Things keep moving forward in the most recent episode of Hell on Wheels, “Jamais je ne t’oublierai,” even if the building of the railroad itself is coming along quite slowly. The “Fair-haired Maiden of the West” has been rescued and returned to camp, where she is wined and dined by Durant, in part out of respect for his murdered partner (the “Fair-Haired Maiden’s” husband Robert Bell), and, in part, perhaps, because he suspects she may know where those missing survey maps are after all. The episode begins with an excellent long-distance gun fight. Bohannon has almost tracked down the illusive Sgt. Harper, the last living member of the group of soldiers who raped and murdered Bohannon’s wife (Bohannon having killed the rest of them). Fleeing on horseback, Harper is spotted over the prairie, and there’s an exchange of rifle fire between the two men. It’s a tense scene. Bohannon sees through his telescope that Harper has returned fire, but we have to wait a second or so for the bullet to close the distance between the two—and to find out whether Bohannon has been hit or not.
One of the elements of Hell on Wheels that I like is the way it suggests that the recently concluded Civil War is not quite over. Durant refers to building the railroad as a kind of warfare, and Bohannon’s quest for vengeance certainly suggests that the war is in some ways still being fought. In this episode, when a new shipment of black powder arrives, there’s an accident, which results in an explosion and fire—and then more explosions—transforming the camp into what looks like a battlefield, complete with destroyed machinery and structures, and wounded men being treated on the ground. It also suggests that Bohannon is a man of war who is having trouble adapting to peace. Although he’s taken over Johnson’s job as foreman, he’s been thus far a terrible foreman, leaving the job site to chase after Harper, and, when he returns to Hell on Wheels, getting spectacularly drunk. Rather than turning out the next morning to get his men working, he stays in bed nursing his hangover—until the explosion propels him into action. By the end of the episode, he is fully engaged and in charge. Bohannon knows what to do in a state of war. It’s the state of peace that he’s still trying to figure out.