HELL ON WHEELS EPISODE REVIEW / PREVIEW – DRAMATIC PAUSE

The upcoming October 4th episode of AMC’s Hell on Wheels, the tenth of an expanded 13-episode season, will mark the final show prior to a five-week break on the network. The popular Western series, which dramatizes the building of Union Pacific transcontinental railroad in the post-Civil War years, will return on November 8th to complete its season. Prior to the upcoming episode, entitled “Return to Hell”, the show has put forward a number of major questions to be answered in the story-line. (NOTE: For those who have not viewed the show to date, “spoilers” are contained below.)

The show’s longer fourth season, up from 10 yearly episodes, has allowed space for a number of new characters this season, including the historical first governor of Wyoming Territory, John Campbell (1835-1880). Campbell’s Wyoming was the first jurisdiction to extend the vote to women and permit them to run for office by law. Previously, the Ohio-born Campbell served the US federal government during the Reconstruction Period, following the defeat of the Confederate States, and those duties have framed him as a “carpetbagger” in Hell on Wheels. Carpetbaggers, named for the type of luggage they often carried, were seen by Southerners as using federal authority when arriving in the South to profit personally, be it politically or money-wise. While ably portraying a man focused upon centralizing power under his authority, actor Jake Weber nuances his characterization to hint of personal struggles playing out in Campbell’s political life.

Jake Weber as Governor John Campbell / AMC Image

However, it is on the political and authority front that the show stands paused before confrontation. In one of the most dramatic set-pieces of Hell on Wheels to date, in the most recent episode Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount) freed his arrested railroad workers from a train taking them to trial in Omaha, Nebraska. To assert his control over the railroad, Campbell had jailed any railroad workers wanted by the law or freed men whose bonds to work on the railway had not been paid. This group also included Union Pacific impresario – and real historical figure – Thomas Durant (Colm Meaney), arrested on suspicion of murder. Heightening the personal tension for Bohannon was that the prison train was commanded by a former Confederate comrade, the recently-deputized Syd Snow (Jonathan Scarfe).

Following the release of the railroad workers, and a gun battle with the Snow and his deputies, Bohannon and those he freed prepared to return to Cheyenne, Wyoming, to resume railroad work and move the Union Pacific further westward. The question looms large – even key – as to how a territorial governor will respond to this dramatic disavowal of federal law. Bohannon released arrested men before trial and led the killing of federally-appointed lawmen. Within the story-lines of various characters and the microcosm of the Hell on Wheels version of Cheyenne, this is not a surprise; however, in the larger context this is effectively insurrection against the US government. Will the larger project of building the railroad trump this legalistic “bump in the tracks” and lead to a deal allowing work to continue and the leaders of the prison break to live free? Bohannon has received a federal pardon before; in Season Two, Durant arranged one in order to bring Bohannon’s leadership skills back to the railroad, after Bohannon had been part of a Confederate outlaw gang robbing Union Pacific trains. Bohannon’s open ambition to build a railroad empire has now been verbalized – by him – and demonstrated. Here is a scene clip from the battle against Snow and his deputies (note: mature images):

As a final note, this writer must add that Scarfe’s portrayal of affable yet extremely-dangerous and cold Confederate outlaw, Syd Snow, has been nothing short of outstanding. Viewers were first introduced to Snow this season as he cheated death in Mexico, having been captured for a romantic indiscretion. With the personal and bemused mantra of “Life’s a Mystery”, Snow arrived in Cheyenne and reconnected with Bohannon. The on-screen rapport between Mount and Scarfe in that reunion episode, particularly in the saloon scene where they relax after a day’s railroad work, has been strong and multi-dimensional, a credit to both actors. If the Snow character is not to survive this current season, and he did escape the prison train shoot-out, Jonathan Scarfe, in this writer’s view, should receive serious consideration for an Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series Emmy Award – his acting has been that strong.

Jonathan Scarfe as Syd Snow – AMC Image

(Copyright – Chad Beharriell)

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8 thoughts on “HELL ON WHEELS EPISODE REVIEW / PREVIEW – DRAMATIC PAUSE

  1. Man what an episode. Very emotional very powerful episode that I think defines the whole series now. It’s not about a gun-slinging western it’s a show that shows humanity in a harsh environment. Character driven and this episode proves it. Case in point Ruth who after suffering the lose of the Mormon boy Ezra became so emotionally distraught on losing Ezra she became a vengeful woman at the end of the episode. The look she gave was almost scary and eerie when she shot Sydney Snow. As a Christian myself you see as what she did was wrong but in the same token understand that she’s been traumatized after losing her Church and Ezra and it affected her judgement not only as a Christian but as a human being.

    Which is why this series is good. Because it’s a character driven show dealing with the emotional side of humanity in a harsh condition that shows how hard life was back then.

    1. Thank you for the visit & comment, James. I agree with your point about the series portraying the environmental – and human – challenges faced in that time period. It also appears that there could be a future meeting of The Swede and Bohannon in Utah…which each representing the competing railroads (Central Pacific and Union Pacific, respectively).
      Cheers,
      Chad

  2. I also wanted to touch on the conversation between Louise and Eva. On how Eva told Louise that much like everyone else in HoW she’s the product of the environment and the more time you spend in HoW the more you become like it.

    A very haunting reminder on how tough and awful life is like there. Where killing,sex and gambling are as normal as eating breakfast.

    I also want to applaud the producers for producing the most emotional season yet. Elam’s death at the hands of his friend,Ezra’s death,the change in Ruth,Culllen’s new found attitude on killing and why he doesn’t want to do it anymore(and we are seeing an emotional side of Cullen that hasn’t been seen before when he buried Elam). A lot of changes in characters going on and that is what makes this season so good.

    As far as Cullen and the Swede meeting. It will probably be a titanic battle but I wonder how Cullen is going to handle him since he seems to have a new lease on life and doesn’t want to kill anymore.

    1. Thanks for the follow-up comments, James. Assuming that the series receives renewal (and I don’t see why not, given its consistent numbers and very strong fan base), I’m guesstimating that it could take 2 more seasons for the May 1869 meeting between the Union Pacific (Bohannon) and Central Pacific (The Swede) to happen. AMC could theoretically do it next season (the show is already in 1868) but perhaps to draw the various dramatic threads along to conclusion, there will be two more instalments.
      Thanks,
      Chad

    1. Thanks for the visit and comment, Jim. It will be interesting to see if Scarfe does make the short list for an award. The comments I have read across a number of sites are in agreement with his strong performance.
      Chad

    1. Thanks for the visit & comment, Jerime. It will be interesting to see which names come up for Emmy awards and if they include any of the HoW cast. I trust AMC knows how to lobby, ha.
      Cheers,
      Chad

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