This Hell on Wheels review contains some spoilers.
Hell on Wheels Season 5 Episode 8
The return of Hell on Wheels, “Two Soldiers,” had shootout at high noon written all over it. The soundtrack and silences during pivotal moments kept the tension and anticipation central to the unfolding story.
Soldiers are trained to win physical battles and wars, however those with strong and strategic minds are favored among commanders and generals. Prior to tonight’s episode there was no indication that Thor Gunderson was once a happy, singing, harmonica-playing soldier in the Union Army before everything went wrong.
What happened to Thor over the course of series is subject to debate. Viewers have always known him to be a misguided false prophet, determined to destroy, maim, or kill anyone who got in his way. Was he upset that everyone called him The Swede, when in actuality he’s Norwegian?
We’ve rarely seen Thor helpless and vulnerable as he was in the open-air prison, at the mercy of his Confederate captors. Through five seasons, he was usually close to the throne of power, whispering in the king’s ear, and not fending off cannibalistic attacks from fellow prisoners. He became a broken and wretched soul inside and out. It’s easy enough to understand how his early imprisonment turned his heart cold and black.
His one-way conversations with God could’ve been repeated questions as to why he felt abandoned. His killing in the name of God might’ve been what he thought were needed blood sacrifices to return to God’s loving arms and grace. His previous escapes from death empowered him because he thought God spared his life to continue to perform heavenly work. His behavior was never holy.
The stark shift from the prison of 1864 to the serenity of Naomi’s farm was a welcomed change. Has too much time apart altered Cullen’s feelings for his family? Gunderson doesn’t think so, or he doesn’t care as he set his sights on their annihilation after upon discovering their hiding place. The stakes are high. Cullen’s a loyal and principled man who will fight for who he once loved, and for what he believes is his duty. A husband and father is supposed to protect his family, overcoming all obstacles along the way.
What did Cullen ever do to Thor to incite his tireless revenge? Bohannon never fell prey to Gunderson’s cunning, a man he thought was less intelligent. Cullen might not have book smarts, however he has always been a formidable foe. Perhaps the hatred is based on Cullen’s having been a Confederate soldier and Thor holding a grudge. Five years of crossing paths and wrestling with each other reached a crescendo in this episode.
I agree with Naomi. Why not kill Thor in the river or hang him by the neck until he’s dead on the farm where he killed and wounded innocent people? Cullen’s sense of justice, aversion to taking more lives, and bravery might come back to haunt him. A wounded and delirious man ought not escort an experienced manipulator on horseback over and through a treacherous landscape.
When his judgment day arrived, Gunderson was stoic and a bit defiant. Cullen, who doesn’t believe in God, or lost his faith after his first wife and son died, was unable to save Thor from the hangman’s noose. For all the evil he spread across several territories and states, his public execution was still difficult to witness. A bullet while he was in the jail cell would’ve been merciful for the devil’s minion. Instead, he writhed and wiggled like the dying desert snake Cullen killed and dangled in front of him. The snake’s soul left its body faster than Gunderson’s.
Government justice and judgment issued and served, Cullen’s undoubtedly returning to his estranged wife and son on the farm for a delayed homecoming and mending of their marriage.
“Two Soldiers” was a taut character study of Cullen and Thor, with their ghosts, misfortunes and missed opportunities along for the ride.