In the first episode without The Walking Dead as a lead-in, AMC’s gorgeous western Hell on Wheels brings a little brouhaha to the table, showing the program isn’t afraid to spill a little blood in the aptly titled ‘Bread & Circuses.”
Despite the secret they share regarding the murder of ex-foreman Daniel Johnson (Ted Levine) from the series pilot, the tension between his replacement/suspect Cullen Bohannan (Anson Mount) and Elam (Common) has been ready to get pugilistic for some time now.
After informing his walking bosses that the worker’s pay would be now twice delayed, Cullen is faced with the possibility that Elam can organize the men well enough to encourage they throw down their tools and refuse to work. Cullen’s efforts at controlling Elam gain the attention of railroad head Thomas Durant (Colm Meaney, Get Him to the Greek), who suggests the two settle their differences with a bare-knuckle boxing match for the entertainment of Hell on Wheels. Much to Durant’s relief, the distraction of violent spectacle and the promise of free whisky is enough to quell the would-be uprising.
Meanwhile, the lives of other Hell on Wheels inhabitants are severely disrupted as the Swede (Christopher Heyerdahl) continues to shake down the McGinnes brothers, tearing down their magic lantern show and leaving them without means to earn a living. Additionally, Reverend Cole (Tom Noonan) is graced with the unexpected arrival of his estranged daughter Ruth (Kasha Kropinski). Despite having not seen his daughter for 12 or so years, Reverend Cole is still fatherly enough to remind her not to leave the church tent unless it’s on fire, before leaving in search of Chief Many Horses (Wes Studi, Last of the Mohicans, Avatar), the father of his companion, Joseph Black Moon.
Though angry at his son’s desertion, Chief Many Horses listens to Reverend Cole who pleads a case for peace – before the Union soldiers arrive to wipe out the land’s native inhabitants as retribution for the killing of the surveying crew.
Back at Hell on Wheels, Elam is faced with yet another damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t situation - which, at first, results in him refusing to fight Cullen – who happily beats the man to a pulp, despite being aware of his opponent’s reluctance. Cullen’s decisive victory is put on hold after Elam finds a reason to fight, and the spectators – including a wandering Ruth – are given the bloody show, which was promised them.
Faced with the prospect of losing everything, Sean McGinnes (Ben Esler) arranges to have Elam’s wrappings doused with peppers, so as to give the waning fighter the advantage needed to end the match. Though the McGinnes brothers are left flush, the means by which they earn the money doesn’t sit well with Mickey (Phil Burke).
By the end of ‘Bread & Circuses’ the young Irishmen aren’t the only ones involved in a bit of duplicity, as Lily Bell (Dominique McElligott) reveals to Durant that the maps through the Rockies – on which the railroad’s future relies – are in her possession. Though she calmly reveals to Durant that his needs must first comply with her demands.
As it turns out, Durant has more than one payment due if his railroad is ever to reach its destination.
Hell on Wheels airs Sunday nights @10pm on AMC.