The second half of Hell on Wheels Season 5 (or, as you might like to call it, Season 6), has been the gradual stripping away of everything Cullen Bohannon is and wants, with the exception of the railroad itself. So, we dispense with the Swede. Then, we dispense with Naomi and baby William. In Any Sum Within Reason, we dispense with Mei as a love interest, and Chang as an enemy. The end result is that, by Railroad Men, we have a Cullen who is nothing but a railroad man.
I didn’t really expect that Mei would be dispensed with. I imagined he’d keep her hidden away, and they’d ride off into a sunset together. But, as I’ve said many times, this show mostly does a good job of writing women as fully human. Mei has been one such woman, and we learn in Any Sum Within Reason that she doesn’t want to be hidden away. She sees herself in Wai-Ling, whom Chang purchased as a bride, turned into a prostitute, and brutally hobbled when she tried to escape. Cullen would be kind, and loving, and good to Mei, but she would live as a prisoner. She chose freedom, because real people, with real agency, sometimes do things for themselves and not just for the man they love. How very not television of her. Meanwhile, Chang, when he took a mallet to Wai-Ling, gave up any possibility of sympathy with the audience, so that when Cullen shot him dead, we were all in “Yeah!” mode.
For Cullen, rescuing Mei was about love, but it was also a kind of redemption. We see that he still punishes himself for having been a slave-owner. He looks at Mei, a potential slave, and he sees what slavery cost someone he loves. He saw it with Elam Ferguson, but of course, to see a woman he loves seeking to escape slavery is very different. That she accepts him, and embraces him, is healing, and that she then leaves him must be devastating.
But the railroad must be built. In Railroad Men, the series’ penultimate episode, we open with an eye to history. This time, Louise’s narration is genuinely effective. Journalists would soon flock to Utah (Ogden was reach in March 1869, and the Golden Spike was driven in May), so her presence makes sense, and intermingling our show with actual historical photographs brings a sense of completion to the proceedings.
I’ll miss this show. It’s been beautiful, and smart. It’s had missteps, and clichés, but it’s also had lyricism, and visual glory, and it has trod ground never before touched by the Western genre. Hell on Wheels is digging into areas of history we haven’t seen before.
When I first started writing about this show, I didn’t realize that Thomas Durant was one of the people who actually drove the Golden Spike–I was under the impression that he was brought down by the Credit Mobilier scandal; I must have misread a source. So much of what we are seeing right now is historical fact, peppered by our fictional characters, that it’s almost hard to separate it out. Mineral rights to locations reached by each railroad–fact. A race to Ogden specifically? Not sure. John Campbell, governor of Wyoming–fact. John Campbell, Deputy Secretary of the Interior–fiction as far as I can determine.
So here’s Cullen, nothing left but the railroad, and it pays off. It pays off with the dignity with which he has mostly treated other railroad men–Psalms and Mr. Lee both respond to that dignity. Psalms is definitely a character I’ll miss. Strobridge, one of the rare occasions when he just shit on someone for the job, does not. What a great reveal of Strobridge as “The Pirate”! That really worked for me. Strobridge’s departure felt weirdly incomplete and dangling, so it was great to see this as a pay-off.
But Cullen is alone. Successful, accomplished, acknowledged, and alone. In the morning, he drinks tea. At night, he drinks whiskey, and weeps (great work, as usual, by Anson Mount). With all of this in the penultimate episode, I don’t really know what will come of him when the railroad is finished next week in the series finale.
What about you, Basketcases? Will you miss Hell on Wheels? Were you satisfied/saddened/shocked by Mei’s departure? What do you think is next for Cullen?