Hell on Wheels wrapped it second season in epically poetic fashion, and really with turns of plot that could only go the way they went. That AMC foretold one of the most powerful scenes with its teaser was an extreme disservice to its viewers, and it diluted the fallout. Shame on them for that.
As for the episode itself, it was sweeping, it was beautiful, it was heroic, it was sad, it was stark, and in the end, it was defiant. They literally did burn it all down. If they don’t come back, especially after the finale wrapped things up the way it did, I’m OK with that. I can be at peace with it.
We begin at the aftermath of the Sioux massacre of Hell on Wheels and a bloody, weary Bohannon being questioned about what happened. We filter back through scenes of fire and death to the uneasy calm beforehand. The bridge is ready for its first train test, Elam has finished his house, and Eva is progressing happily in her pregnancy. Mr. Toole and Bohannon keep a nightly fireside watch on the town and Bohannon senses, rightly, that they are being watched.
Mr. Durant is still in the throes of his opium addiction, and Eva spares her own stash and takes him home after a scene at the infirmary. Mrs. Durant promises more pills and a promotion for Mr. Toole for her kindness. Bohannon very sweetly and cautiously asks Lily to come see him drive the train over the completed bridge and she agrees but is then detained by Mrs. Durant, who gives her a first class train ticket to New York with the promise of a prominent governess position if she will go quietly. Unbeknownst to Mrs. Durant, Mr. Durant has presumed that Lily won’t and asked Elam to kill her.
The hair-raising drive over the bridge is successful and Durant dangles a carrot for Bohannon, enticing him into a partnership in exchange for all debts wiped clear and Bohannon corrects him that they are no debts in the wake of Doc’s death. Rattled enough by the watchful Sioux, who get close enough that he nicks one of them with a bullet, Bohannon asks Joseph to ride with him out to the Indian lands and there they see an amassing Sioux army and Joseph tells Bohannon he will not see him again.
Bohannon returns to town and has Durant summon help but their pleas fall on deaf ears. Their only assistance is five Union men, a cannon, and a Gatling gun. About the same time, a delirious and seemingly mortally wounded Swede comes back into town, thrown over a horse and coated in his white paint. He’s been burned and brutalized by the Sioux and Mrs. Durant takes pity on him and attends to his wounds, but Bohannon has the sense to (try to) lock him up. The Swede giddily tells them their fate will be sealed on the blood moon, coming the next night. Again, because of those damn stupid promos, we know he’s not going to lie there for long.
Over on the Ruth and Sean front, he’s getting twitchier and twitchier and when it’s (finally) apparent to Ruth that he will not leave her be, she agrees to baptize him, and the girl is seriously in need of life skills because she’s shocked when he makes a move on her right there in the river as soon as the vows are over. I’m kind of over this arc, frankly. Long story short, they’re both around at the end credits.
Elam goes to see Eva and tells her he’s built her a house and she essentially tells him he’s a fool because she’s staying in her marriage. Then Elam’s friend comes to see her and makes the case again. Sadly, she goes to see the house and finally close the door on Elam but he comes home, elatedly misjudging the scene and she tells him it’s a beautiful house but she can’t do it.
As she readies to leave, Mr. Toole shows up with his gun drawn and tearfully confronts them. She tries to tell him that she’s truly ended it with Elam but he won’t hear it. He asks God to forgive him and then he finishes the job that Bohannon started and fires the gun under his chin. Eva wails and wails and Elam stands there looking an odd mix of pleased and horrified as he realizes Eva actually was bound to her husband. Robin McLeavy just nails the funeral scene as she sits grief-stricken and guilty while the mourners file past her and leave coins in her lap for the baby and a clueless Mickey bestows a blessing on Mr. Toole’s heir, and all of his heirs’ heirs, unaware that she’s not actually carrying a Toole.
Lily’s response to Mrs. Durant’s offer is to steal the railroad ledger and take it to Elam to mail after she shows it to Bohannon and he tries to burn it. Elam goes to see Durant about their deal and Durant doesn’t back down. He goes to see Lily and she tells him she knows he’s there to kill her. He sets a knife on the table and she pulls a gun on him. He asks her why he shouldn’t kill her and she proposes an alternate plan for his restoration to the head of security on the railroad when she and Bohannon assume control. He accepts and they shake hands on the deal.
When she tells Bohannon about Elam’s visit, he’s ready to kill Durant, but she talks him down and reiterates that they need to do this above board so the Durants can go to jail and they can run the whole thing. They talk about the town/railroad and each other being all they have, and he admits that he’s better with her. She tells him to protect their bridge and he leaves her.
Durant takes the Sioux threat seriously enough that the women and children (who I don’t think we’ve actually seen before) are evacuated. Bohannon brings Elam back to town (and thanks him for not killing his “lady friend”). Eva retreats to Elam’s house. Night falls and the townsmen line up to defend themselves. Gunfire and arrows are launched and the town begins to burn. Lily and Elam keep the working girls safe, sans one who takes a bullet, the Durants arms themselves and survive, Bohannon holds the bridge (at Lily’ insistence), and an escaped Swede, now back in his own clothes, dances in the streets while Hell on Wheels burns around him. Eva is attacked but shoots back and survives and Elam takes her back into town.
The next morning, an exhausted Lily is walking through the ruins and tending to the wounded and she heads back to her train car. She steps inside and doesn’t quite close the door so she doesn’t see the Swede sitting in the darkness behind it. He closes and locks the door and she draws on him but the gun is empty. He gives chase, she falls, he drags her back, tells her he’s going to kill her. She begs him not to, that Bohannon will kill him, that she was kind to him. He thanks her for that, and tells her he knows and then closes his hands around her throat until her fight falls away. He tips a candle as he leaves.
Bohannon arrives after the car has burned and walks into the lingering smoke to find another woman he’s loved dead on the floor. He’s struck, and resigned. He sits on the floor beside her, opens the door to let in the light, closes his hand over hers, still on her waist, and sits with her for a while. Then he walks through town with her in his arms, public in death the way they couldn’t be in life. The Durants, the McGinnes brothers, Elam, and Eva watch, startled. He gently sets Lily down at at Ruth’s feet in the church without a word.
One last task though. He walks beside a skipping Swede along the bridge, rope in hand, and the Swede gloats that Bohannon made it easy for him to kill Lily. Bohannon hears him out and binds his hands, and cinches the rope, and then turns to tie it but Swede jumps into the water before it’s ready. He hits the water and we don’t know if he lives. Then we’re back in the interview, and Bohannon is offered the role Lily so wanted for them. We do not hear his answer but the next time we see him, he strikes a pole with the tattered red mile marker cloth tied upon it (instead of the United States flag beside it), in the ground alongside the railroad, and stares out at the horizon in front of him, ready.
When the show began, we met Lily Bell on a quest with her husband to bring the railroad West. It was a fitting conclusion that her death propelled forward that vision even if she no longer had a role in it. In some ways, Lily has been on borrowed time since surviving the attack that killed her husband. That her death came as the final move in a madman’s game against Bohannon was an insult to the character, but in the larger scheme of things, she wasn’t supposed to live. She finished her purpose, and she found some peace in the world with Bohannon before she went.
I don’t love that Bohannon is alone again, but that, too, is a bit foretold because that’s how he’s operated, and when he and Lily spoke of taking over the railroad together, it sounded like a beautiful future, but realistically unattainable in the context of this show. That’s not at all how they roll here.
I liked that he sat with her body and said his own quiet goodbye in the rail car where they were happy and where she died before he carried her through the town. The visuals drove home the point she had been sacrificed–her gold hair falling behind her–a way she rarely appeared in life. I really liked Anson Mount’s choice to play those moments stoically. This is what Bohannon knows how to do. It’s the other side of it–the happiness, and the promise, with which he is uncomfortable.
Mr. Toole also finally did the only thing that he saw he could do when he mistakenly believed Eva had really left him. He, too, was on borrowed time since surviving the gunshot last season in an unlikely resurrection that gave him an opportunity to redeem himself. It was telling that he and Bohannon confided in each other as much as men can and that he took those confidences with him to the grave. Duncan Ollerenshaw just did beautiful work in the role. I hated Mr. Toole in season one and then came to sympathize with him as a damaged man really trying to put a life together with an equally damaged woman who was doing everything she could to honor that despite her heart lying elsewhere.
I really, really don’t like that they’re potentially setting up Sean as then next one to be ragingly out of his mind. Why Ruth can’t see, when we all can from miles back and around the corner that stalking=bad and that Sean agreed to be baptized solely to marry her, is beyond me. If they come back for a third season, her continued deflection of his advances will not end well.
I hope this isn’t the last time I write about Hell on Wheels. I’m so glad I stumbled on it in June and got caught up in time to start season two with everyone else. I hope we see them again.
Thank you for reading.
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