The season finale of Hell on Wheels looks at what happens to the people who shaped history and connected the two sides of a country. “Done” is the title of the show and the one word telegraph message sent after Durant hammers the gold spike home. After the task is finished it is time for recrimination, life changing decisions and moving on.
Thomas Durant (Colm Meaney) and Collis Huntington (Tim Guinee) argue and bicker over the spike right up until Durant wrests the hammer from Collis’ hand. The job is finished and Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount) has made a name for himself laying 10 miles of track in one day.
The town of Ogden is full of hungover men and there are still clear sides to be taken. A spirited fight breaks out in Mickey’s temporary bar after he refuses to serve Bohannon. McGinnes (Phil Burke) also calls Psalms (Dohn Norwood) a traitor. A classic western bar fight ensues.
As soon as the last spike is ceremoniously driven, Durant is served papers. He is to be brought up on charges of bribery and corruption. In the middle of the bar fight, Cullen is also served papers; he must testify in Washington at Durant’s trial.
The two men ironically take the railroad to the capital. At the celebration party, hosted by President Grant, Bohannon learns that the president wants him to take a commission in the US Army to protect the railroad.
Cullen accepts and then, at Durant’s trail, he refuses to testify. When asked, Bohannon responds that: “The transcontinental railroad could not have been built without Thomas Durant.” This is all he will say despite the threats made by committee chair John Campbell (Jake Weber).
Durant, rather than testify, gives a rousing speech about building the railroad and finishes by saying that history is written in pencil.
Durant buys back Mikey’s shares after telling him that they will be worthless in a short while. The magnate keeps his head held high and he meets with Bohanan over cigars. He tells his former foreman not to trust Grant (Victor Slezak) or Col. Custer (Christopher Backus).
The last time Thomas Durant is seen, he explains to the committee that “dreams are not pretty.” He finishes his speech by accusing the government of making him a villain and a scapegoat.
Eva (Robin McLeavy) extracts herself from Mickey who does not react well to the split. She explains that they are not good for each other and that sooner or later, one would devour the other.
Louise (Jennifer Ferrin) introduces Eva to her editor from Chicago. He wants to publish her story about the abduction and escape from the Apache. The man clearly intends the book to be a potboiler, a “penny dreadful” affair and Eva refuses. Louise is distraught as she intended to save Eva from herself.
Later, Eva saddles her “wild” horse and after a few tentative bucks, the horse bonds with its rider and they leave the corral. She rides out towards the setting sun and with tears in her eyes, spurs the horse and rides into the sunset.
A hungover Cullen wakes with the lining of Mei’s box clutched in his hand. He goes to see Mr. Lee and asks him to translate what is written on the linen. It is an address; Ningpo, China.
Bohannon heads to Washington where President Grant hires him to be the new railroad’s protector. Cullen is a man tortured. (Did the Christ on the cross inside the church, really resemble The Swede? Or was this simply Bohannon’s perception?)
He misses Mei and after spending some time with Custer, a womanizing and narcissistic arse, decides to decline the commission. Turning in his uniform he leaves Washington and heads to San Francisco.
At the port, he walks to the docks and looks off to the west and at the ships in the harbor. The episode ends with Bohannon sailing to Ningpo in search of Mei.
Hell on Wheels ended with at least two characters riding off into the sunset. In that instance the show was like a classic western. In many ways, however, the series was more than a typical “oater.” It followed Cullen Bohannon and all those he interacted with on his personal journey of revenge and discovery.
Based on historical fact and peopled by the real folks who helped build a country, Hell on Wheels was practically perfect television. The fictional Bohannon a principled everyman who rises to the challenges set before him was a brilliant hero.
All the characters in the show were flawed and therefore more real. There were no “white hats” in the traditional sense, merely men and women trying to succeed and survive. Some, like Durant, through any means necessary, and others, like Bohannon, through a sense of ethics and morals.
Come Emmy time, there should be gongs for Meaney and Mount. Both these men gave this show more than was necessary to sell the story and their characters. Hell on Wheels will be missed. Now that it has finished, and its heroes ridden off into the sunset, there may not be another western, historical or otherwise, to take its place.
So long Hell on Wheels and Anson Mount and thanks for a brilliant look as the old west as it began growing into the new west.