Cullen is finished working on the railroad. Maybe.
We’re offering a weekly account of every episode aired during the final summer run of Hell on Wheels. Be forewarned: There will be spoilers a-plenty in each of these overviews. Here are five takeaways from Episode 514, “Done.”
The ceremonial golden spike is driven at Promontory Point — but neither Cullen Bohannon nor Thomas “Doc” Durant gets much time to celebrate the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad. John Campbell shows up with subpoenas for both men, ordering them to Washington, D.C. for a congressional hearing to investigate “bribery, fraud, and corruption” charges against Durant.
Cullen isn’t eager to accept this “invitation” to rat out his longtime frenemy. But Campbell warns him that he should be thinking about his future career prospects: “You’re not yet an old man, Mr. Bohannon. But you are no longer young. I advise you to reflect on what to do next. Whose company you choose to keep. Your subsequent venture will likely determine the shape of your life.”
Of course, Cullen isn’t the only one who’s contemplating the road ahead. Mickey is eager to move on to San Francisco, to establish a new business with the money given him by Durant in exchange for Mickey’s railroad stock. (Durant isn’t being generous — rather, he wants to sever all ties to a guy known for consorting with The Dead Rabbits.) Mickey invites Eva to join him, but she turns down the offer. “We’re bad for each other,” she observes with classic understatement. “We stick together, it’s only a matter of time before one of us devours the other. And you know it.” So Mickey sets out westward on his own. The last we see of him, he is discarding the last links to his past — the “magic lantern” slides he and his late brother Sean once displayed in the Hell on Wheels camp. As for Eva: She briefly entertains an offer by Louise Ellison and her editor to exploit her life story in a potentially best-selling memoir. In the end, though, she simply mounts that great white horse of hers and gallops off toward the far horizon.
In Washington, Cullen reluctantly attends a fancy-dress party thrown by his old friend, President Grant — where he meets no less a notable than Col. George Armstrong Custer. More important, Cullen gets a tempting job offer: Grant wants him to become an officer in the U.S. Cavalry, and “protect the railroad” against outlaws and Indians. “I ain’t no Indian killer,” Cullen protests. But Custer thinks he sees in the former Confederate soldier — and one-time enemy — a kindred spirit. “You’re a killer,” Custer tells him. “You know what happens in the fog of war.” Indeed, he does. Which goes a long way toward explaining why, ultimately, he rejects the gig.
First, however, Cullen attends the Senate hearing — but refuses to offer incriminating testimony against Durant. To each question directed his way by Campbell and others, he replies — truthfully — that “The Transcontinental Railroad could not have been built without Thomas Durant.” (Chalk it up as one last gesture of loyalty to a man who, for better or worse, changed the direction of his life.) Then Cullen goes to church — evidently, the same Washington church where, way back in the Season 1 premiere episode, he killed one of the men responsible for slaying his wife and son. (Lest we forget: Pursuit of revenge is what propelled Cullen’s joining the Transcontinental Railroad in the first place.) This time, however, he seeks redemption, not vengeance, in the confessional. And during a deeply affecting scene that brings out the best in actor Anson Mount, redemption is just what Cullen finds. When we last see him, he is aboard a ship bound for China, to reunite with Mei. He is saved.
But the last word — the last several words, really — belong to Durant. Much as he did at the end of the very first episode, the railroad tycoon wraps it all up with a Shakespearean soliloquy of self-justification. At the end of the Civil War, he says, “America needed a dream. And I gave them one.” But dreams don’t come cheap.
“Blood has been spilled. Lives have been lost. Men have been ruined. I saw it — and survived ... History is written in pencil. And the truth is carved in steel across this nation. Without me and men like me, your glorious railroad could never have been built.”
And that, as they say, is that.
Takeaway No. 1
Nice to see a good old-fashioned Wild West saloon brawl at the start of Episode 514. And even better to get one last look at Psalms (Dohn Norwood) in action. We never do find out what lies ahead for this guy. But let’s bid him adieu: Happy trails! Same goes for Eva. And Louise. And, yes, even Mickey.
Takeaway No. 2
It’s slightly surprising that the series finale doesn’t answer, or even address, the question teasingly raised during the past three seasons: Was Mickey partly — or entirely — responsible for those murders attributed to his late brother? (For the benefit of those who tuned in late: Sean supposedly killed at least two women back in Boston before he and Mickey headed west.) Our theory: Mickey is, despite strong evidence to the contrary, innocent. Or at least as innocent as anyone on this show is ever allowed to be.
Takeaway No. 3
And while we’re on the subject of dangling plot threads: Looks like Cullen never will catch up with the last of his family’s killers. And judging by the expression of contentment and expectation on his face in his final scene, it also looks like he doesn’t care. Neither should we.
Takeaway No. 4
Some choice lines are scattered throughout the episode — some subtly ironic (“A perfect fit!”), others unspeakably sad. When Cullen pays melancholy tribute to the late Maggie Palmer (in his estimation, “a good woman”), Durant actually sounds sincere when he responds, simply, “I loved her.” Other episode highlights include some very effective farewells. When Eva rejects the celebrity offered by Louise, her words reverberate with all sorts of subtexts when she says: “I love you, Louise. But I promised myself — I’m done whoring.” On a funnier note, when Durant pays off Mickey — and, by doing so, actually does him a service — he snarkily cracks: “I hope you don’t want a kiss goodbye, Mr. McGuiness.”
Takeaway No. 5
One more time: Let’s hear it for the great Colm Meaney as the grandiloquently roguish Durant. And if Durant’s final speech sounded just a tad familiar, then you must be a long-time Hell on Wheels viewer. Consider how his climactic soliloquy here echoes his prophetic monologue at the end of Episode 101:
“If it’s a villain you want — I’ll play the part. After all, what is a drama without a villain? What is the building of this grand road if not a drama? Make no mistake: Blood will be spilled. Lives will be lost. Fortunes will be made. Men will be ruined. There will be betrayal and scandal. And perfidy of epic proportions. But the lion shall prevail.
“You see, the secret I know is this: All of history is driven by the lion. We drag the poor zebra, kicking and braying, staining the earth with his cheap blood. History doesn’t remember us fondly. But, then, history is written by zebras for the zebras.
“One hundred years hence, when this railroad spans the continent and America rises to be the greatest power the world has seen, I will be remembered as a caitiff — a malefactor — who only operated out of greed for personal gain. All true, all true. But remember this: Without me and men like me, your glorious railroad would never have been built.”
Hell on Wheels has been the story of Bohannon. But, like it or not, it has been the story of Durant as well. And you could say that, in the end, both men got what they were looking for.