Hell on Wheels season four opens with the aptly titled “The Elusive Eden,” settling in after three years in what still remains the unknown territory of Cheyenne, Wyoming. Cheyenne is a lawless wilderness that settles conflicts from within, which doesn’t always satisfy The Union Pacific Railway and General Grant. What is a general accustomed to military precision and subordinates to do but dispatch a provincial governor to corral the emancipated African American, unscrupulous businessmen, the prostitutes and assorted Irish and Scottish. This “fixer,” John Campbell, uprooted from Atlanta seems to have his own agenda despite direct orders from General Grant.
The world of Hell on Wheels isn’t a Shakespearean revenge tale replete with soothsayers warning and advising the flawed hero, or Greek tragedy involving patricide or divine prophecies meant to illuminate or obstruct the hero’s journey depending upon which deity is revered or being appeased. The show is reminiscent of Deadwood on HBO and of the short story, “Emily,” by E.L. Doctorow. The oftentimes slow pace of the show works to allow viewers to feel the sunburn of the men laying the rail, the anticipation of danger just of the view and the subtle and blatant scheming that is Durant.
We revisit the mini universe of the villainous Bishop in Fort Smith determined to exact mental and physical torture upon Cullen Bohannon as he awaits the birth of his child while playing nice with the religious sect that’s kept him hostage since the end of season three. Why does The Swede have an unhealthy attachment to Cullen?
Desperation falls and hangs like humidity in the fortress as obedient servants go about their business of pleasing their God. Cullen once again does what he thinks is honorable and marks time alongside Naomi, teen bride and mother of his unborn child. The mind wanders to what Cullen might do if he were a selfish man. Would he attempt an escape, scaling the fortress walls under the cover of night?
Men want to see themselves as Cullen while out trimming branches, moving the lawn or finally building their son’s tree house; they might find themselves a bit jealous when they come up short up in Bohannon’s world. He’s driven by ghosts near and far, and sometimes doesn’t sleep throughout the night. Women fantasize about being rescued by the swarthy protagonist, and later taken to bed as a reward for what might have been certain death or a bullet to the shoulder as they fled.
Maggie Palmer and Eva are polar opposites of women we’ve come to know, identify with and in some instances feel sympathy. The women in the Hell on Wheels universe are as resilient as some of the men, sometimes more so. They’d have to be survive in Cheyenne where it seems every third man is trying to cop a feel, seduce or double-cross them.
Poor Eva, who gave up her child because she realized she would be an unfit mother. Maggie, on the other hand, could hold her own at a poker table or at the bar of her hotel surrounded by men. In the middle of the scale between Maggie and Eva is Jebediah’s mother who holds onto rather an unchristian vengeance toward Cullen. She continues to blame Cullen for Jeb’s hanging. We all know her cowardly husband is at fault for their son’s death. Her misdirected grief won’t allow her to comprehend the situation. She wants a life for a life. It seemed as if she was rooting for Naomi to have a stillborn child. Vengeance rarely ends well for the perpetrator or the victim.
What eludes the characters in this episode is who they have become and who they once were. Cullen has had to learn how to manipulate, and not only react to situations and be manipulated by others. The garden he wants to recreate and cultivate is his murdered wife and child. Never one to embrace religion or the clergy, he prays for the safe birth of his new child.
The truth of who and what he is eludes The Swede, an alternating slow and fast destructive boulder that’s incapable of gathering moss and establishing roots. Eva is tormented by her past and most recent choices involving Elam. She’s convinced she’s unworthy of love, redemption, second and third chances.
Durant has been put on notice with the expected arrival of the provisional governor and his entourage of marshal, judge and treasurer. Up until now, Durant has played and stomped in the garden of Cheyenne. General Grant has grown tired of the overgrown weeds and snakes jockeying for position, and in dispatching John Campbell hopes he will clean up the mess and maintain the garden.