Something fascinating is happening with Hell on Wheels. No, it’s not that The Swede is getting even weirder or that two seasons in, we still don’t know the first names of two of the show’s main characters. It’s that Hell on Wheels is actually growing and evolving. In these last few episodes, HoW has started to take chances, creating actual conflict, character growth and substance. Instead of creating episodes that center around one set piece that doesn’t change anything in the long run, these recent episodes are based around character struggles and the connections between them, turning HoW into a show that for once, is becoming interesting to watch, instead of the pulpy, pseudo-Western it started out as.
But HoW has to have a little craziness thrown in there, as we see in the opening minutes of “The White Spirit.” The Swede has decided to cut all of his hair, cover himself in white goop and join the Sioux. After this odd interaction, he returns to the camp and quickly becomes the bookkeeper for Lily while Durant is on his way to Chicago. Since Bohannan rightfully doesn’t trust The Swede, he knocks him over the head with one of the guns he took from the dead Sioux last week—the same ones given to them by The Swede and the deceased Reverend Cole. Bohannan locks The Swede into a train car, without any evidence of his wrongdoing. When Lily confronts Bohannan, stating that he has no proof, he allows Lily to release The Swede.
Elam has decided to team up with the McGinnes brothers, on their way to becoming the kingpins of the Hell on Wheels camp. The brothers want to buy the local bar but are going to need a little help with their blackmailing of the owner. Elam and Psalms go to the train delivering the latest shipment of whiskey, busting open all the barrels and drinking what they can.
While drinking at the aforementioned bar, Bohannan is joined by The Swede. In what becomes an exciting battle of words rather than the usual fists for Bohannan, The Swede mentions that Bohannan hates him because he is a constant reminder of the capacity of evil that resides within him. The Swede nails it, making a drunk Bohannan get ready to hitch up his horse and leave the town once again. Lily catches him and tells him that whenever times get tough, he tries to run away. Twice in one night, someone has pointed out the flaws in Bohannan, a man who before now has never been called out on his crap.
Lily, on a streak with confrontations, heads over to Elam to talk about his shady practices. Elam rightly says he’s OK to kill for them, but is good for little else. Elam quits the railroad and heads away to build his own house, probably hoping that it will also one day house Eva and his child as well. Bohannan apologizes to Lily, saying that she is right. Bohannan isn’t the all-powerful badass he believes himself to be, and in the last few episodes, we’ve seen the degrading of this idea, as Bohannan has to deal with emotional problems he usually ran away from.
The Swede, while working on the books, discovers and tells Lily that Durant has been committing fraud, which let’s be honest, shouldn’t really be a surprise. The brother’s plan to grind down the barkeep works. They state that they’re pals, but this is business. Finally, after two seasons of sexual tension, Lily and Bohannan spend the night together.
“The White Spirit” has so many moments that just make you scream “it’s about time!” Bohannan is becoming something more than an omnipresent powerhouse who can solve any problem—he’s flawed and emotionally kind of a wreck. Lily gets her backbone since Durant is out of commission, and Elam stands up in a stronger way to the racial injustices facing him. The Swede is becoming more than just the looming, creepy guy collecting bodies. While Bohannan usually solves arguments with his fists or whatever weapon may be lying around, The Swede is a mental genius, breaking down Bohannan and infiltrating the camp while working with the Sioux to destroy the camp.
It is odd that the show gives one of its strongest—if not strongest—episodes, and Durant is nowhere to be seen. When Durant returns, hopefully the show will be able to integrate him in a stronger way than he has been this season. But Hell on Wheels is progressing into meatier, stronger stories, and hopefully it won’t backtrack into the episodes of distractions that seem to bog down the show every few weeks.