Nothing heats up the drama on a western series quite like an injunction being filed against a railroad by the corrupt businessman who profited from his abuse of its construction. Okay, that’s not true; almost anything will heat up the drama more so than a character filing an injunction to regain the seat of power in which he formerly resided (such as the comedic stylings of Anson Mount and an unruly mule), but this provides Hell on Wheels the perfect excuse to make Cullen Bohannon dramatically confront and subsequently accept his sins.
It’s somewhat peculiar that a series where pardons are handed out as frequently as others receive lethal doses of hot lead would switch gears and try its hand at a mostly symbolic courtroom drama with practically nothing at stake. Sure, on one level, this is the literal manifestation of the season’s underlying theme, which has Bohannon answering for his past misdeeds and representing himself more plainly and in a more just manner – which is, of course, to show the character owning up to the fact that he has been a laconic, unrepentant killer (justifiably so, in some cases) that no one knows particularly well. What’s curious, though, is how Durant’s assault on Bohannon’s is essentially rendered nil by episode’s end, especially as it pertains to the season’s ongoing narrative and the further development of the characters.
The trouble is, other than justifying the continued presence of newspaper reporter Louise Ellison (Jennifer Ferrin) and the introduction of future President of the United States Ulysses S. Grant (Victor Slezak), it’s an examination that doesn’t really benefit anyone involved. Even though the episode concludes on the blissful union between representations of the North and South over a bottle of whiskey and a shared hatred of Thomas ‘Doc’ Durant, the episode is really punctuated by two key moments of seemingly spontaneous violence (goodbye, mule; so long, Jasper Prescott) perpetrated by Cullen Bohannon and his trusty six-shooter. Both actions seem determined to demonstrate how the character is not yet done with his past ways, and how, in order to move forward, he must remove all possible roadblocks (literal and figurative) by any means necessary.
It seems like the intended result was for Bohannon to conclude that he is destined to walk two paths simultaneously, and try as he might, neither one is necessarily headed toward salvation. In that regard, ‘One Less Mule’ is incredibly efficient; Bohannon comes to terms with the kind of person he is and weighs that against the kind of person he wants to be. All of that is well and good, but the episode’s surface-level investigation of why it matters and what, ultimately, lies behind this discovery leaves so much unexplored, Hell on Wheels is right back where it has been one too many times – i.e., conflict for the sake of conflict that lacks a fulfilling sense of significance or meaning.
What felt like an inflation of the important thematic development of the season, instead deflates the expansion of the premise and robs the narrative of much of its tension as well. Still, at least the season, like the itinerant town for which it’s named, is trying to move forward, so perhaps this will lay the track for new actions to be explored.
Hell on Wheels continues next Saturday with ‘Cholera’ @9pm on AMC.
Photos: Chris Large/AMC