Hell on Wheels, Episode 5, Season 4, “Life’s a Mystery”
Written by Mark Richard and Thomas Brady
Directed by David Straiton
Airs Saturdays at 9pm (ET) on AMC
“Wouldn’t be wise to kick a man while he’s down- he’s liable to kick back”
Last week’s episode of Hell on Wheels, “Reckoning”, was a slow and disappointing entry. There were great moments but given how exceptional the first three episodes of the season were, “Reckoning” left much to be desired. “Life’s a Mystery” is better but it’s also very heavy-handed and uneven.
This episode has an unusual structure with a campy and rather unnecessary opening set in Juarez, Mexico. While stylish, the whole thing feels out of place. Grit and realism have always been what’s made Hell on Wheels special, so this hyper and bloody opening, complete with slow motion, doesn’t feel like Hell on Wheels. What it does manage to do, though, is effectively introduce us to Sydney. We know instinctively that this old “friend” of Cullen’s (Anson Mount) is more than a caviler outlaw. He’s dangerous.
Sydney’s leads to some of the episode’s best moments, like the uncomfortable dinner scene between him, Cullen, and Naomi (MacKenzie Porter). Sydney instigates the awkward moment and you get the feeling he does it because he simply wants to sit back and watch what might come his revelation, that Cullen killed a train car full of innocent men during the war. Sydney represents a part of Cullen that he has spent a long time trying to hide. His brutal past is suddenly sitting at his dinner table and there isn’t much he can do about it.
Sydney highlights the central problem with this episode. Despite reminding Cullen of his brutal past and pushing him to open up to Naomi, Sydney has no real place in the episode. It’s interesting scene, but the viewer can’t help wondering what the point is. Where is all this going? We are five episodes into the season and there doesn’t seem to be any central storyline. Everything feels up in the air
Hell on Wheels is about cold and brutal bursts of violence sandwiched between people trying to make a life for themselves, by whatever means necessary. This week, that is exemplified by the expertly directed shootout at the end of the episode in the middle of the town’s store, as well as Durant’s (Colm Meaney) vicious beating at the hands of one of Campbell’s men (Jake Weber), and Mickey’s (Phil Burke) explosive fight with Campbell’s other employee. These scenes work so well because they feel more in step with what works so well for Hell on Wheels. They feel like our characters natural actions unlike that opening scene. The brief moments we get with the Swede (Christopher Heyerdahl) stalls, because his meeting with Brigham Young (Gregg Henry) feels tacked on, an afterthought.
Durant and Campbell’s passive aggressive but escalating war, along with Mickey’s increasingly erratic behavior, have become the unexpected breakout storylines this season. They are fascinating and expertly acted. Durant has always been a fantastic character, a mixture of violence, desperation, charm, and cunning. Watching him scramble for power with an equally smart and devious Campbell is fabulous fun. Then there is Mickey’s violent and muddy fight, which is the culmination of the first four episodes. This is Hell on Wheels, gritty and terrifying.
Season three of Hell on Wheels brought the show to new heights, but in season four its still struggling to find direction. While there are good moments in each episode, they have also had huge issues that need to be overcome if the series is going to live up to the standard it set for itself last year.