Here’s what we know: Late in season 2, Hell on Wheels has proven that a barely clothed, Bisquick-coated Swede (Christopher Heyerdahl) will endure as one of the most frightening images seen on television all year. More importantly, ‘The White Spirit’ handles all the normally disparate elements of the series and manages to arrange them all in such a way that the episode’s thematic arc ties them all together in a satisfying and cohesive manner.
The series has, for a while now, been toying with the idea of becoming a fascinating look at a civilization teetering on the brink of complete moral collapse. With all the structures going up, land being sold and, most importantly, the railroad appearing to make progress (though not as often as it should), the denizens of Hell on Wheels have managed to create a thin veneer of society on what is still very much a wild and unruly place. But instead of taming the land around them, they have, instead, managed to show just what a preposterous notion the idea of civilization can actually be.
Perhaps ‘The White Spirit’ is benefiting from the very necessary culling of the cast in last week’s over-the-top ‘Purged Away with Blood.’ Yes, there will be times when the particular brand of crazy that can only be brought by Tom Noonan will be sorely missed, but already the show feels like it’s managed to zero in on tighter storytelling.
On the whole, the notion of ‘The White Spirit’ is centered on the Swede’s belief that he and Bohannon (Anson Mount) are cut from the same cloth: each men relish the chance to kill and bring death, but only one freely admits it. ‘Purged Away with Blood’ helped nudge Hell on Wheels into addressing the way death and destruction follows a supposedly honorable man, and this episode certainly turns things up a notch.
As one would expect, with Durant (Colm Meaney) in Chicago, the unruly railroad workers doubt Lily Bell (Dominque McElligott) truly has the situation under control and begin to question whether or not they’ll continue to be paid. The only bargaining chip that Lily really has is the fact that there’s no proof Durant hasn’t already died, and because of that, the railroad is essentially still in fine working order – albeit with utter chaos just waiting to be unleashed.
After the Swede’s uncomfortable introduction, he returns, appearing calm and sane enough that Lily doesn’t question his sudden lack of hair, and requests his bookkeeping skills, as a means to ensure the temperamental workers will actually see their money. In his own way, Bohannon objects to the Swede being in Lily’s employ, intimating the Scandinavian’s knowledge of his new rifle is tantamount to a confession of having stolen them to arm the Sioux. Much skull fracturing ensues and the Swede finds himself shackled in the same train car he’d put Bohannon not long ago.
The following scene shows a certain deft touch in its dialogue that Hell on Wheels has struggled with in the past, having the Swede goad his captor with remarkably perceptive allegations of Bohannon’s lust for conflict and violence. Despite an onslaught of backhands, the Swede brings up Bohannon’s murder of Sergeant Harper as exhibit one, and later the Southerner’s execution of Doc Whitehead (Grainger Hines) to illustrate just how willingly Bohannon will participate in the act of seeing another human being to their grave. The argument is enough to give Bohannon pause to think about a dark part of his nature that is clearly more prominent than he’d care to admit.
Later, Lily sees to it that the Swede is released based on the complete lack of physical evidence against him, and her need to decipher Durant’s books currently outweighs any malfeasance on his part. Following his release, the Swede recounts his time in Andersonville with gruesome detail, and admits that the Southerner is little more than a constant reminder of his hatred for all things Confederate – adding that he must be nothing more than a constant reminder of Bohannon’s lust for violence. For whatever reason, all the introspection proves too much for Bohannon and he prepares to head away from Hell on Wheels once more.
Though he’s done this many times before, the difference this time seems to be Durant’s absence allows Lily to finally confront Bohannon on his penchant for running when things don’t go his way, and confess her feelings for him. Though he initially hits back with the insult of her seeking “quick comfort” in Durant, it later dawns on Bohannon just how uncertain Lily’s position in Hell on Wheels was, leading to a surprisingly tender moment between the two that suggests there’s still something redeeming in the laconic gunslinger.
Though it focused primarily on Bohannon and his nemesis, ‘The White Spirit’ also managed to bring together the McGinnes boys and Elam (Common), in a way that felt like a natural progression of the episode’s look into the increasingly vicious nature of the town’s inhabitants. Elam suggests a way Sean (Ben Esler) and Mickey (Phil Burke) might wrangle the bar away from its current owner. He and Psalms (Dohn Norwood) sabotage the bar’s shipment of whiskey, which the brothers follow up with Mickey’s not-so-subtle threat of continued sabotage and, in fact, violence if the bar isn’t sold to them.
Whether it be Bohannon, the McGinnes boys, Elam or the Swede, the acceptance (or acknowledgement) of their nature actually stands to bring the characters of Hell on Wheels closer in terms of the show’s sometimes elusive narrative. At least, in sinking lower, it makes the characters more likely to develop into something consistent as the season nears its end.
Hell on Wheels continues next Sunday with ‘The Lord’s Day’ @9pm on AMC. Check out a preview below:
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