Episode Title: "Viva La Mexico"
Writers: Tony Gayton & Joe Gayton
Director: David Von Ancken
Previously on "Hell on Wheels":
As a payroll train travels to Hell on Wheels, the conductor is tricked into stopping by a group of bandits who proceed to rob the people on the train and the payroll. One of the bandits is shot in the shoulder by a guard before they escape. On his horse, the wounded bandit reveals himself to be Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount). Sometime later, we see Cullen with his fellow bandits, nearly all of whom are former Confederate soldiers. As Cullen receives his share of the robbery, he insists that Hawkins (Ryan Robbins) — the leader of the group — donate a larger share of his money to a Confederate colony that they want to start in Mexico. But only Cullen seems passionate about that plan.
Cullen's injured shoulder is soon treated by Doc Whitehead (Grainger Hines), an old friend of his. As they speak, Whitehead admits that he had reservations about including Cullen in the gang. When Cullen tells Whitehead that grave robbers dug up his wife and son, the Doc urges him to let go of his past. At Hell on Wheels, a group of men eagerly await the arrival of the payroll train and they note the bullet holes in the window. When they learn that the train has been robbed again, they begin beating the first man off of the train. Rather than interfere, Elam Ferguson (Common) calmly informs Thomas "Doc" Durant (Colm Meaney) of the latest robbery and he offers his services to prevent it from happening again.
Lily Bell (Dominique McElligott) complains about the new foreman of Hell on Wheels and Durant concedes that the railroad has fallen well behind schedule. In the town itself, we see that The Swede (Christopher Heyerdahl) has been reduced to the lowly position of refuse collector. And when The Swede asks Durant for his old job back, Durant notes that The Swede lost the respect of the town when the McGinnes brothers, Sean (Ben Esler) and Mickey (Phil Burke) had him tarred and feathered. Elsewhere, we see Joseph Black Moon (Eddie Spears) largely ignored as he tries to preach the word of God.
Ruth (Kasha Kropinski) visits Sean and tells him that the church can not pay its rent because her father, Reverend Cole (Tom Noonan) is too ill to preach. Sean tries to imply his romantic interest in Ruth, but she quickly shoots him down. Later, Nell (April Telek) discovers that one of her prostitutes has been brutally murdered. The residents of Hell on Wheels watch in stunned silence as The Swede removes her body. But Sean and Mickey take the tragedy as an opportunity as well. Durant tells Lily about the murdered woman and she insists that the killer be found and punished. But she is taken aback by Durant's attitude that the woman was worth less than a horse.
Riding the train back down the line, Elam stops at the town of Durant, where he sees his former lover, Eva (Robin McLeavy). While they greet each other cordially, Elam notices that Eva is wearing a ring and that she has apparently married Mr. Toole (Duncan Ollerenshaw). Toole invites Elam to dinner with them, but he declines. Later, Lily pays The Swede to insure that the murdered woman gets a proper burial. In the church, Cole tries to write a sermon, but his daughter tempts him with a bottle of alcohol. As the payroll train approaches, Cullen sees Elam guarding the train and he insists that he be allowed to go on the train first.
As the robbery is in progress, Cullen manages to get in a room alone with Elam to urge him to give up the payroll without a fight. When Elam refuses, Cullen fires at his own men through the door and flees while claiming that he was overpowered by Elam. Afterwards, the bandits are noticeably angry with Cullen, who urges them to leave for Mexico immediately. But ultimately, Cullen relents to their demands that they rob one more train. Back at Hell on Wheels, Durant is upset that Elam let Cullen live, but Elam points out that he did protect the payroll. Elam also asks to be in charge of Hell on Wheels to get the town back on track, but Durant admits that his race may keep Elam from getting the job.
Sean and Mickey reach a deal with Nell to protect the working girls in exchange for ten percent of the take. But Mickey is upset to learn that they are expected to catch and kill the murderer. Meanwhile, Cole and The Swede oversee a lonely and awkward funeral for the murdered woman. Some time after that, Lily and Durant venture to the edge of their surveyed lands and talk about crossing through the sacred lands of the Sioux; which her late husband wanted to avoid. Out in the wilds, Whitehead urges Cullen to leave before his companions can turn on him. Cullen refuses and he joins them on the next train robbery.
It goes smoothly enough until one of the men terrorizes a woman and her child. Cullen turns his gun towards the man and he is knocked out for his trouble. When Cullen comes to, he is in a prison wagon with a man named Schmidt (Brian Jensen). Back in Hell on Wheels, Cole lies in a drunken stupor as Joesph and Ruth make love in another room. In the morning, Cullen is awakened by Schmidt's execution by firing squad, knowing full well that he could be next.
After a fairly uneven and disappointing first season, "Hell on Wheels" showed signs of improvement in its first episode back. It's not a dramatic change of quality, but it is going up. A lot of the criticism towards this series stems from the idea that it isn't comparable with a great TV western like "Deadwood." I don't want "Hell on Wheels" to be "Deadwood." I just want it to be good.
Anson Mount deserves a lot of credit for keeping Cullen likable even as he descends into the role of a train robber. It seems like Cullen is grasping at any chance to turn his life around and he sees a new start in Mexico as his best opportunity. The murder charge hanging over Cullen's head isn't even touched upon, but Durant was probably angrier about the payroll robbery than anything else. Despite his fall, Cullen still has his hero moments when he refuses to turn on Elam and during his attempt to protect the woman and her child.
Common also gets a few good moments disappointment when Elam sees that Eva married Mr. Toole. Even with Mr. Toole's post-gun shot personality change, it's hard to believe that Eva would commit to him when her heart belonged to Elam. And there was something unsettling about the way that Toole ushered his wife away from Elam. It almost implied an abusive or possessive aspect of their relationship.
Last season, "Hell on Wheels" essentially neutered its best villain, The Swede; who seems remarkably scar free despite his ordeal in the season finale. The Swede's reversal of fortune did lead to an entertaining scene with the fallen Reverend Cole as they attempted to lay the murdered woman to rest. It seems that The Swede is just as misogynistic as the other residents of the town. There was a definite lack of subtlety to The Swede's earlier scene with Lily as he compared his fall to her rise. It's almost as if the writers don't trust the audience to draw their own parallels.
I am intrigued by Ruth's motivations. Does she want her father to get better and return to preaching? Or does she only care about being able to secretly have a relationship with Joesph under her father's nose? There's a very obvious reason that Joseph can't take her father's place as the preacher. He simply doesn't have the conviction or the way with words that Cole had when he was sober. And the residents of Hell on Wheels aren't exactly racially tolerant either, so they don't seem to respect Joseph despite his attempts to fit in.
If the person who murdered the prostitute was one of the leading characters, then that storyline could have some potential. But I expect it will probably be either someone we've never met before or someone with an extremely small role on the show. However, The Swede's removal of the woman's body was one of the dramatic highlights of this episode.
More than anything else, "Hell on Wheels" needs a level of suspense that it just doesn't have. Sure, Cullen is potentially facing the firing squad for his crimes, but does anyone believe that Cullen won't be back in his old job by the end of next week's episode? That was pretty much confirmed when Lily noted how Cullen's replacement has been ineffective at best. The greatest weakness of "Hell on Wheels" may be its extreme predictability. However, I would love it if this series managed to surprise me.