Episode Title: "Derailed"
Writer: Mark Richard
Director: David Von Ancken
Previously on "Hell on Wheels":
On the train back from Chicago, Thomas "Doc" Durant (Colm Meaney) struggles to write a letter to his wife when his companion, Lily Bell (Dominique McElligott) notices Cheyenne braves watching the train pass by. But before she can draw Durant's attention to this, the train comes to a screeching halt. Durant and Lily disembark from the train and that discover that a train was violently derailed ahead of them thanks to sabotage, with several riders injured or killed. As Lily and others tend to the wounded, Durant orders The Swede (Christopher Heyerdahl) to ride on to Hell on Wheels and get Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount) to lead a posse to go after the Cheyenne responsible for the derailment.
However, The Swede informs Durant that Cullen is a fugitive for killing a man who tried to hang Elam Ferguson (Common) because Elam slept with a white woman, Eva (Robin McLeavy). Durant is incredulous that The Swede would sanction the lynching and run off his chosen foreman. Just then, Cullen and Elam ride up and Cullen draws his gun faster than The Swede can. The Swede drops to his knees and begs for mercy, but the only mercy Cullen shows is that he doesn't instantly kill him. Instead, he ferociously whips The Swede with a leather strap until both Lily and Durant urge him to stop.
Shortly thereafter, Durant meets with Cullen and Lieutenant Griggs (Ty Olsson), the leader of the U.S. cavalry troops assigned nearby. Durant essentially blackmails Griggs into allowing Cullen to accompany the troops on the hunt for Pawnee Killer (Gerald Auger). Joseph (Eddie Spears) volunteers to bring the troops to his tribe provided that Griggs promises that no women or children will be harmed. Privately, Durant tells Cullen that he wants him to keep Griggs from starting a war, but he does want Cullen to execute the renegade Cheyenne warriors.
Soon after, Cullen speaks with Lily and he questions her return to Hell on Wheels. Cullen inquires if Lily is with Durant romantically and she insists that she is not a kept woman. Although, leaving Cullen's side to have lunch with Durant doesn't dispel that idea. Cullen then approaches Elam and he asks him to accompany the search for the Cheyenne because Elam is the only man that Cullen trusts. Touched by the sentiment, Elam agrees. But first Elam steps into the brothel to reconcile with Eva. As Joseph, Elam and Cullen ride out of Hell on Wheels together, Griggs mocks them and he is openly resentful of their presence.
Meanwhile, Lily begins packing her things and she informs Durant that she intends to live among the camp and not as his woman. Angered and disappointed, Durant refuses to help her move. And when Lily hires some men to pitch her tent, she is alarmed that they expect immediate payment or sexual favors in return. Eva comes to Lily's aid and puts the bill on her "tab." The two women later bond over a common meal as Lily mentions being haunted by the spirit of the brave she killed in self-defense during the massacre of the survey team.
Out on the trail, Cullen listens as Griggs brags about the Union's victory at the Battle of Antietam. Cullen reveals that he fought on the Confederate side of that battle and with remorse, he states that the only reason that the Confederate troops retreated was that they ran out of ammo after cutting down hundreds of "brave" Union soldiers. The war of words almost escalates into a fight, but Elam convinces Cullen to back down. The next morning, the men awaken to blood curling screams and discover that one of the cavalry troops has been brutally murdered. And in the confusion, Pawnee Killer's men steal their horses, leaving the company without an easy way back or forward.
Alarmed by Griggs' seeming willingness to kill any Cheyenne that he comes across, Cullen warns Elam that they may end up fighting their own side. Cullen also notices that Joseph is delaying their entrance into the Cheyenne camp to give his people more time to escape. Back at Hell on Wheels, a torrential downpour envelopes the camp as Lily tries to install her own floorboards. Outside her tent, Durant calls out her name. And when Lily doesn't respond, Durant leaves Robert's pocket watch tied to the door of her tent.
Later, Cullen and his armed companions enter the Cheyenne village and find it recently deserted. A single Cheyenne boy walks towards the camp and he is quickly shot by Griggs. But just as Cullen points his weapon at Griggs, Pawnee Killer and several Cheyenne warriors emerge and begin attacking them. The war has started.
"Hell on Wheels" is generally an enjoyable series, but the writers don't seem to know how to handle the assets that they've been given.
Take The Swede for example. In the space of three episodes, he's gone from the most interesting and enigmatic character on the series to Cullen Bohannon's whipping boy, literally. I wonder if the writers realize just how much that undercuts The Swede as both a character and an adversary. Once you've seen the bad guy cowering in fear, it's difficult to ever take them seriously again. Even The Swede's later scene where he correctly realizes that Cullen has been killing Union soldiers does little to reestablish him after Durant shuts him down.
The one intriguing thing about Cullen's beatdown of The Swede is that Lily saw it all. Up until now, Cullen has largely shown Lily his more positive qualities. This is her first glimpse of Cullen's darker side and she clearly doesn't care for it. The slow burn on Cullen and Lily's possible courtship has been refreshing, but it still needs a little more momentum before the end of the season. As it stands now, Cullen's words convince Lily to break away from Durant and thankfully spare us any more awkward scenes where he tries to woo her on the train.
It's been pointed out that Cullen's noble Southern warrior shtick is a bit of cliche, but Anson Mount does it well. Mount is able to give Cullen some humanity in his performance and he is convincingly remorseful over his actions in the Civil War during his Battle of Antietam argument. The new camaraderie between Cullen and Elam is also fun to watch; and it seems like it's been a little overdue. Cullen's joke about Elam "impressing" him at the cathouse was also really funny and one of my favorite moments in the episode.
However, the greatest weakness of "Hell on Wheels" is that some of the characters still feel flatter than cardboard. I'm sure that we're meant to feel sympathy for Reverend Cole (Tom Noonan) and his crisis of faith as well as for Cole's long suffering daughter, Ruth (Kasha Kropinski). But their scenes together are so overwrought and exposition heavy that there's no drama. I simply don't care about their problems because they aren't compelling or believable.
The cliffhanger of this episode was definitely effective and it will hopefully lead to some exciting episodes ahead. I also loved the brief Ennio Morricone-inspired music that played as Cullen left Hell on Wheels, although I've seen some writers cry "sacrilege!" over that. "Hell on Wheels" may not be as good as the great spaghetti Westerns, but there's still potential in this show.
At least, I want that to be true.
Crave Online Rating: 7.5 out of 10.