The undisputed hero of tonight's episode of Hell On Wheels is the loudmouthed Irish guy who's been to see the new whore in town--the one whose facial markings identify her as having been a captive of the Indians, and who turned down Common's very public offer to bed her last week, as part of her complicated scheme to avoid getting both of them hanged--and is eager to tell everyone hanging around the water cooler all about it. On the one hand, his monologue should go a long way towards shutting up anyone who has ever complained about office regulations prohibiting workplace conversation of an inappropriate nature. On the other hand, the brother's got a way with words.
"Did I tell you about my rendezvous with the tattooed harlot?" he asks anyone in the sound of his voice, a category that easily extends into the low triple digits. "The scarlet whore of Babylon had nothing on this lass, I tell ya. She used her organ like a velvet hand on me tallywhacker. And to hear her tell it, she's practiced these dark arts of love on all manner of beasts and men. Chinks, monkeys, and horses have all known the pleasure of her touch. In fact, there is but one creature in all the known world with which she will not copulate." No shit, says one of his straight man, what creature might that be? "The common American nigger, of course!" is the reply. Well, as soon as Common hears this, he wants to fight, and what else is new. I think it's the "of course" that pushes him over the line; it's like when Louis Calhern called Groucho an upstart.
We all have our breaking point, of course, but you do have to wonder: does Common's touchy ex-slave character have any sense of humor at all? How the hell did a guy with so little instinct for how to pick his battles make it all the way through the Civil War and to the end of slavery in one piece? It's a hell of a thing that he can't just laugh off a guy who talks like a cross between Williams S. Burroughs and W. C. Fields, with an Irish accent no less, whose baroque pornographic reverie turns out to be the delivery system for a childish racial insult. But maybe this is supposed to demonstrate the chivalric side of Common. Later in the show, he and the new girl in town are able to arrange a date, and, in what I take to be Hell On Wheels' misbegotten notion of a tender romantic interlude, bond over the fact that they both used to belong to other people. She tells him that she was worth "three blankets and a horse." Common, that old sweet talker, tells her that her eyes are so purty they ought to be worth a hundred horses. Then they both smile. (I smiled too, but in my case, it was because I was remembering Sarah Silverman's joke about having had a black boyfriend who didn't know how to take a compliment; for some reason, he got mad when she told him that he would have been a really expensive slave.) Common asks her what the Indians who held her captive were like, and she replies, "They were people. You know what people are like. Some of 'em are good, and some of 'em ain't so good." He asks her if it hurt when her face was marked, and she says, "Not as much as a lot of things." You know what hurts more than a lot of things? This kind of dialogue.
Except for the porny Irish bigot, stringing three words together in a way that rewards the viewer's attention has gotten to be a real problem for everybody. In the first scene, the vengeful Bohannon is out looking for Harper, the next item on his to-kill list. He spots someone out in the middle of nowhere who might be Harper, so he pulls the old distract-him-with-a-riderless-horse gag, sneaks up behind him, practically sticks the barrel of his gun up the man's nose, and asks, "Are you Harper?" How surprising is it that the man answers that, no, he isn't? Whether he was or not, how the hell else would you play that one? Underneath all that steel and grit, Bohannon is a trusting Southern gentleman, so, since the guy says he isn't the man he's looking to kill, he jumps right back on his horse and rides off. As he makes his exit, the guy he's leaving behind says that the whole world sure has come to a hell of a state, and Bohannon, planting a seed that David Byrne will cultivate 115 years later, says, "The whole world ain't comin' to nothin'. Same as it ever was." A few miles down the road, he spots a man on horseback, and, naturally, hollers at him, asking if he's Harper. The man pulls out a gun and opens fire, taking out Bohannon's horse, and rides on. Bohannon takes that as a solid "maybe."
Not even Colm Meaney's Thomas Durant is of much use in the speechifying department in this episode, maybe because the arrival of the surveyor Robert Bell's widow, the fair-haired maiden of the West, is now always at his side. For some eccentric geniuses of the orator's art, there is nothing so inhibiting as suddenly finding yourself with an audience. Lily, the F.H.M.o.t.W., has a perturbing habit of looking at Durant as if she has his number, a habit that is especially perturbing for the audience, since there's no way for Meaney to make Durant entertaining when his only thought is that he's trapped in the company of someone on whom his most flowery bullshit would only be wasted. The two of them talk about Robert--the man who stirred her passions and saved her from a life of boredom and comfort, the idealist whose dream of a transcontinental railroad has fallen into the hands of a money-grubber made of much coarser stuff--as if he were Hollis Mulwray, the murder victim in Chinatown, who from the sound of it was a very remarkable man, even though in the few scenes he had in the movie before he was killed, he looked like a human anchovy. Robert didn't look like much, either, before he was ventilated by Indians. In one scene here, Tom Noonan's Reverend shows Lily a newspaper story illustrated with a fanciful drawing of her husband manfully protecting her by killing an Indian just before he himself was laid out. Lily isn't sure what to make of this fictionalized tribute to her husband's heroism, but her description of him barely matches up with the sweet, doomed twit from the pilot episode, either. Maybe some flashbacks are coming up that will better fill out the dimensions of his character. Christ, I hope not.
My favorite scene tonight is the tense encounter between Bohannon and the Reverend. It turns out that the Reverend used to run with John Brown and his posse, and that he participated in the murders of slaveholders back in Kansas before the war. (The killings were performed with broadswords, and the Reverend sheepishly admits that, due to his heavy drinking in those days, he hadn't taken the trouble to make sure that he blade was as sharp as you would ideally want it to be if you were planning to spend the evening hacking people to death.) The scene is all the more chilling for the lack of any preparation for this side of the Reverend's character. and there's no point in complaining that it's such a Tom Noonan sort of revelation: incipient madness just looks too good on him. Bohannon also has an exchange with the Swede, which plants the information that the Swede and his men are appropriating incoming barrels of gunpowder for their own sinister purposes. That's not the suspense hook for the episode, though. That comes when the Swede tells Bohannon that he's "a difficult man to cipher," but that he'll figure him out. Let me know when you do, says Bohannon, and the Swede laughs and says, "By golly, you'll be the first to know." It's a good line, but it's the laughter that freezes your blood.