Episodes: 57 (hour)
TV show dates: November 6, 2011 — July 23, 2016
Series status: Ended
Performers include: Anson Mount, Common, Dominique McElligott, Eddie Spears, Tom Noonan, Ben Esler, Phil Burke, Colm Meaney, and Christopher Heyerdahl.
TV show description:
This contemporary Western follows a former Confederate soldier named Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount). Following the rape and murder of his wife at the hands of Union soldiers, Cullen sets out to exact revenge on them. His journey takes him west to the mobile town called “Hell on Wheels,” a dangerous, raucous, and lawless melting pot. It travels with and services the construction of the first transcontinental railroad, an engineering feat unprecedented for its time. Cullen is ultimately torn between the cycle of revenge he has unleashed over his wife’s death and his tiring of this violence.
In addition to following Cullen’s story, this TV series also highlights the engineering and construction of the first transcontinental railroad, the institutionalized greed and corruption, the immigrant experience, and the plight of newly emancipated African-Americans during Reconstruction.
Elam Ferguson (Common) is an emancipated slave who’s working to achieve true freedom in a heavily prejudiced world. He struggles to come to terms with who and what he is: half white and half black. He doesn’t feel at home in either world but refuses to be treated as anything less than a man. Elam and Cullen’s fates continue to be bound together, not only by their common Southern roots, but also by circumstances.
Lily Bell (Dominique McElligott) is a newly widowed woman who’s trying to survive in a man’s world. Following the death of her husband, she continues to wrestle with the idea of the railroad being the end of the West. She feels a connection to the pristine landscape and worries that the approaching railroad and Hell On Wheels will despoil the West forever. Her desire to fulfill her husband’s dream ultimately becomes her own and she slowly gains respect in an ever difficult world.
Joseph Black Moon (Eddie Spears) struggles with the difference between his cultural heritage and the ever-changing world around him. He hates the idea but tries to bring his people into the reservation, hoping his people’s safety can be guaranteed.
Reverend Nathaniel Cole (Tom Noonan) is chiefly concerned with avoiding a war with the Indians, a war that he knows they can’t win. After riding with John Brown in Kansas and serving as a minister for the Union Army in the Civil War, Cole is sick of the slaughter. He genuinely wants to help the whites and Indians avoid another war and he sees Joseph as a means to this end. Cole struggles with his own personal demons while preaching a path of peace.
As young Irish immigrant brothers heading to the West to find their fortune, cracks develop in the relationship of Sean and Mickey McGinnes (Ben Esler and Phil Burke). They exploit business opportunities in Hell on Wheels and use more and more underhanded tactics. Mickey eventually questions what Sean is doing and resents his brother for using him as a pawn.
Thomas “Doc” Durant (Colm Meaney) is a greedy entrepreneur who takes full advantage of the changing times. As the railroad comes closer to completion and he becomes rich beyond his wildest dreams, he becomes more and more concerned about securing his place in history.
Thor “The Swede” Gundersen (Christopher Heyerdahl) is Thomas Durant’s ruthless head of security. The Swede’s tactics help him maintain a degree of control over the chaotic Hell on Wheels, but he abuses his power to extort money from its residents. The Swede suspects that Cullen Bohannon is a murderer and schemes to prove it.
Episode #57 — Done
A crowd gathers to watch the celebratory Golden Spike ceremony at Promontory Point. Huntington and Durant briefly tussle over who will wield the hammer before Huntington gives in.
Cullen awakens on the floor of his train car, hungover but still clutching Mei’s note in his hand. He staggers outside, finding Mr. Lee among hordes of revelers still sleeping off the effects of the previous night’s celebration. Lee grudgingly translates the note: “Address. In Ningpo.”
Durant addresses the crowd. “Ribbed with iron, clad in silver and crowned with gold, this spike will wed the oceans,” he proclaims.
Cullen drops into a seat at the bar and asks for whiskey, but Mickey refuses him. From a nearby table, Psalms orders Mickey to serve Cullen. Mickey calls Psalms a traitor for helping the Central Pacific. Cullen groans, ‘It’s over, there ain’t no sides.” The men passed out at tables around them start to wake up and argue with each other. Mickey threatens to “throttle” the next man who asks for a drink. Cullen rises, looks Mickey dead in the eyes, and says, “Whiskey.” Mickey pops him in the face. Cullen hits back, starting a saloon-wide brawl that’s a cathartic release for the men.
Durant drives the Golden Spike and the crowd applauds. He poses, shaking Huntington’s hand for a commemorative photograph. As soon as the cheers have died down, Campbell strides up and hands Durant a note.
Outside the saloon, Campbell fires his gun into the air, halting the brawl. He asks why they’re fighting and the brawlers burst out laughing. Campbell hands Cullen a document summoning him to testify in front of Congress “against Thomas Durant on charges of bribery, fraud and corruption.”
Durant calls Mickey into his train car and hands Mickey a stack of cash. He’s cutting ties and buying out Mickey’s stake in the Union Pacific. Durant’s been indicted and he wants no record of Mickey’s involvement. He warns Mickey that the stock’s value will plummet. “I hope you hang,” he tells Durant.
Louise finds Eva outside the whore tent. Ed Carson, Louise’s editor at the Chicago Tribune, lingers nearby. They offer Eva a book deal to tell her story – “a story about a survivor” — citing the enormous reader response from Louise’s previous article about Eva. Louise tells Eva this could be her way in to “society.”
Huntington urges Cullen to make his Washington trip a short one. Huntington needs Cullen back in San Francisco for the Southern Pacific railroad. Cullen warns that the government will come for Huntington next, but Huntington assures Cullen he’s “ahead of that problem” after disposing of incriminating documents in the Central Pacific depot bonfire. Huntington hands Cullen an engraved gold ring, identical to Durant’s, commemorating the Golden Spike. Cullen slides it on.
Cullen watches the cavalry escort Durant onto his train.
Arriving in Washington, a White House staffer hands Cullen a personal invitation to President Grant’s gala celebrating the railroad’s completion.
At the soiree that evening, Cullen spots Durant pleading his case to a senator and being rebuffed: “You’re poison in this town,” the senator says.
As Cullen locks eyes with Durant, a young woman grabs Cullen’s hands and starts to flirt. George Armstrong Custer steps in and sends the socialite away. Custer congratulates Cullen on his railroad accomplishments, recognizing in Cullen “the guts and countenance of a good soldier.” Custer asks who Cullen served, and there’s a tense pause when Cullen says he rode under Nathan Bedford Forrest. Custer and Cullen realize they fought against each other at Bull Run and tease each other with mutual respect.
Durant stands alone, ostracized.
President Grant pulls Cullen away from the group and into the kitchen to talk. Grant isn’t interested in discussing the trial. Instead, he offers Cullen the position of colonel in the Fourth Cavalry — making him the Undersecretary of the Western Territories for the United States Army. Cullen’s job would be “to protect the railroad you’ve built from all present threats.” Cullen balks at killing Indians and wearing “Union Blue,” but Grant counters that it’s “an American uniform” and Cullen’s country needs him. “Don’t deny who you are,” Grant advises. Cullen says he’s a railroad man, but Grant replies, “Bullshit. You’re a soldier. Lost without a war to fight.”
Cullen comes up from the kitchen and joins Durant, who’s sitting alone. Cullen admits he’s there to testify against Durant. Durant bitterly tells Cullen to say whatever he wants and “enjoy your newfound favor because it will be over in an instant.” Durant warns that the men at the party are not Cullen’s friends.
Eva finds Mickey packing up the Hell on Wheels saloon. She’s come to cash out her ten percent. Mickey tries to convince her to come with him to San Francisco – he has big plans for expansion. She acknowledges that they “ran a good enterprise,” but they’re bad for each other. Stung by the rejection, Mickey coldly tosses Eva the cash and tells her to see herself out.
Cullen waits uncomfortably under a life-size portrait of Lincoln outside Grant’s library in the White House. A staffer calls him in, and Grant asks if he’s reached a decision. Cullen nods.
Outfitted in a Cavalry uniform, Cullen stares at himself in the mirror.
Cullen sits before a Congressional hearing. The committee chair asks if Cullen ever witnessed Durant bribe an elected official. Cullen responds, “The transcontinental railroad could not have been built without Thomas Durant.” The committee chair repeats his question, and Cullen repeats his answer. Campbell interrupts, reminding Cullen that he’s under oath, and asks if Cullen is disputing the accounts of senators who claim Durant tried to bribe them. Cullen repeats the same answer. Campbell threatens to detain Cullen, but Cullen says it won’t change the fact that the railroad couldn’t have been built without Durant. Realizing they will get no other answer, the committee chair dismisses Cullen.
Eva fidgets in a high-society gown. Louise and Ed stand beside her, already dreaming about the lecture circuit even though her book hasn’t yet been written. “This dress don’t seem to fit right,” Eva says uncomfortably. Ed insists the dress is the part of the story that indicates she’s been “saved from a life of savagery.” It hits Eva that she’s being treated as a sideshow freak. “I can’t do this,” she says, tearing off the dress. “This is the best that you can hope for,” Louise blurts out, realizing how it sounds only after she says it. Eva hugs her. “I promised myself I’m done whoring,” Eva says.
Cullen and Custer shoot at bottles in a field. Cullen will be deploying to Apache country in Arizona territory the next morning. Custer reveals that the assignment will be mostly to “kill some Injuns,” then “ride back to Washington a hero.”
Cullen enters St. Matthews Cathedral and sits down inside the same confessional where his journey to Hell on Wheels began four years prior. A priest enters on the other side of the screen. He asks if Cullen seeks salvation. Cullen gasps for breath, smiling through tears.
Durant’s lawyer invokes the Fifth Amendment during testimony before Campbell and the committee in Congressional Hall. Campbell asks Durant if he’s going to let the charges against him go unanswered and “the record of history” remember him as a criminal. Durant says he’s not interested in historical record, he’s interested in the reality he witnessed out west. Durant goes on to describe how “Americans needed a dream and I gave them one.” He’s delivered 1,776 miles of track upon which the “iron horse” will now carry “the wealth of half the world.” However, Durant says, America needs a villain and he’s been elected to play the part. He offers himself up to the committee’s whims, “for history is written in pencil and the truth carved in steel across this nation” — and the truth is that the railroad could never have been built without him.
As Durant speaks, Cullen puts on his Golden Spike ring and walks out of the hotel room in cowboy clothes, leaving his Cavalry uniform folded neatly on the bed. He boards a train for San Francisco.
Standing on a train balcony with a full bag of cash at his feet, Mickey tosses away slides from the Magic Lantern picture show he did with his brother.
Eva mounts Bucephalus in the corral and rides him through the empty streets of Hell on Wheels. She gives the town one final look, then digs her heels in and gallops off into the sunset.
Cullen disembarks at the Central Pacific depot in San Francisco. He heads through the crowd in Huntington’s direction, but blows right past him without a second look. Cullen strides towards the distant harbor, populated by Chinese workers and their massive ships, and stops at one of the docks. He pulls out Mei’s note, closes his eyes and smells the sea breeze.
As his ship sails away, Cullen stands at the bow and looks back towards California receding in the distance. He turns his eyes forward, to the future. (Courtesy AMC.)
First aired: July 23, 2016.
What do you think? Do you like the Hell on Wheels TV show? Do you think that it should have ended or been renewed for season six?
Image courtesy AMC.