Hell on Wheels, Ep. 4.08, “Under Color of Law”: Scattered moments show characters’ uncertainty

Hell one

Written by John Romano
Directed by Michael Nankin
Airs Saturdays at 9pm (ET) on AMC

Elam Ferguson”, the seventh episode of Hell on Wheels season four changed the course of the series. Losing one of the original main characters, Elam (Common), at the hands of Cullen (Anson Mount) was shocking, devastating, and redefining for Cullen. There will obviously be repercussions. Cullen could potentially lose his alliance and friendship with the African-American community he works with, Eva (Robin McLeavy), could turn on him, and his wife, already fragile and insecure, now looks at Cullen with fear.

“Under Color of Law” handles the aftermath of Elam’s death carefully. Eva survives her pain by helping Elam’s hostage, Charlotte (Sara Canning), and drinking. Cullen survives by smothering the painful memories and pushing Naomi (MacKenzie Porter) away. It’s obvious that he’s in pain and perhaps he refuses to acknowledge Naomi because he finally realizes that he could very well get her killed.

Naomi represents a major problem for the show. Hell on Wheels is full of fierce women like Eva, Louise Ellison (Jennifer Ferrin), and Ruth (Kasha Kopinski), but Naomi is still being portrayed as a startled, wide-eyed innocent. We have seen flashes of a tougher side to the character but this hasn’t been properly explored yet, although her riverside confession to Cullen shows great promise. She could be a powerful partner to him. Naomi’s fear of Cullen is understandable but she has to be more than fearful. Watching Eva interact with Charlotte highlights how well written most of the female leads are.

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Campbell (Jake Weber) continues to be the best addition to Hell on Wheels this season. He’s a dangerous and intelligent man capable of devious plans like deputizing Sydney Snow (Jonathan Scarfe). The traits that make Naomi such a frustrating character, mystery and fear, works extremely well for Campbell. It’s a strange predicament for the show. The writers, usually very clever, need to find a way to make Naomi as intriguing as Campbell. Although most of his motivations are a mystery, much like Naomi’s, Campbell is a richly written character. Even when we don’t know where he’s going or what he’s doing, we want to know. The same can’t be said for Naomi. That is a problem that should be addressed.

One has to wonder where Campbell’s drive comes from. He is a man who uses violence to reach a “peaceful” place but he is clearly a scheming man capable of great savagery and vengeance. When he loses two of his men he strikes out, dangerously. Freeing Sydney moves him past his war with Durant (Colm Meaney); he is now feuding with Cullen and like so many of the characters on Hell on Wheels, willing to do whatever he must to get his way.

When he first appeared in the disappointing “Life’s a Mystery”, Sydney was a troubling character for a number of reasons. “Under Color of Law” doesn’t offer much more development for him but watching his inspection of Ruth’s church proves how unstable he is. His past with Cullen will clearly be a major part of the rest of this season but we still know very little about him and unfortunately, he still feels a bit too cartoonish to take seriously.

After the deeply emotional and effective “Elam Ferguson”, this episode feels a bit scattered. We finally get major answers about the Swede (Christopher Heyerdahl) but there is no real conclusion to his story. What exactly does Brigham Young (Gregg Henry) have planned for him? “Elam Ferguson” was the first time the show moved its characters forward all season and in comparison, this episode feels hectic.

There are some impressive moments, mostly the ones involving Campbell, Durant’s arrest, and Cullen’s decision to leave Naomi at the Mormon compound, but after such an extraordinarily moving episode last week, “Under Color of Law” is disappointing and with only five episodes left this season, it doesn’t feel like the show has made a substantial impact as a whole.

Tressa Eckermann

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