For the inhabitants of the shanty town of Hell on Wheels built around the never-ending railroad construction, building this railroad represents the beginning of a fresh start and a way to forget their past transgressions. For Durant, it’s his chance to create an even greater name for himself. Elam is trying to be considered an equal after the slavery of the past. Lily is attempting to continue her husband’s work, even if it will leave her with an uncertain future once the road is completed. But for Cullen Bohannan, his motivation for joining the railroad was revenge for the murder of his family, and he quickly changed to forget about that, instead deciding to solely do the bidding of Durant, while also sometimes working on the railroad.
The character of Bohannan is a perfect cipher for the writers of Hell on Wheels, it seems, since they only seem to have a short-term memory as far as the show goes. It was only four episodes ago that Bohannan had left Hell on Wheels to rob trains on the same track he used to work for. Now when the bandits he used to work with come to town to steal the payrolls of the workers like Bohannan himself once did, very little reference to this point is made at all. It almost feels like with “The Railroad Job,” Hell on Wheels once again shows that it’s kind of playing things by ear, with no true long-term goals or concern for the character’s goals either.
When Bohannan’s old crew comes into Hell on Wheels, Bohannan is away at the train site, so when Elam suspects something might be coming, Durant allows Elam to arm the shop owners left behind. Even though Elam arms the McGinnes brothers and Psalms, who’s busy coughing up blood in his tent, it still doesn’t stop the robbers from killing a whore and going through with the robbery of the railway office with Lily and Durant inside. When Durant tries to play tough and shoot one of the criminals, the group’s leader, Hawkins, shoots Durant right in the gut.
Thankfully, Bohannan returns to the camp right in time. Before the robbery, the robbers discuss how Bohannan is in town and “walking the streets like the risen Christ,” an apt comparison. Bohannan earlier was able to help lift part of a bridge that half a dozen men couldn’t do on their own—then he comes into town and kills every member of the group except Hawkins, with some help from Elam. Bohannan never misses, and the bad guys never hit him. Bohannan gets inside the railway office, stops the robbery AND rides the two miles to get the group’s doctor to save Durant before he dies. Is there anything he can’t do (except for maybe continue with his original reason for being there in the first place)?
The doctor declares that he can do nothing more for Durant, but since he’s a strong man, he might live through a trip to Chicago to fix his wound. During Bohannan’s role as savior to Hell on Wheels, Elam is left to keep an eye on Hawkins. When Elam goes back to his favorite bar, the one in which he’s the only black man allowed, he is swiftly kicked out again for not helping rid the town of the criminals, forced to drink with the men who have shunned him for being too high and mighty in his new position.
Back in crazy land, home to the duo of The Swede and the Reverend, The Swede has taken it upon himself to sober up the Reverend. The Swede wants the Reverend to finish his manifesto, but The Swede also believes that the Reverend’s vision of the future might actually be coming true. He even motivates the Reverend by showing him an entire case of guns to help him make his vision come true. So it seems like The Swede wants to teach the town a lesson with lots of killing. But honestly at this point, the two of them could find a ready-to-go space shuttle and take a trip to Neptune for a few episodes, and it doesn’t seem like it would be that surprising.
“The Railroad Job” points out the largest flaws in Hell on Wheels. It can’t seem to remember the past and has no interest in the future. With the exception of Durant’s gunshot wound, it looks like this episode won’t have much influence in the long run of things except as another distraction from the railroad building. There’s such a fascinating war brewing between the Sioux and the workers on the railroad, but Hell on Wheels instead decides to divert to what on the surface looks like a glimpse at Bohannan’s past, but plays more like some random thugs coming into town for a heist. With just a little more structure and care, “The Railroad Job” could have been another well-placed step in the right direction for Hell on Wheels, but rather feels like an episode that doesn’t serve much of a purpose at all.