When we last saw Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount), the Confederate veteran of the Civil War turned railroad boss man, he had been abducted by vicious, crazy Mormons, who blame Bohnnon for the death of one of their own. (One of the Mormon bastards fingered his teenage son for the murder of a likable lawman, though the father probably did it himself. Calling the fellow's bluff, Bohannon had the son hanged.) When he reaches the Mormon compound, Bohannon is stunned to see that their presiding Bishop is his old arch-nemesis, Thor "the Swede" Gunderson (Christopher Heyerdahl). The father of the dead boy wants Bohannon executed, and the obvious assumption is that the Swede wants the same thing, though Bohannon is canny enough to guess that his old enemy would rather keep him alive, so he can prolong his suffering; "You can only kill me once," he points out. Salvation, of a sort, arrives in the form of the Mormon's 18-year-old daughter, who stands up in the middle of Bohannon's kangaroo-court trial to announce that she is pregnant with his child. Anson Mount has never been less than impressive in his role, but in this scene, he really demonstrates why he deserves some kind of official trouper's medallion: His eye-rolling expression of "Of course, what else, and what next!?" is enough to bring down the house.
The “third time’s a charm” apotheosis of Hell On Wheels has been one of the bigger and happier surprises of the past summer TV season. In its first couple of seasons, this show felt tremendously ambitious, but none of the people working on it, besides some of the actors, seemed to have a clear, coherent idea of what its ambitions were, besides being tremendous. The series creators, Joe and Tony Gayton, started with a Deadwood-style historical setting—a mobile “town” housing the men working on the construction of the First Transcontinental Railroad and the various merchants serving to their needs—and a hero, Bohannon, who takes a job there and settles into camp life, though he’s just biding his time: He’s on a mission of revenge, tracking down and killing the Union soldiers who raped and murdered his wife and burned down the barn with his son inside. They proceeded to pile on a self-mythologizing, event-shaping historical figure, the would-be railroad magnate Doc Durant (Colm Meaney); an angry, expostulating ex-slave, Elam (Common) who could challenge Bohannon on his ingrained racism; a flamboyantly conceived but weirdly ineffectual super-villain, in the Swede”; various romantic subplots, including the love affair between Elam and Eva (Robin McLeavy), a white prostitute who has been a captive of the Indians and has no easy place in either civilization; and nihilistic bloodshed, without any plan for shaping these and other elements into a meaningful whole. All they made was a mess.
At the end of its second season, with cancellation seeming inevitable, the show delivered a season finale that, like the series finales of Soap and the broadcast-TV version of Arrested Development, seemed less like either a cliffhanger or a wrap-up than a gesture: It burned down the town and killed off most of the remaining characters. (Most of the goofiest supporting characters had already bitten the dust, including Ted Noonan’s psychotic minister and Toole, the inexplicable Irishman who first tried to get Elam lynched and than, after receiving a personality transplant, became a sweet fella and married Eva. Because the show sometimes seemed to be trying to suggest the strangeness and eccentricity that frontier life must have brought out of people, despite the fact that the writers had no talent for doing so, Hell On Wheels always had a fair share of characters who wouldn’t have seemed very out of place on… well, on Soap or Arrested Development.) Having turned on their creation at least as effectively as Dr. Frankenstein ever had, the Gaytons took their leave, and John Wirth stepped in as executive producer and showrunner. Wirth threw out a lot of bilge, stripped Bohannon of his “now you see it, now you don’t” blood vendetta, and turned Hell On Wheels into a Western adventure about trying to get a goddamn railroad built. It turns out there was always this workable premise for a TV show trapped inside all that ragged bloat, screaming to be let out.
The show’s strengths over the course of these past 10 episodes have been the same qualities that always promised to be its strengths in the bad old days, if they could only be allowed to bloom. Hell On Wheels has always had a pretty good core cast of actors, and as the writing has given them a chance to explore new sides of their characters and to connect with each other on a deeper level, they’ve really stepped up. Anson Mount and Common have developed a wary but strong mutual respect, with just enough sand left in the gears to prevent it from settling into a boringly conventional buddy relationship. (They’ve each saved each other’s lives more than once since the series began. But they’ve also gotten each other in enough trouble that it’s impossible to say how evenly the scales are balanced.) Elam summed up their bond in last week’s episode, explaining why he cared enough to try to rescue Bohannon from his latest predicament: “Bohannon called me a nigger, but he never treated me like one.”
They can also relate to each other as fathers who’ve been cruelly separated from their children; having married Eva, and fallen in love with being a father to her baby, Elam crawled into a whiskey bottle after Eva sent the baby back to the city with Toole’s brother. In the same episode, the show inched ever closer to the possibility that Bohannon might find happiness with a new family, comprising himself, an orphaned boy he rescued from the prairie, and Ruth (Kasha Kropinski), the Christian-missionary daughter of Tom Noonan’s crazy minister. The show allows the mutual, unspoken attraction between Bohannon and Ruth to softly percolate, so that it sneaks up on the viewer in much the same way that it sneaks up on the both of them, and when it becomes clear—through Bohannon’s smiling glances at Ruth and her guilty confession to a woman reporter (Jennifer Ferrin)—that they feel the same way, it’s ridiculously satisfying.
Deferring satisfaction on Hell On Wheels can be a matter of something as arbitrary as a dead rat infecting the water tank, or it can be nudged along by the bad guys. The most prominent villains are Durant, who has spent the season wrestling Bohannon for control of his railroad, and the Swede, who appears reborn and impressively bearded as a bogus Mormon judge. (It is he who killed the orphan boy’s parents, in a baptism scene gone all Boardwalk Empire.) Durant is now basically a Bond villain, giving to saying things like, “Bohannon has an irritating habit of slipping out of tight spots.” It may not be the Emmy-bait role that Meaney thought he was signing on for, but he doesn’t look as if he’s having a bad time playing it. At the end of the finale, Durant is triumphant, and Bohannon is in purgatory: When last seen, he’s living the life of a farmer, pulling a plow, which in Hell On Wheels’ world is roughly equivalent to being beaten, chained up and put to work in a meth lab, while Jesse Plemens tries to get back on your good sign by sharing his ice cream. (Meanwhile, Elam’s rescue mission may or may not have been permanently derailed by a run-in with a bear, roughtly the old-West equivalent of, "Suddenly, he was run over by a truck.".) I was mildly shocked that Hell On Wheels made it back for a third season, but I hope it gets renewed for a fourth. If it doesn’t, it will be going out not with a bang, but with a whimper. But an honorable whimper.
- This episode, which continues this season’s tradition of depicting Mormons as cultish bad guys and makes being stuck among them look like Hell on Earth, was directed by Neil LaBute, probably American film ‘n’ theater’s best-known graduate of Brigham Young University. I’d love to have been a fly on the wall the day they made that deal.