Hell on Wheels, Season 2, Episode 3: “Slaughterhouse”
Written by Jami O’Brien and Bruce Romans
Directed by Sergio Mimica-Gezzan
Airs Sundays at 9 pm (ET) on AMC
Well, that certainly lived up to the name “Slaughterhouse”. Returning to the Hell on Wheels camp after being saved from hanging by Durant (Colm Meaney), Cullen (Anson Mount) reluctantly sets out to bring a little more order to the growing community. He even forms an uneasy partnership with Elam (Common), whose murderous actions haven’t affected his pining for Eva (Robin McLeavy). The Swede (Christopher Heyerdahl), still trying to regain power in the camp and still strangely obsessed with Cullen and his crimes, has begun investigating the murder of the line boss Elam killed at the end of last week’s episode. He doesn’t waste time pinning the murder on his old enemies the McGinnes brothers (Ben Esler and Phil Burke) and maintains his creep level as he goes even further off the deep end. Lily (Dominique McElligott) deals with her guilt for her role in the murder, struggling with the decision to tell Durant her part in it, and all the while, Durant is still single-minded in his fight to win the race with Central Pacific Railroad to get his railroad across the Rockies first.
“Slaughterhouse” is easily the best of the first three episodes of this new season. Even though it’s still early in the second season, Hell on Wheels has grown and shown a lot of progress, moving past the issues it struggled with last season. Plot lines are better developed, characters given more room to grow, and dialogue isn’t written with such a heavy hand. The show’s saving grace remains the grand scale of its camera shots and low-down dirty atmosphere. The new buildings might look nice, but the Hell on Wheels camp still isn’t a place to raise your family.
This week’s episode is particularly emotional and draws its strength from great dialogue and strong performances, particularly the scene between Lily and Durant. Lily’s first non-selfish act, admitting her complicity in the murder to Durant, and his rage-filled response make for wrenching television. Lily still remains, after all this time, the show’s most problematic element. On a series that’s chalk full of untrustworthy characters, she is consistently the one that leaves the worst impression. The fact remains that Lily just isn’t a very sympathetic character. Even if Cullen is vicious and brutal, there is still a shred of likeability to him missing from Lily. The writers don’t seem to know what they want to do with her and have ended up pushing Lily, who would normally be a secondary character, into a role she’s not yet ready to fill.
Hell on Wheels’ biggest issue is, and always has been, its handling of romantic relationships. The only believable and worthwhile one at the moment is Elam and Eva’s and it’s one I can’t wait to see explored further. Ruth (Kasha Kropinski) and Joseph (Joseph Black Moon) are explored in this episode when her father Reverend Cole (Tom Noonan) outs their relationship, yet I still haven’t managed to develop anything but a passing interest in them. The connection feels more based on the writers’ desire to show the viewer how crazy Cole is than anything real.
The relationship, if you can even call it that, between Cullen and Lily is the one that the writers most insist on exploring, despite the viewers’ mounting frustration towards it. There’s nothing there andm at this point, it’s not really the actors’ fault. Both McElligott and Mount are very talented but the writers keep forcing their characters into something with no legs and these scenes only serve to stop the show mid-action every time they appear.
Despite their issues exploring romantic relationships, the writers have managed to develop one platonic pairing that’s consistently a highlight, Elam and Cullen. Their uneasy partnership is most certainly not going to turn out well, but it sure is fun to watch. As they rush to save the McGuinnes brothers, their equal reluctance and shared anger lead to an easy and enjoyable back and forth and their late-episode face-off kicks the final moments into overdrive, anger palpitating between them, giving the show one more big push of energy.
Thankfully, Mount has managed to find his niche as Cullen. Revenge might still be Bohannon’s driving force, but even this early in the season we’ve seen flashes of faith, fear, and white-hot anger. It’s a potent mix that Mount plays incredibly well. With his snarky, clenched- jaw delivery and straight- backed walk he’s the most enjoyable and well-rounded character on the show.
This early in the season it’s hard to know which episodes will become series-long favorites, but “Slaughterhouse” certainly leaves an impression, particularly its last scene and the shocking character twist that reveals the episode title’s true meaning. The murder of Smitt is particularly unexpected because of his potential as a formidable foe for Cullen, one that I was looking forward to the writers exploring further. He was brash, angry, and smart, not unlike Cullen, and would have made a great villain.
It’s easy to see that his murder, as well as Cullen’s backhanded admission that he knows that Elam has conspired with Lily to kill a man, is going to set off a massive chain reaction. For all the problems that the writers have with handling relationships, this is still one of the best shows on TV. Hell on Wheels has survived thanks to its dense and rich atmosphere, but with “Slaughterhouse” it takes a turn towards character-driven drama. It’s a fascinating and standout episode that promises to lead Hell on Wheels in a stunning new direction.