Hell on Wheels, Episode 11, Season 4, “Bleeding Kansas”
Written by Michael C. Martin and Jimmy Mero
Directed by Seith Mann
Airs Saturdays at 9pm (ET) on AMC
“Congratulations, you ain’t dead”
AMC recently announced that next year’s season five of Hell on Wheels will be its last. And after this uneven fourth season, maybe it’s time. Everything that needs to be said has, and Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount) our fascinating lead who has grown from a revenge-hungry former soldier into a dangerously driven man with a new wife and child. We have seen him loose and win back so much of his life that the time has come for us to say goodbye to this richly complex man.
Season four has had some great episodes, like the premiere, “The Elusive Eden”, “Elam Ferguson”, and its midseason finale, “Return to Hell”. But for the most part, the season has struggled to find its footing and present its audience with a worthwhile story. It has been a frustrating season. Hell on Wheels has proved time and time again just how good it can be; it has the ability to be one of the most thrilling and unique dramas on television so watching it only hit its stride with four episodes left is disconcerting.
When the show went on hiatus, Ruth (Kasha Kropinski) made the shocking choice to shoot Sydney Snow (Jonathan Scarfe) after he set the church fire that killed her adopted son, Ezra (Tayden Marks). We find in “Bleeding Kansas” that Ruth’s choice has put Cullen, a newly minted lawman, in a difficult position. He and Ruth have always had an undeveloped, perhaps romantic bond and there was always a sense that he felt an obligation to Ruth and Ezra. The boy’s death and Ruth’s crime seem to be another thing that he will put on his own shoulders.
Kropinski has developed Ruth into the strongest character on the show. The image of her holding a smoking gun, dressed all in black, pale and terrifyingly stronger than she’s ever looked is one of the starkest and most horrifying images of resolute violence Hell on Wheels has ever created. “Bleeding Kansas” is Kropinski’s episode. It is tense and emotional. Kropinski lets Ruth slip in and out of a myriad of emotions. Getting to see flashbacks of Ruth’s terrible and violent childhood is enlightening.
“She’s not herself,” Louise (Jennifer Ferrin) tells Cullen and for the first time, she seems very much like her father. He told her when she was child that God acts through his hand and it seems that unfortunately Ruth, who has grown numb, believes the same about her actions. She calmly follows Cullen towards the prison past her burnt down church and tells him that she’s fine. “The only thing more satisfying than shooting Sydney Snow was the feeling when you told me he was dead” she tells Cullen.
Between the amputation scene and Mickey’s (Phil Burke) cousin pulling out and eating the eye of one of Campbell’s (Jake Weber) men, “Burning Kansas” is a brutal, bloody, and disturbing episode. But it is also a deeply emotional and personal and proves that Hell on Wheels is still capable of great human depth.
This is the first time we are allowed to see Sydney as a real character, not just a villain. Of course it is right before he dies and his questioning of Cullen is disturbing. “What do you think happens to men like us?” he asks not long before his death and Cullen later repeats this to Durant (Colm Meaney). It’s the type of thing that haunts the show and its characters. What type of men have they allowed themselves to become in order to survive and more importantly where will that leave them? “We end up far from home, covered in blood” Sydney tells Cullen with his final breath.
“Burning Kansas” gives viewers the confrontation between Eva (Robin McLeavy) and Cullen that we’ve been waiting for since Elam’s (Common) death. “It was for your protection,” Cullen tells her. “No one asked you”- these four words define who Cullen has become. Very few people ask for Cullen’s help but he’s always there taking on their guilt and reluctantly giving them helping
After an uneven season and with only two episodes left, “Burning Kansas” is a powerful and effective episode that shows how great Hell on Wheels is still capable of being.