Hell on Wheels, Season 1, Episode 5: “Bread and Circuses”
Written by Tony Gayton, Joe Gayton, and Mark Richard
Directed by Adam Davidson
Airs Sunday 10 pm Est. on AMC
I come to you this night feeling, for the first time, a strange stirring in my gut resembling satisfaction. Obviously this is in regards to the most recent episode of Hell on Wheels, and yes, it was good. I am not about to shed all my criticisms of the previous episodes, nor am I going to say this latest episode was flawless. But it did show, at times, a fantastic depth of character and emotion that it seemed systematically opposed to in earlier episodes.
For the first time the show seemed to slow down a bit and rather than drive home plot points with every scene or interaction between characters, it chose a route of delivering plot from within characters rather than without. In other words, the characters, their fears, their judgements, their desires, etc were the foundation on which the episode was built on.
The first moment that made me sit up and take attention was when the Reverend’s daughter comes to the camp without notice. Instead of immediately launching into the who and why of this character, we are instead treated to a cold and noticeable pain from the reverend. He is very short with her, even rude. A moment later she steps into the tent and he follows her, and one would think this would be the perfect time to give us all the rundown on their history, but instead it is only more cold pain between the characters and their stilted interaction. It was one of the more impressive scenes of the series so far.
The bulk of the episode surrounds a boxing match that Doc Durrant drums up in order to distract the camp from his money troubles. The match, naturally is between Bohannan and Elam, who have been puffing their chests out in each other’s company all season long. It would be easy to criticize the use of a fist fight to play out Bohannan and Elam’s struggle, with a physical clash being far too literal a display (and a pandering one at that), and it was, but it was how the fight was filmed and put together that impressed me. It was gritty and violent, yet it displayed an element of grace and curiosity in its bloodthirsty rage. In the end, when Elam gets carried off by his jubilant people, we are treated to a quiet, contemplative justice for both he and the defeated Bohannan laying bloodied on the dirty floor.
My only real problem with the fight was how it was swiftly undermined by the revelation that Elam’s corner cheated Bohannan. It wipes away that justice, and leaves the fight, and everything it carried with it, feeling hollow.
The dynamic between Doc and Lily Bell progressed nicely in this episode as well. Where it felt rushed and tactless last episode, there was a measured discretion in their words in this episode. Even when Lily reveals to Doc that she has her husband’s maps that he so covets there is a clear restraint between both of them. Doc even verbalizes it quite aptly when he says “I want to strangle you and embrace you all at once.” For me, it is this relationship that is becoming the focal point of the show.