Hell on Wheels: Derailed

When we last left Hell on Wheels, shortly before a brief holiday break, Elam and Bohannan were riding off into the sunset after having just ambushed and killed the lynch mob that was chasing Elam. The mob had been intent on finishing the job of killing Elam that Bohannan had interrupted back at the Hell on Wheels camp.

“Derailed” begins with, as the title suggests, a derailment. Traveling back from Chicago on his private train, Durant and Lily arrive at the derailment scene shortly after it has happened. There are bodies and survivors, and the derailment suggests the aftermath of battle. Again, the feeling in the post-bellum drama is that we are not particularly post-war at all, and the scene of devastation is another reminder of the Civil War—especially when the boiler of the half-buried engine explodes. One of the interesting themes that Hell on Wheels addresses is life in a post-war society, one that is still grappling with the traumas (and with the causal issues, racial conflict in particular) of that war. And, in fact, this derailment may be part of the new racial conflict—with the Cheyenne. At least, both the Swede and Durant believe that the Cheyenne have caused the derailment (an act of “terror,” as they describe it, suggesting that the series is commenting on contemporary wars as much as on Civil War society).

Elam and Bohannan, somewhat surprisingly, show up at the site of the derailment—I thought they were headed in the other direction, away from Hell on Wheels. This is fortunate for Durant, who needs Bohannan to organize an attack on the Cheyenne. It is not so fortunate for the Swede, as Bohannan carries a grudge against him for allowing and even encouraging the attempted lynching of Elam—and for ordering the men to chase down and kill both Elam and Bohannan. And, as we know, no one carries a grudge quite like Bohannan. After pistol-whipping the Swede, Bohannan picks up a leather belt and begins whipping him with that. As in the last episode, this episode is notable for striking visuals, the image of Bohannan whipping the Swede against the background of the derailed and destroyed engine one of the most striking of the episode.

From Durant’s perspective, this is a terrorist attack, and he wants Bohannan to go after the perpetrators—but he also wants him to prevent Lt. Griggs, the former union soldier and cavalry leader, from striking the Cheyenne and sparking a full-scale war.  “You want revenge,” Bohannan comments. “I want justice,” Durant responds, to which Bohannon answers, “Different words for the same thing.” In the western, the distinction between justice and revenge is an always negotiable, never certain, and always shifting line. That Bohannan makes no pretense of seeing any difference between revenge and justice says much about the ambivalence of his character.

With Joseph Blackmoon (as guide and chief negotiator) and Elam (whom Bohannan trusts more than he does Griggs) at his side (“a rainbow,” Griggs comments derisively at the sight), Bohannon rides out with the cavalry in search of the Cheyenne. Griggs and Bohannan trade war stories. This does not do much for fostering unit cohesion. Effective tactics on the part of the Cheyenne (or the group lead by Joseph’s brother), which result in one death and the theft of all the horses, further split the group. An angry Griggs seems intent on striking the Cheyenne camp and killing everyone there—even if that’s mostly women and children rather than warriors.  As Bohannan comments to Elam, if it comes to that, “We might end up fighting them bluecoats rather than the Cheyenne.” In keeping with episode’s title, the mission is also derailed (or dehorsed), and there seems little chance of it working out the way Durant hopes.

Lily Bell is also derailed. After arguing with Durant, she leaves the lodgings he has set up for her on the railway car and ventures into the Hell on Wheels camp, where, no longer elevated by the railway car, she is stuck in the muck with everyone else. The Swede, in the wake of being beaten by Bohannan, also seems derailed, his sense of purpose shaken, as he becomes obsessed with proving that Bohannan is a killer (which, as Durant comments, makes him no different than anyone else at the camp). He searches through Bohannan’s room, pulling out newspaper clippings that reveal Bohannan’s path of vengeance, although his discovery is of no interest to Durant. While Durant talks to him about setting up a perimeter to protect Hell on Wheels, the Swede goes on about Bohannan, until Durant comments, “It’s a long way from Indian Territory back to Sweden.” After Durant leaves, the Swede mumbles to himself, “I am from Norway. I am Norwegian.” Earlier, he laughed off this type of mistake about his identity, but the “Swede” is looking increasingly derailed and perhaps deranged.

In this war-torn society, we see very little success in coming together to face a common foe, or very little in the way of unity in the face of adverse circumstances, and certainly not much in the way of joining together in the “great common cause” of railway building (or the nation building that the railway construction symbolizes).  In the world of Hell on Wheels, few of the characters seem able to see beyond their own personal obsessions, and the individual desire for revenge seems to continually undercut the possibility of unity.

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