Hell On Wheels: “Durant, Nebraska”
B+

Hell On Wheels: “Durant, Nebraska”

After a decidedly mediocre season premiere, this is probably my favorite Hell On Wheels episode yet, even though it improves in pretty much none of the ways outlined in last week’s review. Instead, “Durant, Nebraska” gives into all its most over-the-top, pulpy impulses. This is an episode where multiple exchanges between Durant and Bohannon involve comparing themselves to gods and devils; where Bohannon almost chokes Durant to death and the latter just drunkenly laughs it off; where a pair of psychopaths can sit around a campfire quoting Revelation and Shakespeare at each other, later considering the metaphysical implications of a saber-toothed cat skull in the context of the coming race war. (I still can’t entirely believe that last one happened.) Much of this episode recalls one of the highlights of the first season, specifically how Bohannon extricated himself from the Swede’s clutches in the second episode armed with nothing but a piece of cutlery and one hell of a ballsy sales pitch for Durant. To be sure, it was an entirely ridiculous moment that had little business in a supposedly serious drama, but it was also entertaining, pulpy fun, helped along considerably by well-pitched performances from Anson Mount and Colm Meaney. “Durant, Nebraska” pairs Mount and Meaney again, gives them a lot of larger-than-life, potentially silly material to play around with, and then just lets them go nuts. And, especially by the standards of Hell On Wheels, it works like gangbusters.

The episode briefly appears to be the end times for the captured Cullen Bohannon, as the latest band of asshole Union soldiers torture him for the names of his Confederate, uh, confederates. (Bohannon, with a classic mid-waterboarding smirk, tries to name Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson as his fellow robbers.) Bohannon has given up at this point, revealing to his last friend and confidant Doc Whitehead that he feels nothing at all for last season’s murder of the innocent Union sergeant. Indeed, when the soldiers finally blindfold him for his apparent execution, he flies into a rage when he learns the soldiers aren’t about to kill him. Cullen has always been defined by his anger, but in the first season he generally kept his emotions in check just enough to appear more badass than psychotic. The moment that gives him away is Cullen’s plaintive, “Still there?” shortly after the Union soldiers leave him alone. For that moment, he’s forgotten to be angry or defiant or anything else—he’s just bewildered that he no longer has an audience to whom he can be angry and defiant. It’s an abject reminder that, for all Cullen’s apparent nobility, he’s also full of shit. His talk to Whitehead about dying well might seem like the last move of a doomed warrior, but really it’s just the last thing he can make about him, the last way he can prove that he is just so much better than any Yankee soldier. Watching Bohannon hit rock bottom at the start of this season as his anger and his pride envelop him has been a surprising amount of fun, in part because it’s probably the most coherent character arc Hell On Wheels has crafted.

It’s these same self-destructive traits that make it so difficult for Bohannon to accept the way out Durant offers him. The pair’s shared history is also meant to be a factor here, too, but Durant and Bohannon never really had a relationship. After their first big scene together, their first-season interactions amounted to planning meetings and the mother of all half-assed romantic triangles over Lily. 

Thankfully, the scene in which Durant offers Bohannon a pardon doesn’t rely on that. Instead, it relies on the fact that it’s awfully fun to watch Colm Meaney deliver gloriously overcooked lines like “But like any benevolent God, I’m here to help you” and “There’s a lot of unfinished business on this Earth, Mr. Bohannon. What’ll it be? Life, or death?” Episode director Adam Davidson plays up the larger-than-life aspects of the dialogue, framing Meaney in the scattered light of the barn so that he looks like a higher power, rather than a railroad tycoon. What really makes the scene work is that Durant himself is in on the joke—his brief, self-aware acknowledgment that he really does get a kick out of playing God keeps the scene on the right side of self-parody. Durant is the only character on the show who seems like he’s having any fun, and he could be a great counterpoint to Bohannon’s often labored self-seriousness.

The episode gets its title from the recently founded railroad town seen last week, which is the site of a Sioux murder raid that kicks off the episode. The opening sequence, in which Eva does her morning chores in the eerily quiet town just before the Sioux arrive, is probably the most sustained suspense the show has ever pulled off—the discovery of the suddenly murdered telegraph operator is a particularly nice touch—and a solid way round the fact that the show doesn’t really have the budget to show all that much of the raid. The episode abandons the direct consequences of the raid around the 15-minute mark (Durant’s decision to secure Bohannon’s freedom is clearly motivated by the raid, but it still feels like a bit of a tangent), leaving the Sioux for now as an unknowable force of destruction, a threat already far more dangerous to Durant and his railroad than the Cheyenne ever were. There’s also a nice character moment where Durant asks about the state of the railroads and the buildings but completely forgets to ask if anyone was killed. His total lack of compassion here is a good contrast for his offer of life to Bohannon later in the episode—he simply doesn’t care about anyone else, and no amount of glibly self-aware acknowledgments of that fact can really make much difference.

Still, the main consequence of the raid in this specific episode is that it brings Eva back to town, as she convinces Lily (and, by extension, Elam) that it’s time to get justice for last episode’s murder of the prostitute. Elam’s early morning stabbing of the culprit—who just so happens to be the current foreman, Mr. Schmidt, even if the impact of that is somewhat undercut by this being the first time we’ve seen him—is just as unrealistic as all the scenes with Durant and Bohannon. It’s hard to believe that any black man in the 1860s could kill an apparently important white man—especially when his crime was “only” killing a prostitute—and face no consequences for this whatsoever, with the rest of the camp celebrating the public display of the woman-killer’s corpse. (It’s possible Elam will face consequences for this down the line, but the episode seems to indicate he got off scot-free.) But in an episode already full of shamelessly pulpy, larger-than-life moments, a quick moment of frontier justice like this fits in nicely, even if it is fantasy. 

“Durant, Nebraska” is often silly and over-the-top. This isn’t great (or perhaps even good) television by most conventional definitions, but I still enjoyed the hell out of it on its own slightly ridiculous terms. To liberally paraphrase a legendary Simpsons quote, this episode of Hell On Wheels is all lies. But, unlike so much of what’s come before on this show, they’re entertaining lies. In the end, isn’t that the real truth? The answer, at least for this week… is yes.

Stray observations:

  • I enjoyed Durant and Bohannon’s attempt to kill each other on the train for much the same reasons I liked their confrontation in the barn, so I don’t have too much more to say about it. The scene did however make it clear that more big dramatic scenes on this show should feature the characters when they are completely, stinking drunk.
  • Seriously, I don’t even know where to start with that scene between the Swede and Reverend Cole. Other than establishing that the Swede is possibly even more insane than the clearly certifiable preacher, it mostly just feels like a particularly loopy non sequitur. Still, as a general rule, any episode that features two lunatics ruminating on the meaning of a saber-toothed cat skull must be doing something right.
  • Glad to see the show finally acknowledging that the McGinnes brothers might not like an aristocratic, dubiously qualified Englishwoman walking around camp like she owns the place. The episode doesn’t have much to say on Irish-British relations beyond, “They sure don’t like each other over the whole centuries of oppression thing, huh?”, but I’m hoping this element develops in future episodes.
  • Bohannon’s final walk back into camp, in which all the other characters react in shock at his return, is a great last bit of larger-than-life pulpiness to go out on, particularly the fact that the Swede is somehow perfectly positioned to lock eyes with him at the very end. I also really like that it’s Bohannon who reacts with surprise at the oblivious Reverend Cole. That’s a surprisingly deft touch for Hell On Wheels—this show might learn subtlety yet!
  • When Durant punched Bohannon and told him, “That’s for stealing from my railroad,” I was half-expecting Durant to then kiss him, declaring, “And that’s for coming back!” It says something about the extent of my pop-culture conditioning that I was actually disappointed when this didn’t happen.

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