Hell On Wheels: “A New Birth Of Freedoms”
B-

Hell On Wheels: “A New Birth Of Freedoms”

B-

Hell On Wheels

“A New Birth Of Freedoms”

Season 1, Episode 3

 How awesome is Colm Meaney? Hell on Wheels asks a lot of Meaney: as Thomas "Doc" Durant, he is called upon to represent  a fictionalized version of an historic figure, a character that makes speeches about his self-conscious view of himself as a player on history's stage, like someone out of E. L. Doctorow's Ragtime, a novel that, because of the difficulty of pulling this sort of thing off outside the tightly controlled diorama room of the author's voice, translated to film very badly. At the same time, Meaney is also supposed to make Durant work as a real dramatic character, someone who is in the story and often behaving in ways that are not calculated to win him much in the way of audience sympathy, as in last week's episode, which opened with him running around the scene of a recent Indian massacre, trying to help the news photographer sent to record the horror of the event by sticking arrows into fresh corpses and pounding them in good. ("They can't feel anything!") The role is a stylized theatrical construct that, to work at all, has to be embodied as a force of nature. Meaney neatly polishes off each near-unplayable scene he's been handed and then looks off-screen as if asking the writers, who seem to really have it in for him, "What else you got?"

As conceived, the role of Durant is that of a self-styled man of destiny who's also an actor, who has spent so much time carrying on like a ham in a traveling melodrama that, when he's alone, he has no way to turn it off. (In his first scene in the pilot, he has to pull off the transition of acting for the suckers who he wants to invest in his railroad to talking turkey with a politician whose cooperation he's looking to secure. It's only later that the viewer realizes that he's acting for the politician too, slipping into the world-weary role of a no-bullshit cynic, because that's the only kind of person the cynical bastard would trust.) In tonight's episode, he reviews his correspondence regarding the progress of the Union Pacific ("The Honorable Senator is very concerned. If he were in my shoes, he'd be downright suicidal."), then calls to his manservant to refill his glass. The guy gives him his shot, and then Meaney says, "Your look of disdain reminds me of my dear wife back in New York. What Hannah failed to grasp is that, where most men seek the warm glow that only whiskey can provide, I imbibe to fuel the conflagration. There is a fire in my belly that must be fed. Otherwise, we'll never see the Pacific." (The servant asks if this line ever works on Hannah. Meaney confesses that it does not.) That's how he talks when he just wants the hired help to lay off him about his drinking. Imagine what his Congessional Medal of Honor acceptance speech is going to sound like. 

Meaney doesn't just bring off his solo numbers, either. He also ventures out into previously dead territory and makes roses bloom there. Remember Irish Bert and Ernie, the show's representative common men who are just looking to make a buck and get through life without shooting or hanging anyone? Last week, having failed spectacularly to make these guys irresistible in the pilot, the show tried to at least make them sympathetic by subjecting them to the Norwegian Darth Vader and his protection racket. This week, Meaney happens to stumble into the magic lantern theater, and is charmed by their moxie when they salute him as "a great man and a true capitalist" and stick him for a five-dollar ticket for a "private show".. Suddenly, damned if they don't seem sort of interesting, naive but game young men who were able to use a train, the machine that Durant is using to fill his pockets and defile the American west, as their means to taste the pleasures of the world outside the shitty little hamlet they were trapped in as boys. These guys love Durant, the scheming moneybags villain, as one such as he might only be loved by people who, a generation earlier, would have been raised to believe they could have no hopes for a life better or more exciting than the one their parents knew, and who see him as proof that anyone willing to work hard and test the edges from time to time can rise to a higher plane. He, in turn, loves them, for making him feel that the things he does in the name of more money and power aren't just grand and historically important, but might actually be seen as beneficial to someone nearer the bottom. For once, when he smiles and hands over his fiver and listens, enraptured, to the brothers talk about how far they've come, he isn't acting at all.

Meaney also has a scene where he busts up a religious service being delivered by Tom Noonan's reverend. (Noonan continues to give the most restrained performance I've ever seen from him in this role, maybe because he took a look at some of the histrionics going on around him and concluded that giving a quiet, unaffected performance would be the best way to set himself apart from the pack.) Noonan, who is trying to calm war fevers between the whites and the Indians, quotes Bible verse to make the case for peace; Meaney, who wants to use fear of the Indians to make the building of the railroad seem like a patriotic cause, is sitting in the audience and begins to shout over him, quoting verses that make the opposite point, then jumps onstage with him and riles the crowd up to a full, rabble-rousing boil.

Hell on Wheels has big ideas about capital and labor and America, just for a start, and when it makes those points through character and action, as in the scene with Noonan, it can be very affecting, In other places, the show manages to be simultaneously over-explicit and badly confused about what it's being over-explicit about. Common continues to suffer the worst from this, though he does finally get to crack a joke, even if it is one about how one of his fellow rail laborers needs to lay off choking his chicken. In one scene, Anson Mount's Bohannon leaves Common in charge of overseeing the workers for awhile. One of them starts giving him shit, telling him that because he's up there keeping an eye on the line instead of actually hammering rails into the hard ground, "You think you is the white man, not the high-yellow house nigger you is!" So Common, deeply offended that anyone might think that he thinks he's too good--which, in this context, seems to mean "not black enough"--to do grueling manual labor, jumps back into line and starts hammering away harder than anybody. It's like a screwed-up version of the whitewashing scene from Tom Sawyer, except that at moments like that, you have to wonder if any of the writers on this show have even read Tom Sawyer. (Plus, this show has instilled in me a deep passion to learn more about dress codes on nineteenth-century railroad crews. Common continues to show up for work looking rather natty, considering what he has on his plate for the day, and the guy who calls him out is shirtless but is also wearing a hat. These guys dress better to pound spikes in the middle of a desert than I did to take the D train to the upper Manhattan when I was telemarketing.)

As for Cullen Bohannon, he gets to spend another week in his own show, "How Captain Marvel Won the West". At the start of the episode, the Swede informs him that he needs to  peel some men off the crew to form a posse to go look for the murdered mapmaker's lost wife, who everyone is now calling "the fair-haired maiden of the West." (The term seems meant to be a joke on cornball newspaper-headline propaganda, but it's a joke that the cameraman and the makeup people aren't in on, since that's exactly how she's always made to look.) Bohannon says that he can't afford to lose a single man, so as a compromise, he gets on his horse and rides off to find her all by himself. To the surprise of no one who's familiar with his track record, he finds her almost immediately, tends her wounds, and tells the Christian-convert Indian who saved her from his old gang buddies, thanks, I'll take it from here. (The Indian is like the kid in the old Shake 'N Bake commercials: "Cullen Bohannon rescued the fair-haired maiden of the West, and Ahhhhh helped!") 

Bohannon lets her sleep through the night, and the next morning, he emerges from the woods to lay waste to some blackguards who appear on the scene and appear to mean her no good. (The suggestion is delicately made that he snuck off to take a dump, but as soon as you see that he's not by her side when she awakes, you know that the real reason he's disappeared is so that he can make a dramatic entrance and surprise somebody who's going to swoop in, not knowing that the Terminator's around.) They also have this conversation, after the fair-haired maiden, who looks a little like Bohannon's dead wife, notices that he's being surly to her: "Have I done something?" "It ain't what you done, it's who you are." "What do you mean?" "You ain't whore nor squaw. You shouldn't be out here." "You don't know who I am, nor what I'm capable of." "No, I don't, and I sure as hell don't care." Me thinks he doth protest too much, girlfriend! Mr. Bad Personality finally delivers her to the edge of the railroad camp and then buggers off because he has important business elsewhere, and also because, if he sticks around another five seconds, he might be in danger of hearing someone say, "Thank you." Take it away, Lenny Bruce!

Stray observations:

  • The most promising development of this episode, by miles, is the introduction of the new girl at the whorehouse, played by the Australian actress Robin McLeavy. Mcleavy has a direct, challenging quality reminiscent of Pamela Reed's fire-breathing performance as Belle Starr in The Long Riders, and she introduces some erotic charge to a show badly in need of it.