“The Game”, Hell on Wheels’ fourth episode, slows the show’s pace to a near crawl until its last few moments, when Eva and Elam face a tragedy. The episode may start off with humor as Cullen and Elam attempt to find timber by visiting the Arapaho tribe, but this being Hell on Wheels, things quickly devolve.
This episode has some truly thrilling moments, including the stick ball scene (which is basically Cullen and Elam fighting off groups of Native Americans to stop from being beaten to death) and the final kidnapping scene, but even with that excitement and great writing, “The Game” just seems like a filler episode.
Even if this is the case, “The Game” gives us some great character developments, chief among them Eva’s. We’ve already seen her feel an inexplicable pull toward her brother-in-law, probably because he’s offering her a second chance and a way out; her guilt, love, and feeling that she doesn’t deserve any better hold her to the camp regardless. The women are becoming increasingly interesting characters for Hell on Wheels and Louise is certainly one of them. After her interaction with Durant it’s clear she’s a formidable character and the exact opposite of Lily’s damsel in distress, and this change is something that the show needed.
This so far exceptional season has really been about showing off the struggle Cullen is facing. He’s trying incredibly hard to be a better man. His reluctance to kill the young Indian boy is a powerful step forward for Cullen. As an audience we know Cullen will kill to protect himself or if he deems it necessary (as with the Mormon teen in the season premiere), but in the first two seasons his killing always seemed like a way for his anger to seep out. His near death leads to some surprising confessions that highlight Cullen’s new-found but still shaky faith.
There are two major issues with “The Game”: first, where exactly is The Swede going with this family he’s traveling with? We certainly know his motives aren’t pure but right now it just seems like the writers aren’t sure what to do with him. The second issue is the inciting moment for this episode, the kidnapping of Elam and Eva’s daughter, presumably by her brother-in-law. The storyline has the potential to be a challenging one and something for Common and Robin McLeavy to excel with, but the big problem is going to be how and when the writers wrap it up. This should not be a season-long revenge story because unless handled properly, it could weigh everything down.
“The Game” certainly isn’t season three’s best episode (it’s far too choppy and spends too long setting things up), but there are some stellar moments that could lead to a much better episode next week.