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Hell on Wheels, Ep. 4.12, “Thirteen Steps”: Emotionally wrenching decisions make for powerful episode

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Hell on Wheels, Season 4, Episode 12, “Thirteen Steps”
Written by Thomas Brady
Directed by Roxann Dawson
Airs Saturdays at 9pm (ET) on AMC

“I murdered that man for no other reason than to end the life of the man who took my son’s”

Anson Mount said in a recent interview that he sees Cullen Bohannon’s story ending with either him losing his soul and winning the world or vice versa. Considering the journey viewers have been on with him for the past four seasons with him, either option seems possible. The show has seen him seek revenge, go on the run, kill because he was trapped, fall in love, lose love, and become a father. We’ve also seen just how ruthless he can be when the situation calls for it. In many ways the railroad has turned him into a completely different person but really that’s what we’ve come to expect in the camp. It brings out the worst in people who were already pretty bad to begin with.

Watching Cullen (Anson Mount) walk Ruth (Kasha Kropinksi) to her jail cell at the end of “Bleeding Kansas” highlighted the two very different sides of him we’ve come to expect. The man who is always there to do his expected duty and the man who takes everyone else’s burdens onto his own shoulders. In “Thirteen Steps” Cullen takes one more step towards losing his soul.

Ruth’s shooting of Sydney Snow (Jonathon Scarfe) and his eventual death have played out as a battle, not just for her freedom and life but also her soul. We’ve seen Ruth grow and change from the relatively naive daughter of a preacher to a strong willed, God-fearing mother who in her grief takes a life. In a great number of ways she isn’t that different from the Cullen viewers met at the beginning of the show. It’s not an over exaggeration to say that, besides Cullen, Ruth is the character that has changed the most.

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This is obvious when one looks at the effect that her arrest has on a great number of people in Cheyenne, particularly Cullen and Mickey (Phil Burke). It is these two men and their vastly different reactions to Ruth’s arrest that defines “Thirteen Steps”. The episode begins with Ruth’s brief trial. She pleads guilty and demands to be punished even though Cullen tries very hard to save her life, even providing her with a pardon that she refuses. “Pardons are for cowards, like Sydney Snow” she tells him after she is sentenced to death.

Last week Eva (Robin McLeavy) blamed Cullen for Elam’s death and at the beginning of this episode Ruth tells Cullen that she stayed in Cheyenne for him, that she was prepared to go back to Omaha with Ezra, but stayed after he asked her to. “This time I stay for me” she says defiantly. Unlike with Eva, the viewer doesn’t get the sense that she is angry at Cullen or even where his decisions have left her. Deep down she knows she made the choice to kill Sydney and it’s hard for her to have any regret regarding the choice.

What’s so fascinating about “Thirteen Steps” are the various reactions to Ruth and her situation. There is her calm, almost numb demeanor. She is contemplative and full of weary sadness. The best scenes of the night are the ones with Cullen sitting outside of Ruth’s cell. He is trying to scare her into running or signing the pardon, but she is doing this for him. Ruth recognizes that this is Cullen’s final chance to confess to one of the last people he trusts. Ruth has always been the only one who could really draw out who Cullen really is. She is walking towards her death not because she killed Sydney but because she feels she has betrayed her son. In her mind her actions lead to Ezra’s death- that is her real sin.

There are the men’s reactions of course. Mickey violently confronts Campbell (Jake Weber) and threatens his life if Ruth hangs. Campbell insists that “no one is above the law not even a church lady” and Cullen at first denies her sentence then fights desperately in any way he can to save her. These three reactions show the wild emotions coursing through Cheyenne in the wake of Ruth’s choices. Because she played such a huge role in Cullen’s life so it’s no surprise that her death leads him to quitting the railroad.

“Thirteen Steps” is a beautiful, complex episode directed with a keen eye by Roxann Dawson. Dawson lets shadows play over Cullen and Ruth’s faces as they wait for the morning inside the jail and directs every other scene inside the town with a stark, cold view. This is a dark episode wonderfully written by Thomas Brady and well executed by Mount and Kropinski. Hell on Wheels has been ruled by Kropinski’s powerhouse performance since the midseason finale and this is her finest hour yet. “Thirteen Steps” may just be season four’s best episode yet.

Tressa Eckermann

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