Hell on Wheels Review: "Scabs" (Episode 2.04)
Hell on Wheels is nothing if not a show that loves diversions. It’s fine with not talking about building the railroad (supposedly the main plot of the show) or Bohannan’s revenge plot that is meant to explain his reason for being on the railroad (something that has been dropped seemingly altogether), instead focusing on Elam’s love triangle, the dark turning of the McGinnes brothers and allowing the Reverend and The Swede to have a drunk campfire where they discuss a sabre-toothed tiger skull. Hell on Wheels feels content to take its time, much like the railroad workers who don’t feel the rush to get the railroad done or even work on it for episodes at a time apparently. “Scabs” is an exception to all this, focusing solely on the building of said railroad, and disposing of most of the minor characters this week to, excuse the pun, get everything back on track.
As the men get ready to continue work on the Durants’ train, they find one of their men, Michael Fleming, being tortured by Sioux Indians. Bohannan, instead of taking on the Sioux, shoots Fleming to put him out of his misery. Mr. Toole leads the men back to their camp to mourn their fallen man, much to the chagrin of Bohannan. To continue the track, Durant needs the men to build a bridge, which will cross into Sioux holy ground. Lily wants to re-route the train, but since Durant doesn’t want to lose any money, he’s against this plan. Bohannan wants to fight, but since the workers won’t die for the railroad and Durant won’t arm the ex-slaves, and since the workers won’t go for it either, this doesn’t seem like a plausible idea. But once the men on strike start building a bonfire and burning a fake Durant at the stake, Durant decides it may be best for Bohannan to be in complete control of the situation.
Meanwhile, Elam and Eva run off into the woods to have sex while Mr. Toole is out getting drunk and burning fake Durants. Eva tells Elam that she’s pregnant, leaving Elam to storm off quietly. Can I just point out quickly that Catherine Hardwicke, who also directed the first Twilight film, directed “Scabs”? I find it oddly perfect that she would direct an episode of a show that stars a guy named Cullen and an episode that focuses heavily on a love triangle that leaves two of the lovers to run off to the woods.
Elam later finds Eva and tells her he loves her, but then tries to pay for her abortion, since he’s scared to lose his newly earned freedom. Later at home, Eva tells Mr. Toole that she’s pregnant just not with his child. You know their relationship is rocky as it is if she’s still calling him Mr. Toole. This leads to a surprisingly effective scene where Elam and Mr. Toole confront each other. Elam tells Toole that he’ll kill him if he ever raises his hand to Eva. But Toole counteracts by saying that Elam isn’t a father, but a coward who ran off before. While it seems like we’re supposed to be on the side of Elam, Toole makes some good points as to his validity as a father and a partner. Later that night, Toole returns home, Eva scared about to what he plans to do. But Toole just gets in bed with her, cupping her stomach. It’s a sweet scene, and I would argue that Toole has had the most growth and is quickly becoming one of the more fascinating characters in the whole show. Even if he still doesn’t have a first name.
Back to the train, Bohannan has decided to call in 200 new workers. But as they are getting off the train, the white and black workers unite to kick the crap out of them to claim their jobs, making the new workers run back to their train to escape. The workers agree that the ex-slaves should be armed to protect against the Sioux. Bohannan’s plan has worked so far, but now he needs Elam to get his men to agree. Since Bohannan and Elam both work for Durant, they have to, as Bohannan puts it, break the wild horses. Bohannan does this with more cunning, but Elam goes to his workers and starts a fight with those who are against him. Eventually both Bohannan and Elam’s men agree to work together as Bohannan tells Elam’s men that “if anything moves, shoot the shit out of it.”
Many people in the camp believe that there is a war brewing between the men of the camp and the Sioux, and they’re right. This war is already becoming a uniting entity against their faceless enemies trying to stop the railroad from being built. It also feels like there is a growth amongst the men, getting beyond color and past grudges to grow as a community. All this is done in an episode that also moves forward the original plot of the railroad for the first time this season. Now if Hell on Wheels can learn from “Scabs” and integrate the minor characters in a way that seems natural for the show, HoW might not be such a bad show to fill the gap for AMC viewers between Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead.