As Hell on Wheels hurtles (and its characters limp) toward series end, dead bodies are piling up against each other like so many railroad tracks, their lives as fated for dead ends as Durant and Huntington’s competing transcontinental empires. But don’t tell that to Huntington. The typically measured magnate is, as Cullen sizes up, more or less smitten with Mr. Chang. He simply can’t resist the temptation of seeing his endeavor across the ocean to China, where his fantasies of lording over a captive wife amid exotic environs may be fully realized. His is the same vice that, as we learned last week, undoes his capitalist rival: greed. But theirs is a seismic greed, the kind that could bite back against a young nation fortunate to be freed from the specter of English colonialism. Or it could, at minimum, foretell a certain manifest imperiousness regarding both free and terrorized nations.
Collis is smart enough to see the writing on the wall: The flash-forward confirms his dodgy evasion of personal financial disaster when the impending economic crisis strikes. Most succinctly, he didn’t put all his eggs in one basket. Odds are he wrung whatever else he could out of relationships with folks like loose-cannon Bohannon (can I trademark that?) and the fledgling Chinese syndicate, then nimbly reassessed his options to stay afloat and alive.
Mortal standing is more than anyone can say for Huntington’s fleeting partner in global domination, Chang himself. Like Durant, a singular obsession surfaces as his biggest weakness. All of Thomas’s scheming was ultimately in service of wet dreams over linking the East Coast and the West. He may have robbed Peter to pay Paul, but the prevailing beneficiary was conceived as his legacy association with the Union Pacific. Chang, meanwhile, had overcome horrific circumstances in his native land and risen to some degree of prominence halfway across the world. (Some might say he was merely an abusive brothel proprietor and opium dealer, not to mention one heck of a cook.) Yet he couldn’t see past his stubborn refusal to allow Mei/Fong the same freedom he’d clawed and connived for; he’s enraged not just by her uppityness, but also her courage. Chang’s quest to snuff her out as she hitched a wagon to Reno with Stagecoach Mary ends with a bullet to the head from Bohannon, a deserved bit of karma for the repellent way Chang brutalized Wei Ling (who, by episode’s end, has at last reclaimed her name) after she stabbed him and ran for the hills.
No matter how reasonable the killing, all this carnage has weighed on Cullen. His psyche is nearly as hobbled as his bad leg. But a little extra bloodshed is worth the bounty of spending a life with Mei/Fong, who’s become her man’s emotional walking stick. Maybe that’s why she ditched him in Truckee and made a beeline for parts further east. Or was it because she realized the tyranny of evil men would follow her to the deepest depths, and she couldn’t bear bringing Cullen to his knees at their mercy? The latter sounds about right, especially given the past couple seasons’ romantic brushstrokes, a bold change in tone likely embarked upon to bait female viewers to an incredibly guy-centric show. (Consider Mickey’s Skinemax-grade wish-fulfillment banging of his siren in the horse stables a concession to male lust.) Not to mention, if Mei/Fong or anyone else in these squalors has learned a thing or two, it’s that one person’s mad insecurity can obliterate the most powerful bonds. To paraphrase Mei’s own advice to Cullen, the first steps of individual freedom must happen first.
“Any Sum Within Reason,” as its title betrays, keeps driving home the theme that’s become Hell on Wheels’ defining commentary: The moment we put a price on something, its essential value has been corrupted. Fong knew this when a tidy sum was guaranteed for her head. Even Chang is insulted by Bohannon’s intimation that something as grand as revenge could be nickel-and-dimed like some two-bit prostitute. Most tragically, Wei Ling sinks into despair when overhearing how her father sold her to Chang for a chunk of change and some red tea. At that moment, forces beyond her control had issued her worthlessness.
Don’t expect too many happy endings from these final two episodes. The closest we might come is the satisfaction that Cullen’s paid every possible price for the slave owner’s life he led before the war, and he may yet live humbly and dignified, perhaps on a fine line between Durant’s narcissistic self-destruction and Huntington’s candid opportunism. Maybe he’ll even reunite with Naomi and little William for an occasional Sunday brunch. Whatever he’s got in the cards, be it with Mei/Fong or not, it’ll be a relief if he can spend one night and subsequent morning — his first since the start of America’s most divisive military conflict — without waiting for the wolf at the door.
Apart From All That:
- The notion of Nevada, future hedonist hell, as reprieve from Truckee’s trifles is a humorous choice.
- I very much enjoyed Chang’s accessory changes.
- Three cheers for Byron Mann, a.k.a. Chang. Good stuff.
- The inter-Chinese-immigrant dissension is fascinating.
- Something tells me Mickey’s screwed.
- Still rooting for some passing mention of Elam.
- Fun, if ridiculous, sequence of Bohannon bumping off Chang’s men.
- What a weird show this has been.