Hell On Wheels: “Bread And Circuses”
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Hell On Wheels: “Bread And Circuses”

My favorite thing in tonight’s episode is a shot of Cullen Bohannon, bare-chested and drenched in blood and sweat, lying in the dirt and regaining consciousness to find himself face to face with a chicken that is curiously eyeballing his sorry carcass. Given its period setting, Hell On Wheels really ought to be good for three or four images as magnificently, inexplicably bizarre as that every week. As tonight’s installment made clear, though, it’s not that kind of show. Rather, it is the kind of show that can devote most of a thudding, bloody hour of television to explicitly illustrating some things about the camp and Thomas Durant’s management style that have been perfectly clear since the first glimpses of the place and the man. It is also a show that, in trying to make the characters’ relations to each other—especially their grappling with the issue of race—seem more complex, can instead manage to make both its characters and itself just seem more deeply confused. Maybe it’s just nice that something about the show is getting deeper.

The show begins with Bohannon, last seen charging towards the chaos caused by some exploding kegs of gunpowder to pull out an injured man and lug him to safety, taking a walk through the camp to inform Durant that payroll has not arrived. He is greeted by everyone he passes with cordial greetings and respectful deference, which surprises him. I don’t know why; given that he’s the foreman, and can punch out bears, eat bullets and shit ice cream when he isn’t posing for Thomas Hart Benton, you’d think that every roughneck within 1,000 miles would be taking numbers to line up and kiss his ass. Lily Bell, who, somehow, is failing to become any more interesting even as she’s begun to show that she has a smart mouth on her, tells him. “It’s your manner, not your manners,” a line that ranks with some of the lesser lyrics by Elvis Costello for sounding as if it ought to mean something, until you think about it for a few minutes, whereupon you realize that, nope, it really doesn’t. But she takes pity on the poor confused thing and explains that, because of his heroics with the exploding gunpowder, he’s now the hero of the camp. I kind of figured that, after he brought the fair-haired maiden of the West in from the cold, he was going to be the 1865 equivalent of Time’s Man of the Year. But I guess when you’re a combination of the Man With No Name, Aragorn (as played by Viggo Mortensen), Jesus, and Pecos Bill like our Cullen, people will eventually take the everyday heroics for granted and start holding out their approval until the next time you do something splashy.

None of which cuts any ice with Durant, who just sees Bohannon as an irritating reminder that he has men to pay and bupkis to pay them with. So, to distract his workers from the fact that they’re driving spikes and laying track for him pro bono, he arranges for “a pugilistic match between Mr. Bohannon and his Negro nemesis,” i.e., Common, who was looking for an excuse to whale on somebody even when the boss’ checks were still clearing.  He also breaks out the good rotgut, and allows The Swede to let the black workers into the tent to watch the fight alongside the whites, so as to pump up the level of racial animosity to a “Larry Holmes versus Gerry Cooney” level. If you think all this reveals something about the shape of the class struggle but can’t quite put your finger on it, check the episode title. If that doesn’t help, wait until the scene where Lily, confronting Durant outside the tent while the fight is still going on, explains to him exactly what he’s doing. (In response, he tells her that he isn’t nearly as cleverly manipulative as she thinks he is. What else is he supposed to do? Twirl an imaginary mustache and tie her to his unfinished railroad track?)

The fight itself might at least be stirring if the details made more sense. Having worked himself up to a fire-breathing rage, Common—his character does have a name, but I can never manage to spell it right, and anyway, no matter what he does, he always just looks like Common to me—practically throws the first rounds. Luckily, his corner man has a degree in armchair psychology and points out to him that, as the son of a slave and her master, he’s afraid to lay Bohannon out because he sees him as representative of his white “father” and the white part of himself. Instead, he tells Common, he should look at that white man and see the man who raped his own mother, and, boy, that does the trick. Or most of the trick, anyway; whatever is left is taken care of by Irish Bert, who supplies Common’s corner with something to apply to the battler’s fist, because he’s gone and bet everything they have on Common to win.

This news appalls his brother, Irish Ernie, who bleats out that Bohannon is their “only friend.” Friend? What show has he been watching? In the one I’m following, Bohannon has mostly seemed to regard them with polite indifference, though by the standards of Hell On Wheels, I guess he could be said to be their friend in the sense that he hasn’t been shaking them down and has yet to pistol whip either of them and leave them lying in the mud to die. So despite what Lily Bell may have been implying, he does have manners. Otherwise, his motives, and the motives of those who seem to be using him, are murkier than ever. He looks almost amused at the way things have turned out when he’s up and chipper and swollen-faced the next morning. Has Durant deliberately set him up to be brought low in the eyes of the white workers—who no longer see him as a hero, but just as a chump who let their side down—because it doesn’t serve his purposes to have a foreman who’s more of a public hero than he is? Even before the fight is arranged, Bohannon provokes Common to violence by talking to him as an unrepentant slaveholder talking to, in Durant’s words, his “former chattel.” Is this just an explosion of bile from a basically good man, or is Bohannon—who in the previous episode went to a whore and gave her money while rejecting her services—deliberately trying to provoke Common because some part of him feels that he needs to have his ass whupped? I have no idea, and if the character were written more consistently, I wouldn’t have to ask.

Things are also heating up outside he camp. Chief Wes Studi isn’t taking the threat of war between his people and the white man seriously enough, so Reverend Tom Noonan and the Christian Indian, Black Moon, go out to warn him that genocidal apocalypse is heading their way on a rocket sled. First, the Reverend had to contend with the unwelcome arrival of his daughter; his first instinct is to mail her right back home, but the presence of Black Moon shames him into trying to receive her decently, so he ushers her inside, tells her where the bacon and the sharp knives are, and takes his leave with the touching words, “Don’t leave the tent. [Pause.] Unless it’s on fire.” Kids—you can’t trust them to figure out anything on their own. On their way to see Studi (who’s killing time between massacres re-enacting torture porn scenes from the Man Called Horse movies), Black Moon asks the Reverend about his strained relationship with his family, and Noonan recites a Bible passage about Jesus saying that anyone who claims never to have felt hatred for his parents or his children “cannot be my disciple.” (Black Moon chews on that for a minute and says, “I don’t know if I have enough hate in my heart to be a good Christian.”) Given the quality of the original dialogue, it’s no wonder that so many people here are turning to the Bible in their search for better material. With his back to the wall, Durant receives a message from his bank refusing to extend him more credit and replies with a threat to use what juice he has left to destroy the bank: “Samson brought the temple down with him. I will happily do the same.” The next morning, the payroll arrives. So the big news of this episode is, Thomas Durant invented “Too big to fail.”

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