Hell on Wheels: Railroad Men Review

The completion of the transcontinental railroad by any means necessary was the center of last night's Hell on Wheels.

This Hell on Wheels review contains spoilers.

Hell on Wheels: Season 5, Episode 13

“The cost was high” — Cullen Bohannon

The completion of the transcontinental railroad by hook, crook and any other means necessary was the center of tonight’s episode. Central Pacific, headed by Collis Huntington, and Union Pacific, held together by Thomas Durant, have played a never-ending game of one-upmanship for four years since the early foundations in Sacramento. President Grant dangled a carrot in front of both companies, and everything else has served at the stick to impede progress throughout. Louise Ellison was rightfully skeptical that the railroad would reach Ogden, Utah.

In a precursor to live reporting, Louise narrated the early scenes as photos came into and out of view in the developer’s tray. Her readers were vested in the success of either company reaching the finish line if only as an easier, faster and in some cases, safer, means of travel.

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Over the span of the series, viewers have come to love and hate different characters. Cullen, Thomas, Psalms, Mickey and Collis top the list with memorable portrayals of heartache, suffering and triumphs in an important chapter in American History. The railroad wouldn’t have been completed without the Freedmen, Chinese and Irish laborers during the tumultuous time following the Civil War. Each group had to compromise and sacrifice for their well-being and the corresponding company’s profit and loss ledger which weren’t always accurate. Central Pacific and Union Pacific were indebted to the railroad men who put aside racial differences, stereotypes and language barriers to lay unlimited metal and steel.

Away from the glaring sun and clanking of hammers, Mei’s absence weighed heavily on Cullen. He might not have thought she’d leave town, however it shouldn’t have surprised him. She experienced a great personal loss and disappointment, in addition to witnessing Cullen killing several people, Chang among them. Bohannon saved her from what would’ve been life in captivity as a brothel whore or torture and a quick death. No amount of healthy breakfast with tea stilled Mei’s voice that replayed in Cullen’s head as he dined in his solitary rail car. In the span of time the railroad has been under construction, Cullen learned to speak moderate Mandarin, due in part to his intimate relationship. 

Huntington and Durant squared off like two exhausted cobras while Governor Campbell looked on as a disinterested snake charmer. He’s never been a good mongoose who’d want to subdue and feast on either reptile. The upstanding governor, minus a few human flaws, has always followed the prevailing law of the land. Collis and Doc have never broken a sweat in hard day’s work. Their perceived strengths are shady deals, gentleman’s agreements, and trying to outwit each other.

A few characters have changed, and the show has been better for it. Eva and Bohannon talked about nothing and everything when they reconnected. Mickey and Cullen seemed to have not missed a beat during their reminiscing. Most poignant of all was the conversation between Psalms and Bohannon. If not for being hired by Psalms when he first arrived in town many years ago, Cullen might have traveled a different path.

Strobridge reappeared with a vengeance after having been fired by Huntington for refusing to use explosives. He served as a temporary hiccup to both companies when he poached worried Chinese and Irish workers to dig out mines. Work on the railroad is coming to a close, and it was every man for himself to secure ongoing work. Eventually, Mr. Lee, a Chinese foreman, returned with the workers to finish what they started. Money and pride aside, they became a family across several states.

The finish line was near and Huntington’s failed bribery attempt of Campbell in the past. The sun and tension were high while the workers competed to reach Ogden. It was an exciting time as Louise continued her play-by-play from the sidelines reportage. Durant and Huntington looked on from opposite vantage points as if they were nervous parents waiting for their firstborn while the workers sweated and intermittently collapsed. Friendship and loyalty won against Durant’s posturing and Huntington’s faulty deal making. Psalms lead the Freedmen to secure the visual win for The Central Pacific Railroad.

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All was quiet as the unified workers crossed the finish line until a Negro Spiritual rose from their tired bodies. Durant wasn’t pleased, evidenced by the disgusted look of indigestion about his face. Thomas wouldn’t be undone, and had one last strike from the cobra coiled around his neck which might prove deadly for Huntington. Durant’s certain that an amendment to the Railroad Act is all that he’d need to win. Both men have something to lose, however Collis doesn’t have the stomach to battle with Durant who was born in mud and grime.

The finality of the railroad was almost too much for Cullen. He was felled by the loss of recent love, and reduced to tears on the floor. Mei’s wooden ornamental keepsake box couldn’t have helped. He has suffered in his journey from former Confederate soldier to an entry in the history books as one the greatest railroad men. He was simultaneously strengthened and weakened during his time on the rails.

Bohannon was initially out of his element and had to find his footing alongside the day laborers. They all had to compromise, develop personally, and bend, unlike the straight lines of railroad steel. What happens next is uncertain, however these characters ought not have too difficult of a time finding new jobs and continuing to build their legacy.

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4 out of 5