The big problem with “The Railroad Job”—with Hell On Wheels in general—is on perfect display in one of the episode’s final scenes. The McGinnes brothers are in the crowded saloon, offering their remembrances of the prostitute killed in the shootout earlier that day. Elam shows up to have a drink, but the bartender, who has legitimate reasons to want him gone, refuses him entry on the grounds that Elam was a coward during the shootout. Mr. Toole and all the other bigots stand in glowering solidarity with the bartender, and they hail him as the conquering hero when Elam finally sees sense and leaves. But the scene is the weirdest sort of sleight of hand: Sean and Mickey McGinnes, who are the initial focus of the scene, completely disappear when the bar turns on Elam. We can assume from their silence that they decide not to stand up for Elam—despite the fact that they, as participants in the shootout, might well know the bartender is twisting the truth—but the show doesn’t offer so much as a quick glimpse in a crowd shot to let us know whether they’re happy, angry, conflicted, aroused, or whatever the hell else about this latest development. These are two major characters observing a pivotal moment for another major character, and the show doesn’t consider their reaction something we need to see. On its own, this might be a minor point, but it all goes back to the show’s refusal to weave a coherent larger story. We’ve now reached the point where, even when characters’ stories overlap physically, they still remain wholly separate narratives.
“The Railroad Job” has a decent premise at its center: Hawkins, the leader of the ex-Confederate bandits from the beginning of the season, decides to rob the camp’s payroll while all the workers are off building the bridge. While casing the camp just before the heist begins, one of the robbers doesn’t take kindly to Elam’s presence in the saloon, and Hawkins’ too-generous attempt to make peace with Elam tips him off that something bad is about to go down. While Durant sends for Bohannon to return to the camp, Elam arms the McGinnes brothers and a sick Psalms, but the heist has already begun. While the setup is sloppy, and the geography of the heist is never as clear as it should be, the robbery is still easily the best part of the episode. Outside Bohannon and occasionally Elam and Hawkins, nobody has much idea what to do, as when a trigger-happy bandit kills one of the prostitutes when she lunges for some spilled heist money and the McGinnes brothers rush forward in furious, clumsy vengeance. Hell On Wheels is a sloppy show, but this is an instance where its messiness feels like well-orchestrated chaos, a way of illustrating the incompetence of everyone involved in the heist. Eventually, Cullen shows up and does his whole Badass Bohannon thing, accompanied by music that evokes Ennio Morricone. The contrast between the awesome hero and the outmatched villains is one that Justified has perfected, and Hell On Wheels offers one worthy imitation when Bohannon bears down on Hawkins, who finds himself comically unable to reload his gun. The entire sequence works as entertaining pulp, with just enough nods to the idea of being a revisionist Western to feel like it belongs on Hell On Wheels.
That’s the thing, though—if you think about it, the heist has little to do with the main characters, least of all Bohannon. Sure, these are his old accomplices, but their decision to rob the payroll is entirely independent of anything Cullen ever did or told them. Hawkins simply wants to avoid him, because he’s not a complete fool, and he carries no insight into Bohannon. Indeed, his second-to-last words are an erroneous accusation that Cullen was a railroad double agent all along, while his last words serve a character moment for Elam. Bohannon comes out of this brush with his former criminal acquaintances unscathed and unchallenged, with him even getting to sit in moral judgment of his old friend Doc Whitehead. This is a perfect opportunity for Cullen’s past mistakes and selfishness to come back to bite him, and yet his only real functions in the story are once again to be the laconic badass and to be vaguely disappointed with everyone. Of course, the show is under no obligation to pursue any particular thematic connection, but it needs to do something to deepen its story. Right now, the average Hell On Wheels episode is just a bunch of stuff that happens, and the stories being told aren’t entertaining enough to be this superficial.
It doesn’t help that the characters remain either ciphers, maddeningly inconsistent, or both. Look at Lily, who notes at the beginning of the episode that she’s wondering what will become of her once the railroad reaches the Pacific, clearly worried that there won’t be any place for her to go once Durant returns to his wife in New York. Considering the barely restrained contempt Lily typically shows him, this sudden dependence seems to exist only to make her sufficiently torn up when Doc is shot during the holdup. In fairness, Lily did return to Durant after trying to break away from his last season, so you could argue that Lily’s fierce independent streak is her way of avoiding the fact that she only holds what power she does in camp through Durant’s sufferance. You could make that argument, but I’m not at all convinced the show has—the pieces are there to make that point, and it even has some nice parallels with Elam’s dependence on Durant’s good graces, but the explicit connections aren’t there in the storytelling. “The Railroad Job” reverses course later in the episode, as Lily admits part of her wishes Durant had died. Inconsistencies like this don’t automatically mean the show is guilty of bad characterization—after all, real people are full of inconsistencies and contradictory motivations, and the great shows weave these all-too-real discrepancies into ultimately coherent characters. But Hell On Wheels isn’t anywhere close to a great show, and Lily’s changes of heart come across as slapdash responses to whatever the plot needs of her.
Hell On Wheels doesn’t need to be thematically rich or have complex, multifaceted characters to be a decent show. “Durant, Nebraska” already provided a blueprint for the show’s success as shameless, over-the-top pulp, and the shootout taps into some of that goofily lurid sense of fun. There’s been stuff to like in the subsequent episodes, such as the gleeful nihilism of “Slaughterhouse”, Cullen’s low-rent Machiavellianism in “Scabs”, and the heist in tonight’s episode, but the long-form storytelling remains ponderous and, worse, seemingly pointless. It’s not all been a total loss—Elam’s odyssey from ostracism to grudging re-acceptance has been workmanlike, decently solid storytelling—but it all feels far less than the sum of its parts. As we close out the first half of this season, the show has still improved from where it was a year ago, but it has fundamental problems that still need fixing. Basically, if Hell On Wheels wants to be about something, it better figure out just what the hell that something is.
- The Swede and Reverend Cole’s story is starting to get too insane even for me. Apparently the Swede now believes the Reverend is some sort of blood prophet? I’m not sure there’s any payoff psychotic enough to live up to all this buildup, but here’s hoping.
- The shootout avoided one of my more esoteric pet peeves by actually remembering to give all the good guys an active part to play in the proceedings—Cullen, Elam, Lily, the McGinnes brothers, the ailing Psalms, and even Durant all get at least a quick moment in the spotlight.
- “Damn it Elam, he wasn’t done saying his last words!” I never quite imagined a Bohannon line would remind me of Hank Hill, but Anson Mount’s exasperated delivery of this rebuke managed to do it.
- “Ain’t much fun killing them, but they seem to need it.” If the show is going to keep Bohannon a badass blank slate, at least keep giving him lines like this.