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Hell on Wheels “Get Behind the Mule” 

Photo Credit: AMC/Chris Large
Photo Credit: AMC/Chris Large

OK. Y’all know I love this show. But the season three finale was heavy with eau de WTH to the point that it didn’t really feel like Hell on Wheels. In many ways, it felt like a pilot presentation for a reboot set in Cheyenne. In and of itself, that isn’t a bad thing. But I kept waiting for a “Fooled ya! We’re over here!” moment that never came. I’ll explain.

So, Bohannon is hip deep in it with the Mormons when he comes face to face with Bishop Swede. Being Bohannon, he lunges at him full on in front of God and everybody and outs him as Gunderson, but it has no effect. The bugaboo of this particular kangaroo court isn’t so much that he hung Hatch’s son as that he knocked up Hatch’s daughter, Naomi, during that tryst in the barn back in episode two. That’s our first WTH.

Naomi comes to see a caged Bohannon and she informs him that she did at least tell her father that the sex was consensual. He asks to touch her belly and she complies. When Hatch comes to see Bohannon, he whines that his now-sullied daughter could have been the bride of Brigham Young before he tainted her. So Bohannon says he’ll marry her (WTH #2). Hatch says he’ll discuss with Bishop Swede, who comes calling next, and he and Bohannon have a creepy kind of pissing contest about redemption and Bohannon tells Swede what he knows–that he’d rather watch Bohannon suffer for a long time vs. granting him a quick death, so the marriage is a go.

The Swede marries them, and at the luncheon afterward, Bohannon remembers his breeding and stands up to move the main course to a side table to keep the linens clean (and get the Swede away from the table). His new mother-in-law thanks him, and Hatch pipes up that Bohannon will call her “Mother” and him “Father.” Bohannon dutifully responds “Yes, Father” (seriously–waiting for the “aha!”). Then we have another weird pissing match between the Swede and Bohannon–now with huge knives over a pig carcass–where the Swede drops Lily Bell’s name and Bohannon has ample opportunity to literally cut and run but doesn’t.

Later, during Bohannon’s wedding night, he confirms his young bride is legal (18…almost 19=noooooooo), and then they climb into bed. He’s ready to turn in, but she has questions. She asks him what his first wedding night was like, and he tells her it’s a personal question, but then he softens a bit and tells her he and his first wife weren’t chaste before they married, and that she was a lot of fun. Naomi asks him whether he will leave her if given the chance. He says no.

The next day, she prepares him breakfast and they sit down together and he tells her they’ll figure it out as they go. Once dressed and out the door for his assigned labor, he spies rail workers and assumes that is to be his job, but under “careful what you wish for,” he instead finds himself again behind a  mule. When his wife offers him water, the Swede takes a sip and then pours it out, denying Bohannon any. In the distance, the train whistles and Bohannon seems to accept his lot (WTH #3).

Back in Hell on Wheels, Elam loads up on guns, sort of tells Eva he forgives her, and heads off ALONE (WTH #4) to fetch Bohannon. He takes out three Natives on horseback and then, once in sight of the fort, his horse spooks and he finds himself face to face with a bear. And it looks like the bear wins. To be continued.

In Cheyenne, the railroad contingent led by Grant arrives, and when the workers make the deadline without Bohannon, Durant is conceded proprietorship. Despite Grant learning that Bohannon has been kidnapped, nobody thinks it might be worth raising a search party to find him (WTH #5). Mickey lays claim that he will be mayor of Cheyenne and Durant seems to accept that as part of his penance. Durant also offers Louise the town paper and she considers it but doesn’t say yes.

Maggie seems to get what she wants as the Hell on Wheels group sets down stakes and Cheyenne looks to truly become the town she wanted. She plays up Durant for Grant and then sits at the table with the big boys for an odd round of drunken toasts where Durant, despite having defeated Bohannon, denigrates him until Louise sort of brings him down a peg.

Then Durant makes the error in judgment of telling Psalms to work his men hard and Psalms gives him his best “Yes. sir!” As Ruth and Ezra ride into town, Eva walks aimlessly in front of them and when Ruth calls out to her and asks what’s wrong. Eva tells her Elam is dead and she felt him pass. Then we see both him and the bear bloodied and lifeless in the trees.

And that’s where we leave things.

My first thought was, how was it that Bohannon wasn’t busting heads to get out of the fort and back to his deadline with Grant? The railroad was barely a blip on his problem meter. I kept waiting for the “Aha!” when he agreed to marry the girl, like there was going to be an elaborate reveal, and there was none. He was trapped, plain and simple. It made me realize how you really could just fall off the earth in that time.

I didn’t understand how nobody else in the camp, nor anyone under Grant’s auspices, could refuse to look for Bohannon–or worse, just shrug it off.  Particularly Grant, and even unhinged Bendix.

The scenes set inside the fort felt sort of “other,” and not at all like my show. I get they were supposed to, because Bohannon had been dropped into a true alternative universe, but it almost felt like I was watching one of those 90s Outer Limits or Twilight Zone episodes where the main character wakes up in a nightmare scenario and can’t get out.

If we come back next season, and are based in Cheyenne, I’m fine with that. I’ve compared this show to Lonesome Dove: The Outlaw Years, which was set inside a (fairly lawless) town, and there’s a long precedent of TV shows that confirm you can keep telling great Western stories in a proper town. But this show is, at its heart, about getting the railroad built, and Cheyenne is only one piece of that.

Whatever happens, I want an undomesticated Bohannon front and center and back among the throng. I was really sure his child bride’s pregnancy was a fakeout that she would reveal to him on their wedding night. It wasn’t. Now, I see us going down a few possible roads–she’s doomed, or he grows to love her, or he doesn’t and she avenges that.

And all we need to close out the Swede arc and put him in the ground for good is for Ezra to show up and start talking. It’s that easy.

No word on a fourth season yet. I hope we get one, because I don’t want this to be the end of Bohannon’s story. And I want to know that Elam is OK.

Thanks for reading!

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