Hell on Wheels has always been about people trying to escape their past and forge a new future for themselves, but this fourth season has been focused on the past catching up with them. The ghosts of the past loom heavy over “Bleeding Kansas,” where we see that being finished with your past doesn’t necessarily mean the past is finished with you.
Most notably, “Bleeding Kansas” finally makes Ruth an interesting character. We see her dark past, watching her father, Reverend Cole, murder slaveowners, as he believes himself to be killing for God’s will. Unfortunately, Ruth has inherited her father’s desire to murder for what she thinks is right, having shot Sydney Snow in the last episode after he inadvertently killed Ezra in his church fire. Kasha Kropinski as Ruth is pretty great in this episode, as she deals with the darkness brewing inside of her. Her quest for vengeance doesn’t make her feel awful, but actually pretty good, even though throughout the entire episode she’s paler than Edward Scissorhands in a snowstorm.
“Bleeding Kansas” is great for its simplicity, and it’s ability to show the town working together in interesting ways. The story is basic: Sydney has been shot by Ruth. If he survives, Sydney will answer for his crimes. If he dies, for better or for worse, Ruth will have to answer for hers. As the new law in town, Cullen’s goal is to keep Sydney alive. In doing such, he enlists the help of “Doc” Durant, who we finally find out was an actual medical school dropout, and Eva, who is still mad at Cullen for killing Elam.
This season has been quite good at presenting tense situations that could really go either way, such as the insanity of Elam, and the potential death of Sydney. This might also be the grossest TV episode AMC has ever aired, between the amputation of Sydney’s leg to the ripping/spitting out of an eyeball, also occurring in the episode. The Walking Dead has nothing on Hell on Wheels this week.
“Bleeding Kansas” also continues to make John Campbell one of the most interesting characters on the show. He realizes that Sydney deserved to be shot, yet he can’t let Ruth’s actions just go unanswered for. If he wants to keep order and turn Cheyenne into an actual, law-abiding town, he can’t allow murders to go unpunished. I also appreciate how he’s developing a new loyalty to the people of Cheyenne, and becoming more of a human character than a dictator.
This new understanding of the people of Cheyenne and how they tick will probably help him in the eventual fight against Charlie, Mickey McGuinness’ cousin who just arrived in town. One day in, Charlie is already causing trouble, taking over the town’s casino from John, then ripping out a guy’s eyeball. At least John’s rampage on the city was based on turning Cheyenne into something civil. Charlie is set on turning things back the way they used to be.
This season Hell on Wheels is actually turning Cheyenne into a community, and just watching these characters interact is far more interesting than it has been in past seasons. For example, the discussion between Durant and Cullen after Sydney dies is so simple, yet compelling in a way that the show wouldn’t have been able to pull off in the past. By focusing on the dynamics between these characters and their fears of the past, Season Four seems likely to end on a very strong note.
Ross Bonaime is a D.C.-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.