Hell on Wheels, Episode 7, Season 4, “Elam Ferguson”
Directed by Rod Lurie
Written by Mark Richard and Thomas Brady
Airs Saturdays at 9pm (ET) on AMC
This review contains major spoilers for episode 7 of Hell on Wheels
“Over the mountain and away from this place, I’ll get us there”
“Bear Man”, Hell on Wheels’ sixth episode, set the show back on the right track after it had strayed into slow and uncertain territory. The episode was smart, featured an exceptional performance by Common, and was true to the show’s brutal but contemplative nature. We now know that Elam (Common) survived the bear attack last season, at least physically. It’s clear that he is unstable and dangerous. Its follow up, “Elam Ferguson”, proves to be an emotionally devastating episode that shows the dangers of this world.
This episode finds all of our characters coming back together. It opens with an ominous warning from Psalms (Dohn Norwood) to Cullen (Anson Mount). “You’ve still got a chance,” Psalms tells him as Naomi (MacKenzie Porter) looks on. Cullen begins the episode improbably lighter and determined to cross the mountain, moving the railroad forward and away from Cheyenne. It’s almost as if he senses that the town will only lead to more heartache and sadness.
A good portion of this season has been spent trying to figure out what exactly Campbell (Jake Weber) is after. He tells Durant (Colm Meaney) early in the episode that there would be no sport in killing him, but that he is going to enjoy taking the railroad. Could it really be that simple? It is an interesting question because like most characters on the show, he is dangerously driven. When we see him interact with Cullen we realize Cullen has been changed by his relationships. His friendships with Elam and fatherhood have allowed him to be softer, more gentle when the situation calls for it. But what about Campbell? The question of what drives him, especially after we see him so eager to kill Elam and be done with it, is still a major part of the season.
The episode succeeds in many ways. For one, it allows us to see a Cullen who uses incredible restraint and care when dealing with his lost friend. It is also very well constructed and beautifully shot. Director Rod Lurie allows the sad, emotionally wrought moments to sit, from Cullen’s silent tears after he is forced to kill Elam to Eva’s (Robin McLeavy) quiet understanding that the love of her life has been dead for a very long time. The writers give us moments that show us how lost both Eva and Cullen were without Elam, like the early scene when Cullen explains to Eva that she has to be gentle with Elam because “his remembering is off”.
The final scenes, as Cullen makes the decision to kill Elam, are some of the most emotionally intense and devastating that Hell on Wheels has ever produced. We know that Cullen has no choice; his friend died the day he was attacked by that bear. Elam is suffering and either Cullen is going to mercifully kill him or Campbell (Jake Weber) will to make a political statement. Cullen can’t let that happen. Elam had already suffered so much. Because this is the death of a major original character, it has to be done perfectly from beginning to end and “Elam Ferguson” handles the character’s final moments with beautiful dignity.
Everyone is in fine form in this episode, especially Mount and Common, who show us the weight and pain in their characters’ lives. Ending on Cullen’s anguished cries as he sits on Elam’s casket, it is clear that this is the episode that will change everything. Losing perhaps his only true friend and changing the way his wife looks at him, Cullen is now a different man. Mount has always allowed Cullen to adapt and grow, which is one of the most beautiful things about this show, but as he digs Elam’s grave and sends his wife away the viewer has to wonder if Cullen will revert to that cold, dangerous man we met at the beginning of the show. Mount does a wonderful job showing his character’s uncertainty.
By the end of the episode Cullen has lost that lightness and is back to being dangerously determined. “Elam Ferguson” is not just the finest episode of this season, but one of the finest episodes Hell on Wheels has ever done.