At the end of Hell on Wheels’ season one finale, our hero Cullen Bohannon rides away from the grimy itinerant town he’d made his home after murdering a man he never should have. But in that town remains a job, a woman, and a life he wants. So as the episode fades to black and we remember the show was renewed for a second season, we're left to wonder whether Bohannon will return to Hell on Wheels.
In much the same way, we're left to wonder if we, the viewers, will return to Hell on Wheels for a second season of belabored dialogue, broody stares, and, if anyone at AMC knows what they're doing, more Tom Noonan.
The answers to those questions are months away. For now, let's talk about last night, which started with a flashback of Bohannon arriving home from the war to find a ransacked house and a dead wife hanging from the porch. He also finds his charred son in the barn, but we’re spared the sight of that. After taking time to bury them and change into a menacing black coat, he sets off to do bad things to the bad men who hurt his family.
Back in the present, The Swede has found his way out to Council Bluffs to bring back Sergeant Harper, the last man on Bohannon’s kill list. The Swede wants Harper to testify to Marshals that Bohannon is responsible for a string of murders, including that of the camp’s former boss Johnson. Harper doesn’t want to but The Swede warns him that unless he helps put Bohannon away, the vengeful bastard will eventually find and kill him. Then he pours Harper another drink.
Meanwhile, back in camp, Bohannon and Lily Bell share a tender moment over some floorboards. Like a lot of the moments they share, they speak cordially while a subtext of “I wanna hump” bubbles below the surface. Bohannon squashes any chance of humping, though, by talking about his dead wife and bumming himself out. At least he gets a little rub on the chest as Lily tells him not to let the tragedy that took his wife and son take his life as well.
Strangely, the bloodthirsty reb seems to be considering it. He pays a visit to Reverend Cole to talk it over. Unfortunately, the good Reverend is in a bad place right now. Specifically, he’s cleaning up the mess from chopping off Lieutenant Griggs’s head last week. Bohannon asks the Reverend for guidance. He’s chosen a dark path, he says, and is looking for encouragement to turn away from it.
Reverend Cole doesn’t give him what he wants. Looking like a deranged Doc Brown, Cole launches into a monologue about how the devil cut off God’s arms and legs, gouged out his eyes, and ripped out his tongue. All he left God were his ears, allowing him to hear us but ultimately remain unable to help. So, in conclusion, Reverend Cole says to “choose hate; it’s so much easier.” Tom Noonan is so creepy, so deranged, and so excellent in this scene. Like Bohannon, his character is struggling between choosing good and choosing evil. Unlike Bohannon, though, he’s settled on one. And I, for one, will take the unhinged Reverend over the pious one any day. Same with Bohannon. For the sake of the show, I’m hoping he makes the same choice.
Confused, Bohannon heads to the bar to clear his head. But when he gets there he hears from Irish Sean that The Swede has just ridden into town with a man wearing a Union coat. Bohannon knows who it is and takes off immediately to … clean his gun. Gotta appreciate someone who treats his weapons with respect, but go kill the man! That’s what you’re here for.
As Bohannon polishes his barrel (not a euphemism) and tells Elam his plans, Durant and The Swede have a little meeting. Durant tells The Swede that he told Bohannon about the Marshals who were on the way in hopes of getting the handsome bastard to skip town. He sees Bohannon moving on his lady and wants him and his greasy mane gone. Trying to relate to The Swede, he asks if he’s ever had his heart ripped out. He hasn’t, but more horrifically, he says, “I was married once, sir, but she run off with a gypsy. My heart was not ripped out, but she did steal my cuckoo clock.” It’s a funny line. One of a handful, most of which were delivered by The Swede, from the entire season. And it reminds me that of all my hopes about a second season of this show, No. 1 is that The Swede gets to talk more.
Taking a break from the compelling stuff, we check in on Elam and Eva, who engage in some PDA until Eva mentions getting “hitched” and Elam’s like “Woahhhhh.” Sure, he told her a few days ago that he wants her to be his. But she wants to settle down and he wants to see what life is like as a free man with money and nice suits. Eva’s not into that, so she goes to the big dance — by the way, there’s a big dance — that Durant has generously invited the ladies of ill repute to attend. There she grants a sympathy dance to Toole, the Irish racist who took Elam’s bullet through the mouth and survived.
Speaking of the Irish, Sean and Mickey are finally getting an interesting story as they begin to turn from terribly boring to slightly devious. With Bohannon unwilling to take out The Swede for them, they round up their fellow merchants and smash his meatballs with a stick before tarring and feathering him. It really goes a long way toward helping them shake their position as the characters I least wanted to see onscreen.
While all this is going on, Bohannon is frantically searching for Harper. All he finds, though, are some dark, ominous clouds that portend a wicked final fifteen minutes to this episode and, if he takes a minute to douse his head in some shampoo, finally some clean hair for Bohannon.
Back at the dance, Elam spots Toole and Eva getting their freak on, 1860s style. He runs over and grabs Toole, but Eva separates them before Elam can non-fatally shoot him through the mouth again. The lovebirds fight again and this time decide to break up. The only people I can imagine caring about this development are those who’ll be bummed to get fewer topless Common scenes.
Outside the dance, Bohannon is still looking for Harper. He pokes his head and gun into every tent, finding nothing. Lucky for him, though, Harper can’t stay put and runs right by Bohannon. Just then, a train arrives, presumably the one with the Marshals on it. Harper runs for it; Bohannon chases him and eventually catches him. To make things more dramatic, though, he drops his gun, which he finds pointed at his face by Harper.
Harper begs Bohannon to spare him. He says he had nothing to do with murdering his wife. Bohannon doesn’t believe him, so he throws a knife at Harper, slams his head against the train a few times, and strangles him. Mission accomplished. Wife murderer killed. Except … not. Bohannon reaches into Harper’s pocket and pulls out a discharge order, issued weeks before his wife was murdered. Now Bohannon feels like crap. Both because he’s just killed an innocent man and perhaps because this means the Sergeant who did kill his wife is still out there. Whatever he’s thinking turns his brain to mush, because instead of moving the body from the train tracks — perhaps the most visible spot in town — he leaves it there where the Marshals find it the next morning.
In the final sequence, the table is set for season two. The Swede, battered and scarred, has been run out of town. But his quest to defeat Bohannon, who now has a bounty on his head, looks like it will continue. Bohannon himself has fled. Is he just running or is he off to find the man who actually killed his wife? Elam is now a crack shot and, presumably, Durant’s new main muscle. Lily and Durant have made their partnership on this railroad official, while Durant continues trying to make their partnership on his bed official. Sean and Mickey are now tough, Eva and Toole are a hot couple, and somewhere crazy Reverend Cole is trying to dispose of a head. Just another day in Hell on Wheels.