This Woman’s Work Isn’t Done, Hell on Wheels “Return to Hell”
[Warning: Spoilers for “Return to Hell” throughout.]
“Enough things happen to you long enough out here, you can do anything.”
Where to start. It’s been an uneven season this year on Hell on Wheels, but as I said to Kara earlier today, when they stick the landing, they stick the landing. The thing that resonated with me long after this episode ended (I had the luxury of screening ahead of time, so I’m about 24 hours ahead of you on distilling it) was the phenomenal job Kasha Kropinski did as Ruth.
When we first met Ruth, she arrived as the sheltered daughter of the Reverend. In the aftermath of his death, she took on his cause and it was her driving focus–she built the church as a respite for Hell on Wheels, to varying levels of success, and deflected the unwanted advances of Mickey’s brother, Sean.
And then last season, Bohannon brought Ezra to town and he was arbitrarily assigned to Ruth’s care. Ezra was a wild child, having witnessed his parents’ murder by The Swede. He had his own baggage, but he and Ruth found their way, she became his mother, and they worked how to be a family. He finally began to speak. While she maintained a strict household, she also gave him enough of a leash that he could still be a boy.
Tonight, she lost him. And from the depths of profound sorrow, she took the revenge Bohannon would not, shooting Snow where he stood (I assumed dead but the preview tells us otherwise).
Kropinski just transformed in front of our eyes tonight. As her church burns and crumbles in front of her, she crumbles, too, unable to fight anymore. In the light of the morning, she misses Ezra, and Bohannon and Mickey offer to help her look, and then Mickey remembers the back room crawl space where Ezra hid him from Snow. That’s where Bohannon finds him, and Ruth is broken, falling to her knees screaming and sobbing as Bohannon can only look on.
Later, she sits in the ruins of her church and Bohannon comes to sit with her. He apologizes for letting Snow live at the general store. She hears him, but instead recounts all her memories of Ezra, and grieves that she didn’t know his whole history, his full name, that he lost his future, and that she was cross with him the last time she saw him. Bohannon reassures her, but interestingly never actually touches her as she weeps.
When Bohannon pulls into town with Ezra’s coffin on his cart, set to dig yet another grave for someone he loved, Ruth sits, all in black, on the porch of a building, and she’s ashen. All the light and life have drained from her. Bohannon finally offers her his hand and she takes it. He holds her arm, helping her down the steps and into the buggy, and she pauses for a moment above the coffin, immeasurably lost, but she does not cry. She sits down, tiny and shoulders hunched, as if all her energy left her climbing in, and Bohannon takes a seat next to her and guides them down the road. From the door of the paper, Louise watches them go.
Ruth and Bohannon stand alone at the graveside, and he reaches for his bible. Ruth tells him, “Don’t.” Instead, he says she was always there for Ezra, and that meant a lot.Â She asks him about losing his own son to violence, and how he endured it, and he tells her nothing brings peace. She says she hopes he sends Snow back to a hell of eternal suffering, and then rests her head on Bohannon’s chest as she cries, but again, he doesn’t touch her.
Snow comes back to town, yelling for Bohannon, and the streets clear. Bohannon walks to face him, telling him jail is his future, not death, but before he reaches him, a shot rings out, and Snow is kneecapped. The camera turns to Ruth, defiant at the door of the saloon, gun drawn, and she puts another one in Snow’s chest and he falls. The entire town, and Campbell, watch.
Elsewhere in Hell on Wheels, Eva takes her revenge on the man who raped her in the season premiere, suffocating him after he survives the fire. Louise witnesses the murder and visits Eva later and asks her how she could do it, telling her she’d been attacked as well. Eva misunderstands the question as blame instead of admiration, until it’s clear Louise has her own plans (perhaps for Campbell?). That’s when Eva says the line about being able to do anything when you’ve been out there long enough.
All of our women are undergoing a significant metamorphosis as they figure out who they were and are, and who they will be to survive. I am so glad Kropinski was given a showcase episode–I was just slack-jawed at how good she was here. And I look forward to seeing what Ruth does with her rage, sorrow, and guilt. I’m still so curious about Bohannon being (the only one) there for her, but keeping his distance, too, aware of what she felt for him last season before he was taken.
There’s a beautiful piece of music in this episode as Bohannon and Ruth go to the graveyard, but Google Fu got me nowhere. If you know what it is, please tell me in the comments.
Another piece of music I thought of after the episode was Kate Bush’s “This Woman’s Work.” It seems an apt homage to the women of Hell on Wheels this week. Give it a listen.
Hell on Wheels is taking a small break (dammit) and will be back on November 8th. You can watch this episode again tonight at 11/10c and throughout the week.
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