Hell on Wheels, Ep. 4.13, “Further West”: Strong finale closes out shaky season

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Hell on Wheels, Season 4, Episode 13, “Further West”
Written by John Wirth and John Romano
Directed by Adam Davidson
Airs Saturdays at 9pm (ET) on AMC

“I’m going home, Doc”
“Home? This is your home”

Hell on Wheels’ fourth season has been complicated. While mostly disappointing, it has featured moments of great emotional depth and viewers have had to say goodbye to Elam (Common) and Ruth (Kasha Kropinski) in episodes that were deeply effecting and have changed the course of the show and its main character Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount) indefinitely.

With nothing seemingly tying him to Cheyenne, and Ruth’s insistence that he go to his wife and son and make it right, Cullen quits his job on the railroad. It’s an odd choice, considering everything he’s given up for it, what and who he has lost. Either he’s running from his guilt and the haunting memories that the railroad contains or he truly feels he’s doing the right thing for himself. “I won’t take you back, not again” Durant (Colm Meaney) tells Cullen at the beginning of the episode. “I know,” he answers simply.

We haven’t seen The Swede (Christopher Heyerdahl) since long before the mid-season finale when he was seen with Brigham Young (Gregg Henry) and frankly he wasn’t really missed. Once one of the most compelling and terrifying characters on Hell on Wheels, the Swede now seems to have overstayed his welcome. Though the character is a bit played out its understandable why he would be brought back. Viewers never really got a resolution between the Swede and Cullen. Sure, there have been plenty of confrontations and death threats but no sustainable conclusion to their story. While that fact has provided the show with some of its most powerful moments it’s also a pretty good reason why the Swede is now such a tired character. His scenes in “Further West” are deeply creepy, like they usually are, but we have seen them all before.

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More fascinating is the relationship between Cullen and Durant. Their dynamic has been at times brutally, dangerously cold and at others calmly connected. For better or worse Cullen and Durant know and even understand each other. With the Swede gone for the majority of this season, we’ve gotten a chance to see Durant and Cullen’s tentative partnership grow.

There is a one month time jump in “Further West” that shows Cullen still searching for his family after what he’s told is a small pox outbreak and Mickey (Phil Burke) is still doing battle with Campbell (Jake Weber). The scenes that follow aren’t surprising; Cullen would certainly look for his family. He’s always done everything with a dogged determination but it’s his tearful realization that his wife may be dying in a small pox hospital that is genuinely moving.  Of course, these scenes are cut around a fiery final confrontation that Cullen has with his dying mother-in-law. “I’ll watch you die. I’ll make sure they burn you good and when I find Naomi, I’ll tell her you were miserable until the end. And when my son is old enough to know his grandparents I’ll make sure he never hears your name,” he tells her. This moment shows exactly who Cullen is. Angry yet passionate, violent yet dedicated. Mount has always been a wonderful actor and always had a deep understanding of his character and even though this season has been disappointing he’s given an exceptional, fully realized performance.

While the Swede may be overplayed at this point, character his scenes begging Brigham Young to allow him to move up in the church are interesting simply because of their contrast to Cullen.  Cullen is offered a small interest in another railroad because of the work he’s fought hard for. He’s shed blood and lost people for a position of power yet he’s willing to walk away from it to find his family. He’s not always been a good man but he’s done enough good and fought hard enough to deserve the position. The Swede on the other hand knows no other way but to violently persistent.

Hell on Wheels is one of the most underrated and well-constructed dramas on TV, but this has been its weakest season yet. There was no real direction until the final four episodes when viewers were offered a moving conclusion to the season. However it did at least give viewers one of the best final scenes of the series, Cullen standing alone over-looking is new home, the California railroad as “I shall be released” plays in the background. Because doesn’t he always end up alone?

“Cheyenne’s been hard on everyone- don’t mean you run.” -Eva

Tressa Eckermann

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