In terms of AMC’s scripted programming, Hell on Wheels is probably at the bottom of the network’s shows. Rarely is Hell on Wheels flat-out bad, it’s just that too often it’s so bland, and doesn’t really go anywhere. But every once in a while, Hell on Wheels pulls out an episode that shows just how fantastic this show could be. Often these great episodes center on a character who is close to Cullen Bohannan and dying, as in earlier this season with “Elam Ferguson,” and last week’s “Bleeding Kansas”—where the stakes of Sydney Snow’s death escalated the entire show. But maybe the series’ most effective death so far is in “Thirteen Steps,” with the loss of Ruth.
Now this is a well that Hell on Wheels has gone to before. The entire series started with Cullen losing his wife and seeking vengeance, and with the death of Lily Bell, we saw the pain of lost love and its effect on Bohannan. But with Ruth, it’s far more interesting, as so much of their relationship had gone unspoken. Both loved each other, yet they were both too afraid to say it before time was up.
Hell on Wheels is at its best when it keeps the stories simple, and, for the most part, Season Four has stuck with that. Gone are the days of gigantic railroad wars or the Hell on Wheels camp fighting against the Native Americans. This season has been much more about personal rivalries, and it’s been better for it. Last week “Bleeding Kansas” kept things simple with the death of Sydney, and this continues with “Thirteen Steps.”
No one wants Ruth to hang for shooting Sydney, except for Ruth. She immediately claims that she is guilty, and after being given many opportunities by Campbell to avoid being hung, she still goes for her punishment. Everyone in the town does everything they can to change her mind. Campbell says he will let Ruth go if she signs a pardon, Mickey and his cousin threaten Campbell if he doesn’t stop the hanging, and Cullen knocks down the gallows with his bare hands. The entire town even holds a vigil outside Ruth’s jail cell to show how much she means to them. But even with everyone behind her, Ruth knows what needs to be done.
“Thirteen Steps” succeeds most when it’s just Ruth and Cullen sitting in the jail cell, discussing the relationship they could have had. For Hell on Wheels, it’s an incredibly well done series of scenes, with great performances by Kasha Kropinski and Anson Mount. The two proclaim their love for each other, and Cullen says that he can’t go on without Ruth. But when the next morning comes, and Ruth hangs for her actions, Cullen knows he’ll have to.
What I loved most about “Thirteen Steps” were the final scenes, which might be among my favorite moments in the series. It’s unknown how long time has passed, but Cullen is working again on the railroad, using a newly-created crane. For once, the railroad is moving along incredibly well. There’s a moment where Cullen smiles, happy at having achieved this goal, and then you can see it on his face: he remembers Ruth. The much-needed happiness fades away, and the grieving starts again. No matter what he does, Ruth will always be like a splinter in his mind, reminding him of what he has lost. It’s a testament to how great an actor Anson Mount actually is, and I think his performance as Cullen is surprisingly nuanced, especially when the performance relies on a mere look, or an emotion.
“Thirteen Steps” concludes with Cullen quitting the railroad once again, so who knows if he’ll come back like he always has? There’s only one more episode this season, but what a season it’s been for Cullen—losing his best friend, the love that could’ve been, and the devil from his past that kept haunting him. Like Cullen, I hope Hell on Wheels steps away from its past and tries to forge a new beginning, one that focuses more on strong, simple stories and the character dynamics that make Hell on Wheels really work. This season is ending with some really exciting episodes, hopefully that’ll lead to its final—and possibly best—season yet.
Ross Bonaime is a D.C.-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.