Hell On Wheels: Done

Hell On Wheels has come to the end of the road, with a final episode full of choices, endings, and new beginnings. (And this post is full of spoilers, so if you haven’t yet watched the finale, go watch it now.)

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“Done” (Durant’s one-word message to the rest of the nation) was an episode of human drama, without the raw violence and death that has marked so much of the series. Quiet conversations between Cullen Bohannon and Eva, Governor Campbell, Durant, George Armstrong Custer, and President Grant carried much of the story, settling old questions and raising new options.

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The transcontinental railroad itself, of course, was completed (in episode 13, “Railroad Men”), and “Done” opened with Durant and Huntington bickering over who would drive the Golden Spike. Durant won that argument, but things went downhill for him from then on, as he was indicted and sent back to Washington to stand trial on charges of bribery and corruption. We already knew, from a previous flash-forward (or from Wikipedia), that Doc Durant’s life ended in poverty and disgrace, but Hell On Wheels ended with his passionate defense of his building of the railroad. (Colm Meaney’s performance throughout the series has been magnificent: Durant was sleazy but determined, climbing back from every defeat, both mentor and foil to Bohannon.)

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The Golden Spike Ceremony (from AMC.com)

The Golden Spike Ceremony (from AMC.com)

Eva Toole (one of my favorite characters throughout the series), who has survived everything a hard life could throw at her, tells Cullen that she left her Mohave family long ago to protect them from the white men determined to take her back. When Louise Ellison and her editor offer Eva the chance to write a book and set out on a lecture tour (as Olive Oatman, the inspiration for Eva’s backstory, actually did), Eva agrees, but she weeps when she tries to describe her Mohave family and realizes she can’t live with a version of her story dramatized for the public. She won’t be a victim—or another sort of whore. Instead, she cashes out her share of Mickey’s business, tames her white horse, and rides off into the west, perhaps in search of her past with the Mohave, perhaps the only time she was truly happy.

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Cullen wakes up with a hangover and a piece of silk with Mei’s last message, an address (he learns from an equally hungover Chinese foreman) in Ningpo, China. He stumbles to Mickey’s makeshift saloon and, while Durant and Huntington are driving the Golden Spike, starts a bar brawl that ends in laughter when Governor Campbell (now Secretary of the Interior) comes looking for him with a subpoena to testify against Durant back in Washington. In the capital, Cullen (in evening dress!) is offered a commission by President Grant to lead the 4th Cavalry in protecting the railroad he has built.

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Despite his reservations (“I’m no Indian killer”), he decides to accept the commission (he also has a job waiting with Huntington to build the Southern Pacific, if he wants it), and he appears at Durant’s trial in uniform. There he refuses to throw Durant under the train, insisting that without Durant, the railroad could never have been built.

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Custer and Bohannon (from AMC.com)

Custer and Bohannon (from AMC.com)

A conversation—punctuated by target practice—with George Armstrong Custer shakes Cullen’s decision to return to soldiering. Custer’s delight in killing Indians (and raping Indian women) is exactly the attitude Cullen has tried so hard to leave behind. Still in uniform, he visits the very church in which he began the murderous trail of revenge that brought him to Hell On Wheels in the first place, sees the bullet hole he made in the confessional when he killed a man there, and breaks into tears. “Thank you,” he says. “Thank you.”

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No more killing. Cullen leaves the uniform behind and heads west, taking the train to San Francisco, on a track that exists in large part because of his efforts. No more railroad work, either. Instead (as I hoped, and to the delight of my romance-writer’s heart), he boards a ship to China, following Mei.

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I will miss Hell On Wheels (and perhaps one day will watch it again, all the way through), and I’m sorry to see it end, but I think the writers and actors did an excellent job of bringing the epic to a close and giving the survivors the endings—and opportunities—they had earned.

Hell On Wheels Keeps on Rolling

into a second season.  AMC made the announcement last week, with no details on start date or number of episodes.  Meanwhile, we have two more episodes of the first season to look forward to.

As much as I enjoy the male protagonists, Cullen Bohannon and Elam Ferguson, the show’s portrayal of its female characters continues to fascinate me.  Eva, Lily, and even Ruth are tough, determined women.  In this week’s episode, “Derailed,” Lily moved out of Durant’s elegant train car, planning to live in the tent she had shared with her late husband.  She soon learned this would be no easy task, but she soldiered on, with help from street-smart Eva.  As the two women shared a meal in the communal mess tent–a far cry from the cuisine produced by Durant’s French-speaking man-servant–Eva told Lily some of her story (loosely based, like her tattoo, on that of Olive Oatman), and interpreted Lily’s recurring nightmare.  According to Eva, the warrior Lily killed, shamed by dying at the hands of a woman, is trying to drag Lily along with him into death.

Even Ruth, the preacher’s daughter, is becoming interesting.  When she arrived, unannounced and unexpected, at Hell on Wheels (in episode 5?) she seemed rather a whiny little wimp, dominated despite long separation by her father, the marginally demented Reverend Cole.  But in “Derailed,” she’s fighting her attraction to Joseph Black Moon, Cole’s Cheyenne convert.  And she not only confronts Cole for abusing and abandoning her mother, she fearlessly stands up to him when he raises his hand to strike her–and he backs down.

While the men fight the Indians (and each other), the women work, knowingly or not, to bring civilization, along with the railroad, to the West.

More Hell on Wheels

A number of my recent visitors have landed here after searching for Hell on Wheels, quite a few of them looking for Eva, the “tattooed harlot,” as one of the less savory characters called her before describing her talents in imaginative and largely unrepeatable detail.

The first shot of Eva, as she turned to face the young Irishman (and the camera), shocking him with the tattoos on her face, may have been the moment Hell on Wheels hooked me.  The romantic tale of the white woman captured by Indians, only to be swept off her feet by the handsome and noble warrior, has been a popular one over the years, and as a reader I’ve enjoyed the fantasy.  But as an anthropologist, I know that’s not the way it was.

More than a few white women and girls were indeed taken captive by various Native American tribes, but their stories were rarely if ever romantic.  Teenagers and adult women were generally put to work as slaves, although young children of both sexes might be adopted.  Some captives escaped, some were ransomed, some disappeared from history.

One of the most famous captives was Cynthia Ann Parker, who was taken by the Comanche in 1836, when she was nine or ten years old.  Her life with them was by all acounts hard, but she stayed with them for almost twenty-five years, eventually marrying a warrior and bearing three children.  She was forcibly rescued by Texas Rangers when she was thirty-four, along with her two-year-old daughter, who died shortly thereafter.  Cynthia Ann escaped at least once, trying to return to her Comanche family, and never adapted to life among her white relatives.  But her name lived on in her son, Quanah Parker, the last chief of the Comanche, who led his people into the twentieth century.

[A note on Cynthia Ann, added 2/16/14: In researching Cynthia Ann’s story for his book The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend, Glenn Frankel located unpublished notes left by her relatives, primarily her first cousin Susan Parker St. John.  According to these records, Cynthia Ann’s small daughter Prairie Flower lived to about the age of nine, but the romantic legend that she was sent off to school in New Orleans is probably only a fantasy. As unhappy as Cynthia Ann undoubtedly was, her family denied that she ever “escaped” from them.  She disappeared from history after the census of 1870, probably dying within the next few years, in her mid to late forties.]

Olive Oatman

Olive Oatman‘s story was less romantic.  When I saw Eva’s tattoos I thought immediately of Olive, and she was in fact an inspiration for Eva, or at least for her tattoo.  Olive was taken captive by the Yavapai in 1851, when she was fourteen, and sold a year or so later to the Mohave, who adopted her and tattooed her face.  She was ransomed after about five years and became something of a celebrity, eventually marrying and settling in Texas.

Olive fared better than Cynthia Ann on returning to white society.  Cynthia Ann’s story may have been the inspiration for the John Wayne film The Searchers, which portrayed yet another aspect of the captivity story, the attitude that a girl captured by Indians was better off dead.  The movie (and the novel it was based on, by Alan LeMay) tells of the obsessive search for a stolen girl by her uncle–who would sooner kill her than let her live with the Comanche.

Eva’s fate as a prostitute, scarred for life by her captivity, scorned for her presumed sexual relations with her captors, may not have been typical but it doesn’t seem unreasonable.  Eva, with her jaunty hat, her corsets, and her growing fondness for Elam Ferguson, is a favorite of mine.  Played by Robin McLeavy, an Australian stage actress, Eva is listed as a recurring character on Hell on Wheels.  I hope she sticks around.  I want to know her story.