‘Hell on Wheels’ Season 3, Episode 4 Review – A Little Stickball

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Common and Anson Mount in Hell on Wheels The Game Hell on Wheels Season 3, Episode 4 Review – A Little Stickball

Hell on Wheels has had its fair share of humorous moments – intentional and unintentional alike. Now, a lot of the unintentionally funny aspects have to do with the serious scenery chewing that’s been done in the performances of Colm Meaney and Christopher Heyerdahl over the past two seasons. In fact, not since Jon Voight clamped down on Kramer’s arm have an actor’s teeth marks featured so prominently on a television series.

Certainly, the often extreme and inexplicable antics of the Swede and the bloviated, self-absorbed speeches of Doc Durant could, in fact, constitute a unique brand of comedy that the show has quietly been developing under the guise of what began as a showy but ultimately fruitless revenge drama. Let’s go back to season 1 and revisit the utter insanity of ‘Bread and Circuses‘ where Cullen and Elam attempted to settle their differences with a bare-knuckle brawl in the HoW saloon that quickly devolved into a comical scene where cayenne peppers won the match for Elam and Cullen was left to awake the next day with a chicken in his face.

Obviously, this demonstrated that for all its flirting with nihilism, Hell on Wheels had a sense of humor – a warped one, but a sense of humor nonetheless. But ‘The Game’ marks the first time the series’ writing has attempted what can only be described as broad comedy, with the result being an uneven, frequently uncomfortable, but not completely unentertaining hour of television.

Colm Meaney in Hell on Wheels The Game Hell on Wheels Season 3, Episode 4 Review – A Little Stickball

Shifting tone can often times be of great benefit to a series. In fact, most of the best dramas on television utilize or have utilized a tonal shift to the advantage of not just the episode in question, but the season or series as a whole. Two of the funniest shows on television are actually on the same network as Hell on Wheels – and no, I’m not talking about Comic Book Men or Small Town Security. I mean, of course, Mad Men and Breaking Bad.

Why, just this past season, Mad Men went completely off the rails with the hilariously awkward and memorable eighth episode ‘The Crash,’ which generated more Internet discussion and gifs of Ken Cosgrove tap dancing than anyone would have likely suspected. Meanwhile, who can forget the literal and figurative tormenting of Walter White by a winged nuisance in the superlative, Rian Johnson-directed Breaking Bad episode ‘Fly’?

Naturally, there are many more examples of how dramas often pull off comedy better than comedies do and I’m just mentioning a few to illustrate how a shift in tone can be entertaining and still serve the larger needs of the characters and storyline. In ‘The Game,’ however, the inclusion of a character like Jimmy Two Squaws (Brent Briscoe) – who’s sort of like Radagast of the Old West – somehow pushes the series further from sincerity and  closer toward self-parody without being an obvious benefit to the overall narrative. That’s not to say Briscoe didn’t achieve his goal as a humorously talkative and grossly in debt fur trader with somewhat duplicitous intentions; it just means that for all the yuks (and, in some cases, I mean yuck) wrung from his performance, the episode felt wildly incongruent with its storytelling, so that the weight of Elam and Eva’s baby’s disappearance at the episode’s climax barely registers, and subsequently renders the events beforehand largely inconsequential.

Anson Mount in Hell on Wheels The Game Hell on Wheels Season 3, Episode 4 Review – A Little Stickball

Moreover, it’s difficult to gauge what will happen when a show like this decides to include or depict members of a particular ethnic group, as sometimes an attempt at sincerity winds up being blended with some creative licenses that can sometimes come off as outright offensiveness. In that regard, ‘The Game’ awkwardly balances a deadly game of stickball with Bohannon and Elam fighting for their lives against some young Kiowa tribesmen that later leads to the once unrepentant seeker-of-vengeance to come to terms with and/or find God in what he believes will be his final moments (which leads to another stilted conversation with Ruth about faith and purpose). In the end, the various plates being spun by the episode land harder than the futile punchline that was the cut to Jimmy’s new wife, Buffalo Face.

As someone who thinks the turnaround in tone that’s being overseen by new showrunner John Wirth is actually a step in the right direction, I don’t want this misfire to prevent the series from attempting something similar, in whatever remains of its uncertain future. I’d rather a series take a risk and fail than continue along an ineffective and nihilistic path and risk becoming a footnote in the annals of television history.

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Hell on Wheels continues next Saturday with ‘Searchers’ @9pm on AMC.

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  1. I think the storyline following Tools Irish brother from NY is ridiculous. Why would this white guy come out west to get his brother’s white, tattooed face, prostitute wife, a complete stranger with a black man’s baby, to take back to NY or take anywhere for matter? It makes no sense. And it’s looking more and more that he is as psychotic as the Swede. Stupid.

    • How dos it not make sense?!
      He said it himself it was a tradition, plus its just anotehr problem for the show to continue with, with elam and mr. tools brother, which IMO is a good mini plot. The show is still doing good, I give it my full support, ppl just misunderstand the story sometimes, but it is not stupid.

    • Uh, its the old West where certain ethnic groups had STRONG ties to their roots and thier old country, while they try and adapt to a new world. The train isnt that far from New York not to warrant a visit by the childs UNCLE..

    • Understand something, when hasn’t a movie or show had convenient outcomes to propel the narrative ? Besides, it gives the series ample characterizations and subplots to serve the writers and viewers. Declan’s arrival, gave Eva some character development and nuance which otherwise would be out of place.Aside from Duramt and Swede, few of the cadt pontificate.

  2. I have watched sporadically, so forgive me if I have missed this. How did the people from last season, who died become living characters again? Did they just start over for this season?

  3. Don’t get me wrong,I love HoW. However, considering the times, even in the more so-called liberal NY (the concept of liberal back then was relative), Irish tradition aside, I find it implausible that a white man, (businessman at that)from NY would go west (east, south or north for that matter) to assume husbandly duties in place of his dead brother with his dead brother’s tattooed wife and be father to her baby which isn’t even his brother’s but is the child of another man, black at that, who is alive and well; particularly, once he’s understands the situation. Actually, this scenario doesn’t even fit the historical reasoning why a man takes on the responsibility of his brother’s wife. Sorry, that’s too much a stretch of the imagination and history, for me. Acceptance of interracial couplings was decades off (There are still places & people in the U.S. where it is frowned upon,now!). She would have been ostracized in the more class conscious, affluent NY, at that time. And Tool’s bro doesn’t look like a struggling Irish immigrant. His people ‘back then’ especially, would not have opened thier arms to the 2 misfits, particularly if he lived in an Irish ‘ghetto’, which is what they were called. And although the baby looks now that it could pass, like she said and which is true, features and color shading typically change as a mixed raced child gets older in months. And then Tool’s brother is so obsessed that he steals the baby?! No, I can’t buy this storyline. For me, it is stupid, unless and I guess they make him as crazy as the Swede to make this storyline make sense. I mean, what sane, even well-meaning, honorable man would go to those lengths under those sets of circumstances? Not plausible… But now I feel stupid for getting so literal about this fictional drama! :\

    • The baby is WHITE….. Elam so much as admitted it, so the UNCLE has EVERY reason to come out west to get his Nephew.

  4. I think the storyline following Tools Irish brother from NY is ridiculous. Why would this white guy come out west to get his brother’s white, tattooed face, prostitute wife, a complete stranger with a black man’s baby, to take back to NY or take anywhere for matter? It makes no sense. And it’s looking more and more that he is as psychotic as the Swede. Stupid.

    • As stated before, the baby is WHITE…. The Brother is a COP in New York, so has the means to travel out west to get his Nephew and raise him in a “proper” Irish household with a proper “christian” upbringing….

      The Irish were funny about that back then…..

  5. Robert, the baby is not WHITE. It is biracial, a fact that will typically become more evident physically as the child ages. But more importantly, the baby is NO blood relation to Tools. And whether the baby is considered white, black, yellow or brown,the baby’s biological father is alive and well and want’s HIS BABY! Are you saying Elam should give his child over to Tools? I don’t understand the argument here.

  6. BTW, at least we found out it wasn’t Tools who kidnapped the child…

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