HELL ON WHEELS 1.09 ‘Timshel’

In the aftermath of the Cheyenne attack, Cullen gets a warning from Durant and Elam let's his success go to his head.

Blair Marnellby Blair Marnell

Episode Title: "Timshel"

Writer: John Shiban

Director: John Shiban

Previously on "Hell on Wheels":

Episode 1.08: 'Derailed'

Story:

While tracking down Pawnee Killer (Gerald Auger) and his renegade band of Cheyenne warriors, Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount), Elam Ferguson (Common),  Joseph Black Moon (Eddie Spears), Lieutenant Griggs (Ty Olsson) and six other Union troops find themselves in a Cheyenne ambush. In the fierce melee that follows, several of the Union troops are killed, but Cullen and Elam are particularly effective at killing and they help turn the tide. When Pawnee Killer tries to escape, Joseph shoots his own brother in the back and he drags his body back to the former Cheyenne camp.

Griggs threatens to kill Joseph for supposedly leading them into the ambush, but Cullen brakes it up. Cullen and Elam decline to join Griggs and the surviving troops as they pursue the rest of the Cheyenne while Joseph stays behind to give his brother a warrior's funeral. Joseph suggests that Thomas "Doc" Durant (Colm Meaney) will want proof of their kills by the scalps of the renegade Cheyenne. Cullen refuses to mutilate the corpses, but Elam is less willing to pass up the $20 per scalp bounty, even if he doesn't enjoy claiming them.

On the way back to Hell on Wheels, Cullen and Elam encounter Lily Bell (Dominique McElligott), who is now working as the new surveyor for Durant's railroad. Elam takes the scalps to Durant, who initially doesn't seem to believe that Cullen passed up the bounty. Durant also tries to cheat Elam out of half of his reward, but when that doesn't work Durant suggests that he may have more "off-the-books" jobs for Elam in the future. Flush with his new-found money, Elam visits Eva (Robin McLeavy) at the brothel and after another round of sex, he asks her to be his woman.

Outside, the newly returned McGinnes brothers, Sean (Ben Esler) and Phil (Mickey McGinnes) witness The Swede (Christopher Heyerdahl) throwing his weight around by beating up the head of the brothel when she can't make her payments. Out at the former Cheyenne camp, Joseph's father, Chief Many Horses (Wes Studi) finds him preparing the pyre for his brother and he mourns the loss of both of his sons; while noting that Joseph's defection to the white man as being more painful. Back at camp, Reverend Cole (Tom Noonan) is even more disheveled when his estranged daughter, Ruth (Kasha Kropinski) confronts him and slaps him a few times. But in the face of Cole's apparent madness, she flees.

As Eva and Elam enjoy each others company, the surprisingly not dead Mr. Toole (Duncan Ollerenshaw) calls Elam out and then falls to his knees begging for forgiveness. Toole claims that he survived Elam's gunshot by the mercy of an angel and he wants to make amends. Elam makes Toole apologize to Eva before allowing the still wounded man to hobble off. Elsewhere in camp, Sean tries to bribe Cullen into killing The Swede on behalf of the camp, but Cullen refuses and reveals that The Swede has been stealing from Durant; which may be enough to get rid of him.

At the camp bar, Elam strolls in and acts even bolder than usual as he joins Cullen for a drink. The Swede tries to make a toast to their honor as a pair of great Indian killers. But instead, Cullen turns the toast into one for the impending completion of 40 miles of track; which will trigger the government money that Durant wants so badly. Senator Crane (James D. Hopkin) arrives in time to see the final spike go in, as Hell on Wheels erupts in celebration. In private, Durant overhears Crane and The Swede discuss the location of Sgt. Harper, the last surviving man who helped killed Cullen's family.

Joseph returns to his tent to find Ruth waiting for him. As Joseph relates the death of his brother, Ruth kisses him?! Oh boy… At the camp bar, Cullen and Lily bond over drinks as a jealous Durant looks on. Durant then summons Cullen outside and he warns him that The Swede has alerted the authorities with evidence linking Cullen to the murders he committed while avenging his wife. And back at the church, Griggs stumbles inside with an intention of killing Joseph. Reverend Cole pleads with Griggs to forgive Joseph, but the Union officer can not be swayed.

So, Reverend Cole grabs Grigg's sword and decapitates him.

Breakdown:

My first reaction to Reverend Cole's beheading of Lt. Griggs was spontaneous laughter. I'm not sure what the producers of "Hell on Wheels" were intending for that scene, but it couldn't have been comedy.

My second reaction was "So… this show is going to be like 'Spartacus' now?"

I would really, really like to say that "Hell on Wheels" is a great TV series, or at least on its way to greatness. But that's just not the truth. There are a lot of things that I like about the series, but it never comes together as a whole. And it would take surprisingly little effort to turn this into a farce, "Blazing Saddles" style. 

Sticking with Reverend Cole, the idea behind his regression into violence sounds good in theory. He's a man of God who has become disillusioned by his own calling and in the form of his daughter he's been confronted with the family that he abandoned. That's material that's perfectly suitable for a drama. And yet, there's a cartoonish aspect to Tom Noonan's performance that almost seems like it was designed to be funny. Cole even looks like he's licking the blood from his lips in the closing seconds of this episode; which was darkly amusing.

Cole's daughter, Ruth hasn't been very well served either. I'm sure that the majority of the problems there are with the part as written; but Kasha Kropinsk also comes across as extremely melodramatic in all of her scenes. Ruth's seduction of Joseph Black Moon was also a huge "WTF?!" moment. I feel like I could have bought into that if it wasn't immediately on the heels of Joesph killing his brother and if Joseph and Ruth had spent more time together than the scant screentime that they shared. As Cole's surrogate son, Joseph's earlier interactions towards Ruth made them seem like siblings. Watching them kiss seems vaguely incestuous… but it's still less creepy than Debra Morgan's dream about snogging her adopted brother on "Dexter."

I think that the one thing that could save that angle is if Cole went full on crazy after learning that his only daughter was deflowered by Joseph. But even that idea seems better suited for comedy. There's just not enough genuine pathos for it to come off as legitimate drama.

Strangely, it's Wes Studi who brings most of the best moments in the relatively minor role of Chief Many Horses. As much as I find it annoying when the Cheyenne have conversations in near perfect English when they are alone (instead of using their own language), Studi brought a real sense of gravitas to his brief scenes as the Chief said goodbye to both of his sons. And weirdly enough, the death of Pawnee-Killer seemed anti-climatic and unsatisfying after Joseph shot him from behind.

When this series began, I was convinced that Joseph's story was going to be one of the most interesting things about "Hell on Wheels." Why would the son of the Cheyenne Chief be so drawn to Christianity and the ways of the white man that he would turn his back on his own people? It still feels like we're in the dark about Joseph's motivations. Joseph has mentioned that he had a vision, and I think that the audience should see that to. Without a deeper understanding of Joseph's character, he seems more and more like a stock character.

I haven't forgotten that "Hell on Wheels" is supposed to be Cullen Bohannon's show more than anyone else's. And Anson Mount still seems to take the proceedings more seriously than the other actors around him. There's a look on Cullen's face that can only be described as contempt and regret as he watches Elam scalp the Cheyenne warriors. Cullen never brings it up again, but it was the rare subtle moment that informed on his character. 

Unfortunately, Cullen is somewhat undercut by his non-reaction to the confirmation that Sean fixed his boxing match and that the people of Hell on Wheels see him as little more than a killer for hire when The Swede makes life too difficult for them. Those are the kind of things that Cullen should have had a stronger reaction towards… or any reaction, really. In those scenes, he came off more like a gunslinger android than a driven man still ruled by his demons.

Also, Cullen's long flirtation with Lily took a sharp right turn into campy territory with Durant's apparent jealousy over the newly developed closeness between Cullen and Lily. It's very… high school. And none of their interactions up to this point seem like they have warranted this weak romantic turn. The slow burn between Cullen and Lily was enjoyable, but if events are going to suddenly veer straight into cliche than what was the point of building them up? Similarly, what is the reasoning behind bringing Toole back to life? And are we really to believe that a bullet that went into his mouth came out the side of his neck? I'll admit that I was expecting Toole to strike at Elam with some kind of swift and ugly violence, so the penitence of Toole was a nice surprise. However, it's still going to take a lot of work to turn Toole into a viable character as opposed to the embarrassing stereotype that he's been since the beginning of the series.

As for The Swede, it's shameful the way that "Hell on Wheels" has diminished its most intriguing character in the space of a few weeks. By the way, avoid the trailer for next week's season finale if you don't want a major spoiler about what's in store for The Swede. Congratulations for ruining that surprise, AMC! The only intriguing thing that may come out of this is if the writers position Elam as Durant's new right hand man next season; which would probably reignite his feud with Cullen. There's definitely a lot of inherent drama in that.

But at nine episodes in, I'm not sure that the writers of "Hell on Wheels" have any concept of what a good drama is. At best, this series is okay. And yet it feels like it could have been so much more.

Crave Online Rating: 7 out of 10.