When you get down to it, Hell On Wheels is a show that's all about frustrated desires. Cullen Bohannon just wanted to come home from the war and be a failed farmer and loving if uncomprehending husband and father. Doc Durant was introduced to us as a man who wanted to accomplish a grand, improbable feat, make himself rich, and etch his name into the stone tablets of history, though somebody must have decided that this was a little too grand for the average slob at home to relate to, so he's now been largely re-defined as a slightly pathetic, lovesick galoot who just wants Lily Bell to give him the time of day. Lily Bell wants… something, I'm not sure what, but it seems to involve honoring her husband's memory while establishing her own independence and staying the hell away from her in-laws. Common wants to be able to transcend his origins as a slave and go to bed with the whore he loves without having to take a number. The Swede wants everyone to share his conviction that the fact that he's actually Norwegian is a baffling existential riddle on the level of Meursault's killing the Arab, whereas in fact, it wouldn't even make for a good Cure song. I wanted the chance to follow an exciting new Western series with a few ideas in its head and some steel in its balls and that wouldn't suck like a Hoover and a half. Those were the days, my friend, we thought they'd never end, we'd sing and dance forever and a day…
If you're wondering who comes out worst by the end of the season finale, it probably comes down to who had the most to lose. By that standard, a good case could be made for the season's biggest loser being Colm Meaney, who started out with a grip on what promised to be a fascinating, outsized character, only to be sandbagged in the last few episodes when the writers decided to focus on his fixation on a woman who neither seemed to encourage nor merit his obsession. It was a damn fool move on the show's part that had the side effect of making our hero, Cullen Bohannon, seem more clueless than ever, since he barely understood that he was in a love triangle, let alone that his boss was out to screw him over because of it. But as someone with a special place in his heart for a good, baroque super-villain, I think the booby prize probably belongs to Christopher Heyerdal and his character, the Swede. Not since Frau Blucher in Young Frankenstein has a character been given such a hyperbolic entrance. Not since New Coke has a grand debut led to so ignominious an exit. Having established himself as a warped figure of corrupt order dispensing a bloody, unhinged version of justice in an anarchic setting, he quickly proved to be so hopelessly outmatched by Bohannon as to be a joke.
In the closest thing they had to a big confrontation scene at the end, he was reduced to telling Bohannon that, if Bohannon was going to kill him, as Bohannon seemed able to do very easily, that he would at least go to his grave happy about having set in motion the events that would lead to his downfall. He also got to make a little speech about Loki—yeah, right, as in Thor—and to answer Durant's question about whether he'd ever had his heart "ripped out" by saying, "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." Was this stuff written at a point when it looked as if the Swede was going to be played by Tim Conway? I happened to see Heyerdal a few days ago in the second Twilight movie, which I missed when it came out but which I made it a point to catch up with because I understand that the latest Twilight movie has a childbirth scene that I need to catch on a big screen or else I've never forgive myself. In that movie, he played a member of the Holy Roman Council of Super-Vampires or some silly shit, and though he let Michael Sheen do most of the talking, he did make an impact, just as he made an impact in his first episode here, with his speech about how Andersonville had affected him. The jury may still be out on whether he can act or if he's just the Michael Berryman who can do accents, but even that distinction should have earned him a better curtain scene than he gets here, fleeing for his life from the merchants he's been extorting and mistreating, who have combined their forces and are trying to tar and feather him. This scene comes as a sidebar to the big climactic number in which Bohannon is stalking the man who can finger him as a murderer, and in context, it's as if Dorothy had told the Wicked Witch of the West, "I wouldn't waste my time on you, bitch," and stepped aside so that a posse of Munchkins could charge in and kick her ass.
The season finale was livelier than the last few episodes that preceded it. That shouldn't be a surprise, since anyone who's ever made a dollar as a storyteller ought to have some ideas about how to get an audience's attention at the start of things, and how to bring things to a boil at the close, especially if the close is also meant to get them to come back in a year. (What sets the dumb hacks apart from the smart hacks, let alone the artists, is whether they have any ideas about what to do in between.) My favorite scene here is Reverend Ted Noonan's talk with Bohannon, after the Rev has fully re-committed to the dark side. He gets to deliver a parable about how the devil managed to sneak up on God and leave Him so badly maimed that He has no arms, legs, eyes, or tongue: "But he left God's ears, so he could hear us down here while we're wailin' and thrashin' and prayin' for his help. But brother, there ain't a damn thing God can do about it." Noonan manages to sell this as the wounded cry of a man who tried to be good and, several kicks to the teeth later, has decided that it's not a good look for him, and the cheap nihilism is so deeply embraced that the scene has a kick to it. He sends Bohannon away with the instruction that he "Choose hate. It's so much easier." That this is what Bohannon recieves after he's finally admitted that he could use someone's help and sought out the Reverend for counsel leaves you wondering how much better off Hell On Wheels might have been played for black comedy, as does the fact that the scene begins with Bohannon entering the tent and seeing the Reverend on his knees, and assumes that he's praying, when he's actually cradling a severed head.
Other parts of the show divide up nicely between attempts at humor that seem misplaced, like the Swede's line about his runaway bride, and things that clearly aren't meant to be funny but, as Joel Hodgson used to say, have funny elements, like the opening flashback to Bohannon returning home after the war, his long dark locks bouncing lyrically in slow motion, and finding his wife hanging on the front porch, her face a panel from a '50s EC horror comic. At the end of the show, he's killed the man the Swede had enlisted in his quest to bring him to justice, thinking he was a party to his wife's rape and murder, only to discover, two seconds after the killing, that, nope, he wasn't. This may be mistaken as a challenging development by the people who've mistaken Bohannon for an antihero, but it's really as safe as it was predictable: it ensures that the story that hasn't budged forward an inch since the pilot can keep "going" (Bohannon still has a man out there he needs to kill), while hardened TV viewers won't feel too bad about the death of a man who must have really had it coming to him, or else he wouldn't have been trying to turn out hero into a wanted man. As for the inevitable cliffhanger: for some reason, rather than taking advantage of all the craziness going on around him—big dance, fireworks, Swede being tarred and feathered— Bohannon just leaves the body lying there instead of trying to dispose of it or conceal it, and so the next morning, he's a wanted man anyway. As I said before, there are funny elements.