Two episodes in, Hell On Wheels promises to be the most frustratingly uneven show on the air. It’s very watchable, for the most part, especially when Anson Mount’s Cullen Bohannon or some other big swinging dick of an alpha male is there to carry the action forward. (It’s also one of the most aggressively male shows on the air.) So far, there’s been a tremendous gap between the show at its best and the show at its worst, though if it fails to build (or hang onto) an audience, it won’t be because it’s sometimes bad but because it isn’t consistently compelling. And it could be a lot better, in a tasteful-viewing sort of way, without becoming more compelling. (As a point of comparison, American Horror Story has become one of the most talked-about new shows of the season, even though a lot of the people watching it think it’s essentially garbage, because it’s so damned addictive.)
Tonight’s sophomore episode introduces a character who handily combines the show’s best instincts and some of its worst. This is Doc Durant’s chief of security, played by the six-foot-four Canadian actor Christopher Heyerdahl as a combination of Judge Roy Bean, Savonarola, Peter Stormare, and Lurch. The character is conceived to be as big as all outdoors, and it’s hard not to giggle when he says, “Folks around here call me the Swede,” in a thick, cartoonish yurgen-burgen-lurgen-shnurgen accent. (If you giggle too loud, you might miss the punch line; his next line, delivered with a certain degree of ironic satisfaction, is, “I am Norwegian.”) The Swede has arrived to conduct an inquisition on Bohannon, who he suspects of having murdered Daniel Johnson (Ted Levine), the racist foreman—a murder that, for the benefit of any latecomers, Bohannon didn’t commit, though he was planning to.
The Swede immediately hints that, in matters of racial politics, he may not be much of an improvement on the dead man when he speculates, with undisguised relish, that maybe the murder was the work of “one of the Nee-groes.” But he can’t shake the feeling that Bohannon is hiding something, and as far he’s concerned, that’s reason enough to clap in irons and, after a decent interval during which he pretends to be interested in finding out the truth, ordering that he be hanged. Given that Bohannon isn’t the murderer but is hiding something, that all amounts to evidence of an impression set of instincts and a frightening set of priorities regarding how justice is dispensed. “When harlots and dipsomaniacs are killed,” he intones, “I do not lose a minute’s sleep. But Daniel Johnson represented a valuable asset to Mr. Durant.”
Heyerdahl’s big scene comes later, when he visits Bohannon in the railroad car that serves as his makeshift holding cell. He has a long monologue talking about his past: “I used to be a bookkeeper. I was always more comfortable with numbers than with people. I could control them better.” Assigned as a quartermaster to the Union Army, he wound up inside the prisoner of war prison camp at Andersonville, “way down in the great state of Georgia,” where he lost 120 pounds and, for the sake of his survival, learned to do “some not-so-good things.” Any mention of Andersonville in a story with a Confederate veteran is a good thing, since it’s a reminder that people who were not Southerners endured unbearable and pointless suffering during the Civil War. And Heyerdahl makes a meal of the speech, which illuminates both the Swede’s warped attitudes towards maintaining order among his fellow creatures and the pain and horror that shaped those attitudes. It’s too bad that, before the speech, the Swede has to be seen shaking down Bert and Ernie at their magic-lantern theater. There’s no way to square his actions there with the suggestion that he’s driven to do bad things out of a twisted sense of piety, so it crams him back into the mold of a conventional, hypocritical, mealy-mouthed villain.
I also wish that the Swede’s speech about Andersonville and numbers didn’t end with Bohannon kicking a plate out of the Swede’s hands, just to (implausibly) supply himself with an implement to use in making an (implausible) escape. Anson Mount created the base of an intriguing character in the pilot episode, and the second episode would be an ideal place for him to start expanding on it. He doesn’t get much of a chance to do that, because, between his escape and evading recapture long enough to have an unscheduled audience with Durant (in which he—implausibly—talks his way not just out of the noose but into a better job and an exalted place at the great man’s side), he’s too busy being Superman. Mount gets to show some humor in his exchange with Durant, explaining that, as a Confederate guerrilla raider, “I had to learn how [trains] were built so I could figure out how to blow them”—a line that neatly bounces off the Swede’s speech and serves to underline how everyone in this show is what they are now partly because of their experience in the war. (That includes Durant, who made his fortune during the war as a black marketeer.)
But there’s only so much he can do to redeem all the scenes here where Bohannon seems blessed with superhuman powers, powers that include miraculous feats of coincidence (such as finding some of his late wife’s needlework among the murdered man’s effects) and inside knowledge. When he tells Durant that he knows that Durant can use a man of his abilities, because he’s behind schedule and needs “to lay 40 miles of usable track before that government money kicks in,” it’s strange that Durant, whose reaction makes it plain that Bohannon knows what he’s talking about, doesn’t ask him who the hell his sources are; they could have forgotten all about this railroad business and gone in together to launch The Wall Street Journal 25 years before it began publication. At least he has the abilities to crack a joke from time to time and change expression when it’s warranted. Common, who so far has exhibited neither ability, is threatening to go down as the most insufferable former slave in TV history. He helps Bohannon during his time on the lam by removing his shackles, but he seems to be doing it just so that he can share his own bitterly ironic wit and wisdom with a captive audience. “Somebody put you in chains, natural thing to do is try to escape. Ain’t I right?” Absolutely, you’re so right. You want to keep hammering, please?
- The deadest part of the show continues to be the mapmaker’s blonde widow’s trek through the woods, even though she tries to prove herself every bit as gritty as the men in this show by suturing her own wounds without anesthesia. Eddie Spears’ character as the Indian who has one foot in the white man’s world, and who is last seen here sheltering her from his more bloodthirsty kinsmen, shows more promise. But I wish that, when he and his fellow Indians are alone together, they didn’t speak English. Maybe they’re supposed to be hipster Indians who speak the language of their enemies when they’re arguing about how many of them they should kill, to show that they’re doing it ironically. Adding insult to injury and all that.