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Recaps

Hell on Wheels “Elam Ferguson” 

Photo Credit: Frank Ockenfels 3/AMC
Photo Credit: Frank Ockenfels 3/AMC

[Warning: Spoilers for “Elam Ferguson.”]

I’m going to try to break this down as respectfully as possible because I know that as hard an episode as this was to watch, it has to have just been devastating for the cast and crew to write it, read it, and then film it.

Elam Ferguson is dead at the hand of Cullen Bohannon. And, there really could have been no other outcome in that day and age, when you were on your own with mental health issues and PTSD. And Bohannon knows that, and shooting Elam is a gift, a release of someone destined only to suffer if allowed to live. That Bohannon took that upon himself will follow him the rest of the series.

I can’t say I saw this coming, but I knew after last week that it was going to be bad, and disturbing, and super uncomfortable to watch when Elam came home. As the minutes ticked on, it was apparent–there could be no positive outcome.

Elam encounters Ezra at the edge of town, and he races to tell Bohannon that his friend is alive, and returned. Bohannon rides out and greets Elam warmly, dismounting almost before his horse has stopped with a friendly, “God almighty, son,” until he draws closer and realizes this is not his Elam. He sizes up the situation–two Squaw and a white woman tethered to him who Elam calls slaves–and a few more words in, he realizes that this Elam is dangerous and he needs to defuse him before he goes any further toward Cheyenne.

He promises there’s a slave market where Elam can make his trades, and he’ll come get him when it opens. Then he hauls back to town and pulls Eva out of a card game at the saloon, indelicately telling her Elam is back, but different, and she needs to come.

They ride back out and Elam doesn’t know her. He calls her a slave because of her markings and when she asks him to trade, he refuses because she’s marked as another’s. She tells him they used to belong to each other but that doesn’t register. He asks her why somewhere inside him, he wants her and wants to hurt her. She tells him she wronged him.

Bohannon tries the truth this time, and tells Elam he can’t traffic slaves, but before he can plan his next move, Elam comes into town to the cattle auction arena and starts raving about his women. The crowd laughs him off but Bohannon steps in, and then has to talk down Campbell down from having Elam shot. Bohannon pleads with Campbell to remember what it’s like to survive a war. He tells Campbell that Elam is his friend.

He steps into the ring and tries to reason with Elam, reminding him of their bond, their friendship. “Look hard at my face…we’ve been friends a long time,” he tells him.

Elam draws a knife on him and Bohannon stands his ground. Elam asks if he’s trying to fool him, and Bohannon says he’s trying to save his life. Bohannon yells at the people to leave and Louise arrives to chew on Campbell about his logic and there’s some back and forth about saving the women.

Bohannon brings in Psalms and Elam embraces him. They talk, and Elam asks for help for his headache and it’s apparent that Elam thinks Psalms is one of the children he was enslaved with. Psalms pleads with him to not get himself killed and Elam says he can’t be killed.

A defeated Psalms steps back and Bohannon keeps reasoning with him.

Eva rushes in again and Campbell’s men keep her back. She pleads with Louise, who can’t help her. Bohannon tries again, telling him he’s in danger of being killed. Elam proclaims himself Bear Killer again, and Bohannon tells him again he’s Elam Ferguson, railroad police. He reminds him of everything they’ve done together. “Friends always,” he tells him.

Elam struggles with his pain and Bohannon moves to embrace him but Elam cuts him, declaring he has big magic. Eva offers money for the women, or to trade, and the white woman tries to tell him that Eva is who he wanted before. He lunges at her and Bohannon dives in, freeing the women.

Bohannon presses on, finally escalating it to a full-on knife-wielding brawl. He yells for someone to bring Elam his horse so he can get him out of there. Every time he lands a blow, he screams at Elam to wake up.

Elam gets the upper hand and levels his knife at Bohannon, pressing it into his forehead. The men look long and hard at each other, and Elam does not know him. Bohannon says, “I’m sorry,” and flips the knife away from himself and drives it into Elam’s stomach.

Eva cries out and Elam drops to his knees. He pulls out the knife and raises it up, in disbelief because he thought he was invincible. Bohannon evaluates for a moment, and then resigned, unholsters his gun and shoots Elam in the chest. Elam falls, Eva screams, and Psalms seethes as he turns away. The onlookers finally file out silently and Bohannon begins to weep as Eva tells him, “He went looking for you.”

Later, he sits in his tent while Naomi tends to the baby. He leaves and goes to Psalms and the men who are building Elam’s casket and Psalms rages at him that he had no right. The men start their procession through town, carrying the casket and Bohannon crosses their path in his buggy and pleads  with Psalms, “Please. Put Mr. Ferguson in the wagon.” Psalms looks back at the men, and then presses his bible into Bohannon’s hand. They load Elam in the back and Bohannon asks Eva if she wants to come. “He ain’t in that box,” is her reply.

Out in the cemetery, as the sun fades, Bohannon digs the grave. Naomi comes up and he asks her to go away. He struggles to haul the casket out and it falls to the ground. He kicks it over and over until he sits down exhausted on the edge and begins to wail and sob with the shadow of the town below and behind him.

My immediate takeaway from the episode was “Why?” Why bring Elam back to kill him? Why put that kind of closure on his arc? Why put that decision on Bohannon? Why do that to Eva? Is this outcome any better for anyone than the not knowing? I’m rusty on my college English Lit study of tragedy but I think this lined up all the necessary markers.

I thought about the lack of demonstrable media in that day and age. Campbell has to take on faith from Louise and Bohannon who Elam was–there is no proof. For all these folks in Cheyenne, Elam will only ever be the crazy man Bohannon killed. That’s probably the most terribly sad part of it. Who he was is lost.

Bohannon’s relationship with Elam was somewhat his redemption for the years of slave owning that he could not wash away. What we’re left with now is a Bohannon who might be past redeeming, who is lost without Elam as a stabilizer, who will throw himself completely back into the railroad because it’s his only identity now–it’s what he knows how to do.

I’ve no doubt this will lead to some sort of significant spiral for Bohannon. Eva, and Psalms. We’ve gone so very, very dark this season that I sort of fear for what that will look like. Case in point–while all this is happening in town, Durant baits his attacker into a false train out of town only to kick him off of it and then beat him to death–after baldly lying to Abby that he’s no killer.

At the very least, the rest of the season will be a Master Class acting opportunity for the cast. They were all excellent tonight.

I hope we get some hope along the way here. Before all hell breaks loose with Elam, both Psalms and Maggie tell Bohannon he needs to take his family and go,and Naomi challenges him about his lack of “we” in his future-looking statements. I wonder now if Naomi will stay as who her husband is becomes more plain to her. I wonder if he will send her back to the Mormons.

Six episodes left this season. I’m already a bit exhausted.

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10 Comments

  1. Omari

    Great Article I too am shocked for weeks I was wondering what happened to Elam after getting attacked by the ferocious bear, only to see him alive and what he have become, I think its a big loss to the serious he was an important character, Bohannon’s right hand man in my opinion. Thanks for the read although I am shocked by the lack of responses in the comment section.

    1. Heather M

      Hi, Omari. Thanks so much for reading and commenting!

      1. Omari

        Your welcome Heather its a great read and shocking episode I look forward to your next article on the new episode coming up

  2. Ant

    I watched this episode with my wife and were both a bit shocked. I too asked the question why bring him back for such a tragic end. But my wife then told me that Common had decided at the end of last season that e wanted to pursue his music career. I’m not a fan of hip hop, but if he raps as well as he preformed on HOW he should do just fine. When Cullen finally put Elam out of his misery, a couple of tears did sneak out. It was very emotional, but me and my wife were pulled out of our sadness by the odd way in which Bohannon was wailing. It was a like when you laugh at something inappropriate. I can’t wait to to see how the season shakes out.

    1. Heather M

      Thanks so much for reading and commenting!

  3. Ken Lonon

    My affinity for Hell on Wheels ties together at Anson & Common, great job depicting that relationship.
    I like to see people of different races get along. I’m wondering if Common really wanted to leave…? I think
    they cut the heart out of the show..

    1. Heather M

      Thanks, Ken. I think those two characters were the central love story. According to the Deadline interview at: http://deadline.com/2014/09/hell-on-wheels-spoilers-death-season-4-amc-831440, that’s the official story. I hope that’s what he wanted.

  4. lvberly

    I just can’t believe the way Elam dies. With no memory of anyone that he cared about, and no memory of himself. I hate shows that make you fall for a character, only to kill them off like that!

  5. Fred Jones

    I am the only person who thought he was an awful person? I couldnt stand elam throughout the entire show. He was cocky, self centered, and stupid. He added value to the show, but by no means did I fall for him….I felt no sympathy to his death, and in fact thought they wasted a lot of time on him. HE SUCKS. I really dont get why people liked him. Anybody else feel the same?

    1. Heather M

      Hi Fred! I did like Elam very much as a whole character. I didn’t always like what he did, but I did appreciate the complexity of that character trying to navigate in that time in history. Thank you for reading!

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