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