“You took a harmless drunk and lit a fuse.” With that one sentence, Bohannon dismisses the events of last week’s “Purged Away With Blood” as unimportant, a mere prelude to the real confrontation between him and the Swede. If a show is going to have its protagonist take such a blasé attitude to his most recent exploits, then his current story better be a hell of a lot more compelling than what came before. And to my considerable shock, Hell On Wheels totally pulls it off. “The White Spirit” is by a comfortable margin the best episode the show has ever done, and crucially it actually addresses many of the show’s most basic flaws. It’s too early to say the show has hit a turning point, but the fact that I’m seriously considering the possibility means plenty in and of itself.
A title like “The White Spirit” promises plenty of hot Swede action, and the opening scene, in which the Swede shaves his head, strips off his clothes, covers himself in war paint, and takes his place among the chanting Sioux delivers with lurid gusto. Admittedly, the next time we see him he’s acting altogether sane, at least by his standards, as Lily summons him to camp to make sense of the absent Durant’s finances. With Durant’s life still very much hanging in the balance, the camp is on the brink of anarchy, and only Lily’s unconvincing declaration that all is well and the gruff orders offered by a disinterested Bohannon are keeping things in order. The McGinnes brothers have resurfaced, this time wanting to buy Carl’s saloon. To help them in their takeover bid, Elam and Psalms engage in some seemingly ill-conceived sabotage of the latest whiskey shipment, but it becomes clear that Elam’s recklessness is really his way of severing ties with Lily, Durant, and the railroad once and for all—not to mention getting a cut of all the bar’s future profits now that the McGinnes brothers are in charge.
In the middle of all this is Bohannon, who takes approximately half a scene to run across the Swede, determine that it was he who supplied Reverend Cole and the Sioux with their guns, and decide to knock him out and lock him in the prison car. At least Hell On Wheels never wastes much time getting to its big plot twists—most other shows would have given the Swede at least a full episode to worm his ways into Lily’s relatively good graces before Bohannon makes his move. But the key difference that sets “The White Spirit” apart from its predecessors is that the episode actually follows through with its promised confrontation between Bohannon and the Swede, rather than stranding Cullen in yet another narrative cul-de-sac like the labor dispute or the payroll heist. Hell On Wheels is always reasonably propulsive, but this time it’s actually headed somewhere.
Bohannon has to extract a confession from the Swede if he wants to keep him locked up, but all the mad Scandinavian will offer are some brutally insane thoughts on bloodlust. At first, Cullen dismisses the Swede’s ramblings as he did the Reverend’s, as he laughs and tells the Swede he’s out of his damn mind. But then the Swede argues that Bohannon would never have killed Sergeant Harper at the end of last season if he had not been driven to it by sheer, animalistic love of violence. Harper, after all, was a terrified, innocent man, and an honorable person—like Bohannon claims he is—would not have killed Harper if there existed any doubt as to his guilt. The Swede then argues the insanity of Bohannon executing Doc just because his old friend asked him to, goading Cullen to kill him just to prove his lethal nature. Part of why the Swede is convincing where Reverend Cole wasn’t is his situation—Reverend Cole was the dangerous psychopath in complete control, so Bohannon’s primary concern was defusing the situation and saving the hostages rather than considering what Cole had to say. The Swede, on the other hand, is a prisoner in his first big confrontation with Bohannon. It’s a situation where Bohannon has all the power, and the Swede’s only way of piercing his enemy’s armor is with his words. It’s the same reason why Hannibal Lector, not Buffalo Bill, is the more memorable psychopath in Silence Of The Lambs—when the villain’s sole agenda is in weakening his opponent by deconstructing that opponent’s worldview, it’s more likely to rattle the hero than when the villain is doing something evil. The Swede’s later speech about the horrors of Andersonville and his resultant hatred for all Confederates explains why he considers Cullen personally, intimately responsible for the atrocities of his allies, and Cullen actually seems on the verge of considering the Swede’s argument that he is a constant reminder of Bohannon’s own capacity for evil.
But then, it’s at that moment that Bohannon again decides to run away from his problems. And if the Swede starts the process of calling Bohannon out on all his bullshit, then it’s Lily who finishes the job off. She identifies all the things that make Bohannon so maddening as a character: his underlying cowardice, his dickish moralizing, his selfishness, his commitment to taking the easy way out at the earliest convenience. Lily isn’t a great character, but she’s essentially correct when she says that, for all the mistakes she’s made, at least they have been her own mistakes, and she has stayed to face the consequences of every last one of them. She doesn’t actually point it out, but a lesser person probably would have accompanied Durant to Chicago and abandoned Hell on Wheels to the inevitable chaos. Once again, Bohannon is forced to admit that he’s wrong, and his apology to Lily the next morning could just as easily be speaking for the show itself, essentially saying to all of us, “Yes, I know I’ve screwed up in the same damn way over and over again, but now I am admitting it and am going to try my damnedest to change.” In response, Lily officially reignites last season’s tepid love triangle and has sex with Bohannon. You’ll forgive me if I don’t do the same with Hell On Wheels, what with that being a bizarre theoretical impossibility and all, but that doesn’t mean I’m any less impressed with the show’s sudden improvement.
“The White Spirit” isn’t high art, and it doesn’t dig into the show’s nascent themes any more than other episodes. But what it does do is give all of its characters (save the absent Joseph, Durant, and Eva, but I have no issue with this economy of characters) their own stories, keeps their personalities consistent throughout, and lets the stories overlap and intermingle organically. The McGinnes brothers’ latest venture provides the perfect excuse for Elam to vent his frustrations with management, which in turn forces Lily to confront how precarious her situation is, which gives her the resolve to call out Bohannon on his cowardice in running away again. Even as chaotic a character as the Swede fits in neatly, shaking Bohannon out of his stasis and informing Lily of Durant’s massive, wholly unexpected fraud before going away once again. This is the solid, direct storytelling the show has so desperately needed, and it even has some fun with the utter shamelessness of Elam’s robbery and Mickey’s shakedown. Now let’s see if Hell On Wheels can do this all again next week.
- Another character who is surprisingly well-served by this episode is Ruth, who for all her entirely understandable hatred of her father is still very much the grieving daughter here. To Cullen’s semi-credit, he immediately confesses to her that he gave Joseph the knife to kill the Reverend, for which Ruth forgives him a tad too quickly. That’s underscored by the next exchange, in which she kindly but firmly refuses to give Bohannon even the modicum of hope for salvation that he is clearly seeking. It’s ambiguous whether she’s actually speaking about Bohannon when she says that, and even better it’s a genuinely ambiguous moment, rather than just another bit of fuzzy writing.
- If I have any concerns about the shockingly high quality of this episode, it’s that Durant is nowhere to be seen, and I wonder whether those facts might be related. The show has never really seemed to know what to do with Durant ever since it made the Swede the primary antagonist, and he’s been little more than a background player this season. While it might actually help the development of the other characters to write out Durant permanently, removing the strongest actor would do no favors for an already shaky cast. As effective as Anson Mount and Christopher Heyerdahl are in their roles, Colm Meaney is the only real acting heavyweight in the cast, especially now that Tom Noonan has been killed off.