Hell on Wheels, Ep. 1.04: “Jamais Je Ne T’oublierai” continues to betray the audience’s intelligence

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Hell on Wheels, Season 1, Episode 4: “Jamais Je Ne T’oublierai”
Written by Joe and Tony Gayton
Directed by Alex Zakrzewski
Airs Sundays at 10pm ET on AMC

Perhaps it is an inherent downfall to television. Could it be the viewer’s attention is more delicate, the makers of television shows lack the faith in the viewers, to simply let scenes breathe, and leave room for interpretation and nuance? I fear that it is becoming a lost art in television for shows to pare back clunky, expository dialogue, and let characters and moments unfold naturally.

I don’t like being so negative and laboring over the same points week after week, but we again were treated to an episode of television that is scene after scene of characters speaking at length to each other but saying very little. Hell on Wheels‘s insistence of reminding the viewer of who and what every character is every time they enter a scene is slowing this show down, an example of which is the conversation between Elam and Bohannan. Bohannan is trying to sleep off a rough night of drinking, while Elam steps into his tent, eager to work. In this conversation we learn nothing new about the characters at all, and the entire scene is suffocated by the reminders of who Elam is, and where he comes from. We know he is a freed slave. We know his motivation is gaining respect from the oppressors. So why was this scene necessary?

The show has a lack of patience in characters and ideas outside of the defined boundaries of the plot. It has a bullheaded insistence on driving forward at all costs. Anyone who wants to stop and smell the flowers be damned, because the plot isn’t going to slow for any form of contemplation or thought beyond the pale. This episode puts that lack of patience, or as I alluded to earlier, perhaps a lack of faith in the audience, on full display. Elam finally gets a chance to copulate with the prostitute, Eva (Robin McLeavy) whom he has been eying for some time. Immediately following their sexual encounter, we are briskly pulled into an apparent love affair between the two characters. These are two hardened people, beaten down by years of slavery and oppression. These are two people wary of opening their hearts to anyone, and yet they are practically gushing over each other. It isn’t even a matter of these characters being incapable of such emotions, it is a matter of rushing them towards them. Instead of letting this forbidden love brew and build over time, keeping us guessing, and learning a little more about the characters themselves, we are force-fed their intentions in one awkward and hurried scene. All opportunities of tension and intrigue between these two characters is now potentially lessened by the writers showing their hand too soon.

A nearly identical situation occurred between Doc Durrant and Lily Bell (Dominique McElligott). We are immediately treated to an intriguing dynamic between the characters, built on deceit and a lack of trust. There is also an evident sexual tension coming from Doc’s end as well. But again, the cards were turned too quickly. Like with Elam and Eva, Doc and Lily seemed to traverse weeks or even months of relationship building in a single day. They go from hardly knowing each other to playing a coy game of cat and mouse that could only come through familiarity and a disingenuous veil of trust.

However, there is reason to believe in the potential for both of these relationships. There is still the element of danger that comes with Eva and Elam’s affair that can take the show down some dark corridors, and even more interesting is the potential that still exists between Doc and Lily. Both sides hold a trump card over the other’s head. If handled well, the dynamic between Doc and Lily can be explosive.

Which brings me to the main character of the show, Cullen Bohannan. His revenge warpath hit a dead end and now he is a man without a country, floundering in a sea of self-loathing. Watching the slow decay of a man can be interesting, but it came about, and was seemingly resolved in one episode. Bohannan quickly went from a stubborn man on a mission to the mess of a man without a cause in one day. What happened to the man we were just started to get to know? Maybe his sudden demise wouldn’t feel so out of place if there wasn’t so much attention drawn to it. Whether it be another preaching-to from the Reverend, or, as touched on before, Elam checking in on the ‘boss man’ reminding him he is a freed slave and wants to work to earn his keep, Bohannan’s trials in this episode seem superficial and hurried.

James Merolla

  1. JonathanStrange says

    Excellent review. The show is repetitive or not confident that we’ll remember the characters so it does unnecessarily remind us what their major malfunction is.

    The show does rush things. Tonight’s episode has one character, about to be hanged, promise to kill his would-be executioner (which he does, minutes later), the railroad baron’s scheme (tricking his nemesis into an ill-advised investment) comes to fruition minutes later.

    It’s a sincere show that’s trying hard; going through a checklist of “interesting points” where we get anti-hero who’s bad (killing an unarmed man in the first episode) but really good (freeing his slaves before the war). He’s much less interesting than a colorfully vulgar Al Swearengen or the work-a-day Mafia warlord and family man Tony Soprano. Those guys were definitely bad but they had their good moments which never felt out of character.

    Great review.

  2. T says

    Well said. Rather, well said as regards one direction of the show: simmering character study. “Hell on Wheels” cannot seem to decide if it wants to go the route of a “Mad Men,” where tension and unspoken facts known by the audience drive the intrigue, or simply an explosive and loud rampage of a show. The tag line (“Blood will be spilled…”) suggests the latter, but the show simply seems confused.

    I am interested in watching either version of the show. That is, little more than a Western warpath forged by Bohannon which many signs point to except the show itself. Or else it can be about the lives and people at the forefront of the Transcontinental Railroad. It clearly can’t have both. And if they don’t choose soon, and execute, we are looking at another Rubicon and not another Walking Dead.

  3. ioman says

    boring review of a very good show

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