Hell on Wheels: Life’s a Mystery review

There are still plenty of unanswered questions in this season of Hell on Wheels, but this episode is getting us there...

This Hell on Wheels review contains spoilers.

As a former stage actor, the opening scene was problematic for me because of the blocking and directing. It was one of those television and movie moments when I roll my eyes and exclaim, “Really?”

Storywise, Sidney has to orchestrate his own escape with his trusted sidekick at the ready. The Mexican lawmen didn’t think to frisk him and remove his knife. The ode to old Westerns in slow motion, Mexican shootout, and obligatory trumpet and guitar fueled Latin song was a bit much for my tastes. I’m all for expanding the Hell on Wheels universe, but please do so thoughtfully and carefully. Cough. The Mexican lawman isn’t dead after all, but lives to wrangle outlaws another day.

I’ve often thought this season that the writers haven’t been on the same page with the story they want to develop. No city or town would grow if not for new arrivals, but the revolving door of the provisional governor and crew, and Sidney obviously meant to reveal a part of Cullen’s past feels disruptive and heavy-handed. Sidney is present to personify the episode’s title, “Life’s a Mystery” for Cullen in the sense that he’s getting his life together only to have the racist appear and want to drag him back to his previous mindset and ways. Sidney constantly repeating “life’s a mystery” doesn’t work as well.

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All actors aren’t created equal, and thus care ought to be taken when writing and casting larger than life walk-on roles. The best guest roles are cut from the original and evolving story fabric. When mishandled, guest roles have the effect of the unannounced “wild and crazy relative” who turns everyone and everything upside down while visiting, but upon their departure a giant sinkhole remains.

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Life isn’t always what it seems, what humans want most, and more times than not turns out to be what we fear the most and keeps us awake at night. What’s mysterious or even curious in episode five is how karma plays out in Cheyenne. Various long, coiling strings of dynamite sticks have been lit since episode one, and are starting to explode. Vengeance and its tentacles of consequences are gurgling and burping in this episode. It’s no mystery when one takes advantage of, attacks, abuses, or kills another, that justice will be served. One can hide or escape for only so long before staring down the barrel of a pistol, having a blade pressed perilously close to the throat, or hands bound with a noose around the neck atop a horse, certain the bitter taste of death and blood will ooze from one’s mouth.

Life is filled with countless unknowns, but loyal Hell on Wheels viewers aren’t easily given to smoke and mirrors of mystery. There are recurring unanswered questions this season.

If and when the railroad is completed, what will happen to the freemen and assorted European immigrants? Is Elam dead or alive? If alive, does he perhaps have amnesia and can’t find his way back home? How long will it take for the locals to outwit the professional governor and send him packing with remnants of his ego and pride in his tailored jacket pocket? Is Cullen a reborn man, not in the Biblical dogmatic sense of the word, but in spiritual maturation because of his time in captivity? How will his second wife and new son change him? What will the trio of Durant, Eva, and Mickey stir up next?

Viewers mustn’t forget the Swede held up in Fort Smith awaiting Brigham Young’s judgment and possible punishment for his previous misdeeds and murder. I don’t think much will happen to the Swede that might result in him exiting stage right. The absence would create a similar void in Fort Smith and the show overall. Characters on Hell on Wheels need a villain to keep them honest, and viewers love to hate bad guys. These aren’t mysteries, and habitually drive popular shows.

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Do we have our first male bisexual or gay character on Hell on Wheels? If my ears and eyes didn’t deceive me, one of the new lawmen did in fact confide in Durant that he loved the murdered Marshall Jessup. Durant, too, was taken aback as he was attacked and beaten by the distraught lover. He’s no Tom Ripley, but if it is true, it does have the makings of a mystery. We’ll have to wait and see what unfolds next week!

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3.5 out of 5