Hell on Wheels, Season 2, Episode 4: “Scabs”
Written by Chris Mundy
Directed by Catherine Hardwicke
Airs Sundays at 9 pm (ET) on AMC
After the shocking murder committed at the end of last week’s episode, Hell on Wheels has found this season’s tone- dark, dank, and twisted. Hell on Wheels has always had one of the best atmospheres on television and with this episode, film director Catherine Hardwicke carves out a perfect niche for herself on a show that’s already established itself. If last week’s “Slaughterhouse” was a standout, this is somehow even more wonderful.
Cullen (Anson Mount) and Lily (Dominique McElligott), along with men from the railroad, arrive at the Rockies to begin work on the bridge that will cross the mountains and find that one of their line bosses has been kidnapped by the Sioux Indians and is being tortured. Cullen, in his infinite wisdom, shoots the line boss and informs Lily and Durant (Colm Meaney) that they are at war. Both try to avoid the issue and re-route the railroad, but Cullen essentially tells them that it’s no use. Eva (Robin McLeavy) informs Elam (Common) that she’s pregnant with his child and, after some consideration, he admits that he loves her but gives her money, telling her to “take care of [her]self”, and the Reverend (Tom Noonan) finds a roommate in Cullen, who takes pity on him after learning that his church has “been stolen” from him. Demanding rifles to defend themselves with, the African-American workers go on strike, but a beautifully shot brawl breaks out between the railroad workers and the 200 replacement men and pushes the remaining men into returning to work.
“Scabs,” is a wonderful and enthralling episode. It simmers with tension and frayed nerves and Hardwicke revels in it, putting her characters in increasingly difficult situations. Hardwicke gives us some fascinating and intricate shots; the scene in the tavern between Cullen and The Reverend is a standout. Hardwicke loves the nasty world of the Hell on Wheels camp and the writing by Chris Mundy is as strong as it’s ever been on this show.
It’s hard to find fault with this episode. It’s angry and picks up where last weeks episode left off, ramping up the tension and letting it boil over into something that pushes characters into fascinating directions. Elam’s fear and anger continues to turn him into a different character from last season. He’s desperately afraid that his freedom is slipping away and he’s willing to give up whatever he has to make sure that he won’t lose himself. Lily’s struggle to gain footing in the railroad pushes her into belligerent anger and Eva’s fear for her unborn child gives her some measure of uneasy peace in her marriage to Mr. Toole (Duncan Ollerenshaw).
Mount continues to stun. It’s not that Cullen is growing, it’s the way he’s growing and showing us his true colors that impresses. When he admits to the Reverend that he does truly believe that they’re at war with the Sioux, there is a glint of excitement behind his eyes. This is what he’s good at, this is all he has left to love. It’s a fascinating turn to a character that had been single-minded in the past and it’s something that I’m excited to see play out.
“Scabs”, for all its violent gusto, focuses on what makes the characters tick and asks the question, what can fear and anger do to a person? We might not have the answer yet, but we get a pretty good sense that this season is heading in an explosive direction. Hardwicke has turned in a brilliant episode that leaves the audience breathless for its sheer intensity and unrelenting atmosphere. “A war is coming,” the Swede warns Reverend Cole.
The war is here and it’s going to be stunning.