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.)


“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.


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.)


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.


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.


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.


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.”


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.


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: 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.)

Romance in the Old West

Between Heaven & HellHannah, the heroine of Jacqui Nelson’s Between Heaven & Hell, can’t remember her last name. When she was a child she watched from beneath a bramble bush as her parents were killed and her home burned to the ground by rogue militiamen. Rescued by a band of Osage Indians who call her Blue Sky, Hannah finds herself a decade later on the run from Eagle Feather, the warrior she once called brother. Desperate to travel west, she applies for a scout position with a wagon train about to leave Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, for far-off California.

Paden Callahan, a former Texas Ranger who lost his wife to a Comanche raid, has taken on the job of wagon master as a favor to his father-in-law, General Sherwood. He’d much rather be back at his new home in Oregon, building his lumber business. Hiring a female scout may be unthinkable (after all, it’s 1850), but keeping the man she would replace, a drunken boor named Dawson, is an even worse prospect.

Paden’s caution is not unjustified. With both Eagle Feather and Dawson seeking vengeance against Hannah, she may be a danger to the wagon train. But Paden is harboring secrets of his own, and an enemy from his past is waiting at Fort Laramie.

Nelson paints a believable and moving picture of the hardships of the mid-nineteenth century, as settlers leave precious possessions behind to lighten their wagons and bury lost loved ones along the side of the trail. While Hannah and Paden do their best for the wagon train, they are drawn to each other and begin to imagine a future together. But with so many forces working to keep them apart, can they make that dream a reality?Between Love & Lies

Jacqui Nelson is also the author of the novella Adella’s Enemy, in the Romance and Rails anthology Passion’s Prize, and the forthcoming Between Love & Lies, set in Dodge City.

Farewell, Lily Bell

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.





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.

TV: Hell on Wheels

I nearly turned the first episode of AMC’s new original series Hell on Wheels off after about twenty minutes–but then it got interesting.  And it’s been growing on me ever since.

I’ve been a big fan of AMC’s Mad Men since the beginning, at least partly because I grew up in the advertising business, and in the 1960s, although thankfully my dad was an ad man in Milwaukee and then Miami, never in Manhattan.  Having no personal interest in either meth dealers or zombies, I’ve never watched Breaking Bad or The Walking Dead.  But a show about the building of the Transcontinental Railroad, that idea grabbed me as soon as it was announced.

The first episode got off to a slow start.  No, that’s not true.  The first episode starts with Cullen Bohannon, the protagonist–one hesitates to call him a hero, not yet, anyway–killing another man in a church.  We soon learn that Bohannon, a former Confederate soldier, is systematically hunting down and killing a group of  Union men who killed his wife during the War.  His search takes him west, to the travelling railroad “town” known as Hell on Wheels.

It took half that first episode for me to connect with the characters, but they are turning out to be an interesting lot.  Bohannon (played by Anson Mount, whom I would definitely remember if I had seen him before) finds himself taking on the job of foreman of the rail crew, mostly to escape being hanged for the murder of the previous incumbent, which slows but doesn’t stop his search for vengeance.  He also finds his life entangled with that of Elam Ferguson, an intelligent and perceptive former slave who is not at all surprised that freedom is not the same as equality.

The builder of the railroad, Thomas Durant, is equally passionate about reaching and crossing the Rocky Mountains, scamming the government, and making piles of money for himself.  Surrounded by very realistic mud and squalor, he lives in his elegant rail car, dresses immaculately, and sends a steady stream of telegrams back East.  (Durant is played by perhaps the best known actor in the cast, Colm Meaney, looking a bit heavier and a whole lot meaner than he ever did as Miles O’Brien of the Star Trek franchise.)  Durant’s head of security is a man known as the Swede, although he tells Bohannon he’s actually Norwegian.  He stays busy extorting money from whoever is handy and taking a cut of the black powder shipment.  (The Swede is played by Christopher Heyerdahl, who also plays both John Druitt and–under quite a bit of make-up–Bigfoot on the SyFy series Sanctuary.)

But it’s the two main female characters who have really pulled me into the story.  Lily Bell is the English wife of a railroad surveyor, and the only survivor when the Cheyenne attack the survey camp.  Lily watches in horror as her husband is slaughtered and scalped (this is not a show for the the faint of heart), her own right hand pinned to her left shoulder by an arrow.  She then jerks that arrow out and uses it to kill the Cheyenne who shot her, taking him by surprise and driving the arrow into his throat.  Talk about a tough broad.  She’s just as tough in her own well-bred way when she eventually makes it back to Hell on Wheels.

Eva, on the other hand, is a whore.  (This show doesn’t pull any linguistic punches, either.  Prostitutes are whores, and the black men on the crew are–well, we don’t use that word anymore, but they did in the 1860s, and they do on Hell on Wheels.)  Somewhere along the way, Eva was held captive by Indians, and she has the tattoos on her face, and the total loss of status, to show for it.  No romanticized treatment of Eva’s plight here.  Eva never was a lady, but she’s as sharp and perceptive as Elam, and perhaps more of a realist.

The show is filmed in Calgary, and the beautiful open country is a constant contrast with the squalor of the railroad camp, with its bedraggled tents and muddy ground.  The bustle of the crew, the costumes, the fist fights, drinking bouts, shootings and explosions provide an impressive recreation of the era.  I’m glad I gave that first episode a chance.