As you know by now, season 3 of Hell on Wheels has been about the redemption of surly gunfighter and railroad man Cullen Bohannon. And in its typically winding and occasionally ungainly way, the series has managed to set it up so the ol’ Johnny Reb isn’t just fighting for his own redemption, he’s also managed to secure the fondness of Ruth as well as the mostly mute Ezra.
It’s taken nearly three seasons, and with the series’ future still uncertain past next week’s finale, things look as if the universe (i.e., the show’s writers room) is prepared to square things with Bohannon. ‘Fathers and Sins’ even offers up Bohannon as some kind of inspiration to the men who’ve toiled endlessly to put the railroad within a stone’s throw from Cheyenne.
It’s a nice sentiment and it certainly gives the Common something to do other than act drunk, but as this season has been about Bohannon’s quest to purge himself of the malice that ruled him, and to reclaim a portion of what was lost because of it, the speech seems to come out of nowhere, primarily as a means for the writers to keep the railroad portion of the story going, while bringing the parallel morality tale full circle.
With a prefab family practically waiting for him in his railroad car, the next step would be for Bohannon to address the actions he’s taken this season. Which brings us to the vengeful Mormons at Fort Smith, led by Aaron Hatch (James Shanklin) – who we haven’t seen since ‘Eminent Domain.’
On the surface, this is a compelling arc: The story of a man on the verge of renewal, stymied by actions he took to uphold what stands for the law in a mostly lawless place. Similarly, Hatch could make for a compelling antagonist, as his path more closely resembles the plight of Bohannon than any other character has in the show’s past.
Like Bohannon, he’s seeking vengeance for the loss of a child, but the difference is his son was hanged as a direct result of his actions. Also like Bohannon, Hatch is flawed and misguided (but for different reasons) and the conflict between them and the dichotomy of their characters could have made for an interesting storyline, had it actually consisted of more than just bracketing the season’s beginning and end points.
Sadly, the Bohannon/Hatch conflict feels more like a footnote to another disjointed season. While there were inklings of greater coherence, they were largely lost in episodes like ‘The Game‘ and ‘Searchers,’ and by so much of the side story erroneously concentrating on the Swede. Like the construction of the railroad, Elam’s speech and Bohannon’s sudden confession that he never freed his slaves, Aaron Hatch is an engaging component that was regrettably never given the proper attention.
Everything mentioned here carries a great deal of weight, in regard to the overall narrative. As it stands, we can only imagine what might have resulted had the story accommodated these elements for more than a brief moment.
Hell on Wheels will conclude season 3 next Saturday with ‘Get Behind the Mule’ @9pm on AMC.
Photos: Chris Large/AMC