HELL ON WHEELS 1.03 ‘A New Birth of Freedom’

Cullen picks up the trail of his final target as Lily encounters some unexpected threats on the way to Hell on Wheels.

Blair Marnellby Blair Marnell

Episode Title: "A New Birth of Freedom"

Writer: John Shiban

Director: Phil Abraham

Previously on "Hell on Wheels":

Former Confederate soldier Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount) is on a quest to avenge the death of his wife. After killing one of the soldiers who molested his wife, Cullen traveled to Hell on Wheels, the lawless town that accompanies the construction of the  transcontinental railroad. Cullen managed to get hired as the Walking Boss of a group of freedmen, including Elam Ferguson (Common). However, the foreman not only killed one of Elam's friends, he was the next man that Cullen planned to kill. The foreman got the drop on Cullen and revealed that a sergeant working in the camp personally killed Cullen's wife, but Elam killed the foreman himself before he could utter a name.

The Swede (Christopher Heyerdahl) assumed that Cullen had killed the foreman and had him locked away to be hanged. Cullen not only escaped, he convinced Thomas "Doc" Durant (Colm Meaney) to make him the new foreman. Out in Cheyenne territory, Lily Bell (Dominique McElligott) was the only survivor of an attack on the railroad survey team. Lily was almost discovered by Cheyenne warriors before Joseph Black Moon (Eddie Spears) found her and helped her hide. Back at Hell on Wheels, Durant placed a reward for the safe recovery of Lily, but his primary objective was to get the maps created by her deceased husband.


Sean (Ben Esler) and Mickey McGinness (Ben Esler) lament that the turnout for their lantern shows is quickly dwindling. But they soon forget their troubles when they spot Eva (Robin McLeavy) from behind as she works on her laundry. Despite the rumors that she was once sold to the Cheyenne as a slave, Mickey pressures Sean to talk to her. But once Sean works up the courage to speak to Eva, he's startled by the tattoos on her face and he falls backwards into the mud. She also curses him out in Cheyenne. Meanwhile, Anson goes through the belongings of the old foreman and he discovers the name of Sgt, Harper, the last man alive who violated and killed Cullen's wife.

Cullen gives the work crew their new assignments, but The Swede interrupts to ask for men to search for Lily Bell. Cullen threatens to fire anyone who leaves, but Elam says that his crew can do their work and the work of the departing men. Cullen also publicly asks about Harper under the pretense that the previous foreman left something for him. But Elam correctly guesses that Cullen only has a bullet in mind for Harper. Elsewhere, Durant's attempts to get federal troops to guard his workers falls on the deaf ears of his man in the senate.

In the trenches, Elam's men grumble about their leader getting them extra hard work, but he jumps down and starts digging alongside them to prove his point that they have to take what they want… because the white men will never give them anything. On his way to find Harper in Cheyenne territory, Cullen comes across Joseph as he tends to Lily's worsening wounds. Cullen takes the time to remove the remnants of the arrow from Lily's shoulder, with Joseph's reluctant assistance. Cullen also tries to leave and let Joseph bring Lily back by himself before he returns and insists that the people of Hell on Wheels would assume that Joseph had hurt her because he is Cheyenne.

At Hell on Wheels, Elam and his freedmen look for a way to spend their money and he suggests that they use it at the whorehouse… where they are clearly not welcome. Elam bravely goes in alone to solicit a woman and he stands up to the ridicule he receives from the other Johns. But when he tells Eva that he'll be her next customer, she laughs in his face and Elam finally walks out of the establishment. Around the same time, Durant drunkenly stumbles into the lantern show of Sean and Mickey, who give him a private viewing. Durant is inspired after hearing the McGinness brothers describe the railroad as freedom for them.

Out in the wilderness, Lily awakens to find Cullen watching over her, but he isn't very talkative. In the morning, Cullen goes off to relieve himself and Lily finds herself facing down three of Durant's men who are there to "rescue her." Correctly figuring that the men mean to molest her, Lily tries to threaten them off with a knife while she listens to them describe the bounty on her. Cullen shoots all three of the men, leaving only one alive before he catches up to Lily and continues to escort her. Back at Hell on Wheels, Reverend Cole (Tom Noonan) warns Joseph to hide the fact that his brother took part in the attack on the survey camp.

Deeply ashamed, Joseph changes his appearance to even more closely resemble the style worn by the other men in Hell on Wheels. During the funeral for the survey team, Durant delivers a fiery speech using the massacre as a rallying point. He even incorporates the McGinness brothers' line about railroads as a new type of freedom (much to their delight). Durant also holds up Joseph as an example for his people and states that if the Cheyenne don't follow Joseph in adopting the ways of the Americans than there will be a war between them.

Just outside of Hell on Wheels, Cullen tells Lily to ride the rest of the way herself. She is stunned that Cullen wasn't interested in claiming the reward for her return, but he insists that he has business in Cheyenne territory and he wants to get there before dark.


The best moment in "Hell on Wheels" this week came in a small scene between Eva and Elam. After watching Elam shake off the remarks of the other men with relative ease, I half expected Eva to take him on just to piss them off. Instead, Eva responded to Elam with an even crueler gesture and laughed in his face. And it was that humiliation that made Elam more sympathetic than ever before. I've never thought that Elam was a bad guy, he just has a (justifiably) huge chip on his shoulder. Elam has a high tolerance for taking the racism thrown in his face. But when it came from Eva, he had no response.

What interested me most about that was Eva seemed to regret it after it happened, as she stared at the other Johns in the Whorehouse as they laughed. Out of all of the women there, Eva has probably known the most discrimination thanks to her time in Cheyenne territory and the permanent markings on her face. Eva is almost as much of an outcast as Elam and I suspect that they'll probably be drawn together down the road.

Currently, Elam's not looking for any camaraderie from Cullen. Elam even pointedly wanted to be referred to by his last name as a sign of respect… which Cullen ignored. It played as if Elam was offended by that even though I don't believe that Cullen meant any offense. It was actually friendly for Cullen. But it has to be said that Cullen is a pretty bad foreman if he's just going to ride off and disappear on his first day… even if all he cares about is avenging his wife.  Regardless, Cullen could turn out to be a very effective hero for this series. He has just the right mix of altruism and apathy. Cullen may say he only cares about his revenge, but he could have left Lily on her own several times and he chose not to.

"Hell on Wheels" is probably setting up Cullen and Lily for an eventual romance as well. If Cullen had turned her in for the ransom, that would have been a harder sell, But now that he's demonstrated that it was never about the money, Cullen probably just won Lily's admiration… even if she probably doesn't like him that much at this point.

Aside from Durant, Joseph Black Moon probably has the most to lose by an all out war with the Cheyenne. I suspect there's an interesting story behind his decision to leave his tribe and throw himself so heavily into the white man's culture. I just hope the series gets around to it fairly soon. There was also a hint that Joseph didn't appreciate being singled out by Durant during the funeral. Which begs the question: can the atrocities in Hell on Wheels eventually push Joseph back into the arms of his people? And would they even accept him again?

It still feels like the writers are finding their way with "Hell on Wheels," but the episodes have been progressively improving and the road ahead looks promising.

Crave Online Rating: 8 out of 10.