“In the beginning, there was blood. A land demands it. Every new land demands blood and we relent. It is our nature. We are, after all, animals. In our arrogance, we forget this. But in the end, we rise from the land only to return.”
With that gleefully lurid, borderline psychotic opening monologue—which the Swede either delivers to a German butcher or straight to the audience, both of which are wonderfully insane possibilities—Hell On Wheels sets out its nihilistic mission statement for this week's episode. The frontier is no place for people to come together and build communities that would not have been possible back in the worlds they left behind. This is instead a hell peopled by opportunistic savages, a place without any hint of right and wrong or rhyme and reason. Even our putative heroes are not immune, as Bohannon is forced to rather weakly justify his renewed authority over the railroad workers when everyone knows for a fact he stole their payroll. (His attempt to explain antitheft insurance protection to the workers doesn’t go over nearly as well as he must have been hoping.) “Slaughterhouse” is all about the consequences of Elam’s murder of the prostitute-killing foreman last week—except in the resolutely amoral universe of Hell On Wheels, he’s about the only character who isn’t touched by the fallout. You just can’t trust a bunch of bloodthirsty animals to dole out justice, especially when they’re being manipulated by a lunatic Norwegian.
Last week, there was some debate about whether it was realistic for Elam to get away with murdering the foreman, and whether the show was going to continue this plot thread. “Slaughterhouse”, to its credit, comes up with a way of continuing that story that I don’t think any of us saw coming in last week’s discussion. While Elam is too smart and too busy pining for Eva to go around blabbing that he killed Mr. Schmidt, Mickey McGinnes is all too eager to take credit for the deed in order to impress his favorite prostitute. The ever vengeful Swede takes advantage of Mickey’s stupidity and goads Mr. Schmidt’s fellow German immigrant, the butcher Mr. Bauer, into leading a lynch mob against the two Irish brothers. Bohannon—who, amusingly, discovers he’s been gone so long that people don’t know him by reputation anymore—and Elam save the McGinnes brothers from the noose, but only temporarily, as Durant feels he needs to execute the supposed murderers or else risk losing the respect of his men. A guilt-stricken Lily, who ordered the hit on Mr. Schmidt in the first place, is determined to do the right thing. The only problem, as Elam points out, is that just means Elam taking the McGinnes brothers’ place in the noose. After all, there’s no way that Durant is going to punish Lily, let alone hang her.
There’s a commitment to nastiness running through “Slaughterhouse” that’s weirdly admirable. The final scene, in which the banished Mr. Bauer packs up his tools to leave camp and the camera pans round to the grimly determined McGinnes brothers, comes the closest to crystallizing the episode’s big idea, that this is a kill-or-be-killed world and every single character here is capable of reverting to their baser animal instincts. This is one instance where the discordant season-one characterization of the McGinnes brothers compared to where they are now actually serves the story. There’s a genuinely intriguing juxtaposition between Mickey’s brutally efficient killing of the butcher with the comic-relief buffoon whose brilliant moneymaking scheme last season was to run a peep show using the prostitutes’ showers. The McGinnes’ revenge is a final effective twist at the end of an episode that consistently defies expectations, and not in a way that simply throws all plot logic out of the window. Hell On Wheels has previously told us that Mickey carries some murderous secrets, but this is the first time it’s actually shown us something to make that background feel believable. For his part, Sean has been a manipulative, underhanded creep for a while now, but the show has generally treated him as essentially harmless, a minor player compared to Bohannon, Elam, Durant, and the Swede. The look on Sean’s face when the camera finds him in the slaughterhouse suggests he isn’t just willing to eliminate all threats, he’s actually eager to, especially since he leaves most of the dirty work to Mickey. He’s now clearly just as capable of any villainy as all the other characters are.
The trouble is that while “Slaughterhouse” has a theme it wants to explore—people are bloodthirsty animals, per the Swede’s opening narration—the creative team still doesn’t quite have the skill to bring it all together. This episode is full of stuff happening, and it’s possible for the audience to see how each sequence links back to the episode’s big idea, but that still means the underlying connective tissue is missing. This is an abstract point to make, admittedly, but what it means is the show still doesn’t pay enough attention to character work.
For example, look at how the episode treats Durant. It’s he who insists on the execution of the foreman’s apparent murderers, it’s he who explodes in savage rage when Lily admits what she did, and it’s he who ultimately goes against his own petty instincts and grants the brothers their freedom. He’s never going to be a major player in the story being told here, but he should still be more than a plot convenience. His feral fury about how “Someone has to hang!”—other than being the first line so over-the-top that it defeats Colm Meaney—is introduced and dispensed with so quickly that we don’t get any insight into his character, or for that matter why he is the one person capable of refusing that demand for blood that the Swede mentions. It’s a small point, perhaps, but it’s hard to build thematically rich episodes when so many of the characters remain ciphers. In isolation, each sequence can be compelling, but they can’t resonate without consistent characterizations to hold it all together.
It also probably isn’t the best idea to relegate Bohannon, the supposed protagonist of Hell On Wheels, to little more than wisecracking camp enforcer. It’s certainly an ideal delivery mechanism for some Bohannon Badassery (patent pending), but there’s very little he does in this episode that actually advances our understanding of who Cullen is. The potential exception is the bathtub confrontation with the Swede, in which he makes it clear he’s also willing to murder to preserve order. He suggests that the Swede hates himself even more than he hates everyone else, which his Norwegian Nemesis (patent also pending) argues describes Cullen just as well. The exchange is as subtle as a sledgehammer, and it’s arguably just a slightly freshened spin on something we’ve heard over and over, but it’s still a minor step in the right direction in terms of character-based storytelling. Arguably more revealing is the Swede’s true reason for bringing Bauer’s fury down on the McGinnes brothers: Much as he has excellent reasons to hate the brothers, he would have gladly done it anyway because of his Nordic hatred for the Irish. Indeed, it’s entirely possible that even if he had known that Elam was really responsible, he still would have pointed the finger at the people he truly hates—when dealing with the Swede, it’s actually worse to be Irish than to be black. Acknowledging these ancient bigotries makes the world of Hell On Wheels a little deeper, as it becomes clear everyone has an irrational, bullshit reason to hate everybody else. It isn’t just people’s animal side that makes them do horrible things—as far as this show is concerned, human nature is already plenty rotten all on its own.
- In this week’s good parenting tips from Reverend Cole, we learn the best way to reconnect with your daughter is to burst into the middle of a funeral service she’s conducting while screaming, “Fornicators!” over and over again.
- I’m a little concerned that the show continues to have so little interest in actually building a railroad, as train-related business takes up at most about five minutes of screentime tonight. That said, overlaying the sounds of the approaching locomotive as the McGinnes brothers kill Bauer is a nice touch.
- So, is Cullen still out for revenge, or what?
- Minor point, but the episode reveals Mr. Schmidt and Bauer the Butcher came over from Germany together. After rewatching the end of “Durant, Nebraska” to double-check this, my question is this: Why the hell did Mr. Schmidt have a pretty clear American accent?
- If I’m understanding this correctly, Bohannon has moved into the Swede’s old job as head of security, while everyone’s favorite unkillable Irish bigot Mr. Toole takes over Bohannon’s old job as foreman, for the excellent reason that Mr. Toole doesn’t hate Bohannon because it wasn’t his payroll he stole. This is one seriously well-run railroad, folks.
- I feel obligated to point out that if you want to see a far more effective example of a badass drama tying together all its themes into a coherent, satisfying whole, you could do a whole lot worse than paying a visit to this year’s other “Slaughterhouse.”