Written by Jami O’Brien
Directed by Billy Gierhart
Airs Saturdays at 9pm (ET) on AMC
“The last time I saw him I spoke to him in anger”
Sydney Snow (Johnathon Scarfe) disappeared at the end of “Two Trains”, escaping Cullen (Anson Mount), Mickey (Phil Burke), and Durant (Colm Meany) during their brutal shootout. But the villain still hangs over the show, especially in “Return to Hell”, Hell on Wheels’ mid-season finale.
“Two Trains” brought a war to Cheyenne, and the ominous sight of Cullen walking his men back into town as Campbell watches from his room and Sydney watches from a hilltop makes one thing clear- the war is far from over. Sydney now seems like a viable and immensely dangerous threat, especially after his unhinged actions in “Two Trains”, and even more frightening is what he brings out in Cullen. He had such a thin hold on the normal somewhat peaceful life he was living with his new wife and son; he seemed more than ready to leave all of the violence behind. But Sydney’s arrival pushed him back into the violent world he had cut himself off from.
“Return to Hell”, while very effective, highlights one major issue the show has struggled with: what to do with the Swede (Christopher Heyerdahl). He has always been a compelling character and villain but this season especially his arc does not feel even remotely connected to the other stories going on. Which is a shame, considering how effective he’s been in the past. Heyerdahl is a wonderful actor and still makes the Swede very creepy. The problem is so much else has happened that he now feels rather unnecessary. The show may simply have outgrown the Swede.
With that one exception, “Return to Hell” signifies a turn in the fourth season of Hell on Wheels. With the last few episodes, the show has reformed itself and become more focused. This episode, very hectic and emotional, is exceptionally shot. Director Billy Gierhart offers some truly unique visuals: Ruth (Kasha Kopinski) framed in the window of the burning church while Cullen and Durant race towards the scene or Ruth and Cullen standing at Ezra’s gravesite as the sun sets behind them, and the clever final scenes featuring Sydney and Cullen in the town square.
In many ways it is fitting that Ruth is the one who shoots Sydney down. Not just because he killed Ezra (Tayden Marks), but because this shows her finally being pushed so far. Throughout the episode Cullen deals with the guilt he feels for his part in Ezra’s death and Ruth seeks advice from him in how to deal with the death of a son. One of Hell on Wheels’ greatest strengths is that it is the rare masculine show that has created strong and well-rounded female leads. Kopinski is the emotional center of the episode and does a wonderful job portraying a woman who has lost everything and is dealing with immense guilt. While Cullen is pushing himself to escape violence, Ruth has no choice but to react and adapt violently. Then there is Eva (Robin McLeavy) and her decision to kill her attacker. It is a brutal scene and deeply disturbing, but even more upsetting is when she tells Louise that Cheyenne could change anyone and make them do anything, if they stay long enough.
With The Swede the only small problem, “Return to Hell” is a powerful, raw and emotional episode that allows its female characters to shine.