on Ruth: “How did your mother die?” (Don’t blame him. This was before The Game.) Ruth tells the story of her dead mom and Joseph does the same. He ends by saying his mother’s with God now. But Ruth is all, “Uhhh, if she wasn’t a Christian, no she’s not.” To make sure he gets the point, she calls Indians inferior. Do these guys know how to party or what?
Meanwhile, Senator Crane is taking a leak of pee as The Swede leaks some information. The Swede tells Crane that Durant has stolen $147,000 meant to go to railroad construction. All The Swede asks in return for this info is info of his own about Sergeant Harper, the last man Bohannon tried to kill for having a hand in his wife’s death. Brief though it may be, it’s good to see someone still cares about the vengeance story that brought Bohannon to Hell on Wheels in the first place. Weird that it’s The Swede and not Bohannon, though, who’s more occupied overseeing the railroad, firing Racist O’Sullivan from the cut crew for being insubordinate, and protecting the Cheyenne from the savage white men who want to kill them.
The meeting between CMH, Crane, and Durant isn’t going very well. Durant tries to convince CMH to leave his land. “We will give you everything you need if you’ll just submit to living on a reservation!” Of course, CMH isn’t interested. Then he lets slip that his son, the piercing enthusiast from last week, had a vision he would defeat a train. So Durant offers him a chance to do just that by racing a train. The train, of course, wins the race, and even though Durant smugly celebrates and CMH is dejected afterward, the result doesn’t seem to matter.
Finally, some intrigue arrives in the episode’s conclusion. Crane confronts Durant about the money he’s stealing and threatens to turn him in as soon he arrives back in Chicago. Lily overhears this, which will be important soon. Later she sees a Cheyenne woman wearing dead Robert’s hat. She causes a scene trying to take it back, but Bohannon stops her. As luck would have it, the woman returns the hat later after Joseph explains to her why Lily freaked out on her. Turns out the woman got the hat after it was found at the scene of her husband’s death, making her husband the cat-eyed Indian whom Lily killed after she and Robert were attacked. Small world!
Anyway, the combination of Crane’s threat and that hat results in a change of Lily’s heart about that whole map thing she’d been toying with Durant about. She gives Durant the maps and tells him he has to now complete Robert’s dream. Maybe these maps will be Durant’s idiot elixir.
We’re sent off this week with Racist O’Reilly trying to rouse up his rabble to go after the Indians. Sheriff Bohannon stops him with the help of Sheriff Swede, leaving him craving the services of a young lady. When he gets to the brothel and looks for his favorite girl, Face Tat, she isn’t there. He knows where she might be, though. Racist O’Hurley and his posse barge into Elam’s tent, where he and face tat are mid tender moment. They drag Elam out and … everything goes black. Cliff-hanger! Guess we’ll have to spend a week wondering what happens to Elam and whether it rhymes with pinching.