Hell on Wheels, Season 4, Episode 1, “The Elusive Eden”
Written by Mark Richard
Directed by Neil LaBute
Airs Saturdays at 9pm ET on AMC
“Some people don’t want to be pulled out of the mud, Mr. Durant”
There’s a very strong argument to be made that along with Hannibal, AMC’s Hell on Wheels is one of the most underrated dramas on television right now. Over the course of three seasons, the show has moved from a historical drama to a deeply moving and fascinating character study that just happens to be set during the building of one of America’s greatest accomplishments, the building of the Union Pacific Railroad. Its muddy and vicious camp is inhabited by rich and thrilling characters, the storylines continue to capture the viewer’s attention, and our lead, a man often struggling with a dark world and the darkness within himself, is an endlessly fascinating and evolving character.
Last season, Hell on Wheels seemed to beat the odds and scored some of their biggest ratings in its new Saturday night timeslot. It also managed to produce its finest season and end on a series high note. There was also that huge cliffhanger: the Swede (Christopher Heyerdahl), still alive and posing as a Mormon Bishop, forces Cullen (Anson Mount) into marriage with the young Mormon girl that he impregnated at the beginning of the third season, Naomi (MacKenzie Porter). Much of that season had been about Cullen’s rebirth and fight for a more focused life- one not lead by vicious violence and revenge. He didn’t seem exceptionally happy but he did appear resigned to his new role as father and husband under the Swede’s thumb. In some ways it was a do-over for him. In fact when the series began, Cullen’s struggle was for revenge. Over the course of season three, it slowly transformed into a struggle for redemption.
Director Neil LaBute returns for “The Elusive Eden” after directing “Get Behind the Mule” and “Searchers”, season three’s best episodes. “The Elusive Eden” begins four months later as Naomi prepares to give birth and Cullen is desperate to escape the Mormon compound and more importantly, get away from the Swede. There were a lot of questions to be answered from last year’s season finale, like whether Elam had survived and if Durant could sustain the railroad. The episode begins with an amazing effect, as Durant (Colm Meaney) watches one of his trains sink under the ice. It’s a great reminder of what the world of Hell on Wheels is: it’s a group of people doing a dirty and dangerous job, struggling to survive. Sometimes they succeed, sometimes they do not, and the town is more brutal to some then others, like Eva (Robin McLeavy), who’s presumably lost her husband, her baby, nearly her life, and in the premiere is brutally attacked.
Throughout the episode, few of our questions are answered. We still don’t know what happened to Elam, though we do see Durant struggling with money and spies sent from the railroad. The best moments of the episode are found in the Mormon compound and are between Cullen and the Swede and Cullen and Naomi. Watching Cullen and the Swede play each other is always entertaining, like their conversation across the dinner table. Cullen is laying the foundation for his family’s escape but the Swede is still a question mark of a character. We know he’s crazy of course, but is his shock at Cullen’s “vision” real? And why is he so fixed on keeping Cullen under his thumb? What drives a man like the Swede? These questions are part of what makes him such a brilliant character. Then there’s Cullen’s relationship with Naomi. When they were first married at the end of last season it was partly forced and party driven by Cullen’s Southern sense of duty. Naomi rightfully questions Cullen’s devotion to her and their son William. Does he really love her or is he simply there because he has no choice? This reviewer suspects it’s a little bit of both, but Cullen’s confession to Naomi about why he first came to the Hell on Wheels camp is a powerful moment in the episode.
Special notice should be given to Hell on Wheels’ exceptional set design. The Hell on Wheels camp feels like a living and growing town. You never once get the feeling that this is a set; it seems to go on forever. It’s dirty and it’s cruel, but it’s strangely exhilarating. These characters are creating this town and for better or worse, they are turning it into what they need it to be.
“The Elusive Eden” is a great reintroduction to our characters. It gives each an interesting place to go over the rest of the season, offers many great scenes, and although a lot of questions aren’t answered, many fans know by now that Hell on Wheels always pays off for faithful viewers.
How terrifying is Mickey’s (Phil Burke) speech directed at Eva? And what does it mean for the women of the Hell on Wheels camp that he’s now mayor and in a position of power?
Is Colm Meaney’s Durant the best slimy salesman on TV?
“The eyes of the world are upon me as I stand on the edge of ruin.”