For those of you who picked Cullen Bohannon takes a pregnant Mormon girl as his teenage bride in an elective (to save his own neck) wedding officiated by the Swede as the ending to season 3 of Hell on Wheels, well, congratulations. For everyone else, let’s just say, better luck next time.
Last week’s episode ended on a cliffhanger that led directly into the events of ‘Get Behind the Mule,’ so perhaps it’s best that we begin our discussion back there, as one of the rousing components of ‘Fathers and Sins‘ seemed to have been completely forgotten by the season finale.
Now, in addition to Bohannon being captured, and presumably facing a death sentence at the hands of Brother Hatch and his vengeful brethren, the penultimate episode also ended with Elam delivering a stirring speech to Psalms and Dutch and everyone else building the railroad, encouraging them to work as hard as possible to meet the deadline imposed on Bohannon by General Grant. And yet, as the finale begins, there’s hardly any indication of excitement, dread or worry over the impending deadline.
It all feels like a massive opportunity was essentially ignored, but with little justification as to why. Good drama can sometimes be like taking a math quiz: you have equations and variables that will lead to a solution, but to receive credit, you have to show your work. So knowing where things end up with regard to Durant and the railroad, the important piece of the episode isn’t really whether those fighting for Bohannon’s cause win or lose, or even whether Durant once again finds himself in the position he’d fought for all season long.
Those aspects are outcomes that will feed into the story to come (if there is one). What matters in ‘Get Behind the Mule’ is whether or not we see the drama of the men hustling toward their goal and we are afforded the opportunity to feel the tension of their struggle and why it matters, as it builds around the question of their success or failure, which, in turn, would make it feel as though there was some kind of emotional stake in Elam’s speech.
At the end of ‘Fathers and Sins,’ there was a terrific cohesion of two storylines running parallel to one another, centered on the idea that Bohannon and the men of Hell on Wheels were headed toward a presumably unattainable goal and that both might just come up short. While there’s plenty of (deserved) focus on Bohannon and the overt discussion of change, rebirth and redemption going on at Fort Smith in ‘Get Behind the Mule,’ the corresponding narrative of the workers is reduced to the implication that they’re still toiling away somewhere in the background. But of all the aspects that could have used an overt push, it is the one that’s forgotten. In the end we’re left with lackadaisical announcements that time has run out, and that Bohannon and those who put in the effort on his behalf have all lost.
A great deal of drama, tension and pathos in that struggle is simply left on the table, which winds up putting the bulk of the narrative’s emotional weight on the admittedly capable shoulders of Anson Mount. And while we wind up getting a surprising sequence of events that tries to expound on the idea and feasibility of change involving Cullen, the Hatch family and, of course, the “reborn” Swede, doing so results in an either/or scenario, effectively marginalizing Ruth and Ezra in the finale.
Despite what had been building for the last few weeks between Cullen and Hell on Wheels’ resident preacher, and the burgeoning father-son relationship the laconic Southerner had built with the boy orphaned by the Swede, Ruth and Ezra only manage a few short scenes at the beginning and end of the episode, suggesting their arcs have been put on hold.
Meanwhile, in what will likely go down as the greatest television battle (hug) between a rapper and a large piece of carpeting meant to look like a grizzly bear, Elam is last seen bloodied and lying motionless on the forest floor, while Eva announces to Ruth she felt his spirit depart this earthly plane. Although it seems unlikely this will wind up being the final season of Hell on Wheels, at least Elam is fitted with something resembling an end to his arc. It may lack real significance in terms of his speech to the workers, but this ending (open-ended as it is) manages to say something about his relationship with Bohannon – something that was ostensibly denied Ruth and Ezra.
The primary examination, then, is on what changes Bohannon made over the season. The show clearly wants the implication to be that the man who started this series off as an unrepentant killer is now something else. And in its overly explicit way, ‘Get Behind the Mule’ makes that transformation apparent when the Swede takes the fact he wasn’t killed the moment he handed “Brother Bohannon” a knife, as undeniable proof that a man is capable of change. This seems to be the Swede’s way of cleansing himself of his past sins, by taking over another man’s identity and then using the evolution of his enemy as validation of his phony, self-delusional metamorphosis. Sadly, it winds up saying more about the Swede than the series’ protagonist, which is unfortunate.
In the end, Cullen assures his new wife Naomi he’s not going to leave her, and we see what looks like Bohannon taking the first steps toward this commitment. At the same time, the episode’s final moments seem to suggest the changes in both men are superficial (and temporary) at best, hinting at a return to the status quo, which means, for a season that was primarily about redemption, season 3 may have wound up being about finding a way back to the middle.
Screen Rant will have news on the decision regarding season 4 of Hell on Wheels when it is announced.