Way back when Cullen Bohannon set his sights on revenge, we knew that once he achieved it, he was the type to ride off into the sunset classic gunslinger style, leaving all his troubles and worries in the dust. Is there any more freeing of an image? Hard work in the past, nothing but celebration, relaxation, and the promise of a changed, wiser perspective to look forward to in the future. However, the sun has to rise again sometime, and when you continually pass the buck for a new adventure instead of facing the true demons deep down, riding off becomes running away. Vengeance eluded Cullen in that first go-round, and after encountering his own death, he's since had to care about damn near everything except his own goals. Which is exactly what he's been avoiding: the need to care. Last night's a-trifle-too-slow "The White Spirit" at least gave us some solid developments with a romance long ago written in the stars, while finally getting to the bottom of just why the Swede has so much hate in his heart. Cullen's reaction to all this drama—the anchoring effects of love and the challenge of a growing evil—would finally show whether this trailblazer had left his drifter tendencies behind once and for all.
Fresh from honor-killing his bestie Doc Whitehead, not to mention orchestrating the knife death of Reverend Cole, Cullen's mind was all bugaboo with guilt. He arrived the Reverend's funeral—the only one, actually (hey that has to count for something), and immediately started jawing off to Ruth about whether or not everyone is entitled to forgiveness. Her answer was that she believed there are some who are beyond redemption. Not exactly the words of comfort Bohannon hoped for in his time of need. But the fact that Hell's normally taciturn hero even asked showed a departure from his old questions-after-shooting self, and indicated that he is now entering vulnerable new territory. At this point what would Bohannon's redemption even look like? Probably it would involve less bloodshed, but with the Sioux trouble building to a grisly head, things in the killing department are likely going to get worse before they got better. Also, the Swede rubbed white shit all over himself and chopped his own head bald. NBD.
Oh wait—actually VERY big deal, because this transformation put Gundersen in a leadership position on the side opposing Cullen's railroad-building war. While it was no surprise these two were going to have to square off eventually, now that Lily has brought in the Swede to help with the books, Bohannon's crafty nemesis might actually have the edge. He knows Durant's dirty little accounting secret, will probably score proof of Cullen and Lily hooking up, and has a near spiritual power over some very skilled warriors. With the right moves at the right time, the Swede could effectively send Durant to the poorhouse while also using the railroad baron's power to destroy Cullen for swooping on his lady (even though he's seeking forgiveness from his wife, Durant's not the kind of man to be cuckolded by an underling).
But why does Tor want to do this so bad? Well, beyond all the the White Spirit prophecy mumbo jumbo, there was once a little hellhole called Andersonville, a terrible wartime prison where life was subhuman, and the Swede found himself captive at the hands of the Confederates. He also drank his own excrement and may have eaten human flesh at one point, so everything POW-related makes him burn with a fury like no other. "You're one insane evil son of a bitch," Bohannon said after the Swede admitted to hating him even before they met. Man, every time these two get together the conversation turns to the particulars of their mutual disdain; I declare this relationship toxic. Gundersen thrives on a hatred still rooted in the Civil War, whereas circumstance has slowly forced Cullen to shed his rebel identity and in so doing finally come to terms with his still undecided true nature. The Swede swears they are the same—murderous creatures incapable of escaping their crude involvement with such horrific atrocities, and he has an okay point. I'm sure such a shit situation would sour the attitude of even the pluckiest of Disney princesses and turn anyone into wretched, haters of mankind. But not if one believes people can change for the better. After enduring tons of face slaps and being briefly locked up in the pig car (yo almost the whole town has spent time in there by now—let's hear some Yelp reviews), the Swede dropped this telling gem: "The reason you hate me is that I am a constant reminder of the capacity for evil that resides within you." Coming off a real guilt trip, Cullen reacted almost too well to the Swede's poisonous words and threatened to leave the "mule piss town" that very instant.
In skipping out, Bohannon would validate the Swede's statement, sending him God knows where this time (river boat captain?), but luckily one thing different about Cullen is that he's got friends. Namely, he's got Lily Bell, perhaps the one person who can actually offer Cullen the redemption he seeks. Hear me out. If he could start a life and family similar to the one he tragically lost, and be happy, then his new love mixed with a dash of time would soothe over his emotional scars. Maybe not completely, but enough to count as forgiveness and prove he's not an evil person. Unfortunately if he had his druthers, Bohannon would sulk and wallow in his sins of the past, continually plunging into a quicksand of inner guilt. That would suck. Thankfully, the fair-haired maiden of the West berated him for trying to high-tail it out of Dodge and admitted that she waited for Cullen at the dance last season. ("Sorry babe, I was busy rage-choking the life out of an innocent man.") Drunk and acting a stubborn fool, he was still affected by Lily's words enough to stick around until the next day. As mentioned earlier, this is new territory for Bohannon—and the most vulnerable we've ever seen him. While he's good at killing and leading, emo-talks are not necessarily his strong suit. Who can blame him? So much has been holding him back from claiming Bell as his own: Mr. Durant as god-figure who could easily have him declared a bandit or worse, pain from losing his family and friends and fear that he'll hurt Lily the same way, shame for all the atrocities he's partaken in. Anyway, it was a touching scene when he effectively told her she was the only thing keeping him in town and to the surprise of no one the two celebrated by doing the deed in a boxcar (also, another song montage!).
So as another sun rose on the uncertain future of Hell on Wheels, Cullen had at least sussed out the initial steps to redemption via allowing himself to be loved. Emotional forgiveness is not something that comes once and for all though, however it is always waiting for those who seek it. Some pretty terrible things are on Cullen's horizon and in the midst of war with the Sioux nation, he will definitely struggle with the morality of killing these locals. It won't be fair, but he's been on the losing side of a changing world before. If he can steel his nerves against the wrongness of slaughter one last time, hopefully Bohannon will accept that he's not eternally cursed to be the kind of person who always loses wars, wives, and children.
– What was that stuff the Swede smeared all over himself?
– Was the Swede a Union soldier?
– How will Durant react to Lily and Cullen's romance?
– What will the Swede do with his newfound knowledge of the Pacific's cooked books?
– How will Sean and Mickey react if the Germans rise up?
– What will Carl do with all his free non-saloon time?
– When Lily said she was "done trying" with Bohannon, did you wonder where she had even initially "tried"?
– Did Lily share a bed with Cullen just to keep him on the rails?
– Will Elam join forces with Cullen when the Sioux attack?
– How will this town further change in the absence of Durant?
– Where is Joseph?
– How will Eva react to Elam's domestic plans?
– How will Elam's silent partnership in the saloon playout?
– Why was the Swede incarcerated in Andersonville?