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.


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.


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.


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.


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).


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.


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.


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.”


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.

Changing (TV) Seasons

It’s the end of August and summer is coming to an end. Well, perhaps not weatherwise; summer in Texas might well run into October, along with the hurricane season. But looking at the TV listings, I can see that we’ve fallen into the gap between the end of the summer shows and the return of the network regulars. Warning: spoilers ahead.


Last night I watched the series finale of Falling Skies, after five seasons of alien invasion mayhem. I’ve seen reviews on line, written by people who take TV shows far more seriously than I do, tearing it apart, but I was happy with it. Fine with me that all the members of the Mason family survived (even those who had died and come back to life, thanks to one of the alien allies). I was happy to see the show end on an optimistic note. I really don’t care how all the men found suits and ties to wear (after five years of pretty much wearing the same bedraggled jeans and jackets) or where the women got their hair done. They had defeated the invincible aliens (with perhaps a nod to H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds solution) and that wrapped it up for me.


Friday night’s episode of Defiance was billed as the season finale, but the show must be on the bubble, and the production team gave us an episode which could just as well serve as the series finale, if the show isn’t picked up for a fourth season. By the end of the episode, Nolan (unquestionably the protagonist for the past three seasons) was piloting the Omec ship into the galactic depths rather than blow it up and destroy the thousands of beings on board in suspended animation, with Doc Yewll plugged into the ship’s computer. A few weeks later we see the people of Defiance, humans and all the various aliens alike, peacefully going about their business. Irisa is now the Lawkeeper, Amanda is recovering from her injuries, and Datak and Stahma Tarr, the ever-scheming aliens we love to hate, are together again. How they might carry on with a fourth season without Nolan and Yewll (or how they might bring them back), I don’t know, but I’ll watch if they do.


The SyFy channel had two new shows on the Friday night schedule this summer, Killjoys and Dark Matter, and both of those ended their first seasons with cliffhangers. Killjoys is about a trio of “reclamation agents,” working for an agency that retrieves anything, human or artifact, for a price, definitely the more space opera of the two. Dark Matter is a bit more serious and dark, with six people waking up on a ship with their memories wiped, dodging various dangers while attempting to recover their identities, aided by the rather endearing female android who runs the ship. I watched both without investing much in them; I’ll watch if they come back next year and forget them if they don’t. If it were up to me to pick one to return, it would be Killjoys.


Saturday evening I watched the “mid-season finale” of Hell On Wheels. Unfortunately we’ll have to wait until next summer for the second half of the season (which I suspect has already been filmed, at least in part). Most of this summer’s seven episodes were set in Truckee, California, as Bohannon worked to drive the Central Pacific Railroad east through the Rocky Mountains. There we met the Chinese who built the railroad, including a boy named Fong who turned out to be a girl named Mei, and assorted other new characters, while Gunderson (the Swede) plotted to replace Brigham Young with one of Young’s sons. Back in Laramie, we caught up with Eva, Durant, and their associates. In Saturday night’s episode, “False Prophets,” Bohannon joined Durant, Huntington, Brigham Young, and President Grant in Salt Lake City, arguing over the route of the railroad. By the end of the episode, they had set up the race to join the two railroads (north of the Great Salt Lake, much to Young’s disgust), Gunderson’s plot to control the Mormons had gone badly awry, and Bohannon and Gunderson were in their own race to reach Bohannon’s wife and son. Considering Hell On Wheels’ willingness to kill major characters and Bohannon’s disastrous record in the area of personal relationships, I’ll be worried about Naomi and little William until the show comes back next summer for its final seven episodes.


What did you watch this summer, and what are you looking forward to watching this fall?

Hell on Wheels: Ruth’s Decision

I don’t think I’ve written about Hell on Wheels this season, although I’ve been watching faithfully. Last night’s episode, Thirteen Steps, revolved around Ruth Cole, the Church Lady. If you haven’t watched but plan to, you may want to leave now. There will be spoilers.

Ruth Cole

Two episodes ago, in Return to Hell, Ruth shot Sydney Snow, who had come back to town after setting the church on fire and killing (although not intentionally) Ezra Dutton, the boy Ruth had taken in. The fact that Snow was facing off with Bohannon at the time had nothing to do with Ruth’s action. She simply wanted to kill the man who had killed her child.

In last week’s episode, Bloody Kansas, Snow died, despite the best efforts of Bohannon, Durant (who once attended medical school, studying ophthalmology, but never graduated), Eva, and Louise, leaving Ruth open to a murder charge. (The only reason anyone wanted to save Snow’s life, mind you, was to protect Ruth.)

This week, in Thirteen Steps (the number of stairs to the gallows), no one wanted Ruth to hang but Ruth. Bohannon swore that she had saved his life by shooting Snow, but she would have none of it. Governor Campbell was willing, even eager, to grant her a pardon, but, following the letter of the law, only if she would formally accept it. She refused, saying that pardons are for cowards. Bohannon even tried to drag her out of her cell and put her on a train to New York, but she refused that, too. The people of Cheyenne, gathered in the street in front of the jail, holding candles while the hangman rebuilt the gallows that Bohannon had pushed over, could not shake her resolve.

Ruth gave no reason beyond the fact that she was guilty of murder, that she had shot Snow simply because she wanted to kill him.

So many small things made this a fascinating and multi-layered hour of television. Bohannon and Ruth talking in the jail most of the night, he telling her about a botched hanging he had once witnessed, she telling him about the time she slipped in a mud puddle that was really a deposit of horse droppings, the two of them sharing a genuine laugh over her embarrassment—how may times have we seen Cullen Bohannon laugh?

Louise catching Campbell dancing, alone in his room, and telling her that back East, after a hard decision, he would take his wife dancing.

The grave and courteous professional hangman, assuring Ruth that he would be with her, explaining exactly what would happen, patiently rebuilding the gallows Bohannon had pushed down. The hangman’s strange assistant, a little boy wearing the same uniform of black coat and top hat.

The writers on Hell on Wheels don’t pull their punches. There was no last minute reprieve, no miraculous rescue, no sudden change of heart, only Bohannon, who had stormed off, unwilling to be a party to it all, reappearing at the last minute so that Ruth, by now terrified, could see him there before the hood dropped over her head, and we heard the trap door open beneath her feet.

At the end of Thirteen Steps, perhaps moved by Ruth’s insistence that “the brave choice is always family,” Bohannon, who has buried Ruth next to Ezra, tells Durant “I quit,” and heads for Fort Smith, Naomi and baby William.

One more episode this season, and then a final season, another fourteen episodes split between 2015 and 2016 (oh, the waiting!). Will Bohannon find his family? Will the railroad cross the mountains? Stay tuned.

(Kasha Kropinski and Anson Mount discuss the episode and their characters on the AMC Hell on Wheels web site.)

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