Do you seek salvation? Do you wish to be saved?
Hell on Wheels has spent six years now (five seasons, including a split final season) leading us towards the moment on May 10, 1869, when the “golden spike” is driven and the Transcontinental Railroad is officially complete. So it is a strange sort of tease that the series finale, Done, opens with that moment, and then asks us to observe its aftermath. In a sense, this is what every series finale is: A question not just about how it all ends, but about what happens next.
When Doc Durant gives Cullen Bohannon the railroad commemorative ring, Cullen puts it on the finger normally reserved for a wedding ring. This was symbolic of his quandary—he’s married his life to the railroad, now what?
By having Cullen passed out drunk on his train car floor, we avoid having him be present at the historic moment, in the historic photo that the show recreated. Odd, though, because the show version above differs from the real one below in a number of ways, most obviously in that there were no women at all in the real photograph.
Done, the episode title, is also the word telegraphed when the golden spike was driven, and “done” is the state of the lives so far of Cullen Bohannon, Thomas Durant, and Eva O’Toole. Everyone else more or less continues—Louise is still a reporter, Collis Huntington is still building a railroad, and so on.
Part of Cullen’s “done”-ness was beautifully executed, and part was simply not. Let’s cut to the chase: Having him end the series on a journey to China in a quest for his beloved Mei is just unworthy of the strength of the prior narrative. He drowned his grief with Mei. He sought salvation with Mei. Once that part of his journey was over, I just can’t see him needing to continue that relationship.
The beautiful part was Cullen circling around back to his own beginning, going exactly where he was in the series opener. In Season 1, Episode 1, Cullen Bohannon was a bereaved Confederate soldier taking revenge for the murder of his wife and son. One of the revenge murders he committed was in the very confessional he returned to in the series finale. This time, he’s there in Union blue. It’s a beautiful moment. The priest asks him if he’s seeking salvation, and, laughing and crying, Cullen is currently awakened to the idea that this is possible, that he can, indeed, be saved.
Knowing he can be saved, he no longer needs to live the life of a soldier. Knowing he can be saved, he is free.
So knowing he can be saved, he goes to China? That makes no sense to me, and leaves me with a sense that the writers got a little lost down the road. The moment of awakening had a simple beauty to it, and I feel that beauty was squandered. In the series opener, he went from the church to a train; that motif was repeated here. In the first instance, it was escape; he got a job on the railroad because he was a murderer on the run. In the second, it was because he had finally transcended the need to escape. It’s that transcendence that I feel was wasted on a shoehorned romance.
Eva’s story brings her face-to-face with Olive Oatman, the real person on whom she is based. Oatman did, indeed, tour the country as a proper and genteel lady, telling her story. It’s a nice nod to history, and gives Eva a decision point to parallel Cullen’s. I knew beyond doubt that someone would end this series riding into the sunset, but I thought it would be Cullen. Instead, Eva and her perfect white horse ride west into freedom and possibility, laden with Mickey’s buy-out cash.
Mickey I have no time for. He’s a villain and the writers forgot that. They forgot that they established him as a serial killer of women, and decided he was simply another unsavory and compromised person like any of the rest of them. He is not.
Let’s end this series wrap-up with an examination of history versus Hell on Wheels. Jim Strobridge was indeed an overseer of Chinese workers from Vermont, with experience working in mines. The ten miles of track that Cullen becomes famous for on the show were actually Strobridge’s.
Collis Huntington was one of the founders of the Central Pacific, but he wasn’t in Promontory Point on May 10, 1869. It was the president of the line (and founder of Stanford University), Leland Stanford, who was there representing the CP, and it was Stanford, not Durant, who drove the golden spike.
What did you all think? Were you satisfied with the ending? Will you miss the show?