When working towards a goal, it always helps to know where you want to end up. Hell on Wheels has always been heading towards the moment when the first transcontinental railroad is finished, but it’s gone on its fair share of tangents along the way. After its fourth and best season, Hell on Wheels announced that it would split its fifth and final season into two parts, bringing an end to a show that, frankly, lasted longer than I ever expected it would. The best thing that could happen to Hell on Wheels might be some serious focus to wrap up its series, and it’s currently a stronger series than it’s ever been before.
Initially, Hell on Wheels was only successful when it was at its campiest—throwing ridiculous elements in to add to its insanity levels. As I will never stop mentioning, this is the show that once featured a fist-fight between Common and a bear. And Common won. What has made these last few seasons of Hell on Wheels so fascinating, however, has been what’s risen from the ashes of that craziness. Instead of having occasional, ridiculous fun amongst a lot of bland storytelling, Hell on Wheels has transformed into a compelling show about people trying to make their own fates and recreate themselves after the horrors of the Civil War. Much like other AMC shows had their Walter Whites and Don Drapers to track this evolution, Hell on Wheels has given us Cullen Bohannan, and smartly straightened the focus on him, even if he’s not as consistent character-wise as those other AMC stars.
Much like the Season Four premiere, “Chinatown” takes us away from the eponymous camp and focuses almost exclusively on Bohannan’s current state. In the last season, he was stuck in the Mormon camp, awaiting his son to be born from his new wife—neither of which he wanted. This season, he has switched sides, now working for the Central Pacific Railroad Company he once worked so hard to try and outdo, and has been searching for the last month for the wife and child that ran from him.
When we were first introduced to the Hell on Wheels camp, it was overflowing with unnecessary characters that never quite received the attention they deserved. Another great sign of this show’s growth is how we are introduced to the town of Truckee, California, and succinctly shown the main players that are essential, rather than dealing with as many potential stories as the show can possibly toss in. This change in location is also a beautiful example of the show kicking its directing and cinematography up a notch. After four seasons of dusty shanty towns, the snow-covered mountains of this new locale are a welcome change.
For the first time ever, I find all of these character interesting. Huntington, the man who led Bohannan to move to the rival railroad, has far more trust in Bohannan than Durant ever did. He understands the strength that Bohannan gives the railroad and knows he’s the ticket to beating Durant, who is currently winning the race, despite Bohannan’s current great advances. We’re also introduced to Mr. Strobridge, the closest thing Bohannan has to a friend. Even though he seems to have a good heart (he and his wife adopt children who need families), his actions also tell us he’s quite the racist as well.
But it’s the introduction of the Chinese working on the railroad that really seems like a great strength starting in on this final season. Bohannan, always a man to get his hands dirty with his workers, becomes somewhat friends with two workers, Tao and his son Fong. Through Fong, he discovers that their boss Mr. Chang has been skimming money off their wages. As the only person to stand up for the Chinese, Bohannan sets up his first enemy in this town with Chang.
Chang already seems like a great villain, just in terms of how similar his backstory is to that of Cullen’s. Chang is also trying to dig himself out of the hole that a war has dug him into and tries to present a certain side of himself, while hiding the literal and figurative scars of his past. Chang clearly wants the respect of the white people he considers his equals, even if they don’t feel the same way. Even though Chang seems to be at around the same economic class of Huntington, the man still asks Chang to put his jacket on for him. This difference due to race is something Chang wants to change, but there doesn’t seem to be any conflict when he sells his Chinese workers for a small sum to the white men, while still stealing from his own men. Oh, and did I mention he might be a cannibal? Sometimes it’s hard for Hell on Wheels to get rid of its bombastic ways, but in small doses like this, it doesn’t hurt.
Which brings us to the most bombastic of all this show’s characters: The Swede. Along with all the other Brigham Young followers, The Swede has been banished from the Mormon church and is living in destitution with all the other believers. Of course this isn’t the only thing on his plate, as he also is carrying a cache of guns for some reason. The Swede is easily a character that Hell on Wheels could’ve chosen to discard of a long time ago, but at this point, it’s so exciting to see when The Swede and Cullen come face to face, as they do at the end of the episode. The Swede is now full-on insane, believing himself to be the one true prophet and Cullen to be the devil. Hell on Wheels has focused on so many different story arcs that don’t seem to matter at this point, but more than any, it’ll be very fun to see how this battle between The Swede and Bohannan wraps up.
Over four seasons, Hell on Wheels has matured into the hidden gem of AMC’s lineup. Cullen Bohannan has become an intriguing protagonist and the show’s focus on him, rather than a larger ensemble gets this season off to a great start. Beginning its last season, Hell on Wheels has refined itself into an exciting, focused drama that is far better than it ever seemed it would be.
Ross Bonaime is a D.C.-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.