When Hell on Wheels began, its primary focus was on the creation of the transcontinental railroad and the people working on the side of the Union Pacific. In the show’s penultimate episode, “Railroad Men,” Hell on Wheels gets back to the core of what this show was originally about. Because of this, “Railroad Men” feels like a fitting goodbye to many of the characters we’ve grown to know over the last five years (those have been able to survive this long), and it also offers a conclusion to the construction of the railroad. As the final tracks are laid down, “Railroad Men” presents what almost feels like a thesis statement for Hell on Wheels as a show—that this was a race that was won “by heart, not manpower.”
Let’s take a look at five of the best moments from last night’s next-to-last episode ever, for Hell on Wheels.
As the Central Pacific and Union Pacific reach their final days of rivalry, “Railroad Men” reminds us of just how rarely we’ve seen Cullen interacting with his old companions on the CP this season. The first act of “Railroad Men” features scene after scene of Cullen reuniting with these people and giving each of them a proper goodbye. In a season that has very much been about Cullen letting go of everyone he’s ever known, these scenes and really all of “Railroad Men” show just how many people still care for Cullen Bohannan.
Cullen visits Eva as she visits her untrained horse and of all the goodbyes, this one makes the least amount of sense, but it’s important for closure sake. Eva has been with the show since the very beginning and Cullen’s interactions with her mostly centered around his friendship with Elam. But here we see that they both share a bond of loss, as Eva explains that Mei’s leaving was likely an act of kindness and a sign of her love for Cullen.
In one of the more surprisingly touching goodbyes, Cullen and Mickey have a discussion on the eve of the railroad being finished. Even though they are rivals in the railroad business, there seems to be a mutual appreciation for each other. Cullen admires Mickey’s entrepreneur spirit, while Mickey sees the greatness within Cullen, he would never bet against him.
Before getting back to business, Cullen makes sure to share a drink with Psalms—a character that hasn’t had enough to do on this show for quite some time. Unlike his conversation with Eva about the past and loss, or Mickey’s about the end, Cullen and Psalms simply drink and compliment each other and consider their place within history. It’s in this moment that we see why the railroad has been so important to Cullen and the good that he sees the railroad can bring to the country. Cullen and Psalms might not be remembered for their part of the railroad, but they rest assured that the important work they’ve done will make a difference to millions of people for centuries to come.
“Railroad Men” gives Hell on Wheels the moment the show has been building up to since the beginning: the completion of the transcontinental railroad. As the last few miles are being placed, Durant and the Union Pacific have only six miles to go, while the Central Pacific and Bohannan have ten miles to go, with the winner staking claim to Ogden. The scene begins with Bohannan giving a short speech to his workers, choking up and stating that they’ve literally had to move mountains to get to where they are today. Not only have we the viewer been waiting for years for this railroad to be finished, but Bohannan has given everything he has to make sure it goes through. This moment is not only a victory for the man, but it also feels like the first moment in the episode where Bohannan comes to realize just how much this railroad has cost him.
“Railroad Men” is gorgeously directed by Jeremy Webb and as the sun rises during Bohannan’s speech, Webb films a beautiful landscape that represents both the hope of the future and the darkness that they’ve come through to get to this moment.
As Louise Ellison says in this episode, the battle between the Central Pacific and Union Pacific will be won “by heart, not manpower,” which we see as the last mile of track is laid down. Durant has always been powerful and had money to throw around—even when he had none—but he treats his workers like garbage. His “rousing” speech towards his workers turns Psalms and his last few workers against him, leaving himself and Mickey and few others to finish his job.
This is why Bohannan is so well-liked and respected, able to get his workers to do whatever he asks of them. During the final mile, Bohannan has the Chinese workers with him, who have chosen future unemployment to help Bohannan reach his goal. With Psalms changing his allegiance at the last minute, Bohannan proves that pretty much everyone would prefer to have him as a boss over Durant. Having almost everyone unite under Bohannan in the railroad’s final moments, with the people Bohannan has worked alongside this entire series with him, is a fantastic way to end this story, as Bohannan nails in the last rail.
While almost everyone united under Bohannan in the final mile, even those who didn’t are united by the end of the railroad during the celebration that follows. Even Mickey—who didn’t turn sides—couldn’t keep a grudge during the unified happiness that comes from the conclusion of the railroad.
As everyone gets drunk and celebrates, Bohannan is almost sullen about this chapter of his life concluding. When Ellison comes to talk to him, the star of the railroad, he makes it clear the cost to him and to others was incredibly high. Then, in one of Bohannan’s saddest and most poignant lines, he says, “Make friends with change. It’s the only thing you can count on.” When you’ve given so much of yourself to one thing, and it comes to an end, where can you possibly go from there?
While Bohannan is stating that you can only count on change, Durant is busy proving him right, as he blackmails Huntington out of Ogden. Sure, Durant lost fair and square in the race to Ogden, but that doesn’t mean the fight is over. With a telegraph from the president, Durant points out that Ogden won’t be given to anyone until the track has been inspected. Both sides have taken shortcuts, but Durant has a better poker face than Huntington. Because of that, Durant wins Ogden with the dirty games he’s always played.
When Durant gives Bohannan the news, the conversation is sad for both men. Durant is clearly proud of something that doesn’t truly matter. But to Bohannan—despite how little he might care—there’s a sort of defeat in the fact that no matter how hard he pushed, Bohannan still got the upper hand in the end.
Maybe it’s partly because of this, and how much he’s lost for this railroad that “Railroad Men” ends with what seems like Bohannan having a drunk panic attack. You can hear the fear in his voice, aware that with the railroad done, there’s not much to show for it. With this door closing, it’s not clear when and where the next one will be opening. There’s a fear of uncertainty, loss and the pain and as we prepare for Hell on Wheels to end next week, it’ll be fascinating to see where Bohannan’s story takes him next.
Ross Bonaime is a D.C.-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can find more of his writing at RossBonaime.com and follow him on Twitter.