It’s pretty apparent at this stage of Hell on Wheels’ first season that the show isn’t very good at being what it wants to be. It’s got big ideas on its mind, but has continually failed to put those big ideas to any sort of meaningful or compelling use. But when the show ditches its feigned depth and delivers something a little more straightforward, it’s actually a decent watch. This week’s episode does just that, returning to part of what made “Immortal Mathematics” work so well – a genuine, gritty face off between two characters.
The big fight between Cullen and Elam, a result of Durant’s desperate need to draw attention away from his inability to pay his workforce, was quite a thrill to watch unfold, even if everything else surrounding it was business as usual. It was brutal, unpredictable, and, probably for the first time in the show’s run, yielded an outcome with consequences that are anyone’s guess. Hell on Wheels seems to work best when it’s in moments such as this, when the big ideas surrounding the show are muted and it is truly, purely, in the moment.
Which makes it all the more frustrating that the other plot threads are such a drag. Reverend Cole and Black Moon travel to a Cheyenne campground to warn them of an inevitable war with Union soldiers – a plot that does little to relieve the feeling these two are in their own show. Worse yet is the introduction of a new character in a show with too many of them – Cole’s daughter, Ruth (Kasha Kropinski). She’s sidelined almost as quickly as she’s introduced – calling into question why the writers have chosen to bring her in in the first place. It doesn’t help at all that she’s a character tied to the Cole and Black Moon storyline – it’s arguably the show’s worst offender when it comes to wheel-spinning, and this week was no different.
And then there’s the time we spend with Durant and Lily Bell. Bell’s been withholding the fact that she’s in possession of the maps Durant has been after since the start of the series – maps that reveal a way to get the railroad through the Rocky Mountains. Bell finally choses to show her hand in this chapter, but to what gain isn’t revealed. Their interaction is supposed to be a battle of opposites –Durant’s loud, clumsy forwardness as the antithesis of Bell’s quieter, slyer nature, but I’m not sure I’m buying it. Bell’s done very little to prove she can be a player – after all, she’s spent the majority of these episodes in a fairly helpless state. And Durant, despite his over the top demeanor, has still made moves that display a certain level of skill in both manipulation and awareness. It seems strange he’d fall for Bell’s deceit – especially given the constant interest she’s had over the maps and their value during her time with Durant. Maybe it’s sloppy writing, maybe the creators have something up their sleeve, but given what we’ve seen of the show so far, I’m not counting on the latter.
Finally, the episode continues to develop a plotline I’ve touched on fairly infrequently, the story of the two Irish brothers. Much like the plot thread of Cole and Black Moon, the brothers’ story has felt pretty dead in the water – doing nothing for the show except taking time away from its more intriguing aspects. These detours are a large part of why Hell on Wheels has felt like a show without a center – its focus is constantly being pulled in numerous different directions. Again, a big reason the Cullen and Elam fight worked so well was it was one of the few times the show chose to stay in the moment – a moment that moved away from lofty ideas and instead chose to be much more primal. I said last week that the best we can probably hope for this show is that it injects a little bit of life into itself. As it turns out, there’s a deeper element to that. If Hell on Wheels doesn’t have what it takes to be a top-tier drama, this week’s showdown proved it can still be fairly watchable when it sticks with more surface-level forms of entertainment. If it drops the pseudo-intellectualism and starts kicking up the action, it may very well turn into something worthwhile.