Episode Title: "Bread and Circuses"
Writer: Mark Richard
Director: Adam Davidson
Previously on "Hell on Wheels":
In Cheyenne territory, Chief Many Horses (Wes Studi) brings Pawnee Killer (Gerald Auger) to a field where he is prepared for the Sun Dance ceremony. After attaching Pawnee Killer to a pole facing the Sun via straps on his chest, the Chief tells him to pray while staring at the Sun for the entire day in the hopes that he will be granted a vision. At Hell on Wheels, Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount) notices that the workers are unusually deferential to him. Amused, Lily Bell (Dominique McElligott) explains that Cullen's actions during the black powder crisis have made him a hero to his men.
Cullen then informs Thomas "Doc" Durant (Colm Meaney) that payroll was not on the latest train… for the second week in a row. Durant brushes off Cullen's concerns and tells him to get petty cash to pay the walking bosses. At their tent, the McGinnes brothers, Sean (Ben Esler) and Mickey (Phil Burke) explain to the Swede (Christopher Heyerdahl) that they need a little more time to pay him. So, the Swede agrees, steals a slide and shortly thereafter cuts down their tent. Elsewhere, Joseph Black Moon (Eddie Spears) prepares to take Reverend Cole (Tom Noonan) to meet his father and prevent a war with the Cheyenne.
Cole's daughter, Ruth (Kasha Kropinski) shows up unexpectedly and to Joseph's surprise, Cole is very cold towards his daughter. They depart after Cole grudgingly allows Ruth to stay in the church until they return. On the work line, Cullen calls forth the walking bosses, most of whom are put out when Elam Ferguson (Common) joins them and says that he is the walking boss for the freedmen. And Elam is particularly upset when he learns about the missing payroll. Elam and Cullen almost come to blows when Durant intervenes and claims that payroll is merely delayed.
Instead of allowing the workers to focus on that, Durant suggests a "pugilistic duel" between Cullen and Elam, with free whiskey for the spectators donated by Durant. Out in Cheyenne territory, Joesph and Cole are brought before Chief Many Horses, who mocks Cole as a hypocrite. Regardless, he agrees to return to Hell on Wheels to possibly negotiate a peace agreement at the urging of his son, Joesph. In the buildup to the big fight, Eva (Robin McLeavy) warns Elam that he will be killed if he wins and killed if he loses (for thinking that he can win). Despite Elam's bravado, Eva's words seem to affect him.
That night, Mickey and Sean serve as Cullen's corner men while the Freedmen accompany Elam to heavy boos from the white crowd. During the first part of the fight, Elam makes almost no move to fight back as Cullen lands several punches and knocks him down. But in his corner, Elam is moved by one of the Freedmen to strike back at Cullen as if he was Elam's former master. From that point on, it's a more even fight as Elam staggers Cullen with sharp punches of his own. Outside the fight, Durant learns that his credit extension has been denied by the bank. Nearly ready to concede, Lily informs Durant that she saved her late husband's survey maps.
At first Durant is elated, but he soon realizes that Lily will blackmail him what her dead husband was owed. Back at the fight, Cullen seems to be having difficulty seeing before Elam knocks him out and wins the fight. The freedmen carry Elam out as the white crowd howls… and they leave Cullen passed out on the floor. Mickey is distraught that they bet their remaining assets on Cullen, but Sean reveals that he put it all on Elam. Mickey also realizes that Sean used pepper on Cullen in the corner to handicap him in the match. Afterwards, Lily visits the injured Cullen and gives him a bucket of water. Cullen also realizes that pepper is on his face and he laughs about it.
The next day, one of the white walking bosses mocks Cullen for losing to Elam, but he takes it in stride. Elam then comes to collect his pay as a walking boss, but Cullen holds on to the bag longer than he should as they stare each other down. But Elam still leaves with his money. Out in Cheyenne territory, Chief Many Horses cuts down Pawnee Killer from the pole. Pawnee Killer insists that he had a vision of the great steal beast; which he killed.
Let's start a new "Hell on Wheels" drinking game.
When Durant says "Mister Bo-Han-Non!", take a drink.
When Cullen and Lily have a "moment", take a drink.
When Elam's eyes flash with anger, take a drink.'
When Joesph hangs his head in shame, take a drink.
And when the Cheyenne speak in nearly perfect English, take two drinks.
I'm sure that the rest of you can come up with more rules for that game. But for now, let's take a look at "Bread and Circuses."
The relationship between Cullen and Elam on this show is a little strange. They're not friends and they don't seem to like each other… and yet Cullen made sure not to throw the blame for the fight on Elam and Elam did save Cullen's life from Johnson in the pilot. It will probably develop into a friendship over time, but I prefer the more ambiguous nature of their current status quo.
"Hell on Wheels" could also develop into a great series given enough time. However, most of the characters still come off as little more than cardboard even after five episodes. To be sure, there are some interesting aspects here. But it's hard to get invested with someone like Reverend Cole when both his religion and his emotional distance with his daughter seem to be tacked on to him. Ruth's introduction was probably meant to show that Cole still has feet of clay despite his religious calling. But it just didn't play very well on screen.
The rest of the characters feel like they've settled into a single orbit that keeps them from truly integrating with the rest of the plot. For example, take Sean and Mickey, who are supposedly Cullen's best friends in the camp. And yet they've barely had any screen time with Cullen since the pilot episode. Instead, Sean and Mickey seem to spend more time begging the Swede for lenience… which led to some funny moments in this episode. The Swede clearly has a sense of humor about his shakedowns.
The fight between Cullen and Elam was well staged and it felt like it could have gone either way. But Cullen took the loss because he was the only one who could. If Elam had lost or if he had thrown the fight, it would have irreparably damaged his character in the eyes of the audience. Whereas Cullen can absorb the loss without sacrificing any sympathy from the viewers. However, Cullen's standing with his men may be another matter. It will be interesting to see if they still look up to him after watching him lose the fight. In fact, the workers' sudden admiration for Cullen was one of the best aspects of this episode that carried over from the previous one.
For some reason, the writers really took their time getting Lily to the point where she's going to openly blackmail Durant. If that plot doesn't start advancing quickly, I'm going to lose interest in it. On the other hand, the slow burn between Lily and Cullen is the right way to handle that burgeoning relationship. Because both of them are recently widowed, it wouldn't make much sense to simply throw them together romantically. That needs time.
And what "Hell on Wheels" needs is momentum. "Bread and Circuses" spun the narrative wheels well enough, but at some point this train has to pick up some speed.
Crave Online Rating: 7.5 out of 10.