Cullen Bohannon is back — and so is The Swede
Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount) finds himself dealing with a new antagonist — and forging an unexpected bond with an old enemy — in “Chinatown,” the Season 5 premiere episode of Hell on Wheels. If you missed the action Saturday evening, here are the Top 5 things you need to know before tuning in next week.
STILL WORKING ON THE RAILROAD: During the beautifully photographed opening sequence, Cullen is enjoying an idyllic moment on what appears to be the Pacific Coast. For the first time in a long time — maybe the first time ever — we see him smiling in contentment, savoring life to the fullest. He is about to join his loving wife and child for dinner… when, of course, the dream abruptly ends, and Cullen is dropped back into the harsh reality of finding a route through towering mountains for the Central Pacific Railroad. That’s right: The Central Pacific, not the Union Pacific. As faithful viewers doubtless will recall, Cullen turned in his resignation to would-be railroad mogul Thomas “Doc” Durant (Colm Meaney) during the Season 4 finale episode — but wound up accepting a similar position offered by Central Pacific’s Collis P. Huntington (Tim Guinee), in the hope that Huntington’s contacts among the Mormons might help him locate his missing wife Naomi and their son. Unfortunately, about midway through this week’s episode, Cullen learns that Naomi and her family have been cast out of all Mormon settlements as apostates — and now may be impossible to find. Even more unfortunately, The Swede (Christopher Heyerdahl) remains very much in Brigham Young’s good graces — and is leading a group of Mormon workers to California to join the Central Pacific construction crew.
LABOR RELATIONS: It’s not often noted, or fully appreciated, but Hell on Wheels is the first TV western (actually, one of the few western dramas of any sort) to examine in any detail the Irish immigrant experience in America during post-Civil War period. This season, it appears the producers may be paying attention to the Chinese immigrant experience as well. Many of the laborers employed by the Central Pacific are fresh off the boat from China — and under the thumb of Chang (Byron Mann), an autocratic wheeler-dealer who routinely exploits the work force he has assembled in the California town of Truckee, current home base for Huntington’s outfit. Cullen takes an instant dislike to Chang — and is even more predisposed to loathing the guy when he learns Chang claims a hefty chunk of each worker’s salary. Huntington really doesn’t care about this injustice — all he cares about is laying track as cheaply and quickly as possible, to win the race with Durant’s Union Pacific. But Cullen strongly disapproves. As usual, he is reluctant to admit he’s simply trying to do the right thing; instead, he warns that exploited and unhappy workers might eventually delay the construction project through rebellion. (“Sooner or later — a beat dog bites.”) But whatever his reason, Cullen demands that Chang pay the workers a fair wage. Chang, not surprisingly, is greatly displeased by this undermining of his iron-willed authority.
A FRIEND INDEED: Early in the episode, we’re introduced to James Strobridge (Reg Rogers), a hearty but hard-bitten construction superintendent who makes his memorable entrance while tossing some joking insults at Cullen. (“Bohannon, you ugly piece of work! It’s about time you showed that mug back in Truckee!”) It doesn’t take long, however, for Strobridge to reveal his true colors as a goodhearted fellow who brings Cullen home for dinner with his extended family (a loving wife and several adopted children), and later invites Cullen for an evening of drinking and card-playing in a Truckee tavern. Blunt-spoken to a fault, Strobridge notes: “You don’t have too many friends — do you, Bohannon?” Cullen considers the question for a nanosecond, then replies: “None living.” While they’re at their game, Chang drops by and asked to be dealt in. Even as he loses, he affects an air of superiority, suggesting that he and Cullen are not really so unalike. (“Men like you and I make our own fates, don’t we, Mr. Bohannon?”) Long-time viewers will recall that, a few seasons back, The Swede also tried this false-equivalence stuff with Cullen. And like The Swede, Chang doesn’t get very far with making his case — despite some subtle hints from Cullen that Chang’s words are more than a little discomforting. The conversation comes to an abrupt end when Cullen hears a ruckus outside. What’s the rumpus? Mistakenly assuming that Tao (Tzi Ma), a railroad worker, told Cullen about the wage situation, Chang has ordered henchmen to brutalize the unfortunate immigrant. Cullen — who actually got his info from Fong (A. Zhou), Tao’s rebellious young son – goes out into the street and chases off the attackers. Once again, Chang is displeased.
TOGETHER AGAIN: The Swede boldly knocks on Cullen’s door — accompanied by a scruffy dog he has picked up during his travels -- and announces that he is joining the Central Pacific construction crew. And I have to admit: After all that has happened, I really expected a scene like the one in Halloween 5: The Revenge of Mike Myers where Donald Pleasence’s long-suffering Dr. Loomis finally picks up a large piece of lumber and repeatedly batters Mad Mikey, as if to say: "Enough is enough! Why don’t you just freakin’ die, already?" But no: Cullen holsters his gun, and actually listens, more or less attentively, while The Swede goes off on a typical Psycho Swede riff about how he, not Brigham Young, is truly an agent of God, and Cullen is Satan, and blah, blah, blah. Then Cullen calmly — and contemptuously — tells The Swede that he’d better be ready to pick up a shovel and get to work on the railroad. Revenge can wait, he explains: ”I’ve got a race to win.” Evidently, both men are quite willing to make a deal with his own private devil.
THINGS TO COME: That race, of course, is with Doc Durant, who makes a fleeting appearance in this episode to reveal that he has a mole in Huntington’s office, feeding him progress reports about the Central Pacific in general and Cullen Bohannon in particular. Strobridge may be a nice guy but, truth to tell, his attitudes about Chinese people aren’t terribly enlightened — which may be a problem in future episodes. Huntington’s attitudes arguably are more racist — he’s openly condescending toward Chang, which likely is a big mistake, and speaks of Chinese people as exotic, alluring but ultimately untrustworthy savages. It should be noted, however, that none of that keeps Huntington from having an intimate relationship with his Chinese housekeeper, Polly (Chantelle Han), a character we’ll probably be seeing a lot more as the season progresses. Here’s hoping we also see a lot more of Mary Fields — a.k.a. Stagecoach Mary — a character based on a real-life Wild West figure. Although she appears this week for only a minute or two in the role, Amber Chardae Robinson offers a textbook example of an actor making the absolute most of minimal screen time.