Hell on Wheels, Season 3, Episode 10, “Get Behind the Mule”
Written by Mark Richard and Jami O’Brien
Directed by Neil LaBute
Aired Saturdays at 9pm (ET) on AMC
The third season of AMC’s Hell on Wheels has been its best yet- powerful, quick witted, thrilling, and consistently entertaining. Director Neil LaBute, who directed one of the season’s most effective episodes, “Searchers”, returns to the season finale.
We’ve seen Cullen (Anson Mount) in desperate situations before but him being held prisoner in Fort Smith basically at the mercy of the Swede (Christopher Heyerdahl) is terrifying. We know as an audience all the terror and suffering that he has caused and Cullen’s stunned, “my God” is more than apt. This season has been building towards a Cullen and Swede confrontation and their first scene together is one of the best of the night.
The Swede has always been the wild card of the show so when he murdered the Mormon family earlier in the season it was tragic, but not surprising; from the moment they met him, their fates were sealed. Whether he truly believes that he has become a changed man and is now Joseph Dotson or this is one of his evil schemes, when he tells Cullen, “Your life is in my hands” the audience has no trouble feeling the threat in his statement.
The development that will surely cause the most divide between fans is the marriage of Cullen and Naomi (Siobhan Williams). After the season premiere it was obvious that not only was the death of the young Mormon boy going to come back to haunt Cullen, so was his fling with Naomi, the boy’s sister. While some may view her pregnancy and their marriage as clichéd it’s actually rather ingenious. Cullen’s been running from death for years. Hanging might be terrifying, but his marriage to Naomi essentially keeps him under the Swede’s thumb, which for Cullen is much worse.
Hell on Wheels has always played with the relationship between Elam (Common) and Cullen and season three has been good at showing the two men, different in most ways but both deeply honorable and dedicated, form a friendship. “It didn’t make sense for him to stop the railroad to look for my baby”, Elam tells Eva before he rides off to find Cullen. It says a lot that he’s the only one who goes after Cullen. His possible death by bear attack is the episode’s biggest cliffhanger and would have deep ramifications for Cullen, Eva (Robin McLeavy), and the camp. Mickey’s (Phil Burke) curious glance at one of his prostitutes is both eerie and telling. It certainly gives the audience a lot to think about- what was his true motivation for killing his brother?
Season three has been an exceptional year full of unexpected moments. “Get Behind the Mule” is that final unexpected moment. Instead of going out with a spectacle like last season, this finale is much like the best scene of the episode, Naomi and Cullen’s wedding night. It’s quiet, disconcerting, and intimate.