Hell on Wheels: Thirteen Steps Review

Separating the law from emotions was a small feat in latest episode of Hell on Wheels. Here's our review...

“Pardons are for cowards, like Sidney Snow.” – Reverend Ruth 

It couldn’t have been easy for Cullen to swear in Ruth Elizabeth Cole before the kangaroo court, but as the standing sheriff, it was duty. The assembled townsfolk looked on as the avenging angel stood defiant. Who in the right mind would convict Ruth when she took out the trash that was Sidney Snow? Far more troubling, was Ruth’s conviction to stand trial.

Taking the law into one’s hand has to come with consequences, even for a grieving mother who also happens to be the resident pastor. Separating the law from emotions was a small feat in this episode of Hell on Wheels. Does it require Ruth to be a martyr to accept that she crossed the line and acted on a vengeful impulse? I think back to the previous episode’s flashback which showed her father’s massacring slave-owners, and how she was perplexed and resorted to the bible for clarification and condemnation.

It takes a strong person to walk freely to a hangman’s noose without regret. In the court of right versus wrong, Ruth was wrong to have shot Sidney. However, in the court of public opinion, Sidney had it coming. The mind wanders to the bible, “Vengeance is my mine, said The Lord.” It has sometimes been difficult to follow scripture in the lawless Wyoming Territory with its revolving door of outlaws, shady characters and corrupt provisional government officials.

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Was Ruth impetuous as well as vengeful in shooting Sidney? Had she not shot him, he’d have certainly continued down a destructive path. With this mind, I’d stand and/or sit alongside her as the hangman and his son built the gallows. Hardened criminals such as Mickey, and unscrupulous businessmen in the person of Durant were able to see beyond their own schemes to the travesty that was Ruth’s final verdict. Ruth’s stubborn pride was her ultimate undoing.

Her love for Cullen wasn’t strong enough to overcome her situation. Or perhaps she wanted him to suffer for having not chosen her over Naomi and son William, safely tucked away at the Mormon compound. The revelation of her feelings for Cullen wasn’t a complete surprise, but he didn’t know the depths. Theirs was an impossible love that probably wasn’t meant to be given their original paths and expected trajectories in Cheyenne. 

Cullen couldn’t negotiate an immediate better outcome, so he tried to do what any reasonable person would do in changing the playing field. Ruth refused to flee town, but rather remain as a reminder of sacrifice. Cullen was at a loss for behavior. Better for her, or him, to dispatch her to New York. Manual labor could only do so much to distract Cullen’s heavy heart and burdened soul. Unable to change Ruth’s mind, the next best thing was to knock down the gallows.

The unlikely yet conceivable relationship between Cullen and Ruth danced across their faces, rose and fell in their voices, and in viewers’ imagination as the gallows was rebuilt within earshot of Ruth’s jail cell. Imminent death stripped away any remaining pretense and fears, and left nothing unsaid. Naomi has been out of the picture for quite some time, and judging by the intense bond between Cullen and Ruth, he didn’t seem to miss her. 

Ruth and Cullen are both solitary rebels in similar yet different ways. Both are wandering souls, whereas Naomi needs stability in one place. The easy, nervous surface laughter, with a strong undercurrent of terror played well in the jail cell. Ruth was an unconventional pastor, a role model, if she only she could have seen beyond her own righteousness, or what she thought was righteousness.

Did something break or die inside Ruth when Ezra was burned alive? Did other parts of her break or die when she shot Sidney?

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Confession is good for the soul. Confession unburdened Ruth and reframed her with a scarlet letter of sorts even though she didn’t commit adultery. She was lustful and coveted another woman’s husband. She was vengeful and committed murder.  

The sizing of the noose was as if Ruth was being fitted for a dress at the local seamstress. The explanation of the process was a bit jarring. Why did she continue to refuse clemency?

Thirteen steps to the gallows escorted by the hangman, and the surprise of the camera taking the commemorative photo still lingers in my mind. The weight of each footfall as she ascended the wooden stairs leading up to the platform and noose. If not then, when would she recant and run into Cullen’s outstretched arms? 

No sign of Cullen. Wrists bound. Onlookers frozen. Will this happen on Cullen’s watch? He finally showed up in the nick of time. I hoped Ruth would call out for a pardon, but she was resigned to accept her punishment, relieved that Cullen was present as a witness. 

No good can come of Ruth’s execution. God will not smile favorably upon Cheyenne.

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4 out of 5