The Heart of the Matter: Bohannon and Ruth in Hell on Wheels “Thirteen Steps”
[Warning: Spoilers for “Thirteen Steps.”]
So, this went where I really, really didn’t want it to go, but all credit to Tom Brady, who scripted, and Kasha Kropinski and Anson Mount, who acted the hell out of saying goodbye to Ruth Cole.
I was so naive at the end of “Return to Hell,” because I assumed that everybody, including Campbell, would look the other way and life would go on, but Campbell didn’t, and Ruth not only accepted her fate, she embraced it.
In “Thirteen Steps,” we see Bohannon flail against Ruth’s resolve–working out a witness statement that essentially pronounces her a deputy in action, getting a pardon agreement from Campbell, and finally, trying to send her East to his first wife’s family. But she won’t have any of it. She’s done.
She throws it up at him that she stayed in Cheyenne for him, when he asked her to stay for Ezra, And now she’s staying for herself. And Bohannon struggles hugely, because although he can fix it, and makes a valiant effort to do so, she wants none of it. And so she’s set to die.
Bohannon returns to his railroad project until Durant stops by and tells him the only place he should be for the next 12 hours is with Ruth. He hems a while, and waits well into the night until he finally joins her at the jail. They talk for a while–him outside the bars, her inside the cell. He tells her of a hanging he witnessed in DC, in all its gory detail, and she says that won’t scare her off her plan.
Then he sits in the doorway with the door open and they talk about Ezra, and his return with his family. And then finally they lie together on adjacent bunks, moving physically closer to each other until they both sleep, but there is never an embrace.
She asks if he’d have done anything differently and he says he’d have killed Sydney. She says she would have, too.
Over the evening, Ruth tells him about her quiet rage when he returned with Naomi and took so long to come see her. How she was ready to confront him until, so propelled by her anger, she fell face first into horseshit and went home to an Ezra who told her exactly what she smelled like. She tells Bohannon that was God stopping her short, reminder her she had her family. She asks him why he took so long to come, when she just wanted to see him. He says he’ll always show up.
Before dawn, the townspeople come to the windows of the jail holding candles, and Bohannon calls her out to see it. He tells her the town needs their preacher and although she’s touched, says simply that she’s nobody’s preacher anymore.
She asks Bohannon if he loves her. He says of course he does. Then she asks again, with the full weight of the question, and he says he can’t lose her. Then it’s her turn to be clear, and she has nothing else to be afraid of now, so she tells him the truth, what she couldn’t say before.
“I love you. I was a coward. I should have told you how I felt. I should have taken you and made you mine. The three of us could have been a family.”
He’s quiet. So she asks if he loves Naomi and he says he doesn’t know. She says you always know, deep down. “I think I might,” he says. Ruth tells him he should go to her, tell her, and be a family. He says he doesn’t know if she’d have him. “The brave choice is always family,” she says.
They sleep, and when morning comes and Campbell and the Judge come in with the warrant to be read aloud, Bohannon and Ruth sit up in the cell, facing each other. Bohannon, looking at Ruth, says she’ll take her pardon. She looks at him as she tells Campbell, no, she won’t. Bohannon storms out that he won’t be a party to it. She calls after him, asking him to say he’ll be there. He leaves her without looking back.
Then she’s alone as the hangman and his strange little son arrive to measure her. She asks Louise, who helps dress her, if she’s seen Bohannon. She hasn’t. They walk her out to the square, where everyone is waiting and she’s calm, but a bit breathless. She climbs the steps to the platform and searches the crowd for a face she doesn’t see. Her neck is noosed and her feet and hands are tied and still she doesn’t see Bohannon, who told her the night before that we will always show up.
She grows more upset and tearful and asks for a moment before the hood, until finally he comes, parting the crowd and stopping in front of the platform. They lock on each other and she grows calm, peaceful, and never stops looking at him. He holds her gaze. We switch to her POV as the hood is placed over her head, and we still see Bohannon, fuzzy through the cloth, while her gasping picks up and then the floor drops.
Later, Bohannon is back on the job, finally successful with his prototype bulldozer when the penny drops that he needs to go home. He goes to see Durant, who gives him a laundry list of tasks, that he listens to silently. Finally, Durant turns to him, and Bohannon shudders, overcome and near tears as he sucks in his breath, and says, “I quit.” Now, he, too, is done.
One of the things Kasha Kropinski and I chatted about last month was that Ruth felt so much for Bohannon that he didn’t know, and I was so glad we had the scenes of them together, clearing the air about everything. It was more Ruth’s platform than his to say what she needed to say, and we don’t get a complete admission from Bohannon, but it’s enough that he comes, and he stays with her, and that he does what he can. That he pushes through his anger to be quiet and still with Ruth, even if he completely misunderstands that he’s changed her mind.
I hate to see Ruth go, but I get it, and I understand that reunited with Ezra was going to be her only peace. But it was Campbell who set it all in motion by insisting she be arrested. We don’t know whether she would have found peace another way. After she asks Louise to disburse her clothes and the $50 she had in the bank to the mission, she tells her not to write her story because nobody will remember either of them, but Louise writes it anyway.
One more episode this season. It will be very interesting if we end exactly where we began, with so much loss and calamity in the middle.
Hell on Wheels airs Saturdays at 10/9c on AMC.
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