Cullen has a blast while Durant has hell to pay.
We’re offering a weekly account of every episode aired during the final summer run of Hell on Wheels. Be forewarned: There will be spoilers a-plenty in each of these overviews. Here are five takeaways from Episode 510, “61 Degrees.”
Picking up where Episode 509 left off, Cullen awakens after his close encounter with Mei and goes back to working on the railroad. He presents to Collis Huntington (Tim Guinee), his Central Pacific Railroad boss, a bold plan to speed up construction: Use nitroglycerin to blast a tunnel through an inconveniently located mountain. Huntington is receptive — but supervisor James Strobridge (Reg Rogers), one of Cullen’s few friends, is violently opposed to the idea. He has first-hand knowledge of how dangerously unstable nitro can be — “Every breath you take with this in your hand is a challenge to God!” — and is reluctant to prepare a batch of the stuff. Cullen ultimately convinces Strobridge to co-operate — but, after the first blast is successful, an accidental second blast kills three Chinese workers. Strobridge refuses to prepare any more nitro, so Huntington fires him. With some help from Mei, Cullen carries on — and, partly by chance, ends up completing the tunnel dig. Even so, Cullen remains bummed over the departure of his buddy.
Meanwhile, back in Laramie, Durant and Maggie are first glimpsed during their morning after. Durant sounds very much like a changed man when he asks Maggie to marry him, and even promises to stop his crooked scheming to win her favor. But his good intentions are quickly forgotten when a bunch of angry, gun-toting ranchers show up and demand repayment of the $50,000 they invested in purchasing land where Durant had promised the railroad hub would be. Unfortunately, Durant decides the best way to get the cash he needs is to fake his own kidnapping, and demand a ransom from the Union Pacific Railroad board. Even more unfortunately, he enlists Mickey in the scheme, and Mickey in turn enlists Dandy Johnny Shea (Andrew Howard) to handle the “abduction.” Not surprisingly, things go terribly wrong: Johnny pistol whips reporter Louise Ellison (Jennifer Ferrin) and fatally shoots railroad employee Martin Delaney (David Wilson Barnes) before absconding with the horror-struck Durant.
Elsewhere in the episode: Eva gains ownership of the horse she admired in Episode 509, as payment from Doctor Major Augustus Bendix (Leon Ingulsrud) for his extended “examination” of a working girl at Mickey’s bordello. Stagecoach Mary (Amber Chardae Robinson) sells Chang some incriminating evidence that might link him to the murders of three men who tried to lynch him back in Episode 503. And speaking of Chang: Despite his deep-rooted (and entirely justified) contempt for Huntington, he appears amused during their casual conversation about their long-term career goals. But Chang doesn’t smile one bit when, as Episode 510 ends, he once again suspects that Fong (a.k.a Mei) isn’t all that “he” seems.
Takeaway No. 1
Just in case viewers missed the point last week — and, judging from some of the reactions we’ve read on line, quite a few did — Episode 510 reinforces the notion that, however counter-intuitive it might seem at first, Cullen and Mei really are a perfect match. Both have lost people they love; both have been physically and/or psychologically scarred by their experiences. And, judging from their impulsive tryst atop a table laden with nitro, both have reached the point where they are unafraid to dice with death. In fact, it appears the only thing left that might scare either one of them… is the possibility of losing the other.
Takeaway No. 2
On the other hand: Maybe love won’t be enough to curb Cullen’s burning ambition (which Brigham Young warned him about just last week). The more he fixates on finishing the railroad project, the more ruthless he seems to become. (Indeed, when it comes to risking the lives of the Chinese workers, he appears less concerned than the racially unenlightened Strobridge.) If he’s not careful, he’s going to wind up like Doc Durant. Of course, you could argue that he’s been sliding down that slippery slope for quite some time now.
Takeaway No. 3
Great seeing Stagecoach Mary back in the mix, however briefly. Maybe AMC should consider a spin-off series with her as the lead character?
Takeaway No. 4
Collis Huntington isn’t a very nice person — to put it mildly — but you have to admit: The guy has entertaining flashes of educated eloquence. Think about it: During his first scene in Episode 510, he casually tosses off the word “morass” with more aplomb than any other character in this series (with the exception, of course, of that silver-tongued devil Doc Durant) could ever manage. Later on, he demonstrates just how refined he is by name-dropping two classical composers while ranting at Cullen: “I can’t have Mozart and Chopin playing different tunes on the same piano!” (To his credit: Cullen doesn’t have to interrupt and ask just who the heck his boss is talking about.)
Takeaway No. 5
No doubt about it: Maggie and Durant share the funniest exchange in the episode. She: “Why did we wait so long to do this?” He: “Pardon the expression, but you got into bed with me.”