Hell on Wheels has specialized in various moments of insanity for awhile now, but my favorite is easily from Season Three’s finale. In it, Elam tries to find Cullen and bring him back to the railroad camp. But on the way to find his friend, Elam is attacked by a bear. So Elam fights the bear. With his bare hands. And it was glorious. But even more insane than this weird twist that came out of absolutely nowhere, is that Elam actually won. We ended last season with Elam taking what could have been his last breaths next to a dead bear, victorious in his final moments of life.
Well, Elam is still alive, as we come to find out in “Bear Man.” Given that Common had been taken out of the main credits, I had just agreed with everyone in Cheyenne who assumed that Elam had died. Instead, “Bear Man” gives us a look at what happened to Elam since the crazy bear attack, when he was taken in and nursed back to health by a Comanche village.
The Comanche believe that if you kill a bear, you take on the magic and strength of the bear that you murdered. According to the Comanche, Elam is now—in theory—invincible. If you want to let power go to a person’s head, tell him he can’t be defeated, which is what they do to Elam.
In this episode Elam reverts to a more primal state, believing the myths about his newly-earned bear powers. He fights alongside the Comanche, and by the end of the episode, he has killed one of the most powerful Comanche and stolen his three wives. What’s most important is that one of them is a white woman named Charlotte Rice, whose husband was killed by the Comanche, so she now lives as their slave. Elam’s goal is to return with these three women to Cheyenne and find Eva, even though he has these visions where she runs away from him when she sees his bear-clawed face.
Considering how wacky the whole Common vs. Bear thing is, “Bear Man” isn’t as crazy as I would’ve expected. The real insanity is sure to come when Common does arrive at Cheyenne, proclaiming himself to be the Bear Man. That is going to be some crazy fun. Elam’s new hubris is definitely going to clash with the other proud sensibilities that litter the streets of Cheyenne. I would be very surprised if his new attitude doesn’t get Elam/Bear Man killed by the end of the season.
Hell on Wheels is almost always at its best when it tells smaller stories and focuses on singular individuals. This is partly proved by the strength of the episodes focused on Cullen. “Bear Man” is a nice detour from the usual Campbell/Durant/Cullen stories that we’ve been seeing lately, and sets up for some truly bonkers possibilities. I, for one, can’t wait to see how insane this whole story can get.
Ross Bonaime is a D.C.-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.