Thursday, November 17, 2011

Hell on Wheels Ep 2: Immortal Mathematics

Well, I don’t know about you, but I thought this episode took the threads from the first episode and really wove them into something compelling. And I don’t know what it is about me these days, but I felt like I was seeing Lost references all over the place. From Bohannon digging the nail out of the wood with his fingers (Richard Alpert doing it in the brig of the ship in “Ab Aeterno”) to Lily giving herself stitches (making Jack look like a complete wuss when Kate gave him the stitches in the pilot), I really felt like I was having a tough time “letting go.” ;)

But I’ll let you have the first go this time, Chris!

Chris: I must be losing it. During the scene where Bohannon pries the nail loose from the floorboards, I was thinking “now, what does this put me in mind of?” I completely missed the “Ab Aeterno” reference! Watching Lily stitch herself up reminded me immediately of Sylvester Stallone doing the same in the initial Rambo film, First Blood. That scene stays with me to this day. Speaking of Lily, whom I barely mentioned last week, Dominique McElligott is quietly creating a credible and engaging character — this week with little or no dialogue at all. Her fever dream sequence was absolutely beautiful to watch and I felt that her scenes by the river did more to invest us in Lily than the dialogue from brief exchanges with her late husband last week.

In fact, I feel that the second installment of Hell On Wheels does an excellent job overall in drawing us into this world. The opening sequence with the photographer at the massacre site is vivid and realistic. Colm Meaney’s darkly comedic pragmatism contrasted well with the mortification of the photographer. Of course Meaney’s opportunistic Doc Durant would view the grisly scene as an excellent way to garner more government support for his investment by proving the need for federal troops to protect settlers and laborers from Indian hordes. All this as he never loses sight of the most important element of this unfortunate incident — the missing surveyors’ maps. Human lives, even that of a missing and presumed kidnapped Lily, pale by comparison to the value of those maps to Durant’s entire mission.

As we see, Bohannon and Durant have more than a little in common; a cold-blooded pursuit of their objectives, consequences be damned. Bohannon, lured in for questioning about the murdered foreman Daniel Johnson, spends much of the episode showing us just how resourceful he can be when his survival is at stake. Under threat of hanging, he desperately plots his escape from imprisonment in the railroad boxcar. We feel that his honor, however tarnished, will keep him from turning Common’s freed slave Elam in to save his own skin. We’re not sure, however, and Bohannon is quick to point out to Elam that he’ll take his chances should the two be cast in opposition to one another. Once escaped, his brief scene with Tom Noonan’s Reverend Cole tells us what drives him relentlessly forward — a belief that he is beyond redemption. This makes him a dangerous man to reckon with, and more than a match for Durant’s ruthless tyrant.

But all is not grim in this installment! ”How do you put on your trousers, son?” Can I tell you how many times I’ve used this line in the last three days?? Meaney finds a wonderful balance in this episode between Durant’s villainous and humorous sides and rebounds well from the more two-dimensional presentation in the pilot. I’m warming quickly to these characters the more I see — and that’s to say nothing of the series’ newest addition, The Swede! I’ll let you have first crack at HIM, Nikki. What did you think of Christopher Hyerdahl’s introduction this week?

Nikki: The Swede might be my favourite character on any show this season. From the moment we’re introduced to him – “They call me the Swede. I’m Norwegian” – to his sneer as Bohannon smugly walks by him, the Swede is a character who is there as an absolute danger to everyone around him. In a land of lawlessness, he’s the one trying to invoke some iron-fisted order. We see in him the beginning of organized crime in America (the way he demands cash of the Irishmen in return for “protecting” them… against himself, of course). His tall body, gaunt face and jet black hair that encircles his face create the look of a menacing enemy, one who at once terrified me and thrilled me every time he was on screen. About three-quarters of the way through the episode, I found myself almost rooting for this guy. I certainly didn’t want him to die, but I figured if they were going to go to such lengths to create such a formidable foe, he was going to be sticking around. ;)

But he’s not a one-note character, either. We get his complete backstory as he sits and taunts Bohannon by eating in front of him (a big mistake, turns out) and tells him about his time in a prison camp and the monster it turned him into. He, too, was once held against his will, was someone who was just an accountant, but he adapted to his situation, and through Darwinian law, has found himself at the top by changing his ways and placing himself there. It’s a great story arc already, and we’ve only known the guy for a single episode.

The Swede is a reminder that America was a cultural melting pot right from the beginning. Aside from the Native Americans we’ve seen Irish, British, Scottish, Scandinavian, Mexican, and African. Some of these people were brought to America against their will, but they’re American now and that’s how they’ll stay.

I definitely echo your sentiments about how much better this episode was than last week. They took the threads that we discovered last week and wove them into a much richer story than we started with. I love Lily’s character – the woman STITCHED HER OWN CHEST for god’s sakes – and I think she will be the one forced to become a very strong, tough, independent woman in the face of what’s happened to her. I very much look forward to her arc. Bohannon has aligned himself with Elam by keeping his mouth shut when the Swede was looking for a scapegoat, and it’ll be interesting to see what develops between them.

What did you think of the minister? Last week he was portrayed as being more shallow – someone who Christianized a native-American without a second thought, who sets up camp in the “red light district” last week in order to save everyone, who just looked like an annoying preacher that could be used to show the evils of orthodox religion. But this week they made him far more sympathetic as he keeps the Swede at bay, helping Bohannon and even begging with him to repent. (Ah, there’s the other Lost reference! I knew there were three: he asks Bohannon what he’ll say to God on Judgment Day, and Bohannon says something like, “I’ll say I did the best I could in a bad time,” which reminded me of Mr. Eko saying he did the best he could with the life he was given.) Did you think the preacher was more developed this week than last?

Chris: Oh, absolutely. I don’t know how much may have transpired between the time the pilot was written and shot and when the series was green-lit and in production for this and subsequent episodes, but there is marked development in almost every facet of the show since the very interesting but slightly disjointed first installment. Tom Noonan’s Reverend Cole did initially come across as a standard righteous missionary but here shows us a very different side. His response to Bohannon’s “best I could in a bad time” line hints at his own past: “Now see, I understand that … better than you know. But, it won’t be good enough for Him.” We see how deeply he feels his calling to bring others to salvation as he understands it. But, he may have found his own repentance after living a lifestyle he is all too eager to renounce. I look forward to learning more of his backstory and seeing him connect with Bohannon in weeks to come.

I completely agree with you that The Swede is one of the more interesting characters to come on the scene in quite some time. He is iron-willed yet not above true sentimentality at seeing the Magic Lantern Show. His history at Andersonville, the most notorious of Civil War prison camps, reveals itself in the haunted look he gives Bohannon during their scene in the boxcar. Most of the characters we meet in this series are scarred by their past in some way, and it shows in the desperate way they seem to fling themselves headlong down this iron road towards the prospect of a brighter future. Elam, Bohannon, Lily, Reverend Cole and even Durant are urgently moving forward, fleeing their old lives and reinventing themselves on the way to a new one. This is potent stuff for a primetime cable drama and I’m eager to see how the episodes to come deliver on this promising beginning.

I can’t wrap up without a nod to the production values in this episode. The camera work, lighting effects, sets, costumes and props are all stellar and contribute mightily to our ability to enter this world fully. The bodies on the wagon at the massacre site, the shot of the boxcar at early dawn as Elam steals away, the mud-splattered tents, the camera shots from under and between the railroad cars, Lily’s blood-streaked clothes, the long sweeping shots of the landscape … together make a rich tableau and are a feast for the imagination.

Well, that’s all I’ve got for this week. Can’t wait for the next installment, Nik!

Nikki: Agreed. As usual, AMC has pulled out all the stops for this one. And by creating these rich backstories for the characters, there’s a possibility we may see some flashbacks, and be taken back to the moments where their lives changed. As you mentioned at the top, Lily’s hallucination was beautifully done, and really put us in her state of mind, longing for the beloved husband she’s just lost. But she’s refusing to give up, as are all of these people. These are strong-willed people with purpose and determination.

I shall see you next week!


Anonymous said...

I'll say Bohannon & Lily have their first sex scene in say three weeks.

Lovin' the show. How could this get such poor reviews while The Killing's were positive?

-Tim Alan

yourblindspot said...

I third the big improvement over last week (which was already an intriguing setup, if not a bit on the nose). You guys hit most of the high points, but I wanted to mention the character of Joseph Black Moon. The scene between he and the trackers from the raiding party that are out looking for Lily was the first glimpse into his backstory that we've been given, and I'm really intrigued. I wonder how he ended up with Reverend Cole, and whether or not his religious conversion is legitimate or merely a step he sees as necessary on the road to something else.

Also: it didn't bother me too much, but I wish there had been some acknowledgement of their native language instead of one more of those scenes in film and tv when foreign-speaking characters just sound like English speakers because it's simpler. I know it's nitpicky, and I didn't expect full-on subtitles or a clever Hunt For Red October-esque ploy that somehow incorporates the English usage into the story or something like that, but at least a token Cheyenne greeting would have been nice.

Anyway, a hearty yee-haw for having a great western back on tv! This episode was a great ride.

Batcabbage said...

I guess I'm fourthing your opinion that this was even better than the pilot, which in itself was great in my view. They teased us with the first episode, and drew us in further with this one. I've got high hopes for this series after just two episodes.

Chris, it's freaking me out how much we're on the same wavelength. When Lily was stitching herself up, I said to Batkitty 'Look! She's Ramboing herself!' Although, that could be that I just bought a box set of the Rambo films, and watched the first three last weekend. At least she didn't get shot, and have to cauterise her wound with flaming gun powder.

Nik, my favourite character in this is also the Swede (he was also the second Alister in Supernatural). I was transfixed every time he was on screen. That monologue in the train car with Bohannon - wow. This is what I love about shows like this, the depth of character. He handles that scene so well, and you can see in his face that he's seeing some of the things he did when he adopted his 'immoral mathematics' (great line, by the way). It was just a great scene, and I'm looking forward to more of the same.

Tom Noonan was also great, and I'm glad they got him into the mix a bit more in this episode. He's a great actor, and he seems perfect for this role.

Everything else was great. Colm Meaney, the indian raiding party (although, I completely agree with you on the language thing, yourblindspot. I wish tv producers didn't think we were afraid of subtitles/), Common - all great.

Oh, and my niece is named Lily Bell. I don't think she can self-stitch, though, coz she's only 8. :)

Great post, guys! Looking forward to the next one!

Colleen/redeem147 said...

Is it sad that when he said he was in Andersonville, my first thought was 'William Shatner'? Yeah, probably, but I loved that TV special.

The show still reminds me of Deadwood without the language, but I like it. I also enjoy playing spot the Canadian.

I knew Tom Noonan was in the cast, but I didn't recognize him as the preacher.

humanebean said...

@Batcabbage - I am your Evil Twin, sir! You itch, I scratch. I think that I must have a t-shirt printed which reads, "I Just Ramboed Myself". The looks it could get on the subway ALONE are worth the price of admission.

Can't wait to talk about this week's episode very soon!

Batcabbage said...

@humane: And here I thought I was the evil one. MWUAHAHAHHAAAAAwheezcoughsplutter.... ahem.

I'm watching episode three right now! Damn this show is good! It gets bad reviews? Bah!