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Hell on Wheels Season 1: "Immoral Mathematics"

Written by Royal Nonesuch on Monday, November 14 2011 and posted in Reviews

Justice, faith, blackmail, and math.  All in a day's work when you're building a railroad.

There hasn't been much to go on, but after a somewhat scattershot pilot episode, Hell on Wheels is looking to get on track with a more focused effort.  In "Immoral Mathematics," we stick mostly with Cullen and follow him on a pretty conniving plan to take over for the now departed Daniel Johnson.

Things don't start off so smoothly for him, as he gets hauled in front of what passes for law in Hell on Wheels, that being the head of securityand Scandanavian weirdo named Tor Gundersson (Christopher Heyerdahl), a Norwegian who goes by "The Swede" ("but we're all Americans here, even you rebels").  The Swede is a wonderfully fearsome creature; tall, pale, and gaunt, he is carries with him the visage of death.  Clad in black, he serves Thomas Durant's interests by keeping the order, as he sees it, and he has his sights on Cullen Bohannon.  In fact, he sentences him to be hanged for the murder of Daniel Johnson, and keeps him overnight in a holding cell (basically a box made out of wooden planks).  Elam swings by in the night asking if Cullen is going to turn him in, but Cullen promises that Elam has nothing to fear.  The following day, after The Swede shares a bit of his origin story, Cullen escapes from his prison and eventually runs into Reverend Cole, who offers him sanctuary.  Cole preaches to Cullen, talking to him about repent, redemption, and the Lord's Grace.  Cole tells him to get on his knees and pray to God, but Cullen, who was on his knees in chains mere minutes earlier, refuses, saying "I don't deserve forgiveness." 

Speaking of which, there appears to be some religion-based philosophical conflict amongst the local tribe of natives.  While on the hunt for Lily Bell, the widow of the Union Pacific surveyor killed in the pilot, some of the "Injuns" run into one of their own, one who has converted and talks about Jesus' forgiveness.  Obviously, it's still too early to really see where this little subplot is going, but here's hoping it doesn't take too long to get there.  So far, aside from some great outdoor cinematography and scenery, all we've gotten is a glimpse into Lily's character.  She's struggling to survive on her own out there in the wilderness, but going by the scene where she stitches up her wound, she's finding some inner toughness. 

Cullen, who is helped out of his chains by Elam, eventually makes his way to Durant and makes his case.  Cullen tells Durant that he wants to take over as the new foreman of the railroad construction.  Durant hears him out, and gives him the job.

Anson Mount plays Cullen with a dark and almost silent intensity that's prettyHOW_102_0016interesting to watch.  It really feels like under all that grime and facial hair, he's always thinking, and the fact that he was working throughout the entire episode specifically to have a face-to-face with Durant so in order to weasel his way into the foreman position is a neat narrative trick.  It's exciting to think that in Cullen Bohannon, we have a character whose motives are rarely discernible from his actions.  We don't know what he's doing until he's done it.  He's going to be sticking around in Hell on Wheels since he knows there's still someone there who was involved in the murder of his wife.  The smart money right now would point to Durant as that mysterious "sargeant," but considering the tour of characters "Immoral Mathematics" took, it set up a few different possibilities (all this talk of repent and forgiveness makes one wonder about Cole and the unnamed Jesus freak Native guy).  The exchanged nods of approval between Elam and Cullen would lead one to believe that those two are about to enter into something of an alliance probably a pretty tense one, by all indications, that will probably form the hook that the show revolves around.  Their relationship should be pretty interesting to watch.  There are still a couple of odd subplots that are causing the story to splinter, but once those get integrated into the overall narrative, we should have a pretty solid view of what this series is trying to do.  So far all we know is that Hell on Wheels is going to be a revenge tale, and a sprawling, multi-faceted story might not be the best way to showcase that.  We need to see how things in Hell on Wheels relate to Cullen's quest for vengeance.  Ultimately though, the show seems to be finding its footing, and a smaller, more intimate story this week was a big help in making that happen. 

Written or Contributed by: Royal Nonesuch

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About the Author - Royal Nonesuch

As Senior Media Correspondent (which may be a made-up title), Royal Nonesuch tends to spearhead a lot of film and television content on The Outhouse. He's still a very active participant in the comic book section of the site, though. Nonesuch writes reviews of film, television, and comics, and conducts interviews for the site as well.  You can reach out to him on Twitter or with Email.


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