The last time we saw Cullen Bohannon, he was recuperating from being pounded into a fine jelly in a boxing match with an opponent (Common) who had unknowingly enjoyed an unfair advantage: Those in his corner had covered his fist wraps with pepper juice. If, like me, you were eager to find out whether Bohannon knew he had been wronged and how he planned to deal with it, the answers are, respectively,
1. nobody ever puts anything over on Cullen Bohannon, and
2. he doesn’t seem to care much whether they do or not.
After Bohannon has made it clear that he doesn’t want the men under his watch stirring up angry feelings against the Indians that might lead to violence, Common has a private moment with our hero in which he rubs salt in the wound, telling him that, “after that ass-whuppin’ I laid on you,” he’s not surprised that the doesn’t want seconds. Bohannon pleasantly informs him that the fight was rigged, though he doesn’t betray any feelings about it one way or another, aside from conceding that it was “pretty slick.”
Of course, when it comes to letting us know what the hell is going on with him, Bohannon is handicapped by the fact that, like many another alpha-male asshole of a Western hero before him, he is a man of few words. Other people on this show seem to be here for the express purpose of showing what a man of few words might be preferable to. When he’s laying down the law, Bohannon has to shut down the florid Irishman whose reaction to the news that Wes Studhi and his posse are coming to town is to bray, “First the fuzzies, and now they’re lettin’ the Injuns come to a party.” When Bohannon interrupts the work routine to tell this guy to keep his thoughts on universal brotherhood to himself, the fellow defiantly tells him, “I don’t take orders from any man walloped by a nigger.” Bohannon stares down at him from his horse and replies, “Git out muh cut.” The Irishman bolts, which makes for a resounding victory for the tactic of clearly saying what you mean in as few words as possible. (Incidentally, I don’t believe in setting an impossible bar for a new show to hit right out of the gate, so unlike every other person who was written about Hell On Wheels, I have refrained from pointing out, every other sentence, that it’s not Deadwood. That said, it would be easier to ignore the fact that it’s not Deadwood if the show itself hadn’t chosen to include a minor character played by an actor who seems to be retroactively auditioning for the role of Steve the drunk, the livery stable guy in Deadwood who stood accused of non-consensual relations with Sheriff Bullock’s horse.)
The booby prize for the dialogue in this episode is shared by the Christian-convert Indian, Joseph Black Moon, and the recently arrived daughter of Reverend Tom Noonan, who the Reverend has taken to introducing, collectively, as “my children.” While they’re tidying up the prayer tent, Joseph asks her how her mother died. She says it was consumption, and he says, “She is with God now.” Then he tells her that his own mother “died when I was just a boy. I remember her taking me to the creek” on laundry days, and she would repeatedly pretend that she was going to drop him on the hard, sharp rocks, but she always caught him at the last minute, I expected he was then going to say, “Good times, good times,” while looking simultaneously wistful and confused, like Bill McNeal on NewsRadio, but instead he insists that this routine never failed to make him laugh.
Then, in the tone of someone pointing out to a pretty girl he’s known for all of 20 minutes that it sure is amazing how they both like Chinese food, he says, “She is with God now, too.” Being her father’s daughter when it comes to tact, she gives him a funny look and points out that, since his mother didn’t die a Christian, she can’t very well be with God. He tries to change the subject by saying that he’s sorry for her that her father left her and her mother alone, and she goes ballistic, saying that he didn’t just leave them alone; “He is a servant of God. He was called to help the inferior, like the Negroes…” “And the Indians?” he says. At this point, the scene ends, just when it was on the verge of turning into Seinfeld 1865.
The best line of the night belongs to Noonan, who runs into Bohannon while Bohannon is once again at a table, throwing ’em back. Anticipating a lecture, Bohannon tells him, “I wish you’d stop tryin’ to save me.” “Don’t worry, son,” Noonan says. “I’m learning my limitations.” The Reverend already has his hands full trying to avert a race war. He sits down with a visiting senator, Jordan Crane (who I hope to God is meant to be the great-great-great-grandfather of the cartoonist of that name), Thomas Durant, and Chief Wes Studhi, as if he were going to act as interpreter, even though it turns out the Chief speaks perfect English, almost as if he’d been the go-to guy for Western roles as the representative vanishing American since the Michael Mann version of The Last Of The Mohicans. I was sort of hoping that every time Studhi said something to Durant and the Senator, Noonan would parrot it back to them slowly, but that didn’t happen. If it had, it wouldn’t have made the scene much more surreal than it is anyway.
The white men tell the Chief that they want to offer him a better life, and Studhi replies that this is sweet of them but that he already thinks the life he has is just dandy. They explain that if he and his people will have the decency to abandon their home and get the hell out of their way, the government will give them land, and Studhi points out that he already has plenty of land and that if they’d just stop trying to get him to vacate it, he wouldn’t need to put them to the trouble of offering him anything in return for it. They point out that they own the land they’re offering him, and he wonders why they think this is so, since they neither created it nor paid anyone for it. (“He has a point,” chimes in Noonan.) Finally, Durant is reduced to sputtering, “We will give you everything, if you will just submit to living on a reservation.” The writing may not be subtle, but Studhi’s expression of polite bewilderment as he listens to this nonsense is, as Billy Crudup would say, priceless. It’s almost as good as the earlier, weirdly lovely image of an Indian sneaking up on a train track while outlined against a blue-pink sky.
The centerpiece of the episode is a contest, designed to test Studhi’s son’s vision of defeating the train: the son, on horseback, races the train, with the future of the American West apparently to go to the victor. There might have been a way to make this scene count for something if it had been staged to make the Indians’ resistance to the inevitable seem poignant and bittersweet yet somehow comic, but instead, the weirdest thing happens: The scene is staged for suspense, with shots of Durant sweating out the outcome and going, “Come on! Come on!” as he were in National Velvet, or some other entertainment where the outcome of the duel he was watching might be in doubt. What are we supposed to think, that the Indian might be John Henry riding Superhorse, or that the train is going to keel over with a heart attack? Meanwhile, Hell On Wheels has four more episodes to go, and the character who’s meant to be at the center of it all is fading away.
Cullen Bohannon was introduced to us in a scene where he blew a man away in a confession booth, as part of his sacred mission of revenge. The main development in his character in the past couple of episodes has been that he seems to have remembered that he’s being paid to get a railroad built, which is a good thing for his boss but raises questions about the urgency of that mission. The problem with giving the hero of a TV series a vengeance quest for his principal motivation is that, once it’s fulfilled, you have to figure out what he’s going to do next or the series has to end. On the other hand, when you allow the quest to unfold at the leisurely pace that Hell On Wheels has settled into, you risk seeming unbecomingly sure that you’re going to be given as many seasons as you want to move things along. At one point, Lily confronts Bohannon about what’s going on with the Indians, asking him, “What is your stake in this?” “Lady,” he replies, “I ain’t got one.” “Then,” she asks him, “why do you care?” No, lady, that’s not the question. The question is, if the show becomes swamped by matters in which the man-of-action hero has no stake, then why should we care?
- Most Pythonic line of the night: the senator, confronting Durant with his financial skullduggery, says, “I’m well aware of your schemes, and to put it plain, they don’t concern me—except when they concern me!” Hey, thanks for putting it plain.
- I also could have done without the scene illustrating the difficulties that an ignorant savage—or anyone whose brain is in full, working order—might have with certain passages of the Bible. Sitting in the prayer tent while Wes Studhi is conducting business, the Indians look at their copies of the good word with the same look of uncomprehending bafflement that Sid Vicious used to sometimes look at his bass, and then fall out of their chairs laughing when one smarty-pants among them allows as how she’d love to have been a fly on the wall when Mary was explaining to Joseph about how she’d gotten pregnant. It should be granted that this was more than a hundred years before that field of speculation was worn to the nub by a thousand hack standup comics. I’m glad that they cut away before she asked why the airlines don’t just make the whole plane out of the material they use to make the black box.