A Union soldier with a guilty conscience seeks refuge in a small church, where he confesses his wartime sins to what he thinks is a priest. Instead of absolution, he's giving a bullet in the head. The man posing as a priest is former Confederate soldier Cullen Bohannon. He's looking for the Union men who were at Meridian, Mississippi, where his wife was killed. His quest takes him to "Hell on Wheels," the grungy tent city that springs up around the building of the transcontinental railroad just after the Civil War. Cullen gets a job as "walking boss," overseeing a crew of former slaves. He has no experience, mind you, but is given the job by the project overseer, Mr. Johnson, after learning that Cullen once owned slaves. Johnson expects Cullen to be as much of a raging racist and asshole as he is, but Cullen was enlightened by his wife. He's a kinder, gentler sort of boss, but this means little to Elam, one of the freedmen who's disillusioned by life since the Emancipation Proclamation.
Meanwhile, there's a survey team ahead of the building site, led by a young man and his wife, Lily. They're attacked by the Cheyenne, with only Lily surviving, thanks to her quick wit and stabbing abilities. Word gets back to Thomas "Doc" Durant, the money-grubbing entrepreneur who's basically greasing the wheels of this railroad undertaking. His concern isn't for the loss of life, but possible loss of the survey team's maps.
When Johnson kills one of Elam's friends for daring to drink water out of turn, Elam plots revenge. Cullen talks him out of it. Partly because he doesn't want Elam to hang, but also because Johnson is one of the Union men who killed Cullen's wife. Cullen wants to savor the sweet, sweet revenge for himself. Turns out Johnson is onto him, and is just about to blast Cullen into the next life. But first he reveals that there was another sergeant at Meridian, and he's somewhere at Hell on Wheels. Alas, Elam pops up to save Cullen and kill Johnson right before he can give up the mystery man's name.
The episode ends with Doc making a long, bizarre, meta speech to nobody in particular. It's all about lions and zebras and villains and history and his part in the grand drama he sees unfolding. It caps an otherwise kind of dull story with a big pile of crazy. Stay tuned for the full recap.
Things start off promisingly enough with a black, smoke-filled screen and twangily ominous music. Some helpful prologue catches us up on what's what in Washington, D.C., 1865. "The war is over, Lincoln is dead. The nation is an open wound." The smoke lifts to reveal tree-lined dirt roads with the Capitol building in the background. A bedraggled Union soldier shuffles towards us, stopping when he hears the somber ringing of bells. He takes off his hat and makes his way into a church. In a confessional, a man says, "Unburden yourself, my son." The soldier, breathing hard and sweating, says that he was with General Sherman on his march South. "What we did... evil, unspeakable things," he says. It was so terrible he can't speak in complete sentences. The bearded man on the other side of the partition offers that he was a soldier following orders. The soldier tearfully explains it was more than that. "We opened a dark door, and the devil stepped in," he says. That's why you're supposed to look through the peephole first.
His audience of one encourages him to confess, but the soldier can't quite bring himself to do it. "Tell me about Meridian," the bearded man says. The soldier looks up, surprised. "How do you know about Meridian?" he asks. The partition slides open. The bearded man raises a revolver and shoots the soldier in the forehead. Blood spatters across the back of the confessional and the soldier slumps onto the church floor. The bearded man kicks open the confessional door with a boot-clad foot. He stands over the dead soldier, gun still in his hand. He takes his time moseying out of the church as a few patrons and a nun scramble to get out of his way. The bearded man pauses for a moment, gives a considering look to a large crucifix above the door. "Hm," he says. He looks like James Brolin and Jonathan Frakes somehow had a baby together. And then didn't teach him any damned conversation skills! How was the fool supposed to tell him about Meridian with a bullet in his head?
The opening credits roll, accompanied by a fast, twangy soundtrack that promises a knee-slapping good time. The promise won't be kept.
We chug along to an investment meeting for the Union Pacific Railroad. Colm Meaney as Thomas "Doc" Durant speaks to an audience of mostly older gentlemen in severe black suits. Doc proposes that it will be the building of a glorious transcontinental railroad that heals the nation. He speaks with the bravado of a carnival barker. "Mark my words, gentlemen, it will be built," he says. "The only question which remains is which one of you will join me in this mad... noble quest?" The gentlemen puff on their cigars and look a bit uncomfortable. "Who among you will have to say in years hence that he stood idly by as this nation became an empire?" Someone gives him a nickel to play the ring toss game. He goes on blustering a bit more until he finally stirs up these men's patriotic emotions. Applause breaks out among the gathering. Doc smiles and rocks back on his heels, puffy with pride. A silver-haired gentleman in the front row seems especially taken with him. "Bravo," he says quietly.