This fourth season of Hell on Wheels has been about the battle between Campbell and Durant, and the fighting over who will have control over Cheyenne. A subset of that has been the much smaller disputes between Snow (who works for Campbell) and Cullen (who works for Durant). It was a very smart idea to present a villain in Campbell who could overpower Durant, and to also make Durant seem less like the show’s actual villain.
However, these nine episodes have consistently been about Campbell going up against Durant, building to an ultimate rumble that never comes. They’ve been butting heads since Campbell’s arrival at Cheyenne, and while the various pieces move around the board a bit, there hasn’t really been any forward momentum. “Two Trains” feels like it should have more consequence to it than it does, leaving us still waiting for the final battle.
The Campbell/Durant face-off is slowly escalating, with Durant in prison and Campbell basically the governor by force. In the last episode, Campbell arrested nearly the entire town and, most importantly, the majority of the train workforce. Campbell’s latest plan is to send these criminals back to the territories where their crimes were committed—leaving who in town, exactly?
With Cullen seeing his workforce leaving, he tries to stop Campbell’s plan from happening, putting him directly in the way of Snow once again.
“Two Trains” works because it makes its minor characters integral to the major story arc. In the past, Cullen would’ve probably attacked Snow and Campbell, guns blazing. However, now that we’re at Calm Cullen, he teams up with other important people of Cheyenne to stop the plot to empty out Cheyenne. In the most obvious Trojan horse scenario, Mickey gets himself arrested, only to show that he has the keys to the rest of the criminal’s shackles. Cullen also works with the train’s engineer, and the entire group of criminals join up with Cullen in the episode’s final battle between two train cars.
It seems like “Two Trains” clearly sets up which characters are on which sides, but really, that’s already been decided. The only exception is Louise Ellison, who sleeps with Campbell, but it’s unclear if there’s some deeper purpose to her actions in this episode.
As the bullets fly in the disappointing conclusion, no one of any real consequence dies on either side, nor does anything especially exciting happen, aside from Snow running away. But as we all know, when someone runs away on Hell on Wheels, they’re never gone for good—just look at Elam and The Swede. Just because Snow is gone, it doesn’t mean that Cullen is the de facto winner.
This episode has the look of finality to it, yet lacks the substance that that future episode would hopefully have. These two sides keep fighting over and over without any resolution or evolution, and at a certain point, it gets quite tiring. This battle of sides needs to have some action that has weight to it, otherwise doing the same thing will only drag the audience into malaise.
Ross Bonaime is a D.C.-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.