For the past few seasons my wife and I have been subjecting ourselves to Hell on Wheels, an AMC drama about trains (or something) set in the post-Civil War midwestern US. Why we would do this to ourselves is difficult to explain, other than the fact that it is quite literally a slow train wreck and we can’t turn away. I’ve also really enjoyed telling my friends about all the ridiculous things that have happened, and continue to happen, on this show.
There are a few important things that Hell on Wheels has taught me about TV and life in general:
1) If you are good at managing the construction of train tracks, you can do no wrong. You can murder, steal, punch people in the face, eat a baby, it doesn’t matter. You literally have a get out of jail free card for life. Why? Because in this universe, there is a grand total of 3 or so people in the entire Continental US (or maybe the entire world) that can effectively perform this task without either getting themselves killed, running an entire train into a river, or receiving a brain injury that results in a complete personality change, and suddenly makes you really good at building trains. Or all of the above.
2) Colm Meaney is Chief O’Brien. Common is Common. No, I don’t even know what their actual names in Hell on Wheels, and no I don’t care to know. Ok I do know, but I absolutely refuse to use their character names when talking about the show.
3) If the protagonist of the show is a white Southerner who was formerly a slave owner and officer in the Confederate Army, and he assures his black former slave employees that while he may have owned slaves, that he freed them all on his own before the war because his wife taught him that slavery is wrong… He’s definitely lying about it. He owned those slaves and the Union had to take them from his wife’s cold dead hands. Are his former slave employees mad at him when they learn this? See point #1
Now that we have all that out-of-the-way, I’d like to talk about a very special episode of Hell on Wheels that I watched recently, “Bear Man”…
This episode of Hell on Wheels was both super confusing and probably super racist on multiple levels as well.
When we last left Common at the end of the previous season, he was off searching for his buddy Cullen Bohannon (the protagonist) who had been captured by Mormon militants. Common actually is a little bit pissed off at Bohannon right now, having just recently been informed that he lied about the whole slave freedom thing… But it’s all cool because Bohannon is really good at building trains, so Common is totally willing to risk his life for him. Again, see point #1 above.
Common is, however, quite mad at his girlfriend, Eva, a former prostitute who married an Irish dude and had his baby, who Common then adopted as his own after murdering said Irish dude and reclaiming his woman. Eva recently gave the baby away to a nice gentleman from Chicago to raise in a better place than the rat infested shit-hole that is Cheyenne, the railroad town in which the show takes place. This of course sends Common into a half-season long drunken stupor of depression and rage.
So Common heads out with a horse and a gun to rescue his buddy from the Mormons, who as we know are quite fond of black people and will probably be more than happy to negotiate with him.
Unfortunately, a giant grizzly bear happens to stumble across Common when he’s stopped to take a leak or something, and all he has handy is his trusty pocket knife. The season ends with Common lying in a pool of his own blood and filth and mutilated beyond recognition.
We all believe Common is dead at this point. Even Eva has a scene where she stares longingly into the sunset, and she just knows that something bad happened and he’s died. She just has a feeling, ok!?
So we make it halfway through the following season with barely a mention of Common, until at the end of an episode, out of the blue, the preview for the next episode shows us that he’s actually alive! Way to preserve the surprise!
We get to the next episode, and find that not only is Common alive, but he managed to kill the fucking grizzly bear with his pocket knife and all it cost him was a few mortal injuries including a 3 inch bear fang lodged in his skull. We see Common gasping for air and desperately trying to crawl his way to safety until he finally passes out and begins to have some funky hallucinations about Eva.
Meanwhile, some Comanche guys find him and notice that he’s killed a giant grizzly bear and that he did it with his shitty pocket knife. Naturally they are quite impressed, and as we will learn later, it’s mostly because they believe in some weird bear magic, and they think that because he killed the bear he has now absorbed all the bear magic. So they grab him and take him back to their camp where they nurse him back to health with a bunch of herbs, beef jerky and shaman magic stuff. Probably in hopes of one day eating his bear magic or something.
Now, for about the next 45 minutes of the episode we have Common lying on his back, having seizures and hallucinations while all the Comanche guys tend to his wounds and speak in their language WITH NO SUBTITLES AT ALL. It’s not just a little bit of no subtitles for dramatic effect either, it’s intentional no subtitles with lots and lots and lots of dialogue that sounds like it’s probably really, really important, but we don’t get to know what they are saying. This is probably to emphasize that Common doesn’t understand them either so it makes it so we can relate to his confusion! Yeah, that must be what they were going for… Either way it makes for some truly amazing TV…
Eventually Common mostly recovers, and manages to drag himself out of bed and walk, sort of. This actually takes a lot of prodding, they have to start leaving his food on the other side of the tent and stuff to force him to start moving again. At one point one of the warriors even comes in and steals his dinner. Watching a dazed and helpless Common yell, “Hey thats mine! Give me back my meat!” was probably the highlight of the episode so far.
Common also now has a crazy eye. His one eye is all white and blind now because its near the part of his skull that the bear caved in.
At this point the Comanche all think he’s super powerful despite his limping and staggering around the camp. Naturally a bunch of the hot-shot warriors want to show that they are powerful too, so they start bullying him and pushing him around and shit to prove themselves. Somehow, despite multiple skull fractures and broken ribs he holds his own and manages to out wrestle (I think) some of them and earns some RESPECT! One of us, one of us… they paint his face with some war-paint and he’s officially an honorary Comanche, and they name him Bearkiller. I wonder how they came up with that one.
One of the older, tougher warriors who really likes to bully Common a lot, comes back from hunting with a pretty blond girl on horseback. Since she’s been captured in a raid, she gets to be a sex slave now, because you know, the guy “earned” her in battle. Common is delusional and thinks that she is Eva. She recognizes pretty quick that Common is black and therefore not Comanche, so she tries to plead with him to help her. Since he’s still in a brain injury stupor he goes a bit crazy talking to her and starts calling her Eva and stuff, but upon a long and close up examination of her chin, realizes that she isn’t (Eva has a very obvious tattoo on her chin) and leaves her alone for now.
We finally get some answers when this old man white fur trader guy we met last season, who’s friends with the Comanche (he has 3 native wives) shows up. Finally we get some bloody English in this episode! He recognizes Common right away, and explains all the bear magic stuff to Common, and tries to convince him to go home to Eva. He knows that the Comanche are going to go attack a bunch of US cavalry guys and they want to bring Common along for his bear magic. He advises Common to GTFO before he gets shot. The leader of the cavalry is – after all – this racist creepy skinhead dude who keeps ranting on about phrenology.
Just when you’re finally starting to hope that the episode might turn more normal now, you find out how very, very wrong you are. Common is still all confused and isn’t sure who he is right now, so he suddenly just stabs the guy in the gut for no reason at all, and we are right back to no subtitles for the rest of the episode! Awesome…
Naturally, they take Common with them on the raid because he’s an invincible warrior now and will bring them luck. That or they are just racist and it’s operation human shield. Old man fur trader was totally right. Either way, they kill a bunch of them, earning Common even more respect. Common now really thinks he’s a Comanche warrior.
When they get back from killing the cavalry dudes, the captive white girl again tries to beg Common to help her escape the “savages” and get away. For some reason she knows about his girlfriend back home and she wants him to take her there and “trade her” to get Eva back… “I’M VALUABLE! I’m worth something!”… No it doesn’t make any sense at all but it is what it is. Her owner isn’t too impressed with her insolence, so he grabs her by the hair and drags her into his tent kicking and screaming to give her a good raping. You know, to show her who’s boss. Also probably to remind Common who the girl belongs to. It’s hard to tell because nobody is speaking English again other than the captured white girl.
So Common, being the hero he is, follows them into the tent, and tomahawks the Comanche dude in the back of the head like 12 times (think Mel Gibson in The Patriot) while he’s in the middle of trying to rape the girl. He then scalps him with the tomahawk and walks out of the tent, holds it up, shows it to all the other Comanche guys, and drops it on the ground, throw-down style. One of the other warriors is just a little bit mad about this, and tries to rush him, but the elders tell him to leave Common alone (I think… again no subtitles) because, you know, scalping is a legitimate form of settling female ownership disputes.
You might think he’s just saved the chick to be nice and stuff, but NO, Common now owns her AND the dude’s other two wives. He’s going to take her up on her suggestion to trade her back in town, so ties them all up, and skips town on a horse, pulling them behind him. Of course, everyone just lets him go.
I know he’s trying to take them back to the railroad town and pull some shit to convince Eva to take him back or something, but he still thinks his name is Bearkiller and he still seems very hallucinatory right now, so who knows. The preview for the next episode seems to imply that he drags these three chicks into town behind his horse, and then for some reason, he gets in a LOT of trouble. I can’t think of any reason why a black dude with a crazy eye and Comanche war paint in 1870’s US dragging a tied up white women into town behind his horse would stir up a ruckus, but I’m sure the episode will make lots of sense when I see it.
by William Swiderski