The Hell on Wheels season 4 finale, Further West, did what it needed to do to establish Season 5. In many ways, it was a lovely and emotionally satisfying episode, while in others, it was a little flat. Oddly, it played like the finale of a show whose fate was unknown. In such a case (Are we cancelled? Are we coming back?), a show’s producers are justified in tying off loose ends and letting the audience know exactly where each of the major characters leaves off. But even before Hell on Wheels‘ renewal was announced, it was a ratings hit and in no danger. So, the decision to tie off loose ends was based more in narrative than practical necessity.
In Further West, we are told that Campbell has received a telegram from “President-Elect Grant.” Grant was elected President in 1868 and took office in March of 1869, so that’s our historical window. The “Golden Spike” uniting the rival Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads was driven in May of 1869. Historically, then, the show must reach a particular point, must move west, must move our characters towards that moment. Granted, Hell on Wheels isn’t married to history; I’ve already pointed out that Thomas Durant was no longer associated with the Union Pacific by 1868, and John Campbell was not appointed Governor of Wyoming until April 1869. Nonetheless, my feeling is that the railroad itself must remain rooted in history, and this show must be shaped by that. I fully expect that May 1869 will be the series finale.
So, we establish most of our main characters moving west: Durant and the railroad, Cullen Bohannon, Eva, Mickey, and Gunderson. We understand exactly where each stands. We set up a final and potentially exciting conflict between the two railroads (one rooted in history) and thus between Bohannon and Durant, bringing the series full circle. We also establish which characters are staying in Cheyenne. With the last confrontation between Louise and Campbell, it’s obvious that Cheyenne will remain a part of the narrative even as most characters move on. I imagine her newspaper narration will return next season too.
The episode provided some emotionally satisfying notes for each character. Indeed, Louise’s scene with Campbell was one of her few really excellent scenes; her commitment to her newspaper had a resonance that her sexual dalliance couldn’t begin to match. Eva established herself financially, staying with Mickey but letting him know she hasn’t forgotten what he is. Mickey and the Dead Rabbits moved west and bring menace with them. Even the fight between Campbell and Durant was fun and also an okay coda to their season-long conflict.
Bohannon’s story was surely the least satisfying. It’s not that Anson Mount doesn’t act the shit out of it (of course he does), it’s just that the notes he was given to play don’t add up all that well. He’s in love with Naomi? Why? Because Ruth suggested it? His relationship with Naomi has shown some passion, some tenderness, little understanding, and a lot of frustration. I certainly believe that Cullen wants to be a good father and husband, but I don’t see a driving need to find her. We’ve never seen much love there. As a character, Cullen likes a quest, and for narrative purposes, the show loves to give him one, but the emotional depth of his search isn’t there for the audience, because we never saw its flip side. Similarly, he had one nasty scene with Mother Hatch a long time ago; not enough to justify his last words to her.
Gunderson’s arc was also unsatisfying. Nothing firm has happened here. He’s still a murderer and a monster, he’s still sucking up to Brigham Young like his life depends on it (which it does), but the impending confrontation with Cullen still hasn’t happened. Kinda weird how they keep leaving that one dangling.
Visually, Further West made excellent use of its new locations, giving the Rockies and the Sierras the prominence (no pun intended) they deserve. The beauty of the episode really helped sell its emotional notes.
As a season finale, I can’t say this was stellar, but Further West was sure loads better than the Season 3 finale, it had depth, and I enjoyed it. What did you all think?