If this proves to be the end of AMC’s Hell on Wheels, then the series certainly went out on a rather severe note. And while the end of season 2 was big (at two hours) and bombastic, the finale’s bleak outlook – which undid a storyline beginning to show signs of hope – certainly looked conclusive.
Looks aside, it’s difficult to tell if this was the end or just a continuation of the show staring into the abyss. Perhaps the creators are aware of something the rest of aren’t, and pulling the rug from beneath Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount), while obliterating the show’s titular town, was merely the producers’ way of saying, “I’m taking my toys and going home.”
At any rate, given the way the season ended, perhaps the program should have been called Hell on Earth.
That certainly looked to be case as ‘Blood Moon’ opens on a Hell on Wheels that had been utterly ravaged and more or less burned to the ground. Meanwhile, a seemingly broken Bohannon attempts to provide some kind of explanation as to just what had transpired. In his low growl of a voice, Bohannon gives an account of the town’s final days. Thomas Durant (Colm Meaney) and his wife Hannah (Virginia Madsen) were busying themselves over concern that their duplicity with the railroad mileage would result in a jail sentence, while Lily Bell (Dominique McElligott) was doing her best to secure a future for herself that didn’t end with being a governess. Lily’s plan was for her and Bohannon to continue building the railroad and their relationship, and that plan appeared to be one Bohannon was willing to buy into – even as Durant was looking to buy Bohannon’s loyalty through a permanent partnership.
It seemed others had plans, too. Elam (Common) busied himself with convincing Eva (Robin McLeavy) to come live in his house down by the river (the “by the river” part being of particular concern to Elam), while Sean McGinnes (Ben Esler) had become so transfixed on marrying Ruth (Kasha Kropinski) that he was ready to renounce his faith in order to win her over. So, perhaps everyone was too busy to notice the Sioux had amassed an army and were merely waiting to attack, but then again, maybe it had more to do with an old proverb about making plans.
At least Joseph (Eddie Spears) was smart enough get out of Hell on Wheels; he even managed to provide Bohannon with an early warning that, although it proved somewhat fruitless, sure seemed like a nice gesture. Mr. Toole (Duncan Ollerenshaw), on the other hand, found his way out, too, but through much different means. Without listening to Eva, Toole ends his own life, believing his miraculous second chance to be nothing more than a cosmic joke to see him become an even more wretched creature. Though the viewer could see it coming a mile away, Mr. Toole’s suicide set the tone for just how agonizingly dour ‘Blood Moon’ and ‘Blood Moon Rising’ would actually turn out to be.
To some extent, Hell on Wheels has been hinting at an ending like this from early on in season 2 – and that’s not just the warnings that the Sioux would be declaring war. After episodes like ‘Slaughterhouse‘ and ‘Purged Away with Blood,’ it was clear that a nasty streak was riding through the show’s narrative. Everywhere Bohannon went, bloodshed was sure to follow, and while it certainly refrained from swallowing him, the carnage took anyone else it could get its hands on. So, in that regard, it makes sense that the Sioux raid would not provide the season’s climax with its most painful aspect in the death of Lily Bell.
If the assumption that Hell on Wheels really is about a man who brings death and destruction with him wherever he goes, then the Swede’s (Christopher Heyerdahl) decision to strangle Lily, as a means of proving that fact, probably works in an incredibly nihilistic way. After all, in ‘The White Spirit,’ the Swede went into some detail regarding the thirst for violence he and Bohannon shared. However, this unfortunately does little to provide answers as to what Lily’s death actually means beyond getting a rise out of Bohannon – or the audience. It also suggests that if examining such an unrelentingly harsh world was the goal of the series, then it took too long for that fact to come across.
It’s clear that should the series continue, Bohannon is prepared to carry on, but just where would the laconic Southerner be headed? Picking up his initial quest for revenge? Continuing to build the railroad under increasingly difficult circumstances? Durant is in custody (so we’re told), so either of the two possible outcomes could serve the program’s tone quite well – though any continuation would likely mean the Swede survived his plummet from the bridge, and that, coupled with Mr. Toole’s initial survival last season, would only make the impact of Lily’s death feel less significant than it already does.
In the end, Hell on Wheels has spent two seasons telling somewhat disparate stories, and connecting them through a pervasively violent and intriguingly harsh standpoint that just hasn’t quite managed to feel as substantial as it should. A more precise examination of that world and what it means for the inhabitants would go a long way in making Hell on Wheels the epic western it wants to be. If ‘Blood Moon’ and ‘Blood Moon Rising’ are any indication, however, the series knows how to hit cinematic highs, as well as it does emotional lows – these last two hours were certainly chock-full of both. And taking into consideration that, overall, this was as a much stronger arc than season 1, it would be interesting to see if that trend might continue into season 3. For now, though, we’ll have to see what, if anything, AMC has planned for Cullen Bohannon and the rest of Hell on Wheels.
Screen Rant will update you on the future of Hell on Wheels as information is made available.