At its best, Hell On Wheels is completely deranged. Well, perhaps “at its best” isn’t quite the right phrase—certainly, the show tends to be at its most entertaining when it goes completely off the wall. The show has given narrative sanity a halfway decent shot this year, and the best that approach has managed is a shade above mediocre. Tonight’s episode takes us deeper down the rabbit hole than ever before, as Reverend Cole makes his doomed attempt to become the John Brown of the Native Americans. The result is an off-kilter, occasionally nonsensical hour of television. But, unlike so many of its predecessors, it’s rarely boring, and it illuminates some of the show’s grimmest, meanest themes. Tonight’s episode has a perspective, even if it’s utterly mad.
“Purged Away With Blood” picks up where “The Railroad Job” left off, as the ailing Durant heads to Chicago to be treated for his gunshot wound, accompanied by Elam’s estranged, pregnant lover Eva and Bohannon’s old friend Doc, who will be hanged as soon as he reaches Chicago. The train is captured by a heavily armed, newly shaven Reverend Cole and his band of Native American warriors. Durant pretends to humor the Reverend’s demands to publish his manifesto in a major newspaper while he actually sends word to Bohannon, Lily, and Elam. All of them have people that they care about on that train, and as soon as Reverend Cole starts impaling hostages with his sword, it becomes clear they are racing against time. And the only solution available to Bohannon may be to ask Cole’s adopted, occasionally beloved son Joseph to do his dirty work.
For a show so self-consciously violent, Hell On Wheels has shied away from pulling the trigger on any major character deaths, with the “divine intervention” used to keep Mr. Toole alive after Elam shot him in the face a particularly egregious case. The decision to kill off Reverend Cole is a strong move for a show that too often takes the easy way out, particularly since it’s Joseph that does him in. Reverend Cole logically has to be a dead man the second he boards Durant’s train, but past experience had me looking for any possible escape hatches that might allow Cole to escape his fate, and I had the sinking suspicion that his teary reconciliation with Ruth was the pretext for some implausible reversal. As such, my own lowered expectations made Joseph’s betrayal more shocking and more satisfying than perhaps it really was. It’s still an effective moment, especially since Cole and Joseph initially shared the closest, healthiest relationship of any of the characters, despite all their baggage, although not as effective as it should be. My predecessor once suggested Hell On Wheels can manage beginnings and the endings, but whiffs on everything in between. Joseph and Cole’s arc is in line with that thought—given where they started and how things end, Joseph’s decision to stab his adoptive father should be the devastating culmination of a slow, painful unraveling of their bond. But the plotting just hasn’t been there in previous episodes to give Cole’s death that heft, especially since Joseph and Ruth are missing from half of this season’s episodes, receiving little more than cameos when they do appear.
Still, Cole’s death at the hands of Joseph and Doc’s execution by Bohannon do add into this episode’s most compelling idea, which much like “Slaughterhouse” is the creeping sense that none of this matters. Indeed, if there has ever been a coherent subtext underpinning Hell On Wheels, it’s that its post-Civil War setting captures a time when America has been shattered, and the unforgiving march of progress is more than any sane or moral man can bear. This is a bleak, unforgiving cosmos, and one must either go mad or throw away one’s old ethical codes. Cullen and Doc’s opening discussion about the latter’s most honorable course of action is couched in the morality of the romanticized Old South—a world that Elam and others would be quick to point out never really existed, but for Cullen it is a beautiful, necessary fantasy that can lay some structure over the nihilistic nightmare in which he now finds himself. Doc at least recognizes that he bears some culpability for the murderous acts of the bandits he treated, and that his sense of decency requires him to stay by Durant’s side on the train to Chicago, but he’s still able to bend his code enough to promise Cullen he will jump off the train before the Union soldiers arrive. When Reverend Cole’s stunt makes that impossible, Doc turns down Bohannon’s offer to help him escape to Mexico, and he even requests his old friend be the one to execute him. There’s a warped nobility to all this, and Doc’s willingness to meet death is as much a mark of his exhaustion with the world as it is an attempt to live up to his sense of honor. If anything, that’s further illustration of how broken this world is, as the episode’s most decent character welcomes the opportunity for an exit.
Bohannon’s initial argument to the Reverend underscores how empty the whole thing is—he freely admits that the railroad will destroy the lives of the Cheyenne and the Sioux, and he acknowledges some of the parallels between this situation and his own feelings toward the Union’s actions in the war, and yet he has no sympathy for the Reverend’s cause. That Nathaniel Cole is now a raving lunatic is a factor, obviously, yet it’s clear Bohannon would be barely any more moved by a cogent version of the Reverend’s argument. After all, what’s the point of feeling anything for the downtrodden Native Americans when Durant will clearly never compromise, even when bedridden and slowly dying from a gunshot wound? The show takes its name from what the Union Pacific’s moving camps were actually called, but in “Purged Away With Blood” the “Hell” in Hell On Wheels takes on more literal meaning. The moral universe that Durant has created, the one in which Bohannon reluctantly thrives and into which he ensnares Joseph, is indeed hellish, and only a complete psychopath like Reverend Cole would be mad enough to take a principled stand in such a world. It’s a brutal theme, but one that is well-executed in the context of the episode.
Remarkably, The Reverend’s considerable craziness is but one part of a far larger, even more insane scheme devised by the Swede. His plot involves building up Reverend Cole as a prophet of race war, fulfilling certain indigenous prophecies about the White Spirit, and generally pissing off Bohannon as much as possible. As antagonists, Reverend Cole and the Swede don’t make for good television, exactly, because their actions are too chaotic and random to lend themselves to deeper meaning or thematic resonance. But there are few other shows that would be willing to follow a main character so far into the depths of insanity, particularly in such luridly pulpy fashion, and that has to count for something. If this episode is what we get when the spotlight shines on the Reverend, I am equal parts terrified and tantalized by the thought of spending an hour inside the Swede’s head. Considering next week’s episode is called “The White Spirit,” I doubt we have long to wait.
- I’m torn on whether we’re supposed to take seriously Reverend Cole’s demands to have his manifesto published in a newspaper. It’s such a random demand that’s so apart from the main action of the show that it’s difficult to see why Durant is so dead-set against it, other than his supreme obstinance. It probably doesn’t help that newspapers don’t enjoy quite the same level of influence now that they did in the 1860s.
- Colm Meaney does the best he can with the bedridden Durant, but his emotional arc never quite gels, partially because his big scene with Cole is interrupted by Cullen’s ill-conceived, seemingly pointless sneak attack.
- It looks like we’ll be meeting Doc’s wife in the near future. If Hell On Wheels wants automatic “A”s from me for the rest of the season, it’s not too late to cast Rosalind Chao—otherwise known as Star Trek: The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine’s Keiko O’Brien. It’s not as if that would be any more implausible or anachronistic than anything else that happens on this show…