Hell On Wheels Finale and Defense

 by Sam Mantell

Follow @SLMantell

            It’s not surprising that Hell on Wheels has not fared well in the area of blog criticism. Some critics have blasted its brooding nature, calling it boring and slow. I suppose it is tough to imagine a time when communication and information were not instantaneously available to everyone. Things took time back then and I think the show does an excellent job of recognizing that and playing it out. I have no problem with seeing Cullen Bohannon’s search for his wife’s killer derailed by a moral dilemma. Or, specifically, his “moral mathematics”.

            I’m dismayed at the criticism that the dialogue is considered too simple. Bohannon is a man of little words to begin with. And I’m not sure I’d be so on board with a bunch of pioneering ruffians speaking articulately about their feelings. That wouldn’t seem quite right either. A lot of people at that time were uneducated about communication and rhetoric. They spoke plainly and directly, not passively, leaving no question about their intentions.

            Some of the finest moments of this show come while watching someone brood! Bohannon is a thoughtful character. He is tough, and fair, and the moments where he’s not saying anything are his finest. He’s a thinker. In the finale, when he kills the wrong man, he abandons his thought and reveals the only weakness we’ve seen in him thus far. The past blinds him with rage, and he loses his cool when he’s confronted with an opportunity to try and change that past, an ever futile endeavor.

            The finale leaves us with much to ponder about our other characters as well. The Swede has intrigued me from day one. I like the guy. I think he’s hilarious. When Bohannon sees the Irish running him out of town, he gives no indication of his consent one way or another. I have an inkling that Bohannon likes him too, even though he beat him with a strap with a metal loop attached to the end. The Swede is crazy, and it’s fun to watch characters dealing with illnesses before a time when the medical field wanted to corral it. He meets a cruel punishment at the hands of the Irish boys in the finale, and next season should bring us a completely unhinged Swede. Tarring and feathering someone with OCD can do wondrous damage to their brain, I assume.

            Thankfully, we’ve already seen the unhinging of the preacher, played fantastically by Tom Noonan. “Choose hate,” he tells Bohannon when he comes to Noonan for counsel. Although he doesn’t know it, Bohannon has walked in on the preacher attempting to conceal the decapitation of a Union soldier he committed the night before. Bohannon leaves none the wiser to the crime, but wrecked inside for a lack of the guidance he sought. At this, we are left to consider the church’s role in the town of Hell on Wheels, until next season.

            I liked this finale because it didn’t negate the deliberation present throughout the season. There weren’t a bunch of rash actions sprinkled in there to spice up the finale. The preacher and Joseph Black Moon are good examples of this, as the turning points in their character arc came in episode 9. Trying to pack their struggles into the finale would have been a mistake. We needed time to see Bohannon reason with himself that he should kill this man, and in the end we see why he does it.

            We know the Fair Haired Maiden of the West, Miss Lily Bell wants him and that’s all we need to know for her. We know Elam is thinking and acting as his own man, a turning point for a black character set in that time period.  And we know Thomas Durante, played by Colm Meany, thinks he’s locked up funding (as well as Lily’s heart) for the railroad to continue. Admittedly, Durante’s story is guilty on the charge of aimlessness. At the beginning, his drunken monologues to round out an episode were brilliant. We got a notion of his dark, slanted ambition as he tore through his manifesto. But this fire seemed to be doused by the placid Lily Bell as the season went on. Hopefully, this fire is only temporarily quelled, and will return tenfold within him when Bohannon takes Lily for his own.

            For all the time Hell On Wheels takes, I think it’s pace is brilliantly appropriate for the setting in which we see it occur. It’s painfully easy to compare the show to the progress of a first-generation locomotive. It may move slowly at first, but with a full head of steam, its only threat is that of going off the tracks. And there’s no slight allusion to the significance of that pace as they rounded out the final episode with This Train Is Bound For Glory.

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