Hell on Wheels: Elixir of Life review

Here's our review of AMC's Hell on Wheels season 5, episode 5, "Elixir of Life."

This Hell on Wheels review contains spoilers.

Tonight’s episode is entitled “Elixir of Life” and it’s through this lens that viewers experience the people in Laramie, Wyoming and Truckee, California, in various definitions of lust, love, and betrayal. The festival of Tin Hau Don brings a much-needed cultural infusion and monotony break.

Cullen misses his family, and hopes that the Pacific Ocean will somehow transport them out West. If Strobridge isn’t careful, and doesn’t remain somber more days than not, Cullen might move in on his wife and their accumulated orphan children. He wants to illuminate the black hole that’s become his heart. A little girl’s smile or a woman disguised as a man might chip away where other attempts have failed.

He’s not above using a bottle filled with seawater as a wishing well, or a container of his dreams, hopes, and fears. Bohannon wants to move forward, however there are those around him who repeatedly try to impede his progress.

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Mr. Chang continues to think he’s equal to or surpasses white men. He doesn’t realize if he lies down with dogs, he’s bound to get up with fleas. It’s easy to applaud his bravado and pity his ignorance.

Durant sent up a smoke signal, and an assortment of people from Cheyenne, Wyoming, followed the disintegrating clouds to Truckee by train in pursuit of a better life. Hotelier Maggie Palmer and Irish railroad workers arrive seeking what might turn out to be fool’s gold.

Bohannon tries to counsel Phineas, but he’s too deep under Gunderson’s spell, just as Chang has been seduced by the promise of power and position with Cullen underfoot. It would better to build a small army to battle who they believe is a solitary man. Little do they know that Ah-Tao and Ah-Fong have united the Chinese workers under Cullen’s command. It’s endearing that he’s learned a few Mandarin words and expressions to fit in with the workers.

Eva comes to Louise Ellison’s aid at a crucial time in her life, otherwise she’d never get rid of Campbell as the father of her unborn child.

Psalms and some of the other freedmen pool their earnings and buy land in Laramie from Durant. Psalms assumes his initial hesitation was racial, but it was a fleeting moment when the remnants of his former soul tried to fight its way from the depths of hell and utter the truth. There’s no coming back after selling one’s soul to the devil. The freedmen’s joy of being new landowners will be short-lived.

Durant can’t tell the truth even if his life were hanging the balance. Are Maggie and Durant conspiring to be deceitful partners in crime? Maggie seems to want money and power more than honor and a good reputation. Perhaps she’s siding with Durant only to see if he’ll get caught red-handed. I fear that once the freedman discover his tricks, they’ll somehow avenge their loss.

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Cullen resists a subtle attraction to Ah-Fong. I don’t know if she sensed and chose to ignore it. The cost of revealing her gender is too high and dangerous. A setup of events midway through the episode is missed on first viewing, however on a second viewing, are strategic.

Chang enlisted a white traveling salesman to eliminate a perceived rival, and a Bohannon ally. This is important because a white assailant would be in keeping with “white justice” as seen in episode three. The last few frames leave us with the painful visage of Ah-Fong embracing her wounded father, Ah-Tao. Heading into the next chapter, I imagine she’ll need Cullen in ways unfamiliar and uncomfortable to her. I couldn’t help wondering if Gunderson was the true mastermind. Where would Chang have met and hired a white man with a certain skill set?


3.5 out of 5