Hell on Wheels
It’s the quintessential Hell on Wheels scene: Cullen Bohannon, atop his steed, returning to the dirt and mud of whatever makeshift hell that’s waiting for him. Mickey’s still there. Eva too. Durant’s still scamming and grinding his workers until they’re worthless, while Psalms keeps trying to fulfill his late friend Elam’s determination to be truly self-made. Some residents have since departed — Ruth, Elam, Sean, and Lily Bell, to name a few — but they still travel West with these denizens in spirit, and as spirits. Cullen looks particularly ghostly as he wearily trots his way into Laramie following his long journey to locate Naomi and William and dispatch the Swede. (He’s Norwegian!) It’s quite a contrast to Fong’s luminescence as she unwraps her binding cloths and devours him — gimpy leg, filth and all.
Fong didn’t think he’d ever come back. Then again, Naomi’s new groom-to-be, Isaac, didn’t expect he’d show his face on their land again either. Except the only thing more certain than Cullen’s many migrations is the inevitability that he’ll leave no loose ends. Somewhat symbolically, he can’t even stand to watch Isaac struggle with the preparation of his horse-drawn carriage — the one due to take him, Naomi, and William to Salt Lake City, far away from William’s daddy. But as Cullen makes plain to his wife’s new companion (and really, it’s not much more than that), Isaac is that boy’s guardian now. There’s also some subsequent tear jerking between him and Naomi, plus a commencement speech of sorts aimed at encouraging William to show toughness through compassion, but we’ll just overlook all of that. It isn’t writer Jami O’Brien’s finest work, or very becoming of Anson Mount and MacKenzie Porter.
Fear not, though, because that man who took young Naomi’s innocence and impregnated her with child on a hot summer’s night has found love. He and Fong appear to be the real deal, which is more than anyone who’s been stuck in Laramie can brag about. Durant and Maggie sold dozens of them a bill of goods rendered moot now that the Union Pacific is relocating its central hub to Cheyenne. That’s what happens when you invest in shady land deals, I suppose. It’s all Monopoly money to these two, who casually assign numerical value to life and lot with callous gamesmanship. Twenty bucks a man for labor, 10 cents an acre for railroad employees, 400 shares for Mickey: Playing God with people’s fortunes and futures is what Durant and Maggie do to keep from being bored. (When they’re not doing each other, apparently.) They’re the Randolph and Mortimer of manifest destiny.
But to Psalms and his crew, the not-so-small mathematical matter of 40 acres and a mule is a deadly serious thing. Psalms is as wildly emotional as we’ve seen him to date, and his men are increasingly clear-eyed about what’s required to be regarded as more than indentured help. A mutiny is coming, and it’s headed straight for Durant. In a bit of scripting that is undoubtedly meant to foretell the very position our country finds itself in today, Durant’s very ego might be all that stands in the way of making America great.
And so, we reach the question that Hell on Wheels presciently — and admirably, despite its flaws — raises as it concludes: Whose America is it? Does it belong to anyone or everyone? Can it be bought or sold, seized or abandoned? This question is an analog to the crossroads of togetherness and independence that so many still-living characters find themselves traversing. It’s what’s making these final hours feel intimate. And not a moment too soon, since we all know what can become of a series when it settles into ennui.
Apart From All That:
- Who’s better than Delaney?
- Answer to the above: not Isaac.
- Oh, if only Durant knew Cullen could still seduce old Brigham.
- The show’s key number: 15,000, i.e. the number of men Fong can fool before deceiving a whore.
- Isaac couldn’t whittle Cullen’s cane.
- I forget … did Strobridge always have an eye patch?
- Subtext of that cold open: “I won’t tell if you won’t.”