As the various rivalries piled up in the camps of Truckee and Laramie, it seemed like for the first time in quite a while, Cullen Bohannan had someone in his corner. Cullen has always been a loner, but always filling in to fight on the side of fairness and good. Even until the very end of “Elixir of Life,” it looked as if things were finally coming up Bohannan. But this is Hell on Wheels, where every action has a reaction, every relationship has ulterior motives and no friend can fully be trusted.
This entire season, Cullen has been building his relationship with the Chinese workers of Truckee and by the end of “Elixir of Life,” it seems like the power of Chang’s influence might overcome all of Cullen’s work for equality. While Cullen never quite trusted Chang, their rivalry kicked up a notch once Cullen let go of the white workers who strung up Chang and murdered one of his workers. Cullen almost always tries to do the right thing, yet it’s the one time the law overpowers him that his goodwill comes back to bite him.
Chang lulls Cullen into a false sense of security, offering the truth about delivering the rice, and most importantly, the guns to Thor, and Chang seems willing to bury the hatchet. However, in the episode’s final moments, we see Chang has planned to have Tao—Cullen’s closest friend of the Chinese workers—killed, with only Chinese witnesses to admit that the murderer was white. Instead of seeming like Chang is changing his ways and becoming friendlier, like most of the villains on Hell on Wheels, he’s more interested in the long con of deception.
This has especially been the case with Thor, who has convinced Phineas Young that he should be his sort of advisor. Now, as Cullen tries to explain the terrors of Thor, Phineas also turns his back on Cullen. Anyone following Thor is a bad idea, especially since Thor’s plan is growing by the episode. By the end of “Elixir of Life,” not only do the kicked-out Mormons have plenty of guns, but Thor has also convinced Phineas that he has seen a vision of Phineas as the new prophet. Not only does this make Thor essentially the leader of a die hard religious group, but a heavily armed one at that.
At this point, Cullen really only has Fong strongly on his side. Before his death, Tao points out that Cullen looks at Fong in a way that could give away her cover, especially if Chang sees him. With Tao now dead, it’ll be interesting to see if Cullen’s last ally will leave his side as well.
As Chang mentions at the beginning of the episode, there’s a foolish Western notion that the past does not matter, and that the past can be forgotten. This could largely sum up the main thesis of Hell on Wheels, as all of its characters are running from their pasts and trying to create new futures by ignoring the trials they’ve already been through.
In a similar way, this show has moved past the events of Laramie and Cheyenne, but now as we return to these towns, it’s almost as if they should’ve tried to leave these places and people behind. I know I should still care about Doc’s shady land deals or Eva’s whorehouse abortions, but since we’ve moved on, I just don’t care as much. I think this is because the Hell on Wheels narrative has evolved beyond this. In just a handful of episodes, the show has created a fascinating group of characters in Truckee that surpasses the level of character development they were able to create with the original group. They’ve made a town and people that are vastly improved to a point that, when the show tries to go back to Doc and his team, it’s as if it’s backtracking to its negative past.
Hell on Wheels is clearly trying to set up an ultimate battle of sides as the railroad reaches its conclusion, but maybe it shouldn’t. The town of Truckee is far more intriguing than what we ever got with Doc’s various towns. Truckee’s characters have created a region that’s entertaining, and brings out the best in the show and these people. Maybe Chang is right and the past can’t be forgotten, but in some situations, it probably should be.
Ross Bonaime is a D.C.-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.