When last we checked in on The Increasingly Poor Creative Decisions Of Joe And Tony Gayton, Cullen Bohannon and company were being set upon by Pawnee Killer and his bloodthirsty gang of Native American Luddites. The ensuing melee takes up the pre-credit sequence. For purposes of cheap-jack irony, the whole bloodbath is devoid of dialogue and sound effects; all we hear is Mumford & Sons singing "Timshel" ("You are not alone in this/ As brothers, we will stand, and we'll hold your hand"), which I personally find much less enjoyable than the sound of the agonized screams of dying men. And much of the violent action is in slow-motion, because the director concluded that this would be less expensive and time-consuming than digging up the grave of Sam Peckinpah and raping his skull, while amounting to pretty much the same thing.
It's a funny thing about great artists: their motives can remain pretty mysterious and hard to articulate, even for themselves. In movies like The Wild Bunch and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, Peckinpah constructed surreal, over-the-top ballets of carnage and destruction, composed of images that were so visually beautiful they took your breath away, and that, paradoxically, had the effect of making people on kamikaze missions look more alive, at the moment they were taking their last breaths, than Olympic champions at the moment they were winning the gold medal. Then he'd give interviews in which he'd claim that he was trying to depict violence with the utmost realism, with the intent of repulsing the audience and creating a new generation of pacifists. (Never mind that if Gandhi himself had shown up at one Sam's card games, he probably would have commanded Warren Oates to set him on fire.) Hell On Wheels, on the other hand, is the work of hacks, people whose lack of personal obsession and conflicted emotions render it an ambiguity-free zone.
The point of the battle here is that murderous violence, even if committed in self-defense, is ugly, soul-deadening, and a waste. The action reflects this message perfectly and admirably, with fighting that turns one-on-one and desperate: Bohannon clubs a man to death with a handy animal bone, decorating the blue sky behind his head with red arterial spray, while Common, in what might be an homage to an image in Peckinpah's Cross of Iron, drowns a man in a muddy puddle. (Brown water flies up and coats the camera lens. There's also a shot of Bohannon, after his impression of the apeman in Kubrick's 2001, where the camera lens is doused in sunspots. There used to be a time when this sort of thing would happen and you'd have to guess: did the director think this kind of thing is arty, or did he just not realize that it had happened until he got the footage back from the lab and it was too late to do anything about it? It's more of a clear-cut, damning indictment of the director's taste now, when I'm guessing they could CGI some of this crap out if they wanted to.)
Truth be told, the movies that the sequence most strongly calls to mind and those Steven Seagal spectaculars where the landscape and the number of opponents kept shifting elastically, like comic strips imprinted on Silly Putty. It's never very clear how many soldiers are there fighting alongside Bohannon and the Lieutenant, and though at first it looks as if there's a formidable number of Indians attacking them, they're very well-mannered about not interrupting a man-to-man contest and going after someone who's in the process of throttling one of their comrades. The punch line to this meant-to-be-harrowing sequence comes at the very end of the episode, when Tom Noonan's Reverend character finally goes full Noonan on somebody, in a moment that would have done HBO's old Tales from the Crypt series proud. It made me spit out my popcorn; it almost made me cry out, "Oh, the Noonanity!" I'm not sure was the intention. But it did get my attention. As Tennessee Williams is supposed to have said backstage during the previews of The Rose Tattoo, in response to some audience reaction that he hadn't been counting on, "If they laugh, I wrote a comedy."
I guess that was a lot of space to devote to the first three and a half minutes, and the last fifteen seconds, of this episode. But this was an episode that mostly seemed to be devoted to wrapping up things, like the Pawnee Killer saga, that never really took off, and planting seeds for the next season, and in between its splatterific bookends, it was the dullest Hell On Wheels yet. Wes Studhi got to deliver a little speech of the kind that's often assigned to distinguished actors who, with the producers' great appreciation, have deigned to class up a TV show with their presence in a recurring role but whose services will not be required for the season finale. Durant took common under his wing, and the local tradesmen offered Bohannon a hundred dollars to kill the Swede, who, no longer content to steal from his employer and run his shakedown operations, has added the bitch-slapping of brothel proprietors to his list of foul, foul deeds. Bohannon turned them down, not because killing the Swede would cost him a minute of sleep, or because he doesn't think the Swede has it coming to him, but apparently on the theory that if you catch a man a fish, he'll eat for a day, but if you teach him to fish, he'll eat for a lifetime, and if a malignant seven-foot-tall Frankenstein's monster of a Norwegian son of a bitch starts grabbing the fish out of his hands, he ought to do something about it himself. Bohannon, like many a tortured action hero from Bogart on down, has his own moral code that is not easily cracked by us mere mortals.
My strongest reaction to the news that Hell On Wheels, which wraps up its first season next week, will be getting a second one is that I hope it doesn't tie Anson Mount up so much that he doesn't get to explore better-written roles. The possibilities that Bohannon seemed to offer him in the pilot haven't come to much, and the fact that he hasn't been able to better transcend the limits the writers have placed upon him may be a sign that he's not the second coming of Sean Connery or anything, but he does still have his moments. After Bohannon and the others have vanquished Pawnee Killer's forces, Joseph Black Moon tells Bohannon that nobody will believe the story he's going back to tell "without proof", and tries to hand him a scalping knife. Bohannon takes a minute to register what he's been told and says, "They'll just have to take my word for it. I ain't bringing back proof," and the spin that Mount puts on the word "proof" is a thing of beauty.
Too bad for him that he's also trapped in the lamest non-starter of a lopsided love triangle in TV history. Durant tells him that the Swede is making progress in his efforts to destroy him, because Durant has detected simmering feelings between Bohannon and the fair Lily Bell and hopes to scare off his rival. Never mind that, at the rate Bohannon works, those feelings could simmer along at a steady rate between now and the time Seth Brundle renders train travel wholly obsolete with the development of his teleportation pods. Never mind that, based on the record so far, there isn't anything the Swede could try that Bohannon couldn't foil by hiding in his closet and jumping out at bedtime and yelling, "Boo!" Never mind that Bohannon, who has advised his Munchkin friends that they should bring the Swede down by finding some evidence of criminal activity on his part and bringing it to Durant's attention, could kill many birds all by his lonesome just by telling Durant what he himself knows about the Swede's stealing from him. And for God's sakes, don't even mention the fact that Lily Bell, whether by design or in part because of the actress's incompetence, has betrayed so little sign of interest in or even curiosity about Durant that his interest in her seems not just out of character but pathetically delusional.
No, forget all of that. The important thing is, Durant, that old cutie, just has to tell Bohannon this in a conversation that starts with him saying, "I want to offer you a bonus," so that Bohannon, the recently penniless Confederate war veteran on a mission, can reply, "I don't need any more money," just so that Durant can then explain that he isn't talking about money, he has something to give him that's far more important than money, i.e., information, which is, rakka-rakka-rakka. Have I ever mentioned to you kids about how much I absolutely loathe dialogue exchanges where the writer is so determined to have one character talk some stupid shit that he has whoever he's talking to say something that it's impossible to imagine he'd have any reason to say (like, oh, "I don't need any more money") because the writer is too untalented to think of a better way to set it up? There are stories about classic Western movie actors like Gary Cooper and Clint Eastwood getting their hands on their scripts and cutting out great swaths of dialogue, which is supposed to be because they understood something about the appeal of the laconic, straight-shooting hero. Maybe they just knew better than to try to say some of the stuff they read.
- I'm not even going near—not in the main body of the review, anyway— the miraculous return of Irish Steve the Drunk, back from the dead with a hole in his head and, on bended knee, begging Common for forgiveness for "my ignorance and cruelty towards you." The thought crossed my mind that this might possibly have been inspired by the famous story of Phineas Gage, the railroad construction worker who suffered a spectacular cranial injury—an iron rod was driven through his head, laying waste to much of his left frontal lobe—and survived, but whose personality seemed so changed that friends described him as being like another man. In theory, the idea of an unreasonable, belligerent man surviving being shot in the head but becoming so different that he has nothing in his heart but regret about having wronged the man he drove to try to kill him is kind of interesting. In execution, it's some Ed Wood shit.