After featuring an opening reminiscent of a Miami Vice episode – with an undercover Swede pulling double duty on his Crockett impersonation (Davy and James in one fell swoop), and Reverend Cole ostensibly standing in for what would be a Tubbs who is completely off his rocker – it’s clear that Hell on Wheels has some big things planned for ‘Purged Away With Blood.’
What the episode really offers, though, is an example of what the show does best: present an occasionally absurd story that is seemingly disconnected from whatever the larger narrative is trying to be, while having the central characters alter their dispositions for the benefit of some heavy, but not entirely ineffective thematic elements. And, as is so often the case when a show like this goes off the rails, the ensuing wreckage is fascinating to watch.
‘Purged Away With Blood’ picks up shortly after last week’s ‘The Railroad Job,’ and sees a fading Durant (Colm Meaney), along with the increasingly pregnant Eva (Robin McLeavy) and the soon-to-be-executed Doc Whitehead (Grainger Hines), aboard a train headed for the medical attention Durant requires in Chicago. So, at least when Reverend Cole (Tom Noonan) and the Native American warriors storm the train, it stands to reason why Bohannon (Anson Mount) and Elam (Common) would have at least a passing interest in making sure certain individuals – if not the train’s key cargo – make it off alive.
For whatever reason, the now sober Cole is of a mind that the manifesto he wrote, while under the considerable influence of “Corn Likker,” is suitable for publication. And not just tucked away in some literary journal of little note or self-published and distributed amongst the equally inebriated denizens of Hell on Wheels, mind you. No, Cole wants whatever lengthy nonsense he’s written published on the front page of a newspaper, or he’s going to kill everyone onboard the train. While the set up allows Bohannon to put himself in full-on John McClane mode, it also asks the question: Other than a constant need to be pigheaded and deny people what the want, why does Durant care? He’s faced more serious opposition before, and as far as the plight of the Native American is concerned, one can’t imagine the average newspaper reader is inclined to suddenly side with a drunken reprobate who formerly preached from a tent.
But ‘Purged Away With Blood’ skips over such questions in favor of highlighting the particular crazy Tom Noonan so effortlessly brings to the screen. In fact, more so than any other occasion during the series’ relatively short run, Noonan’s performance is so big that his demise at the end is all but inevitable. And so, despite the lunacy of the episode, and the often ham-fisted dialogue the actors are forced to spout to one another, some of the themes actually come together and offer two characters trying to do the right thing – though by completely different means – an exit that borders on meaningful. It borders on meaningful because the element by which Cole is dispatched – his adopted son Joseph (Eddie Spears) stabs him at the request of Bohannon – has been marginalized to such a degree this season that his participation in the event is little more than simply convenient. However, the more interesting question being posed may be: In killing Cole, did Joseph do some good, or merely take a step on the road to becoming something like him?
If that is the case, then judgment may be headed Joseph’s way, now that it’s finished with Cole and Doc Whitehead. What separates those two, however, is the way in which they faced death: Cole with righteous indignation and Whitehead knowing he’d done wrong and, despite being offered an out by Bohannon, chose to accept his punishment – but on his terms. Whitehead’s departure not only deprives the increasingly brutal and hostile Bohannon some sort of moral guide, but it places the Swede (Christopher Heyerdahl) in the lead, as far as the ever-escalating Bohannon-Swede feud is concerned.
To that end, the Swede has begun to implement whatever his ultimate plan of destruction is – which seems to involve setting the Sioux against the railroad and its workers for some unknown purpose, and bring about the war he’s been so anxiously awaiting this season.
Beyond potentially thinning the somewhat bloated and underutilized cast, and providing a more streamlined narrative, as the season rapidly approaches its climax, pitting Bohannon against the Swede makes for some intriguing possibilities – especially if Durant is out of commission for a spell. Since it appears Reverend Cole was little more than a tool the Swede had intended to set off the race war, he may envision himself the centerpiece in the conflict to come. Seeing as how Bohannon is more than capable of leaving death and destruction in his wake, it will be interesting to see which one emerges as the true forerunner of serious trouble.
Hell on Wheels continues next Sunday with ‘The White Spirit’ @9pm on AMC.