This was one was pretty bittersweet for me. On the one hand, I saw the show coming to grips with what it wants to say and how it wants to say it. Previous episodes have had some very strong moments, but on the whole this is the first episode to meet the high bar being set by AMC's other shows. On that end, I was very happy to see that as I have been rooting for Hell on Wheels the most of any show on television.
On the other hand... WTF?! I imagine that this was filmed with an uncertain knowledge of the show's future. If it's the end, the assumptions remaining make for a reasonably satisfying ending: Elam and Eva overcome their obstacles and start a family, the Irish brothers get back together where they should be, Durant goes to prison, and the Swede falls to his death, leaving Cullen to forge ahead as a dead and pitiless "war" lord.
If this is not the end, Hell on Wheels will come back looking like Mr. Toole after Elam blew his head off, dragging ass back to camp. This all seems rather premature though, doesn't it? We had, what, one episode of actual romance before Lily was strangled to death (one of the most horrific tv scenes I've seen, along with Breaking Bad's asphyxiation scene)? Lily was more useful to the show alive. And if the show survives, we can expect to see the Swede and Durant being dragged back in to try and relive the glory days. There are good directions the show could go, but I think HoW has come out of this war an amputee. I wish those who had control of the show's fate would have shown a little more patience to give Wheels a chance to develop. I'm convinced now that it deserved it.
Sad as it is, it might be best to close the book on Hell on Wheels. If that's the case, I'll be bitter that the show died just as it was maturing, but I will be grateful for the short yet interesting ride.
But enough about what all of it means for the future of Hell on Wheels. Considering it on it's own terms, it still struggles to overcome its birth defects, but it is finding its vision. Even the characters that were initially just stage props have become interesting, though others have have sadly fallen into obscurity. The most important characters (Elam, Cullen, LIly, and to a lesser extent, Durant) were developing into tremendous successes: Lily's planned coup d'etat was a fitting, even affectionate tribute to her character. Fair-haired maiden of the West though she may be, she has balls (and big ones at that).
Elam is one of the most complex characters in HoW's arsenal, having risen from slavery and demonstrated his willingness to perform almost any task to shed his skin and establish himself in a rapidly changing world. In this, he is more of an embodiment of American ideals than any other, even the nation-builder Durant. Even so, the counsel of his fellow blacks and the increasing distortion of his soul provides him with a revelation that his ambition comes at a cost he is ultimately not willing to pay. Furthermore, his ambition becomes irrelevant once he learns that Eva is pregnant. Flawed though he is, his morality is the hardest-won of any of his co-stars. His character is so interesting because none of these things is ever spoken aloud; he is a true example of speaking with actions.
And Cullen, what to be said of him? Hell on Wheels tried to float the boat on the idea that Bohannon was to be their Western icon, somewhere between Clint Eastwood, John Wayne, and (?) Huckleberry Finn. His charisma was not overpowering in the way that say, Walter White/Heisenberg's is, and so the writers were challenged to give him an actual character. They did quite well, I must say. Little snippets of his past, and how he reacts to them, reveal a much more complex man than the one who came West for the sake of a killing spree. When for example, it comes to light that Cullen received some higher education (a rather small thing), he asks Lily: "You liked me better when you thought I was dumb?" She replies: "I liked you better when I thought I knew you." Personally, I like him better when I see there is more to him than cool factor and a dead wife.
Taken together, they represent a concerted effort that the building of the railroad is meant to encapsulate: the struggle to push American society into a new age. The effort is slow and plagued with setbacks, but things are at work that no one can control. Yes, HoW distorts reality in order to portray this, but Nathaniel Hawthorne himself said that fiction is a truth of the mind (paraphrased). It's a bloody, violent birth into the future, but a birth all the same.
And lastly, the Swede. Who the hell is this guy? He's consistently been the best written, best acted character in the series. Something has been lost in translation here, I think, that still prevents me understanding his extreme hard-on for Bohannon. We get some scenes that tell the story, but somehow they're not enough for me. That aside, he's something else, an alien presence but a very human one as well. Is he the Devil? When he jaunts happily next to his executioner, is he a representation of the devastating power of the world we live in? An embodiment of the madness that drives individuals and nations to violence? Or is he really just a lonely soul who recognizes the evil in Bohannon, and like a preacher lecturing a bad Christian, wishes to make his nemesis into what he knows him to be?
True to his character, The Swede denies Cullen even the smallest of closure he would glean from killing him and throws himself off the bridge. It would be fitting: The Swede has transplanted himself into Cullen, which would confirm my theory that he's a metaphor for the Devil, an unseen presence that lives within us and feeds on our hatred and despair. If he's brought back in the (possible) next season, I am apprehensive about what the writers will do with him. You've played that card, don't overplay it, hear?
Anyway, it's not too often that a show is dense enough to get me blather and philosophize so. I'll call it a tribute to the show that it was able to wrestle such an emotional and intellectual response from me.
Bravo, I'll wait to see what happens with this compelling drama.