It is me, I am your friend!
The “half season” premiere of Hell on Wheels, Two Soldiers, did an excellent job of filling in a little of Thor Gunderson’s backstory without pandering to any idea of sympathy. It’s one thing to humanize “The Swede”, and to focus in on him, it’s another to lose sight of the fact that he’s a murderous villain. It’s a fine line, and a lot of shows don’t know how to traverse it, but Hell on Wheels succeeded.
When we met The Swede in Season 1, he assured Cullen Bohannon that he was a very different man after Andersonville Prison, that the man who was captured and brought to that hellish place was not the man who came out. Now we see it with our own eyes–a Gunderson who has friends, who smiles, who makes music. And the loss of this man is tragic, and deserves sympathy, but the villain does not. He’s left a trail of the dead. He killed Lily for no real reason. He killed an entire family of Mormons (the Dutsons) in order to impersonate one of them, and left a child for dead. He left a trail of unmeasurable death and destruction. That he became a monster is tragic, but the monster earns no sympathy.
The episode has a clear theme: What war does to you. It turned Gunderson into The Swede. It turned Cullen from a loving man to a vengeful one. It destroys winners and losers, heroes and villains.
When Cullen made the very stupid decision to take Gunderson to Camp Douglas on his own, I asked myself if there was a narrative purpose beyond keeping Gunderson alive for the season (or, as it turns out, the episode). But I think Gunderson was right; Cullen Bohannon is so obsessed with a single vision of how his quest for revenge must end, that he values it more than his family, more than his life, or his leg. In the end, Gunderson begs for mercy, asking Cullen to kill him instead of letting him hand, and Cullen says “I ain’t your maker”. Cullen wants God Himself to exact revenge from Gunderson, and nothing less will do. Did it satisfy him when it finally occurred? It sure didn’t look like it did.
I am Thor Gunderson of Norway.
In the end, he identifies with the man he was before Andersonville, and tries to return himself to that man as he prepares to die. Meanwhile, the entire episode creates parallels between the present action and Gunderson’s time in Andersonville. Naomi, shaky as she tries to load her gun as he comes after her, is Gunderson, shaky as he tries to load his gun when the Confederate soldiers attack. Cullen holding Gunderson underwater nearly to the point of drowning is Gunderson drowning his friend in the mud. Finally, the harmonica, and then his last words, bring Gunderson full circle to the place where he was reborn as The Swede. And no earlier. He is never, really, Thor Gunderson of Norway.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Cullen took his prisoner to Camp Douglas. This was a real place in Utah (later Fort Douglas), but it was also the name of a brutal prison camp in Illinois–the Union equivalent of the Confederacy’s Andersonville. Looking at maps, the writers may have chosen the best location in Utah, but placing those names side-by-side is a powerful indictment of war generally, not one side versus the other.
If we look at what this episode accomplishes, it gives us brutal, and dramatically complete, closure on the five season long enmity between Cullen Bohannon and The Swede so that Bohannon can get back to the job of finishing the railroad. The Central Pacific and Union Pacific have to meet at Promontory Summit, and if I’m not very much mistaken, Cullen Bohannon has to be there. Having the Swede around in the background would have interfered with the narrative flow.
Naomi is still a rough character for me. This show has excelled in strong, interesting women who don’t conform to Western tropes. Even a prostitute like Eva doesn’t crumble under the weight of “Western whore”. But Naomi is hard to swallow, and part of that is the recasting, which is nobody’s fault, really.MacKenzie Porter just doesn’t bring the sense of play, the lightness, that Siobhan Williams had. And it’s implausible to me that a young wife, a deeply religious Mormon from a deeply patriarchal family, would be such a tough and unforgiving wife, especially what with the cultural shame of an out-of-wedlock pregnancy. It just seems very cliché, and out of character, for her to give him all the stern looks and sullen anger when Cullen doesn’t behave as a husband should.
But, water under the bridge. A new “season”, a new set of tales to tell, and I’ll keep an open mind.
What about you, Basketcases? Did you watch? Are you excited about the prospect of Promontory Summit? Were you horrified by Gunderson’s hanging?