Hell on Wheels: Revelations

Last week,  Hell on Wheels consisted of a series of negotiations.  In this week’s episode, “Revelations,” rather than negotiations, we have a series of showdowns. Lily Bell confronts an obnoxious relative of her deceased husband at a memorial service. The relative “draws” first, making several comments about how Robert’s death was all Lily’s fault and derisively referring to her as the “golden maiden of the west.” Lily sets her straight, her detailed account of how she killed the man who killed her husband accompanied by a ringing slap to the face. Lily wins this showdown.

Durant has his own showdown—with Senator Crane. Although Crane is trying to manipulate Durant by holding his knowledge of misappropriated funds over Durant’s head, Durant figures out that his real game is to capitalize on knowledge of where Durant plans to build a spur to get his railway connected to New York. After a show of (feigned) reluctance, Durant reveals his plan to connect to a particular existing line. Crane sinks all his money into stock, hoping for a big return when Durant announces his plans. Instead, Durant announces a connection to a different line, and Crane is nearly ruined. “Here’s a bright shiny new penny,” Durant states as he tosses it on Crane’s desk and turns on his heels and walks out. Durant wins his showdown with the Senator.

Meanwhile, racial tensions at Hell on Wheels continue to escalate. The Irish workers, frustrated in their desire go after the Cheyenne, go after Elam instead—with, it seems, the blessings of the Swede (who thinks it will let them blow off steam). As Durant’s head of security, one wonders what the Swede is really up to, as he’s absolutely awful at the job. It’s difficult to see how any work on building the railroad is going to get done if the workers are continually trying to kill each other—more often than not, set at it by the Swede.

In one of the best scenes in the series, Bohannon rides his horse into the tent where the Irish are in the process of lynching Elam. Gun blazing, he saves Elam, and they take off on the lam away from Hell on Wheels. The annoyed Swede sends the Irish workers along with two of his men off after them. By the end of the episode, the members of this posse (or lynch mob), including one of Durant’s walking bosses and several of his workers, are all dead. There may be a labor surplus at the end of the Civil War, but still, this seems like no way to build a railroad.

Bohannon and Elam set up an ambush, and Bohannon takes care of most of the mob with his rifle. Elam chases his nemesis, Mr. Toole into the woods, where we have the final showdown of the episode, and the most traditionally western of the episode’s showdowns, as the two men fire their pistols at one another until, as Elam realizes, Mr. Toole has used all his ammunition. Elam shoots him in the mouth. A nice gruesome touch is when we see smoke from the gunshot drift out of Mr. Toole’s mouth. Elam wins this showdown.

Interestingly, and thinking about Hell on Wheels as involving a story specifically of the African American West, we see Elam’s transformation in the first seven episodes from a former slave whose story follows the conventions of the slave narrative (as an object of white violence whose efforts to truly be a free man are continually thwarted) into a story that follows the conventions of the western. He begins “Revelations” as the victim of a lynch mob, but he ends the episode as a western hero (or western outlaw—at this point, it’s not clear how he and Bohannon will be considered), winning his showdown not because he’s the best shot, but because he keeps the coolest head. In the final shot of the episode, we see that Elam has thoroughly become part of the western story—as he and Bohannon ride off into the sunset.

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