I’m still reeling from the finale (season? series?) of Hell on Wheels Sunday night. If you haven’t seen it, and mean to, you may not want to read this. There Will Be Spoilers.
The writers of Hell on Wheels have never pulled their punches, and they certainly didn’t start doing so in Blood Moon Rising, the last episode of the second season. They burned the town to the ground, and they killed people. Important people.
When Mr. Toole, Eva’s husband, trailed her to Elam’s cabin (where she was in fact telling Elam that she had decided once and for all to stay with Toole) and waved his gun around, I fully expected him to take a shot at Eva or Elam. I didn’t expect him to blow his own head off, but that’s what he did.
When Cullen marched Gundersen out to the middle of the bridge to hang him, I expected Gundersen to make one last insane speech. I didn’t expect him to jump off the bridge, robbing Cullen of his personal vengeance, but that’s what he did.
The real shock, though, was the murder of Lily Bell. I watched in disbelief as the odious, mad Gundersen strangled her. I held my breath, waiting for Cullen to burst through the door of the railroad car and save her. But he didn’t. My first reaction, after the disbelief, was that I’d never be able to watch the show again. But the more I thought about it, the more sense it made. I still don’t like it, but I understand.
As a viewer who always enjoys a good love story, I was crushed by Lily’s death. She and Cullen were just discovering each other. Did they have a chance at happiness together? We’ll never know.
As a viewer of the female persuasion, I was angry. We don’t have enough strong, competent, complex female characters on TV to throw one away lightly.
But as a writer, I gradually had to admit to myself that Lily’s death was a logical step in the story. Hell on Wheels was never Lily’s story, or Eva’s, or Ruth’s, as much as the women fascinate me. It’s a story of power, corruption and redemption, honor, treachery and vengeance, and its central focus is Cullen Bohannon. It’s certainly not a romance, and Cullen is not a hero.
But he is the protagonist, and the story has followed his choices, many of which have been dreadful. Is he seeking redemption, or running from it? Hard to tell. He’s badly flawed, deeply damaged, and he knows it. He’s afraid, he tells Mr. Toole, that Lily won’t even like him once she really gets to know him. In a romance novel, the love of a good woman would redeem a man like Cullen, but not in a story like Hell on Wheels. This is not a story about happy endings.
I don’t know if Hell on Wheels will be back next summer for a third season. As I watched the end of Blood Moon Rising, I wasn’t even sure I wanted it to. But after thinking about it for a couple of days, I’m hoping it returns. I want to know what happens next to the Durants, Eva and Elam, Ruth and her church, Sean and Mickey and the rest. I’m not entirely convinced that Gundersen is dead. And I want to watch Cullen Bohannon drive the railroad west.