Hell on Wheels, Ep. 3.06, “One less Mule”: Reversal of Fortune

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Hell on Wheels, Season 3, Episode 6, “One Less Mule”
Written by Lois Elle and John Wirth
Directed by David Straiton and Deran Sarfian
Airs Sundays at 9pm (ET) on AMC

Season three of Hell on Wheels has been moving along steadily. It has been deliciously tense, powerfully acted, and full of exceptionally well put together stories. The season has been slow, yes, but with only four episodes left it’s also been very rewarding. With “One Less Mule”, it’s clear that the season is headed towards a breathless finish.

“One Less Mule” starts with a bloody and gruesome baptism where we see the Swede kill the Mormon family he’s been traveling with. Of course we knew this is where the whole storyline was heading, but the question remains- why? With so few episodes left we should have a clear view of what exactly the Swede is up to, but he remains a fIrustrating question mark.

When the episode isn’t focusing on the Swede it’s incredible.  Durant’s injunction against Cullen and the ensuing competency hearing is fascinating. It shows just how different Cullen and Durant really are. Durant is quick, arrogant, and sneaky. He’s not above getting into bed with the people who will get him further, while Cullen is keen to keep his head down and barrel forward. There are many standout scenes in “One Less Mule”, the actual hearing being one of them. As disgusting as Durant is, there is a certain truth in what he says about Cullen’s character. He is on shaky ground.

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“One Less Mule” plays like an examination of Cullen’s ghosts. While the hearing examines his past murders, Jasper Prescott, the brother of the man Cullen killed in the very first episode, comes to the camp to get his revenge. When Cullen murders Jasper at the end of the episode we see the truth of who Cullen really is- he’s a man doomed to repeat past mistakes even when he promises himself that he’s going to stop.

When Ruth tells Cullen that the railroad can’t save him unless he forgives himself, we know that it’s the absolute truth. Cullen has always been a man fiercely defined by his actions. He knows exactly who he is and hates himself for everything that he’s ever done. The greatest scene of the night comes from Cullen when he speaks to the assembled hearing.

“Killing ain’t that easy to put behind you”, he says. “I’m a killer and a railroad man; you can’t pick one without choosing the other”.  It’s a scene that proves why Hell on Wheels is exceptional. For a show that is capable of such grand spectacles it really shines in the quiet honest moments. Mount for his part plays the scene and the whole episode wonderfully. When Cullen tells Mickey that the burden of the railroad has been taken away you know he’s lying. Cullen isn’t a man who loses very well.

In addition to being a great episode “One Less Mule” is also beautiful to look at. Many of the scenes are full of washed out colors that reflect where the characters are at in their lives. Despite lingering questions about the Swede Hell on Wheels has found its stride. The final episodes promise to be thrilling.

Tressa Eckermann

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