Hell on Wheels: Bear Man review

Lots of spoilers in this one, but they're happy ones. Hell on Wheels fans should be pleased by this week's revelations. Here's our review.

This Hell on Wheels review jumps right into the spoilers. Fair warning!

We finally have a definitive answer: Elam lives! Hallelujah! When viewers last saw him in season three, he had set off on a Cullen rescue mission only to have the misfortune of encountering a large angry or hungry brown bear with a conflicting agenda. Apparently mister bear didn’t receive the smoke signal that he should steer clear of Elam Ferguson.

This episode returns to the themes of rebirth, redemption and faith. Who else survives a brutal bear attack as does Elam and lives to talk about it? It would have been in poor taste to have Elam die while trying to rescue Bohannon from the Mormon militia in Fort Smith. I didn’t expect Cullen to have pined for Elam in his absence as if they were best friends, but perhaps the writers could have included a scene with Eva and Cullen paying their respects to the man they loved and missed. I wouldn’t have felt tricked by the misdirection, and would have tipped my hat at the surprise and relief that Elam is still alive.

I liked the various elements at play in this episode. My initial hesitation as the camera panned across the bear’s corpse and onto Elam’s feet. Eva’s visiting him at the crossroads between life and death, but soon fleeing at the sight of his grotesque countenance. No! He can’t be dead now after all of this. Elam’s faith that there was someone and something he was missing and forgotten. Whatever this was in my mind several chapters into season four. His clinging to what he probably thought were his last breaths of life as he prayed to God to alter his situation. This was all of the scenes Elam’s presence might have impacted if he wasn’t presumed dead in the previous episodes.

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My mind raced again when Elam was observed by a few Comanche warriors. What now? Are they going to finish him off for killing a bear or just because he happened to be there at that moment? All seems to have fallen into place as he pulled and clawed his way through the mud half-blinded, bruised and beaten. It went against the savage stereotype when the warriors rescued and took him back to their camp for a ceremonial healing and nurturing. There was a tenderness not always associated with Elam between he and the Comanche nurse pulling him from the brink of death. It’s all too easy to compare her to the brash and sassy Eva, so I won’t. I didn’t think Elam’s character could sustain a full hour. Color me impressed with the writing, acting and directing. I settled into the episode after I allowed the story to lead me along an unfamiliar path.

The imagery of the past house fire was a good touch for a character unable to move, even if the danger was confined to his mind. Adding further insult, the cuisine didn’t look too appealing. The temporarily incapacitated can’t be choosy. The shaving of his beard goes along with the rebirth motif. Body and soul must be reset to neutral for a proper regeneration. Elam looked better clean-shaven.

No sooner than I gave the episode a thumbs up for defying stereotypes, a white woman, Charlotte, is captured and returned to the camp. Could it not have happened in this chapter, or was it meant to juxtapose Elam’s healing with what was expected of the Comanche warriors and their spoils of victory?

Charlotte had to be submissive, whereas the nurse tending to Elam was strong and protective of him on his journey back to standing on his own two feet. Appetite and strength somewhat restored, Elam showed his brutish caveman side in his altered, disoriented mental state in trying to claim Charlotte as Eva.  

I had an issue with the geography and Charlotte’s knowledge of Elam’s life. Over the expanse of the episodes since the attack, it felt like info dump for viewers who already knew his story. How could she have known who he was coming from parts unknown, captured and landing with the same tribe? Next challenges were with Elam’s killing the old trader who’d previously helped him and Cullen out of a tight spot, killing and scalping the Comanche bully who’d earlier taunted him, followed by wrestling for dominance as everyone stood or sat watching. These scenes felt inserted after the fact to perhaps show masculinity, bravado, or savagery akin to the Native Americans.

I can forgive these missteps as Elam’s time with the Comanches came to an end and he departed the camp with his bound women trailing behind his horse, and arrived at a stretch of completed railroad. The recent past and wind at his back, and wild prairie as far as he can see before him. All reminders of who and what he was and still is deep inside flooded into his mind and washed over his face. The grasping and attempting to assemble the jigsaw puzzle pieces was palpable for Elam and viewers alike. No better choice than to forge ahead to wherever the cascading sounds, images and smells lead him. Hopefully back to Cheyenne and his people.

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4 out of 5