Beginning with a soon-to-be-revealed mystery man wandering through the streets of the titular town, the show manages to set up a premise in which the main characters of Hell on Wheels are forced to react, rather than dictate, the progression of the storyline. As such, 'The Railroad Job' has its intentions in the right place, as well as its heart primarily in the right genre, even if the larger question doesn't encapsulate the characters as well as it should have.
As much as the episode is superficially about a bunch of Johnny Rebs looting the railroad's payroll once again, the question comes up over and over: What would happen to everyone should Durant (Colm Meaney) die? The man who controls everything is, naturally, also the man nearly everyone despises – the disparity of wealth and comfort being only a portion of why Durant is looked upon with such disdain. Of course, since Durant's ability to draw breath is directly related to the future and wellbeing of so many individuals; namely, the freedmen, Elam Ferguson (Common) and now, Lily Bell (Dominique McElligott) – not to mention the future of the railroad itself – it comes time to put the good Mr. Durant directly in harms' way.
The former train-robbing partners of Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount) haven't exactly made their way to Mexico, as promised – and the supposed execution of their fallen comrade from weeks past is apparently not known to everyone, namely Doc Whitehead (Grainger Hines), the one guy who might have reason to follow the last days of Bohannon. As it stands, the group's plan to rob the payroll right out of Hell on Wheels is based largely on the notion that Bohannon will be several miles away, helping to construct the bridge that will take Durant's railroad directly into the sacred territory of the Sioux. Hawkins (Ryan Robbins), the group's defacto leader, otherwise considers the town to be left unguarded beyond the presence of Elam.
Once Hawkins and his men have entered the town, it doesn’t take long for one of them to have a run-in with the increasingly surly and lonesome looking Elam – who doesn't seem to believe in paying his bar tab before ordering up another bottle. Things begin to go awry after Hawkins offers to buy Elam a drink to avoid a lead-filled scuffle, leading Elam to rally every able-bodied man at Durant's request, while sending someone to fetch Bohannon. With the McGinnes brothers and Psalms (Dohn Norwood) – apparently suffering from TB(?) – Elam sets out to defend the payroll. As luck would have it, Hawkins and his man make it to Lily and Durant before running into the security patrol - and in his need to protect the money, or act chivalrous before the woman he's eventually going to leave behind near the Pacific, Durant shoots and kills one of the robbers. This sets off a chain reaction of gunfire that puts a bullet in Durant's gut and, after Bohannon arrives, results in the death of every gang member, but Hawkins.
In the meantime, the Swede (Christopher Heyerdahl) continues spouting words of prophecy to an increasingly sober-looking Reverend Cole (Tom Noonan), who he has shackled to an anvil near a garbage heap until such time as a need for liquor has passed. For whatever reason, the Swede is hell-bent on seeing his prophecy of war come to fruition, and as such, has procured a coffin full of rifles, which he intends on seeing into the hands of the railroad's most fearsome enemy. Naturally, the freshly shorn and semi-sober Reverend Cole is more or less on board with this idea – if for no other reason than if he's not drinking, he's got nothing better to do.
Following the shootout, Bohannon hustles off to grab Doc Whitehead, only to discover the injury to Durant is beyond Whitehead's limited medical capabilities. Right now, Durant's only hope is a precarious train ride to Chicago, leaving the future of the railroad in question until Durant pulls through or kicks the bucket. Meanwhile, as the men drink in celebration of Bohannon's victory, the town's barkeep refuses service to Elam on the grounds that he acted cowardly during the shootout. This sends Elam out to seek comfort in another group that dislikes him – just not as much as those in the bar at the moment.
And so, the issue with season 2 of Hell on Wheels begins to reveal itself: Every character once more seems to be venturing off on their own storyline that only tangentially has anything to do with the larger story. It was evident in the episode 'Slaughterhouse,' where the McGinnes brothers were seen committing murder in order to save their own lives, but the ramifications of that action, or the escalation of the McGinnes boys as something more than entrepreneurs willing to feed a man to his own pigs and claim responsibility for dispensing justice in the name of a strangled prostitute, hasn't had any sort of real resonance on the season's storyline. Similarly, Elam's continued isolation was, in the beginning, an interesting concept that was worth exploring, and while the solace he seeks with the freedmen feels natural, it seems to come only because a more interesting avenue wasn't discovered.
Similarly, Bohannon, having had fulfilled his per-episode moment of levity, following Elam's premature execution of Hawkins, sits alone, largely untethered to the day's events in the eyes of the town's citizens or in the guiltless image he may now have of himself. And though the news of Doc's pending legal troubles hits Bohannon, the question becomes how will he respond to them considering his past affiliation to the man?
Hell on Wheels continues next Sunday with 'Purged Away with Blood' @9pm on AMC. Check out a preview below: