“Hell on Wheels” took a major risk with its new episode Saturday night. “Bear Man” was an expressive, emotional hour, and also one that really forced you to rely on visuals. There were no subtitles of Elam’s interactions with the Comanche or his rescue; as a matter of fact, it was almost 40 minutes before you started to get any real English dialogue in here at all.
This episode was anchored first and foremost by the makeup team, who effectively turned Common into a pretty gruesome sight as his character was still suffering from the aftereffects of that bear attack. He was scarred, one of his eyes was completely torn up, and there were deep gashes all over his face. His mental state was beaten just as much; despite his visions of Eva in a field (one that actually looks similar to the photo above), he couldn’t really piece everything together at first.
Eventually, he started to assimilate into the world of the tribe around him. He followed their beliefs that he was somehow magic and invulnerable due to surviving the bear attack, and he found a form of acceptance with them. There was a tenderness to some of these interactions that you don’t often see in depictions of Native Americans on television (we applaud that), and there were also some rituals that further accentuated Elam’s belief (or mere acceptance?) that he was a chosen one.
This is a difficult episode in some ways to figure out or label. What was Elam’s intention in using a white captive to make his way back to Cheyenne? There is that part of him in there that is still Elam, but there is also another part of him that is this new creation. For everyone heroic moment that he had came another where he was brutal, violent, and out of his own head. The scene, waiting at the railroad at the end, was particularly chilling. We know where Elam is going, but we still do not know all of his motives when he arrives.
“Bear Man” was overall one of the finest episodes of “Hell on Wheels” this season, though it does still feel like an incomplete story. Part of our divided opinion may also come from us still still struggling to figure out what we want the Elam character to be right now. We want to see that picture again become a reality, but we’re not sure he understands the meaning of Eva, or his old life, enough just yet. The one thing we do know is that Common gave quite possibly his best performance of the whole series. Grade: A-.
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