Hell on Wheels, Season 3, Episode 3: “Range War”
Written by Reed Steiner
Directed by Dennie Gordon
Airs Saturdays at 9 pm (ET) on AMC
When a show changes show runners there is usually a difficult transition that causes it to suffer. The arrival of John Wirth caused some concern amongst fans when it was announced, but if the first three episodes of Hell on Wheels are any indication, the change has gone smoothly.
“Range War” seems to encompass the ugliness that is the camp. From scalping and to what Eva (Robin McLeavy) describes as “old whore syndrome”, Hell on Wheels is not only a brutal place physically, but also mentally. This is portrayed by the almost hyper energy that radiates off the early scenes this week, seen often through Cullen (Anson Mount).
Not only does he have a competing railroad to deal with but also Durant, the threat of Indians, and terrifyingly, an out of control army. He’s a man being attacked on all fronts and he doesn’t even know that the Swede (Christopher Heyerdahl) has returned. Of course, history tells us where the brutal army will take the show and the producers have handled it well; the audience can sense the impending dread. This is especially true after Cullen is warned of the imminent range war by a new character we can’t exactly get a handle on, Maggie.
The new direction of the show gives us some truly stellar moments. There is still the same ever-present dry wit and comedy, as evidenced by the shootout early in the episode and Cullen’s discussion with Durant, held while a dead man sits at the table next to them, reminding the audience that Cullen isn’t one to suffer fools gladly. From that moment on, no one could accuse Cullen of being a subtle man. He is happy to remind people that he will not show any mercy towards those who get in his way.
The scene also gives us a new view of Durant. The first two seasons saw him as an unscrupulous man hidden behind a guise of breeding and class, one who always looked down on Cullen. Now we see a man who’s been stripped of his pretense; he’s on the same level as Cullen, a position which he is clearly uncomfortable with.
This new season of Hell on Wheels has shifted its view from Cullen’s quest for vengeance (a storyline that was getting stale), but the introduction of Declan Toole, Eva’s brother-in-law, could prove interesting, at least for Elam (Common). In a sense, he’s what the Swede was to Cullen. Though we haven’t necessarily seen it, we as an audience know that Elam is a man who will fight for his family, violently if necessary. Season three could turn out to be an intriguing one for him, particularly if it continues to feature his and Cullen’s fascinating relationship.
Perhaps the most unusual but interesting aspect of this episode is the developing rapport between Cullen and Ruth (Kasha Kropinski), a sometimes misunderstood character. While not a romantic relationship, there is certainly something there, a kindness that we don’t often see in Cullen. She’s acting as his conscious, something he might not be totally comfortable with, but when she promises him that “ when a man hates his sin, he can be redeemed from it”, we see a mix of emotions from him. Cullen’s somewhere between disbelief and hope; she’s promising him the one thing he’s wanted all along- redemption.
That’s what “Range War” gives us as well. Hell on Wheels teetered on becoming stale in its second season, but so far we have been given grit, redemption, brutal yet truthful violence, and contemplation.