While the entire series has centered on the theme of starting over and trying to evolve, while the past catching up with you, Season Four of Hell on Wheels has taken this concept to a whole new level. Several times this season, we’ve started off an episode at the beginning of the day, with most of the town still asleep. There have been beer bottles scattered around from the night before, sometimes a dead body or too. But before the town awakens, these bottles and bodies must be swept away from the public consciousness. Every day is a new beginning.
Right now, Cullen Bohannan’s narrative is about avoiding the past, and fighting forwards to a better future, but it hasn’t been so easy for him. He wants to finish the railroad and begrudgingly support his shotgun marriage, but he keeps being reminded of the horrible things he did in the war, and the fact that his disappearance at the end of last season has had consequences. However, this week brought on his biggest trial: the return of Elam Ferguson.
If anyone has a more tragic past than Cullen, it’s easily Elam. He’s a newly-freed slave, still working for his independence. His wife,, Eva gave away their child, and he was almost killed after fighting a bear, as we saw last week. Now Elam is at an all-time low, returning to Cheyenne with three female slaves in tow, and confused about who everyone is, and where exactly he is, both in terms of time and location. He’s trying to sell his slaves to people who just laugh at his actions—actions that wouldn’t have seemed all that strange a few decades earlier. And the damage done to his brain leaves him jumping back and forth through different points in his life. When Psalms tries to stop Elam, he acts as if he’s once again a slave, not allowed to go near his master’s house.
Elam’s actions are tragic in this episode, unknowingly wild and frustrated from confusion. Eva cries as she watches the man she loves being insulted and destroyed internally. Campbell plans to shoot Elam so as to save the slaves, but Elam’s friend Cullen decides to make an attempt to helps.
“Elam Ferguson” is the best episode of the fourth season, because it presents its two most tragic and scared characters,and makes them face their horrible pasts. Cullen constantly feels responsible for aspects of Cheyenne that he can’t possibly be asked to control, such as the continuation of the train, and Elam’s current condition. Elam is so badly damaged—mentally and physically—that he’s just a walking time bomb, until his life ends. Unfortunately, Cullen knows what has to be done and when no other options are given, he is the one to end the life of his best friend in Cheyenne.
The final moments of “Elam Ferguson” are among the best of the entire series, as Cullen takes the body of Elam as his own weight, digging the grave and carrying the casket by himself. As he realizes that maybe Elam’s death is his own fault, and that he’s lost his closest ally in this world, Cullen breaks down, sobbing uncontrollably. In that moment, it’s like all of the tragedies of Cullen’s past hit him at once, his dead family, his past in the war and now Elam. In this moment he’s, weak, defeated, almost hopeless. It’s a rare case of strong emotion in a show that too often veils such things.
Ross Bonaime is a D.C.-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.