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.
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.
(Copyright – Chad Beharriell)