Hell on Wheels, Ep. 4.03, “Chicken Hill” reveals season’s powerful theme

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Hell on Wheels, Season 4, Episode 3, “Chicken Hill”
Written by John Wirth
Directed by Dennie Gordon
Airs Saturdays at 9pm (ET) on AMC

“Cullen Bohannon has always worn his integrity like a millstone around his neck”

When Hell on Wheels first began, there was worry that it would never be able to get out of its own way. A revenge-driven anti-hero? We’d seen that a million times before. There were only so many places that kind of story could go and most of them were not good. And then something happened around the end of season 2- revenge was dropped and the show became a compelling character study about men and women in a dreadful world fighting to create something that would help cement their place in history.

When you consider that “Chicken Hill” is only the third episode of season four, it’s quite remarkable how much has already happened this season. Last week’s episode featured what was perhaps the finest scene of the entire series, Cullen (Anson Mount) and the Swede (Christopher Heyerdahl) facing off in a furious, frantic confessional that resulted in Cullen escaping with his family and the Swede presumably dying. This reviewer has on many occasions praised Heyerdahl for helping to create such menacing, terrifying, and compelling character. It would be a shame to lose him for good.

Early in the episode, Louise Ellison (Jennifer Ferrin) explains in voiceover that the town of Hell on Wheels is a place “just west of civilization”. It is essentially a civilization struggling with being civilized. She says the city is moving away from gunslingers and on to men in suits; there is a hint of hope in her voice when she says it. Hell on Wheels is changing, but it’s still unclear if it’s changing for the better. The episode’s only weak link is Eva’s (Robin McLeavy) continued downward spiral. She has always been an interesting and powerful female character, so it’s disheartening to see her toil away in a storyline that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. “Chicken Hill” also manages to expose the heart of this season- struggle. More specifically, what our characters are willing to do to survive their struggle.

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“Chicken Hill” is a tense episode. From the shock that Cullen sends through the town upon his return, to the dangerously incompetent lawmen, to Durant’s (Colm Meaney) continued struggle with just about everyone and everything, this is a very effective episode. Dennie Gordon does a stellar job as director. There are a dozen standout scenes in the episode, Cullen and Ruth’s (Kasha Kropinski) evening talk and Cullen’s reunion with Ezra (Tayden Marks) being two highlights. As is an early callback to season one and the episode’s finale scene, the brutal moonlight assault on Cullen.

Cullen’s small smirk as he begins work on the railroad once more tells us that he isn’t planning to do this job for very long. Then there is the “bombastic dreamer”, Durant. His inability to break through the mountain has brought out all of his vulnerabilities. Just as interesting is John Campbell (Jake Weber), perhaps the season’s most fascinating new character. It’s not clear yet if he’s a true villain, but he does stalk around the town, turning his back on women being beaten and quietly seething about Durant not seeing things his way. Cullen refers to him as a “carpet begging bureaucrat”; whatever he is, he’s shaping up to be one of the finest characters this season.

In what has thus far been a promising season four, “Chicken Hill” is a strong continuation, finally showing the viewers where this season might be going.

Tressa Eckermann

 

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