Episode Title: “Immoral Mathematics”
Writers: Tony Gayton & Joe Gayton
Director: David Von Ancken
Previously on “Hell on Wheels”:
In the aftermath of the Civil War, former Confederate soldier Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount) came to Hell on Wheels, the lawless town that accompanies the construction of the transcontinental railroad. Cullen was quickly hired to be the “walking boss” of a group of freedmen, including Elam Ferguson (Common); who didn’t appreciate having another boss. Although Cullen was relatively kinder to his men, the foreman brutally murdered Elam’s friend when he was attempting to get water to survive. Cullen urged Elam not to murder the foreman, but that was largely because Cullen wanted to avenge the death of his wife himself. However, the foreman got the drop on Cullen and Elam took his own revenge by slitting the foreman’s throat.
Meanwhile, Thomas “Doc” Durant (Colm Meaney) attempted to shore up support for his railroad even as the Cheyenne violently attacked his survey team and scalped every man that they found. The only survivor was Lily Bell (Dominique McElligott), who escaped with her dead husband’s survey maps despite being grievously wounded by an arrow through her hand and shoulder. When Durant learned of the massacre, he first inquired about whether the maps were found before immediately heading towards Hell on Wheels.
Some time later, Durant arrives at the surveyor’s camp just as the bodies are being carted away. Durant insists that the bodies be replaced and adds arrows to the dead to stage the scene more dramatically for the newspaper photographer. Nearby, Durant’s men find Robert Bell’s body but no sign of the maps. However, Durant does find a locket of Robert’s with Lily’s picture within. Back at Hell on Wheels, Cullen notices a pair of horsemen riding towards his work crew and he instinctively reaches for his gun. The men tell Cullen about the murder of the foreman, Johnson and tell him that he’s being summoned to possibly replace him.
Cullen rides back with the men and meets The Swede (Christopher Heyerdahl), a fearsome looking man who heads up security for Durant. The Swede mentions that Cullen was the last man seen with Johnson at the camp bar, as Cullen realizes that he was tricked into the meeting. The Swede also suggests that one of the freedmen may have killed Johnson for his poor treatment of them, but Cullen declines to back up that theory. Thus, The Swede believes that he killed Johnson and he has his men arrest Cullen despite his attempt to escape. They leave Cullen chained inside a freight car as The Swede promises Cullen a chance to confess.
Out in the Nebraska wilderness, Lily staggers onward by the water until she hears someone approaching. Hiding behind a log, Lily sees three Cheyenne warriors make a fire. Some time later, the warriors are approached by Joseph Black Moon (Eddie Spears), who warns his brothers to return Lily alive or else face a greater vengeance from the white men. The warriors scoff at his warning and say that Joesph had better find Lily before they do. Back at Hell on Wheels, Cullen struggles with his chains and he notices a loose nail in the floorboard. As he attempts to pry it out, Cullen remembers his wife stitching a needlepoint scene back at their home.
Cullen is dragged back to reality when Elam visits his freight car to find out if Cullen will betray him and reveal that he was the one who killed Johnson. Just in case, Elam reveals that he heard Cullen speaking with Johnson about the three men that Cullen killed on his quest for vengeance, but Cullen insists that his only plan is to escape. Meanwhile, The Swede entertains himself at the magic lantern show of the McGinnes brothers and he tells them that he was deeply moved. But that doesn’t stop him from shaking them down for protection money. The next morning, The Swede brings his breakfast into Cullen’s freight car and eats it in front of him.
The Swede confesses to being a bookkeeper in his former life, before he was taken prisoner by the South during the war. While in the internment camp, The Swede adapted to the “immoral mathematics” of the situation to regain control over the people around him. Cullen is barely interested in what he has to say and he kicks the bowl out of The Swede’s hands. Angered, The Swede indicates that Cullen will hang soon… but he doesn’t take his dropped spoon with him. Cullen grabs the spoon when he leaves and he uses it to finally get the nail out of the floor board.
On the ride to Hell on Wheels, Durant dictates the talking points of the massacre to the reporter in order to use the incident as a rallying cry for the railroad. Meanwhile, Lily waits out the Cheyenne warriors and she approaches their fire to stitch her shoulder wound. Afterwards, Lily passes out from the pain, which only allows the warriors to notice the birds hoovering over her position. When she wakes up, Lily attempts to flee as the warriors get close, only to run into the grasp of Joesph, who hides her from his tribesmen. Back at Hell on Wheels, Cullen gets out of the freight car and momentarily takes refuge in the church of Reverend Cole (Tom Noonan).
Later, Cullen gets Elam and his friends to remove the chains from his hands before he sneaks into the car of Durant, who assumes Cullen is there to proclaim his innocence. Instead, Cullen argues that he should be Johnson’s replacement because men followed him into battle during the war and fought well under his leadership. Impressed by Cullen’s “balls,” Durant gives him the job and introduces him to the stunned Swede as the new foreman for the camp. As Cullen takes up his new position, he silently acknowledges Elam and takes possession of Johnson’s things. Among the items he finds is the same stitched scene that he remembered his wife creating years ago.
It’s refreshing to see that “Hell on Wheels” improved with its second episode, as it could have easily gone downhill after the pilot. Plus I don’t think I had a bigger laugh this week, thanks to the shocked expression on The Swede’s face when Cullen was introduced as the new foreman. The Swede himself may actually have been responsible for a lot of the best moments this week and Christopher Heyerdahl made him one of the most imposing characters we’ve met in the show thus far.
I was also wondering how Cullen would get out of his situation and manage to stay on the railroad for the entire series. And I have to admit, making Cullen the new foreman was a pretty slick move. It may not have been the most realistic solution to that dilemma, but I can appreciate how audacious it was. Durant was right, Cullen has some pretty big balls to go from wanted fugitive to the new boss.
Durant is also starting to grow on me as the amoral businessman behind the entire railroad. It was darkly comic as the reporter looked stunned while Durant plunged extra arrows into the dead bodies and then proclaimed that they couldn’t feel anything. I’m not sure if Durant can really be described as a villain, but he knows how to manipulate the situation to his advantage. Colm Meaney is terrific in the role and Durant may end up being the most popular character on the show.
The burgeoning alliance between Elam and Cullen also has some promise, but it felt like an important scene was skipped when it jumped to Elam and the freedmen getting the chains off of Cullen. We never actually see Cullen go to him for help and that would have been interesting to see. By contrast, we got a scene where Cullen met Reverend Cole; but it doesn’t actually move the plot of the episode forward. Likewise, the brief focus on the McGinnes brothers felt more like a random element than something that would be important later. It was only The Swede who made their scenes interesting through his blackmail method.
There are also some indications that “Hell on Wheels” isn’t striving for authenticity, for example: when the Cheyenne warriors speak to Joseph in English. That was probably done for the benefit of the audience, but it wasn’t particularly well written or interesting. But if that scene had been filmed in the Cheyenne language, it could have actually disguised how banal some of those lines were.
As a whole, “Immoral Mathematics” gave me new faith that “Hell on Wheels” might live up to the other shows on AMC. It’s a long way from being the next “Breaking Bad” or “The Walking Dead,” but I’ll be more than satisfied if it turns out to be a great story.
Crave Online Rating: 8 out of 10.