I don’t know exactly what AMC was thinking with that pilot which I still think trudged along with cliches laden throughout the narrative; however, I was pleasantly surprised with the second episode of the Hell on Wheels. It’s what I expected in the first place. And it is why I tend to give a show a second chance even if I hate the pilot. Last year, I liked the USA pilot for Fairly Legal. No it wasn’t earth-shattering television but I thought it was – cute. And honestly, sometimes cute is all I need with a television show. Then with expectations set high, I tuned in for the second episode and wondered if all the executives at USA had smoked loads of crack because what I was watching was not the same show. They had somehow ruined the good, happy, feeling and made it some miserable power struggle with a few half-lighthearted moments. I stopped watching by episode 5.
I’m the first one to admit I don’t give a rat’s ass about railroads or trains. So I am not the audience for this show. But I have a theory: if a show is well written and you make compelling characters, it can make almost any subject bearable. And that happened for me in this episode. Finally, some of the characters are beginning to show – character. Cullen Bohannan (Anson Mount) must prove he is more than just a good shot in a confessional booth. He gets brought in for questioning regarding the murder of his former boss in the pilot episode. Will he cover for Elam (played by rapper Common) or will he betray him? To make this drama more compelling, the man who has Bohannan brought in for questionning is a new, twisted character, The Swede (Christopher Heyerdahl) who shackles Bohannan in an empty railcar until he confesses to murder or hangs him without the confession, whichever comes first. What is clear is that Bohannan is going to die in this episode if he doesn’t take drastic action, take control of his life, and stop reacting to his wife’s death. This episode represents the moment a character realizes it is up to him to change his life and control it or he will lose it.
SPOILER ALERT: Bohannan and The Swede have an intimate conversation regarding what made The Swede (actually A Norwegian), a sadistic torturer. He was once an accountant. No. That isn’t the explanation but if you have ever worked with anti-social accountants who aren’t people persons and there are many out there, believe me, then you might see an underlying similar personality. It was when he became a prisoner of war that he discovered killing people for his survival was not only necessary but on some level, pleasurable. Of course, the pleasurable part is implied but it hangs in the air of the railcar while Bohannan realizes if he doesn’t not escape, he will become a statistic on The Swede’s balance sheet of “immoral mathematics” – hence the title of the episode.
Not only does Bohannan escape but he confronts Durant (Colm Meaney) and talks himself into his former boss’s job, winning his freedom from The Swede’s persecution. At least temporarily. Because once you’ve made an enemy with someone like The Swede, that problem usually doesn’t fix itself. In the meantime, Durant has his hands full. He’s worried about the missing surveyor’s maps that Lily (Dominique McElligott) escaped with. He puts out a reward. And he also manipulates the news story to make the Indians somehow look worse which I would have thought was almost impossible after the pilot episode.
Finally, Lily is on the run. Well, ok on the hobble because she can’t move very fast. After all, her husband was murdered in front of her (come on if the Indians didn’t get him that stupid cough would have killed him in a couple of months – at least he went out with a bang this way). We also cannot forget that she was shot with an arrow but managed to extract it from her shoulder and murder the Indian who killed her husband. I have some high hopes for Lily being a kick ass bitch. They were a bit let down this episode though. Yes, that scene where she has to sew up her wound was impressive and made me want to vomit, I’ll give the writers that. But I feel like you can’t have it both ways. She’s tough when she needs to be and vulnerable when it serves the narrative. She ends up being rescued by the only ‘civilized Indian’ in the area, Joseph Black Moon (Eddie Spears). I’m taking bets on how long it will take for those two to hook up and really cause some problems in the Hell on Wheels settlement camp.