Hell on Wheels: Seasons 3 thru 5 — a review

I can explain.

Although I have previously sung the praises of television series with fewer episodes per season (the sweet spot is between ten and twelve episodes, in my opinion), the reality of this practice is that at two-episodes-per-week I manage to zip through a season pretty quickly.

My original plan was to write a review of Season 3 today, although the truth is that I finished all five seasons of the series some time back. When Netflix announced that Hell on Wheels was being pulled from its site, I had to actually do some judicious binge-watching to finish the story. If you knew me, you’d know that I’m not an advocate of the binge, at least as it applies to television watching.

Because I am who I am, I also keep a list of all the reviews I intend to write. That’s reviews of every television or streaming series, every movie and documentary, every video game, and every book, in addition to various other side projects that capture my attention for a time.

I don’t review everything I read, play, watch or listen to, as I’ve mentioned before, usually just the things that fall within the range of average-to-great. You can look at my quadmonthly Looking Forward update to see everything I’ve never written reviews for. Even after weeding out the entertainment choices that failed to inspire me to write about them, I still had a prodigious to-do list.

I have decided, just this morning, to begin bundling the reviews of series I’ve already watched several seasons of. For instance, I’m currently watching the fifth seasons of both Workin’ Moms and Kim’s Convenience (the final season of KC, by the way). I’ve written a review of only Season 1 of Workin’ Moms. Unless I change my mind—something I reserve the right to do—my next review of Workin’ Moms will encompass four entire seasons, while my review of Kim’s Convenience will be about the entire series.

Likewise, I intend to bundle Disenchantment, In the Dark, Outlander, Bosch, and F is for Family. Even after condensing my to-be-written list in this manner, I still have thirty-six potential posts that I plan to write. And this doesn’t include the posts that are a product of sudden inspiration, which I try to never ignore. It also doesn’t include my future entertainment choices. It’s an embarrassment of riches that I am blessed to possess.

So, in response to the unasked question: That’s why this review is about the three final seasons of Hell on Wheels.

I was always aware of the show. I like westerns, and this looked like it would be a good series. It’s just that I was obsessed, for a time, with watching every episode of every series in the Star Trek franchise. A huge project, to be certain, and an incredible time suck.

It’s no coincidence that I didn’t get around to watching this series until after seeing Anson Mount’s turn as Captain Christopher Pike on Season 2 of Star Trek: Discovery. The first two seasons of the series sucked me into the revenge story of Cullen Bohannon (Mount). Season 3 leaves that premise behind and the show becomes something different.

After Season 2, showrunners/creators Tony and Joe Gayton stepped down, remaining only as consulting producers. Executive producer John Shiban also stepped down, causing production delays until John Wirth came on board as the new executive producer.

Wirth announced the change in focus of the series. The revenge motive that ably gave Cullen Bohannon a vector to follow in the story was scrapped. Bohannon would remain at the center of the show, but the story would morph into one about building the railroad and healing the country after the devastation of the Civil War.

To that end, with Thomas C. “Doc” Durant (Colm Meaney) in prison, this season begins with Bohannon travelling to New York City to get engineer control of the Union Pacific Railroad. It turns out that the Chief Engineer position has already been given to a senator’s son-in-law. You know how it is. Still, with Elam Ferguson (Common) at his side, Cullen manages to win the day and returns to the railroad as a true boss.

New characters are introduced to produce more potential story threads that aren’t about Bohannon killing the people who killed his family.

Louise Ellison (Jennifer Ferrin) is a New York journalist sent to cover the “story of the century” about the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad. Of course, Miss Ellison has a past that includes a bit of sexual scandal, which comes to light as the story progresses. Ferrin is an exceptional actor. She has been in many series that I’ve enjoyed, such as Falling Skies and The Following, but I didn’t begin recognizing her in other things until after this series. She played Anna McMahon in Season 6 of The Blacklist, and she has been in the Queen Latifah reboot of The Equalizer, which I’ve never watched. She doesn’t replace Lily Bell (Dominique McElligott) on this show, not exactly, though she manages to inhabit some of the same spaces in the story. Personally, I’m still hurting a bit over the death of Lily Bell.

Collis Huntington (Tim Guinee), the head of Central Pacific Railroad, the UP’s rival, appears and tries to lure Bohannon to his railroad. While this doesn’t initially work out for Huntington—and he’s not a major player in Season 3—he becomes a main character later in the series.

Lots of things happen in these ten episodes. Of course, Durant gets out of prison and wreaks havoc on Bohannon’s plans. Elam and Eva (Robin McLeavy) have their baby, which provides some side plots and drama. Thor Gundersen (Christopher Heyerdahl) didn’t die from his fall from the bridge—come on, you knew he didn’t—and he returns to his evil ways this season, assuming the identity of a Mormon whom he killed and later returning to Bohannon’s story in a mostly unexpected way. Mickey (Phil Burke) and Sean McGinnes (Ben Esler) still play a bit part in the story, along with Ruth Cole (Kasha Kropinski). Mickey runs a house of ill repute in Cheyenne, while Sean becomes an accountant for the Union Pacific (as well as a spy for Doc Durant). The story of the Irish brothers doesn’t end well, for at least one of them. Ulysses S. Grant (Victor Slezak) becomes a character in the series.

At the end of this season and several reversals of fortune, Cullen Bohannon finds himself in new dire straits completely unrelated to the railroad, with Elam Ferguson setting out on his own to rescue him. It appears that both Thomas Durant and The Swede are winners in the story, at least temporarily.

While not a bad season of television, the series seems to have lost something in the transition. Even the relationship between Bohannon and Elam—which had been an interesting part of the story to this point—seemed to fade into subplots. Unfortunately, that would continue. Still, it kept my interest and the railroad continued to inch westward.

Firewater’s Rough-Men-Loose-Women-Whiskey-Sin-and-Guns Report Card: B

Proof you should never change horses in midstream.

In Season 4, the railroad continues its exorable march westward, while the characters deal with the consequences of everything that has already happened in the story.

Cullen Bohannon starts a new family when the Mormon girl Naomi (MacKenzie Porter) gives birth to their son. The Swede, posing as Mormon Bishop Dutson, continues to torment Bohannon as his captive in Fort Smith. Bohannon isn’t through with the Union Pacific, of course, just temporarily sidelined in his own story.

Meanwhile, Elam Ferguson’s bid to save Bohannon comes to a tragic end. Common appears in only two episodes in the season, but his storyline is cut short. I began to write “cut unceremoniously short,” but the truth is that the conclusion of Elam’s story comes with some ceremony, of sorts, although it is ultimately an unsatisfying one.

The relationship between Bohannon and Elam was one of the things I initially enjoyed about this series. Common’s departure (his choice, not ours) further wounded the show, as Lily Bell’s death did.

Again, new characters are introduced along with new potential storylines.

The Big Bad of the season is John Campbell (Jake Weber), the provisional governor of Wyoming appointed by Ulysses S. Grant. His goal is to “civilize” the American West and wrest control of Cheyenne from Thomas Durant. He also becomes the love interest of reporter Louise Ellison, who we already took the time to establish was a lesbian long before it became fashionable. Now she appears to be somewhere else on the sexuality spectrum.

Brigham Young (Gregg Henry) becomes a character on the series, and maybe not such a righteous one, a fact that couldn’t have sat well with at least a few Mormons.

Sydney Snow (Jonathan Scarfe), an old running buddy of Bohannon’s and now a genuine Western gunslinger, enters the story, leaving a trail of bodies in his wake. He ends up in an alliance with Governor Campbell, which makes him adjunct Big Bad, and he commits acts that lead to his being killed by Ruth Cole, whose story had only one place left to go, which it does.

I stopped keeping track of the character deaths on this show a while back. It’s a long list.

Lots of other things happen in these thirteen episodes, some of them merely distractions or MacGuffins. The upshot of it is that Cullen Bohannon seems to be a necessary ingredient in completing the Transcontinental Railroad. Therefore, he quits working for the Union Pacific shortly after achieving an engineering victory. He attempts to reunite with Naomi and his son, but discovers that most of the Fort Smith Mormons have died from a smallpox outbreak, while the rest went west. Bohannon accepts Collis Huntington’s offer of a primary interest in the Central Pacific Railroad, which makes him Durant’s direct competition and also affords him the opportunity to locate his family out west.

That’s where the season ends, with the entire plot going through radical changes once again.

Firewater’s I’ve-Drunk-from-that-Cup-It-Don’t-Quench Report Card: C+

Still some interesting things happening, but it’s lacking something now. Heart, maybe.

Season 5 is the final season of the series.

There are fourteen episodes in the final season, split evenly into two parts of seven episodes, which aired in 2015 and 2016, respectively.

It occurs to me now that this really isn’t the story of the Transcontinental Railroad. We already know how that story ended in real life. This is not a documentary, and most of the events of the series never happened at all. This is Cullen Bohannon’s story, only with ever-changing character motivation.

This season radically alters the story landscape once again. Bohannon works for the Central Pacific now, and the racial tensions shift from the black freedmen who worked on the Union Pacific to the Central Pacific’s use of Chinese immigrants for labor.

Bohannon eventually tracks down his wife Naomi and son William, and saves them from Thor Gundersen, who just can’t stop being bad. But, Naomi has fallen in love with someone else, and Cullen convinces Brigham Young to bless the marriage of Naomi and her new beau. He was never a good Mormon anyway.

Bohannon, during an extremely short amount of time, has fallen in love with a Chinese girl named Mei (Angela Zhou), who was introduced in the story as a Chinese boy named Fong. This love story becomes the A-story, even more than the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad, which happens just as history records it.

There is a bit of soap-opera type drama during this season, involving other bad men. The Swede finally gets his just desserts in one memorable episode. Bohannon has fully morphed from a revenge-seeking redneck rebel to a successful businessman, but discovers, along the way, that he wants his story to have a different ending. He nearly accepts an Army post, offered by President Grant himself, which would have had him facing off against Native Americans beside General Custer. He’s also been offered a position by Collis Huntington on the Southern Pacific Railroad, but he doesn’t take that job either. As the series reaches its finale, he is planning to travel to China to reunite with Mei, leaving his potentially bright future behind and unconcerned about how history will remember him.

While a bit self-indulgent and ponderous at times, the final season does manage to wrap up most of the loose ends of the overarching story. Bohannon abandons his Mormon wife and son, falls in love with a crossdressing Chinese girl, ends up on the winning side of the race to the golden spike, returns to the confessional from the pilot episode (seeking salvation this time, not revenge), and, in the end, throws everything away for love.

Other characters who survived until the final season get their own semi-epilogues as well. Mickey McGinnes heads out for San Francisco. Eva gets her happy ending and rides off into the sunset with a wad of cash. We already know that Durant himself ends up broke and mostly discredited, but even Bohannon testifies that the roalroad wouldn’t have been built if not for Thomas Durant. That, and Bohannon refuses to provide testimony to convict Durant of all of his wrongdoings. These included murder, you may recall, although Bohannon was guilty of the same.

At the end of the day (with Eva literally riding off into the sunset, I might add), this was an okay season of television. Even though I could argue that it was an entirely new series, even a spinoff. With no Lily Bell, no Elam Ferguson, and no Thor Gundersen after he’s hanged by the neck until dead about midway through the season, there’s only a few characters whose story threads began in Season 1 left standing at the finale.

The story was always Cullen Bohannon’s. We shouldn’t be surprised that a character who changes his raison d’être more often than his underwear changes it once again in the final season. It’s still a happy ending, though. Love is better character motivation than revenge, I guess.

My final assessment is that, though flawed, this story was a good one. It missed being great after, pardon the pun, going off the rails after the second season. But, “good” is better than some series achieve.

Firewater’s Never-Trust-a-Rebel Report Card: B-

I think I’d give the entire series a grade of B. It scratches a particular itch if you like westerns, and I enjoy the performances of all of the actors on the show. In the end, however, it will leave you wishing for just a bit more.

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