‘Hell on Wheels’ Season 3 Finale Review

Published 2 years ago by

Anson Mount Hell on Wheels Get Behind the Mule Hell on Wheels Season 3 Finale Review

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.

Tayden Marks and Kasha Kropinski in Hell on Wheels Get Behind the Mule Hell on Wheels Season 3 Finale Review

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.

Christopher Heyerdahl in Hell on Wheels Searchers Hell on Wheels Season 3 Finale Review

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.

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  1. A fittingly awful end to television’s most terribly written series. Well done to all involved. You make an art form of generating second hand embarrassment in your viewers.

  2. I am so glad Elam is dead. Getting mauled by a bear on his way to save Bohannon and accomplishing nothing is a perfect way for him to go out.

    • I agree. Common might be a very nice man, but he might want to reconsider the acting profession, or work for a show with better writers and directors. His character was annoying, and I agree–a fitting end.

    • I dont think he is dead.

    • Elam isn’t dead…no way

  3. This ending was as bad as Breaking Bad’s ending was good.

    If Hell on Wheels doesn’t get renewed, it’s left with a depressing conclusion.

  4. This has GOT to be one of the WORST season finales I have ever seen. I kept checking the guide to see if there was a Part 2, or if I misunderstood the date of the finale. I’ve been on the fence about this show all season, but you’ve relieved me of my indecision. I’m done.

  5. I was really disappointed. Nothing made sense. Why would Elam think he could rescue Bohannon alone? And since the Swede performed the marital ceremony, Bohannon isn’t married, right? Bohannon should know that, right? Or did I miss something in earlier episodes? Swede was in finance right, he wasn’t a minister, was he? And I am sick of Durant. He seems to be the smartest character in the story!

    • He knows he isn’t married but he also knows there is nothing he can do at the moment. Bohanon also doesn’t want to hurt the girl and wants the child as well, but I think we will find out that it isn’t his child, she is just too young for him to make the series interesting.

  6. I am ardently hoping that HOW will be renewed for season 4. It is one of the best dramas on television.

    • I agree! Love Hell on Wheels and I am so hoping Elam is not dead. Love the character!

  7. I still believe the showrunners/writers planned on being canceled after season two … as it should have been. It’s hard to believe a show that began so excellently in season one devolved into whatever it’s now trying to become.

    • Season 1&2 great. Season 3 terrible. I agree with the comment that this finale was as bad as the Breaking Bad’s finale was good. I also agree that it should have been canceled after season 2.

      • Season two fell apart at the end. The first season was sprawling and gritty; reminiscent of the best parts of ‘Into the West’. Everything that followed has been a copy of a copy: less defined. Had the writers focused less on the Swede, it could have made for a riveting western. Instead it was more ‘Dead Man’ than ‘Unforgiven’ to my way of thinking.

  8. Unlike, most of the writers, Hell on Wheels is a great show. I did not agree with the finale but it was good to watch. I am hoping for a 4th season. As for Elam , I hope he isnt dead. Cullen, Elam, and Durant make the show interesting. They all do a great job in acting. The western theme is old school and its not any shows like this. I have been disappointed with othetr networks for ending shows after one season. AMC please dont cancel!!!

  9. I really enjoyed it. The show overall feels directionless, but Cullen is played so well by Anson Mount that I will keep on watching. I liked the strange turns the finale took with the Mormon marriage, Elam’s death, and Durant taking back the railroad.

  10. Elam wont be dead. Eva says she felt his spirit pass.


    Elam sparred an Indians life. So that Indian will save Elam. Although I thought it weird that he would try to save Cullen alone.

    I very much enjoyed this episode.

  11. I was sorry that Bohannan had to marry when it seems clear he and Ruth were much more suited. Why can’t they kill off the really evil guy – now the Morman Bishop. Will they bring Bohannan back to the RR.

    • Of course he will be back to the RR and you gotta have bad guys.

    • Cullen and Ruth together?? ugg I cringe at the thought.

      I think that crazy swede is going to wait till Cullen is at him most happiest, then he will attempt to murder his wife and child. I really like the way this season ended and have faith that next season will be even better.

  12. I loved the first two seasons, but this one really left an awful taste in my mouth. The characters have become almost alien from who they used to be, and the show itself seems to lack its personality. I had this bad feeling since I watched the premiere of this season, and the finale was worse than I could have possibly imagined. It’s like they rolled dice to randomly pick plot/character points. Then having slapstick nonsense like shooting the tuba player in the finale? It was just so unfitting for this show.

    Anson Mount is the only thing that kept me watching this year. Honestly, I’ll be surprised if they get renewed for a 4th season.

    • I totally agree with you! I LOVED the first two seasons…extremely well-written. Season 3, with new writers, has been a disaster. So unbelievable throughout and the finale was PATHETIC.

      I do love watching Anson Mount but wonder if he would even want to return to a fourth season without the original writers.

      So, producers, please pay the original writers more and get them BACK!!!

      • I totally agree with Jesse & Joan. I was glued to Seasons 1 & 2 and walked away from weekend activities to be home in time to see every episode. The story lines were exceptionally well-written and the characters most credible, all portraying strengths and weaknesses, good and bad. Season 3 lacked the substance of Seasons 1& 2, and wasn’t as exciting without Ms. Bell. I too was disappointed with the finale. I understand that Cullen was forced to marry the Mormon girl, but, there was no love interest or real storyline between them up to that point. While we know they aren’t legally married as the Swede is not a real bishop, I can’t fathom how that relationship will develop into something meaningful. And I disagree with the comments about Elam. The relationship between him and Cullen was one of genuine respect, and they always had each other’s back. I look forward to Season 4 with the same kind of writing we witnessed in Seasons 1 & 2.

  13. Aside from Anson Mount, this series has gone downhill. They seemed to have faded away from what made the series soo great in which it was all about the railroad. Now it seems more soap drama then anything else. The finale was an epic fail and with Breaking Bad done along with the ending of Mad Men, AMC better open up their pocket books to keep The Walking Dead happy. Hopefully AMC doesn’t hit the “Starz” funk and actually brings some new good series because aside from TWD and Mad Men(which is ending) they don’t have much anymore. LWS is too predictable has become more of a game of “who can guess the next act”(which is a great drinking game, LOL) and HOW has lost it’s way. We have no more The Killing which was decent and that’s pretty much it.

  14. It’s not his baby. Recall from the episode where they were messing around. The little brother made noise and they stopped before sealing the deal. The father of the child is the loser father who allowed his son to be hung for what he did. Bohanan recognizes this and is working towards his and her escape.

    • Anson Mount said in a behind the scenes interview that he did have relations with the girl and then read a bedtime story with the sister. They had to cut it out of the scene because it took too long. That’s why the episode was so disjointed and lost it’s punch when he hung the brother the next time he comes out that way. Cullen pretty much reeked some serious havoc on this family. He should have left that girl alone and went on his merry way.

      • you must be a female to think that he would turn her down after being on the railroad that long with no sex. That’s just not going to be realistic

  15. Why is a 40-something year old man with an 18 year old child anyway? Women are just disposable characters on this show.

    • Angela- You have to realize that people married VERY young back then compared to today. It was not uncommon at all for older men who had lost a wife or even those who had never married to marry much younger girls, especially on the frontier. I would encourage you to do some historical research into the era. I do agree that the original writers need to come back. While I enjoyed this season it did lack the “punch” season’s 1 & 2 had.

    • Men have always married younger women especially in those times.

  16. Simply put – the last episode vastly under delivered. It was disjointed and both poorly written and directed.

  17. I love this show. It is NOT an aweful series. We know the railroad was built and connected the East and West. If you don’t know, then Google it. I’m hoping that Elam (Common) did not die and Eva was mistaken…I mean just because you were kidnapped by Indians, does not give you the power to “feel” a spirit leave this earthly plain. Come on. I agree that the finale was disjointed and could have been better.

    I love Anson Mount and am disappointed that they made him the father of that baby. I think it would be great if the Mormon girl turned out to be not so righteous and actually one of the other “brothers” turned out to be the father, because she’s lose. But, DNA and paternity tests were not available back so we have to take those kook’s word for it. Cullen stated in one of the episodes that he HATED being a farmer stuck behind a mule and here he is stuck behind a mule for punishment of his sins. I was kind of hoping he and Ruth would get together and take on Ezra. They all seem like lost souls that would benefit from each other. I’m so over the Swede. Great actor, but he’s creepy beyond measure.

    I like Cullen Bohannon and am not ready to see his story end. However, being that his railroad days are over, I think Hell on Wheels is over.

  18. I love westerns and hell on wheels. This gives my brother and I something to chat about while waiting for the next episode. Hopefully Elam will live. I predicting the same Native Indian he spared will find him and give him medical aid. Maybe they will have the sister of “buffalo face” marry him…

  19. What’s new about a 40 year old man being romantic with a much younger girl? I thought the Season 3 ending was great. I think the episode was well written, extremely well acted and played much to the internal complexities of Cullen.

  20. In all honestly everyone should really stop hating on the season finale! Yeah it wasn’t as powerful as the previous 2 seasons, but it was clearly a great & crucial set-up for the next season (which I really hope happens)!

    Anson Mount & Common are just incredible actors! Their acting is so strong and brilliant, and it definitely doesn’t hurt that they are both easy on eyes (like seriously, how are they real with all their rugged sexyness!?)! I would be absolutely devastated if this is the last I see of Cullen & Elam!!

    Anyway, in short, its a brilliant show that is bringing Westerns back. Everyone needs to quit judging so fast & just allow the damn show to flow!

    • yes I agree I wait each week for hell on wheels dont take away my only loved show

  21. The finale wasn’t garbage as people keep insisting. There just wasn’t any “Holy #$%@” moments you’d expect from a season finale. If there will be a season 4 to carry on the story, then no big deal. If the series ends now, then that would be disappointing with so many open ended stories.

    I don’t think Elam is dead because his character would warrant a bigger farewell from the show than just a quick mauling from a bear and no goodbye from Bohannon. I really don’t think the writers would cheat the audience like that. I think the Indian that Elam didn’t kill will somehow be the one who helps him. He’ll have some warrior respect for him taking on the bear, etc…

    I think the show is fantastic and it’s one of my favorites on TV. I hope we get to see more next season.

    • I’d hate to see this all end on a sour note, great show until this season’s finale. Does anyone else have trouble understanding what Cullen is saying sometimes?

  22. I love Hell on Wheels but I’ve gotten so frustrated watching the bad guys win every time. If they have a show finale I’d love to see Durant and the Swede get theirs in a very slow and painful way. If this show get’s cancelled I hope they find another project for Anson Mount. He is one fine looking man and he’s also a good actor.

  23. The whole season had a random story line. There did not seem any connection to the episodes and no point to the plot. I think the writers were on vacation for this one!

  24. I agree seasons 1&2 were better and I hope that they get back on track. I hope that this didn’t inadvertently become the series finale as was the case with Copper on BBC America when they cancelled right after season 2. Another great show cancelled but yet ” say yes to the dress, ” and” Honey Boo Boo ” live on.

  25. I started watching HOW after watching the 2 hours premier and I was disappointed that the show started to fizzy out near the end and didn’t keep the suspense or focus going. These writers should take a page out of D.B Weiss and George Martin from Game of Thrones and learn the power of killing off a main character to open up new plots and characters. Please say bye to Elam and get back to the history of the railroad and the race to reach the coast.

  26. I really enjoyed the ending. For a show that seemed to be lost in the genre, “Get behind the mule” left a similar flavor to that of a “good old western”.

    Cullen, as a good man once blinded by revenge, is finally taking responsibility for his actions.
    This might be his last chance at forgiving himself for leaving his family to fight someone else’s war.
    He knows the Swede does’t deserve to win but his own honor is still haunting him.

    Elam, as an once enslave human being, for the first time finds honor in a superior rank.
    Bohanan left his ambition on-hold to help in Elam’s most traumatizing experience ever: losing a child.
    Who would´t feel an emotional bound?! His one-man crusade made me think he might have been the only character that has truly redeemed his past.
    He has been the honor beacon of “Hell on Wheels”.

    Durant’s final speech tells the story of his intelligence and arrogance.
    It also tells the story of how the railroad was just another “gold rush”.
    He bluntly describes how politics rule and honor is a poor-man’s game.

    Mickey knows this. By brilliantly playing both sides his future (and not his brother’s) seems to be set.
    He is respected by the Hell on wheals community and, like a sneaky rat, he has also opened the door to Durant’s support and confidence.

    Sneaky murderous characters also seem to come out winning.

    I bet the Swede agrees with this last statement.

  27. This ending was a little different, but I thought it very very good. I hope Elam lives and I agree with most that the Indian he spared will help him. I also feel that you will find that Grant will eventually deal with Durant as you can see his hatred for the man during Durants toast. Also don’t forget that Grant has a somewhat a level of respect for Bohannon. I knew at sometime that there would be some kind of relationship between Eva and Louise. Someone here mentioned they thought the shooting of the tuba player was for comic relief, I think far from that, once again showing the brutality of the burgeoning west, and don’t forget he was shot by the same soldier that hung the Mormons son. Once again great show, and I hope this western series does not end (hanging in the wind) like the best western series ever – Deadwood.