It's fitting that Hell on Wheels would feature an episode concerning a labor dispute on Labor Day weekend, since being that on the nose is more or less the show's style. Still, for the second week in a row, the series has managed to tell a more convincing and concise story that better attempts to tie in thematic elements of the episode with the larger, more prominent storyline of the series. Whereas last season seemed to be a jumble of ideas and story elements thrown together, season 2 has, at least, begun to weave a general thread into mix. And through that, lo and behold, there is an episode concerning the construction of a railroad on a series about the construction of a railroad.
'Scabs' is largely concerned with the notion that since the Sioux have declared war, Durant (Colm Meaney) is faced with the prospect of a workforce unwilling to risk their lives in exchange for whatever pennies on the dollar they earn toiling away day after day. The dispute stems largely from the workers witnessing one of their own having his skin flayed off. Bohannon (Anson Mount), being the decisive man of action that he is, walks into a hail of Sioux gunfire so that he can put poor Flemming (the Sioux's captive) out of his misery. Naturally, the image of a colleague being tortured and then blasted by friendly fire in an act of mercy puts the workers in more of a drinking mood than a building bridges kind of mood.
Of course, no one in Hell on Wheels is really interested in building bridges (literal or otherwise), that's the sort of thing that lessens a man's influence over another, and as the town begins to move further into atavism – even as its size and complexity grows – there's the suggestion that not much will be left unless the disparate factions can come to some minor accord and work toward a common goal. For the time being, anyway, that goal is keeping workers from becoming victims of the Sioux. Naturally, there is some discussion between Durant, Bohannon and Lily Bell (Dominique McElligott) over what the correct course of action would be. Durant's not looking to spend any more money than he has to, and with the prospect of losing days of work due to striking workers, the last thing the tycoon wants is to eat more cash in circumventing the sacred land, as Lily suggests. Bohannon is his typical pragmatic self, suggesting the fight is coming either way, so the railroad might as well strap on its six-shooter, roll up its sleeves and confront the problem head on. If it happens to save Durant a few bucks in the process, well then, that'd just be icing on the cake.
The workers, however, remain unwilling, unless Bohannon can find some means of protecting them while on the line. For his efforts, after reconciling the fact that the guys probably deserve a day of drunken mourning, Bohannon displays a cold shift to physical threats in order to get the workers in line. Whether it’s the thought of being outnumbered or that it'd just take a whole lot of time to shoot everyone in town, Bohannon backs down and resorts to doing nothing until the lack of work being done compels Durant to give him carte blanche in terms of resolving the labor dispute.
In the meantime, the ousted Reverend Cole (Tom Noonan) catches Bohannon's eye as he wanders the town in a never-ending quest for another bottle of liquor. In what could have made for an incredible Odd Couple-like pairing, Bohannon suggests that Cole bunk with him instead of sleeping in the cemetery. Sadly, instead of a season's worth of roommate shenanigans between the persistently grumpy Bohannon and the lunatic charm of Cole, the offer of a place to crash is little more than a means to an end for Bohannon, who plans to rile up the workers by bringing in more men desperate enough for work that the threat of Sioux reprisal is nothing compared to the chance to earn a wage.
Elam (Common) and Bohannon look on as the workers, freedmen and the bigots alike, team up to violently get the new recruits back on the train and headed in the other direction. Though it could have resulted in a number of deaths, Bohannon's move to get the men back to work seems to have done the job – especially since he was able to convince Durant that arming the freedmen was really the only choice he had in the matter. Still, Elam watches the debacle, either irritated that Bohannon was willing to risk the lives of so many men in order to get his job done, or because in his current listless state, he was unable to get anything done that remotely resembled progress.
As much as Bohannon and the rest of the town's residents seem compelled to be swallowed up into the moral sinkhole that is Hell on Wheels, Elam's just being pulled along by a combination of bad luck and an unwillingness to make any kind of decision that's remotely close to being right. Since he's once more taken with Eva (Robin McLeavy), Elam soon learns that while it might be nice to have Mr. Toole (Duncan Ollerenshaw) working so hard as the new foreman, the result is Elam's about to be a father. In typical Elam decision-making fashion, he silently gets up and runs off, but later explains himself and hopes a small donation toward terminating the pregnancy will put the two star-crossed lovers back on an even keel.
It turns out, Eva decides to keep the child and, to her credit, fesses up to Mr. Toole. Despite being a semi-reformed drunk with a hole in his head, Toole eventually comes around – after a thorough application of booze – and seems to accept the fact that his wife is carrying another man's child. As odd as that may seem, it's all likely to change as the season progresses, since Hell on Wheels continues to spin its characterizations seemingly out of nowhere for the sake of each episode.
Perhaps, though, with his penchant for wickedness on the rise, Bohannon will maintain his path to destruction and will stay hell bent on war with the Sioux – as it seems all the Southerner is looking for these days is a bigger and bigger fight.
Hell on Wheels continues next Sunday with 'The Railroad Job' @9pm on AMC.