The biggest problem with Hell on Wheels in these four seasons has been a certain need to abandon its own past. When we started, Cullen Bohannan was ready for revenge, but by the end of the first season, his priorities had changed, rarely remembered again. “Reckoning” is thankfully all about learning from past mistakes, taking the knowledge that has been accrued, and trying to make an educated decision from what has come before.
Mickey seems to learn this lesson the hardest way in “Reckoning.” At the beginning of the series, Mickey and his brother came to Hell on Wheels to entertain with their projected pictures. From there, they started a bar and a whorehouse, and with his brother out of the way, Mickey has now opened a casino and become mayor. But with Campbell’s takeover of the town, Mickey has now lost everything he worked so hard to gain, stuck in jail with literally just a pot to piss in. Mickey realizes he has been this low before, and still came up to become one of the most powerful men in the town. If he did it once, he can do it again.
This look back at the past is why “Reckoning” is by far the strongest episode of Hell on Wheels’ fourth season. When this fourth season began, it felt like the show was almost rebooting, presenting Cullen in a new light, rejoining the community that lost old friends and gained new enemies. But “Reckoning” reminds us that this community has a history together. For once, it feels like the people of Hell on Wheels are ready to join together, and fight for their own rights.
Eva and Durant have both struggled under the new arrival of Campbell and his entourage, even though their economic differences are vast. With the casino now closed, Eva is out of a job, and considering going back to her life as a prostitute. Meanwhile Durant is helpless, thinking himself the head of the town, when really he no longer has any power due to Campbell. Seeing how Eva isn’t doing so hot either, Durant offers her some money, which Eva turns down, but later offers her body in exchange for the money.
Durant turns down this proposition because, even though he might not be the best man in Hell on Wheels, he’s far from being that type of bad guy. As Cullen says earlier in the episode “Durant does what is best for Durant,” and quick sex in exchange for money doesn’t exactly have any upside, besides the obvious.
Surprisingly though, the new bond between Durant and Eva has now become one of the most interesting character dynamics of the show. They are friends united against a common enemy, which is certainly a theme that will continue this season, as the town finds new reasons to despise Campbell.
What’s most shocking about “Reckoning” though is that it is the season’s strongest episode, without relying too heavily on Cullen and The Swede. Cullen is becoming more self-centered, putting himself and the continuation of the railroad ahead of his new wife and child. For the first time in a while, the memory of his past wife and child looms in the back of his mind, which I believe is what keeps him at arm’s length from his new family. Cullen’s wife is having problems with the townspeople due to her Mormon belief’s, yet Cullen is nowhere to be found to defend her. Also in situations beyond his control, The Swede remains trapped by the Mormon camp for impersonating a bishop. Even though he’s basically admitted to all of his crimes, The Swede convinces the Mormon camp that the only one who has the authority to hang him is Brigham Young himself.
“Reckoning” is Hell on Wheels’s first attempt in quite some time to not only unite the entire town and make it feel like an actual community, but also to let the past have some bearing on the present. Throughout the episode, characters keep mentioning how things used to be, and there’s talk of trying to get back to those glory days. As for the show, it’s possible its best days are still ahead.
Ross Bonaime is a D.C.-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.