At a critical moment in “Blood Moon”/“Blood Moon Rising,” Mr. Toole reflects on why the lord saw fit to spare his life when Elam shot him in the face. He explains that he assumed he was saved so that he could marry Eva and build a loving relationship, despite all the challenges. And yet, when confronted with what appears to be Eva running back to Elam once again, he decides God is just a cruel, manipulative bastard who has gained some sick pleasure from making him miserable. Faced with this revelation, Mr. Toole turns his gun on himself. His assessment of how the show’s universe operates is built on some faulty assumptions—Eva was there to end things with Elam once and for all, no matter how much it hurt her—but that only underlines how much Mr. Toole’s assessment applies to this world’s real “gods”: cocreators Joe and Tony Gayton, episode writers Mark Richard and Jami O’Brien, and the rest of the creative team. After two weeks of false hope that the show’s characters could build better lives for themselves, this two-part finale provides an emphatic rebuttal, a crowning distillation of the show’s nasty, bleak philosophy. Mr. Toole’s needless suicide is just the tip of one very violent iceberg.
“Blood Moon”/“Blood Moon Rising” finds Bohannon in the smoldering remains of Hell On Wheels, explaining to railroad and military authorities what the hell just happened: “The White Spirit” is his terse, ominous answer. The finale then flashes back to the last days of the camp, as Elam tries to persuade Eva to come live with him; Durant and his wife, Hannah, plot to bring Cullen into their fraud on a permanent basis; Lily finds herself running dangerously short of options; and Sean, in the episode’s most gratuitously uncomfortable subplot, decides being a total creep is clearly the best way to win Ruth’s hand in marriage. Joseph, now a completely reintegrated Cheyenne warrior, returns to camp one last time to show Bohannon the danger that waits just over a hill: an entire army of Sioux warriors waiting for the coming Blood Moon to destroy Hell On Wheels and anyone stupid enough to stand in their way.
The Sioux onslaught has been teased going all the way back to “Durant, Nebraska,” and in hindsight it seems inevitable that the season would build to this moment. The weird thing is that the season doesn’t build to this moment—to be sure, it ends with the apocalyptic Sioux raid, but most of the characters spend the first two-thirds of the episode pointedly ignoring the possibility that everything is about to come crashing down around them. The Sioux function as a narrative tidal wave, washing over all the little stories of the camp and reducing them to nothing. By the end of the two hours, Durant is in custody, but we don’t see it, and we’re left to guess what’s next for Elam and Eva, for the McGinnes brothers, for the camp in general.
We know the future rests on Bohannon, who closes out the season—and quite possibly the show—by waving a red flag on the bridge, a final sign that in the face of losing everything once again, he will still continue to fight. What makes the ending particularly cruel is that the Sioux don’t really have anything to do with the episodes’ most heartbreaking moment: the death of Lily. That is just the Swede being his random, psychotic self, with little reason given for why he chose Lily specifically beyond the fact that it would piss off Bohannon. There’s a certain logic to that, but it’s almost unbearably grim. After feinting at a better way for its characters these last couple of weeks, Hell On Wheels has decided once and for all that the lessons of “Slaughterhouse” were the right ones, that these people really are irredeemable brutes.
At the end of last week’s review, I suggested the show’s recent upswing in quality has come too late. That’s certainly true in terms of viewership, both current and future—its ratings have eroded over the last couple weeks, and I can’t recommend watching hours of largely submediocre entertainment for a few legitimately good episodes at the end of all that, especially when the story is likely over. But on a more fundamental level, there’s no good reason why it took Hell On Wheels so long to reach this point in the story. With relatively little narrative reconfiguring, the events of the last few episodes could have happened in the fourth or fifth episode of the season, not the seventh or eighth, allowing more time to build up the recent developments and give their brutal conclusions a more complete sense of tragedy. It’s especially a shame because tonight’s double-length finale hints at a number of plots that could have comfortably played out over multiple episodes, if not for the fact that we’ve come to the end of the season. In particular, Lily’s play to take control of the railroad and win Elam’s loyalty could easily have taken up one or two episodes before meeting exactly the same end we see here tonight. In theory, the quick introduction and grim resolution of this subplot is probably meant to make some nihilistic point about the meaningless of these characters’ struggles in the face of the Sioux onslaught. But with so little time for the story to breathe, that effect is largely lost, and Lily’s story feels dangerously close to pointless.
Modern television has shattered any lingering sense that major character deaths must have great narrative buildup or some poetic resonance. Indeed, a strength of Hell On Wheels’ fellow frustrating AMC show The Walking Dead is its unswerving devotion to the idea that any character can die at any time for pretty much no reason whatsoever. But Lily’s death just feels pointless on every possible level, as I just don’t see how the show even benefits from her death—again, assuming the show continues for us to see its fallout—because Bohannon being dark and depressed is already well-trodden territory for this show, and it’s hard to imagine there being any interesting new way to spin that character arc. And the show doesn’t even have the common courtesy to finish the story tonight and finally kill the Swede, instead granting him what certainly seems like an improbable escape for another year’s worth of deranged misadventures.
So, after all that, what are we left with? Certainly, tonight’s finale is a significant step down from “The White Spirit” and “The Lord’s Day.” It has all the strengths of a decent Hell On Wheels episodes: performances that range from serviceable to entertaining, solid cinematography and music, and luridly entertaining moments of crazy violence, in particular the Swede’s escape from his chains and murder of his guard. There’s enough competence here for it to be mediocre television, and brief sequences—like Cullen driving the train over the bridge, Mickey eulogizing Mr. Toole and speculating about why Hell On Wheels destroys so many souls, or even the climactic Sioux raid—that hint at a better, more propulsive, more soundly constructed show.
But at its heart, Hell On Wheels remains a show about unpleasant people doing unpleasant things to each other, and the universe doling out retribution for these transgressions seemingly at random. After two seasons, Hell On Wheels has defined itself in these terms. But it’s never really gone further in explaining just what that worldview means for its characters, or why their journeys are worth following. For a few episodes, it really did seem like the show might pull itself up by its proverbial bootstraps, offering new ways forward for Lily, Bohannon, and Elam while rebuilding Durant as a formidable adversary for their hopes and dreams. But instead, the show again offers nothing but blood, first with a wave of violence that destroys the show’s setting, and then with the poorly motivated actions of a psychopathic killer. And hell, tonight’s story isn’t fundamentally awful; indeed, very few episodes of this show are. But such unremitting bleakness presents a high degree of narrative difficulty at a level Hell On Wheels has conclusively shown it cannot achieve. It could have embraced the over-the-top pulp of “Durant, Nebraska” or the relatively low-key, optimistic drama of the last two episodes and coalesced into a decent show. But Hell On Wheels remains committed to its own insane, bleak vision of the world, and its refusal to let go of an idea it doesn’t really have the skill to explore properly is weirdly admirable. It’s just a shame it isn’t more fun to watch.
- And so concludes this season’s coverage of Hell On Wheels. In terms of a season-long grade, I’m disappointed enough with this finale and all the previous shaky storytelling to say “C+,” but the handful of really solid episodes nudges it back into “B-” territory.
- It’s high time I recognize the one thing I do unreservedly love about this show: The opening theme is pretty great.
- Since this is my last good opportunity to bring it up: For those looking for a generally more successful exploration of a lot of the key ideas of Hell On Wheels—in particular the whole Confederate-revenge angle that was largely dropped this season—the show’s main director David Von Ancken was behind a little movie called Seraphim Falls, which I mostly mention because this happens. Just wanted to share that with you all.
- While I must admit I’m intrigued to see where on earth the show could possibly go from here after so much game-changing carnage, I suspect this will be the final Hell On Wheels review, one way or another. If that’s the case, my thanks to those who read along and who commented on these reviews—it was particularly interesting to hear the analyses of those who had a more positive take on the show than I did. You all added to my viewing experience, and I only hope I did likewise.