Hell On Wheels: Two Soldiers

Hell On Wheels returned last night with the first of its last seven episodes, this one nearly a two-man show. Warning: There Will Be Spoilers Here.

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Instead of the Hatch homestead, where Cullen Bohannon and Thor Gunderson were headed when we last saw them nearly a year ago, Two Soldiers opens in a Union Army camp in 1863, with a cheerful young officer playing a harmonica as his fellows laugh and sing. A young man, with a full head of dark hair, the camp’s quartermaster. Yes, it’s Gunderson.

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In the next scenes, Gunderson ages by decades in the notorious Confederate prison camp at Andersonville. Now mockingly called Swede by the prison guards, Gunderson has lost everything, from his beloved harmonica to the basic rules of humanity. We have a glimpse of how a young man from Norway becomes the odious Swede we have hated for five years.

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photo credit AMC.COM

photo credit AMC.COM

By the time Bohannon reaches the Hatch homestead, the Swede has killed or wounded everyone but Naomi and baby William; he chases them into the woods, Bohannon following. Over the course of the episode, Bohannon, with a bullet in his leg, resists the temptation to drown the Swede, to shoot him, to let him die by snake bite, or to leave him to die in the desert. When Naomi asks him why he doesn’t just kill the man, Bohannon insists he will see the Swede hang for his multitude of crimes.

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After a harrowing two-day journey across the desert to a small army camp, Bohannon receives medical care and the Swede receives a legitimate trial (conducted while Bohannon is unconscious, but after he’s told the Army commander enough to investigate the homestead and bring in a judge from Salt Lake).

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The Swede’s hanging, witnessed by Bohannon, is gruesome indeed, mirroring the last struggles of the snake Bohannon killed in the desert. No courteous professional executioner or well-built trap door gallows (as was provided for Ruth) here, just a crossbar, a noose, and enough soldiers to haul the Swede up and let him strangle to death, with all the hideous details. Yes, this time he’s really dead.

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When we first met Bohannon, at the beginning of the series, he was killing a man in cold blood, in a church, in revenge for the deaths of his wife and child during the war. He has pursued the Swede for years, as the Swede has pursued him. He has more than enough personal reasons for revenge against the man who killed Lily Bell just to spite Bohannon. But when the time finally comes, Bohannon wants public justice more than he wants personal revenge.

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How much did the Swede contribute to that change of heart? Sane or mad, the Swede has functioned as a bizarre conscience as well as a villain, as Bohannon’s mirror as well as his opposite. There was, after all, a human being inside the Swede, driven mad, perhaps, by the war, ruthless, manipulative, as hard to kill as Rasputin. His last words? “I am Thor Gunderson from Norway.”

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The episode left me wondering why Christopher Heyerdahl (who has won many Canadian acting awards) hasn’t won an Emmy for this stunning five-season performance. Maybe this year.

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