Hell On Wheels: “Scabs”
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Hell On Wheels: “Scabs”

It  took a season and a half, but Hell On Wheels has finally gone ahead and told a story that’s actually, properly about building a railroad. Even more promisingly, the episode that does so places Bohannon front and center, dropping the McGinnes brothers and Joseph subplots for the episode in order to place all the focus on the two protagonists, Cullen and Elam. I would call them the heroes, but “Scabs” comes dangerously close to painting Bohannon as the outright villain of the story, and Elam is so useless and pathetic that he doesn’t even really rise to the level of villainy. Last week’s episode argued that it was impossible to build a community on the railroad frontier because its people were ruled by their cruel, basest instincts. This episode suggests something different, as evidenced by Mr. Toole’s eventual willingness to let the freedmen carry guns to patrol against the Sioux. A community can still be built here, but it sure doesn’t seem like there’s any place in it for Cullen or Elam, except possibly as the despised rulers. For Cullen, that’s by very conscious choice, but for Elam it’s a mix of social misfortune and his own terminally awful decision making.

“Scabs” finds Lily trying to get back in Durant’s good graces after the whole “inadvertently putting out a hit on the foreman” thing, which means overseeing the construction of a bridge over Sioux sacred land. The workers arrive to find the Sioux holding one of the railroad sentries hostage, and the only thing Cullen can do is shoot the poor man before the Sioux can inflict a far worse death. Worried for their safety and angry at Bohannon, the men refuse to go back to work. Durant finds himself at a total loss, but Bohannon seems to be in his element for the first time in ages, and so he puts in motion an uncompromising plan to get the strikers back to work. Requesting a bunch of new workers be brought in on the next available train, he watches as the camp unites in murderous wrath against the scabs, then sends them back to work the next day. Meanwhile, Elam learns that his resumed affair with Eva has left her pregnant, and his entire world comes crashing down on him as he realizes he doesn’t have the respect of anyone in the camp, much less the friendship.

The show has been dancing around the fact that Elam is a useless asshole for a while now, and this episode finally gives him what’s coming to him. He gets quite literally a righteous beatdown from the main freedman (who I have just learned is named Psalms—seriously, this show is not good at establishing characters’ names), as Elam fights dirty and still gets his ass kicked and is left humiliated in the mud by Psalms. Elam has always had, at best, a tenuous relationship with the freedmen, at first because he had ideas above his station and then because, when his station actually did improve, he was such an insufferable jackass about it. Outside of maybe Eva, Elam hasn’t done right by anyone since he collected those scalps and made his big deal with Durant. There’s room for sympathy here, as there should be for anyone who has spent the better part of their life enslaved by other men and now faces bigotry and resentment no matter what he does. But Elam—and I sure hope this is what the show and Common have been going for—has completely squandered any good will the audience might reasonably be expected to have.

Indeed, his beating at the hands of Psalms is still only the second worst thing that happens to him in this episode. Mr. Toole absolutely eviscerates Elam when he tries to threaten Toole into treating Eva right, as the violent, drunken bigot calls Elam’s bluff and ably demonstrates he’s now more of a man and, worse, more of a father than Elam is. While the unexpected pregnancy story has been done countless times before, at least Hell On Wheels decides to zip through the well-worn story beats at lightning speed, with Eva confessing the truth to Toole (give or take specifically naming Elam as the father) about five sentences into their evening conversation. Considering this show could easily string along this story for another four or five episodes with nothing more than a bunch of meaningful glances and circular conversations between Eva and Elam, give credit where it’s due. By episode’s end, Toole has seemingly accepted his role as the father. He’s still a violent drunk, so it’s hard to know if this reconciliation with Eva will last, but for now her gloriously backhanded compliment appears to be correct—he really is one of the most half-decent men she’s ever known.

The main story finally allows Bohannon to establish his place in the camp, and of course it’s as all-purpose badass. His plan with the scabs is basic manipulation, but then the railroad workers have never seemed like especially difficult men to fool. The more interesting moment is when he crashes the dead sentry’s wake and tries to rouse the men to keep building the railroad to make the man’s death mean something. While Bohannon isn’t really known for his motivational speeches, his oratorical failure is still spectacular—his pitch might just have worked back in season one, but the men now know the real Cullen a bit too well to buy into the unconvincing crap he’s selling. Like Elam, he’s dangerously close to isolating himself completely, although he’s at least aware of what’s happening. As he tries to explain to Elam, this is what working for Durant means, and it suits Bohannon just fine. Durant himself is sidelined for another episode, becoming the obstinate buffoon so that Cullen’s genius is all the more obvious. Admittedly, it makes sense that Durant would know far better how to control senators than he would a rowdy workforce, but Colm Meaney deserves more to do than just being a foil to Bohannon or Lily.

As is all too often the case with Hell On Wheels, it isn’t clear just why Bohannon cares so much about not compromising with the Sioux. While it’s good to see Cullen invested in anything, the characterization up to this point has been so garbled that there’s no obvious reason behind his actions. That changes toward the end of the episode, particularly the final moment when Bohannon tells the sentries to kill anything they see. Bohannon is supposedly qualified to work for Durant because building a railroad is like fighting a war. The suggestion here is that Bohannon actually wants the confrontation with the Sioux, that he wants to turn the railroad into a new war for him to fight. In the first season, he wanted revenge against his family’s murderers, and now I wonder whether he just wants vengeance against the whole damn planet. It’s a twisted motivation, but then this is a man who solved a labor dispute by placing innocent men in the path of a bloodthirsty mob, with no guarantee at all that it wouldn’t end in countless deaths. Bohannon might well be a far better villain for this show than Durant ever was.

Stray observations:

  • The Swede largely takes a backseat in this episode, though he squeezes in a monumentally creepy stare in at the sentry’s wake. I also found his latest ramblings about blood hilarious, mostly because of Tom Noonan’s low-key delivery of the already pretty mild setup line, “It’s some kind of labor dispute.”
  • As bad as Elam has it in this episode, Reverend Cole is somehow on an even more pathetic downward spiral. There’s no good way to spin the sentence, “I’m sleeping in the cemetery.” 
  • The revelation that the freedmen are ex-convicts and so essentially the property of the railroad comes out of nowhere, especially since you might think Mr. Toole and the other bigots would have brought this up in one of their previous racist rants. Now, I don’t want to suggest this reveal was just made up for this specific episode… but I’m not entirely sure how else to finish this sentence.

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