Like many of its characters, Hell on Wheels has been able to turn some of its biggest flaws into great strengths. When this show first started off, Cullen Bohannan was on a mission to find the murderer of his wife and child, only to allow his messianic complex to get in the way, as he played Jesus to the entire Hell on Wheels camp. At first, this felt like a way for the show to drag out its main purpose, but as the show has gone on, Hell on Wheels has kept this core idea of Cullen’s personality intact, while making him less of a superhero, and the show has excelled because of it.
The curse of Cullen is that he always has a goal he should focus on, but gets bogged down in the railroad that he’s trying to help complete, making things right for the people that work alongside him and creating new relationships that lead to their own set of larger problems. Cullen used to be impenetrable, but Hell on Wheels smartly beat him down emotionally enough to the point that he’s now more relatable, more understandable in his actions and simply more interesting.
“Mei Mei” is an example of how Cullen’s best intentions often get in the way of his bigger goal. While, in the past, this used to seem like a lazy plot, it now makes far more sense after years of correcting and narrowing this character.
Last week, we saw Cullen changing sides on the railroad in order to use the railroad’s full power to find his wife son. Soon after joining this side though, he also took a stand on the rights of the Chinese workers who do the majority of the dangerous work. By taking this stand and worrying more about others than himself, Cullen automatically makes his ultimate goal more difficult to achieve, creating enemies and questioning the entire way this side of the railroad and its workers function. In my review of last week’s premiere, I compared Cullen Bohannan to Walter White and Don Draper in the way that all three are characters trying to recreate themselves as their world changes greatly. However unlike Draper and White, Bohannan’s biggest flaw is his selflessness. Draper and White had no problem indulging their primal desires, whereas Bohannan never questions putting others before himself. While noble, this still causes the majority of problems in Bohannan’s life, whether he sees that or not.
“Chinatown” started off this season by giving us a glimpse at the larger town of Truckee, and introduced us to the larger struggles with race that were prominent in the town. “Mei Mei” brings us back to smaller level storytelling—a good thing, since Hell on Wheels excels when it focuses mostly on Cullen and his interactions with a single character (as we’ve seen in the past with episodes that centered around Elam or Ruth).
“Mei Mei” gives us the two main group struggles at the Truckee side of the railroad. Bohannan is trying to continue the railroad over snow-covered mountains, but needs the Chinese workers to help him sled the locomotive across this terrain. Bohannan brings along Fong, who is able to translate to the Chinese worker and can help with the logistic issues that come up.
Meanwhile we have the Brigham Young followers, which include Thor Gundersen, who are digging the snow for the track, but are ill-equipped and are succumbing to frostbite. What both of these stories show us is their respective leaders rising in the ranks with their people. Bahaman is gaining respect with the Chinese workers due to his willingness to do the same dangerous jobs they put themselves in, while Thor is taking a position of power, getting his people proper work attire so their black toes don’t snap off while shoveling snow all day. Both sides are growing followings that will likely come to a head in the battle between Cullen and Thor.
But Hell on Wheels is also taking a risky move this season, moving away from the camp and the people that we’ve known for four previous seasons and bringing us into a new camp with characters that we have yet to care about. Fortunately though, Hell on Wheels is doing its best to integrate these characters into the story quickly and allow us to care for them, much faster than the show was able to on the other side of the tracks.
Our first deeper understanding of the Chinese workers this season comes in the form of Fong, who Cullen bonds with throughout the episodes, only to discover what was heavily assumed to be true, that Fong is actually a woman named Mei. We also learn that, like almost every character on Hell on Wheels, Fong/Mei has gone through a horrible past—war in which men, women and children all fought, and has now followed her father dressed as a man in order to make a life better for herself. While Cullen is at first understandably taken aback by this news, her seeing the importance in getting the railroad to the place where it’s at now, and her willingness to risk her life to save his own shows Cullen that there’s no harm in keeping Fong’s secret.
So often, Cullen has gone on his own and tried to help others, but goes about his own goals independently. As Hell on Wheels heads towards its conclusion and we see the difficulties that are building up in Cullen’s life, it’s clear that he’s going to need some people in his corner to help him for once, regardless of whether he wants them there or not. “Mei Mei” is another excellent example of Hell on Wheels maturing its main character, while making him more complacent to help in the future and deepening this new world that we’ve just been thrust into last week.
Ross Bonaime is a D.C.-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.