For a series that essentially started as a watered-down, basic cable knockoff of ‘Deadwood’, AMC’s Western ‘Hell on Wheels’ eventually forged a path to its own manifest destiny, so to speak. After five seasons, the show drew to a close this past weekend with an ending that was, if not perfect, at least fairly satisfying.
This fifth season was known to be the show’s last from early on, but the network annoyingly split it into two short halves with a hiatus of nearly a whole year in between. Effectively, they might as well have been classified as separate seasons. Regardless, the back-half since returning this June felt very consciously like a wrap-up. Over the past seven episodes, our hero, former Confederate soldier Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount), saw his nemesis Tor “The Swede” Gundersen hanged, put his affairs in order regarding the young Mormon wife he reluctantly married, and left the Union Pacific Railroad to become chief engineer for its rival, the Central Pacific. In the penultimate episode, the hard-fought race to complete the Transcontinental Railroad culminated in the two lines finally merging and uniting the country from coast to coast. Although Bohannon and the Central Pacific technically won the race by laying track at the designated meeting point first, duplicitous railroad baron Thomas Durant (Colm Meaney) weaseled his way into claiming the lucrative prize contract for the depot at Ogden, Utah for himself anyway.
The finale episode, called, appropriately enough, ‘Done’, opens with the blowhard Durant presiding over a ceremony to hammer the symbolic “Golden Spike” into the rail, officially completing construction. His great moment of victory is soured shortly afterward, however, when Gov. Campbell (Jake Weber) delightedly serves him with a subpoena to appear before Congress and stand trial for bribery, fraud and corruption. Those are all crimes for which he’s plenty guilty, of course, but the government needed him to complete the railroad first before making an example out of him. Campbell was instructed not to serve papers until the project was done.
While this is happening, Bohannon, nursing a bad hangover, stumbles into the saloon owned by crime boss Mickey McGinnes and starts a bar brawl between the workers of the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific, for no other reason than to blow off steam. Everyone involved thinks it’s great fun. The ruckus is broken up by Campbell, who also subpoenas Bohannon to testify against Durant.
Former whore turned brothel madam Eva (Robin McLeavy) is offered a book deal to tell her life story. Although the contract would offer her the chance to start a new life in respectable society, she balks at her treatment by the book editor, who isn’t at all interested in the truth and keeps trying to sensationalize her story to drum up sales. At least whorin’ is an honest business in comparison to that.
The action then shifts to Washington, D.C., where Bohannon is invited to attend a fancy dress gala celebrating the railroad. Getting ready for that entails the first bath Bohannon has taken in months (to be charitable). He feels awkward and uncomfortable hobnobbing with the cultural elite, but quickly impresses the peacocking pretty boy Col. George Custer (Christopher Backus) and his men from the Union Army, who are all happy to put the war behind them and listen to Bohannon’s tales of life on the Western frontier.
President Ulysses Grant (Victor Slezak) then offers Bohannon a commission as a colonel in the United States Cavalry, where his job will be to oversee protection of the railroad. In discussing it afterwards, Custer makes it clear that the real point of the position is clear out and eradicate the Indian populace to make room for the white man’s expansion. Bohannon doesn’t relish that part.
Bohannon ends the evening by running into Durant. As much as the two men have reason to despise each other, they also both grudgingly respect one another. They sit for a moment to smoke cigars together. Durant insists that he’s being scapegoated as a political move for Grant to play at being a reformer, which is no doubt true but hardly makes Durant himself innocent of his crimes. Durant knows that he’s done for and doesn’t have any friends left in Washington to protect him.
The next day, Bohannon arrives at the hearing wearing Union Blue, which is quite an unexpected turn from where he began on this show. When called to testify against Durant, he refuses to answer questions about witnessing his bribery or fraud. Instead, he repeatedly states that the railroad could not have been built without Thomas Durant.
Before leaving town, Bohannon stops at the church where this series first began, the very place where he took his revenge against a Union soldier at the start of the pilot episode. This time, rather than murder anyone, Bohannon listens to a priest ask, “Do you wish to be saved?” This triggers him to make a decision.
Durant pleads the Fifth when taking the stand at his trial, but delivers a grandiloquent speech about how, “Dreams don’t come pretty.” Ever the schemer, it looks like he’ll worm his way out of this predicament as well. However, we as viewers already know from a flash-forward a few episodes ago that things will not ultimately end well for Durant.
In a montage of closing scenes, we witness Mickey tossing out the glass slides from the picture show he used to run with his (now dead) brother. Eva rejects the book deal and (literally) rides off into the sunset on a wild horse. Finally, Bohannon ditches his Cavalry posting and takes a train to San Francisco, from which he hops a boat to China to search for his girlfriend Mei Fong.
The majority of the show’s storylines had already been tied up before even getting to the finale, but the finale episode itself does bring a real sense of closure to the story, which is appreciated. That said, I’m not really sure why the writers felt the need to suddenly toss in a bunch of Western genre clichés (the saloon fight, a character riding off into the sunset, etc.) from out of nowhere. Rarely before had the series ever indulged in that kind of fan-service.
Closing with Bohannon sailing to China to find his girlfriend also feels like a pat conclusion. The romance with Mei Fong was one of the show’s least convincing or compelling storylines, and I was grateful when it was (seemingly) shut down earlier this season. Bringing it back and giving it such priority now feels false.
Despite these quibbles, ‘Hell on Wheels’ was a good show (if never quite the masterpiece it may have wanted to be). I’m glad that it got to go out on its own terms as well as it did.