The Televangelist: 'Hell On Wheels,' Season 1, Ep. 5

The episode promised sustenance and spectacle, and gave us just that.


  • AMC
  • I'm too sexy for my shirt

"Bread and Circuses" comes from a Latin phrase meaning more broadly "food and spectacle," and "Hell On Wheels" certainly delivered the latter in spades … on the surface, anyway. I have to admit that I was looking forward to some shirtless sparring between Anson Mount and Common (the second of whom said on Twitter this week, "we don't spray" in reference to the hard work the actors put into their incredibly toned physiques; also a dig at Robert Pattinson in the Twilight films who, in the second movie, had a spray-on six pack). "Fetch my smelling salts!" I demanded, and the showdown did not disappoint … for the first five minutes. At some point I realized we were watching umpteen rounds of this fight essentially in real time. I don't know if the actors said, "hey, we look amazing, so don't you just do some jump cuts and a montage of this fight - we want screen time!" And screen time they got.

This is not to diminish the importance of the fight itself. I thought it was a genuinely moving moment when everyone realizes than Elam is not fighting back because he's never hit a white man before. Once he's given a pep talk on the subject, Cullen to him comes to represent not just a white man, but the white man, and a pummeling ensues. Of course that's only the tip of the iceberg of the subtext and also the unwillingness of the white men in the camp to accept the black men in any way, or to give them any due credit. Even Cullen, whom we have come to regard as perhaps more "enlightened" than other men, makes some crass racial comments to and in regards to Elam. It's a reminder that we are existing in this Reconstruction world, and not in a modern or revisionist one. They were small moments, but they felt true.

But what "Bread and Circuses" was really about was people feeling cornered.