Cullen Bohannon and The Swede have their final showdown.
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 508, “Two Soldiers.”
After a grisly opening flashback to horrors endured by Thor Gundersen (Christopher Heyerdahl) — aka The Swede — while held at the infamous Andersonville prisoner of war camp during the Civil War, “Two Soldiers” picks up where last year’s midseason finale left off, with Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount) trying to save his wife Naomi (Mackenzie Porter), their infant son and other members from her family from The Swede’s assault. The bad news: Cullen doesn’t arrive at the secluded Hatch family home in time to save Naomi’s parents and sister. The good news: Cullen survives being shot by The Swede, overcomes his longtime enemy — and, despite his serious leg wound, sets out to bring the varmint off to face justice at a fort several miles away.
During their long ride, The Swede taunts Cullen, pointedly reminding our hero of the many times he has hurt him — most notably, when he strangled poor Lily Bell, and then escaped being hanged for that crime, way back in the Season 2 finale. At times, The Swede seems to be daring Cullen to execute him. “You fear killing me,” he says, once again implying that the two of them are inextricably bound by their violent pasts. But Cullen emphatically disagrees: “I fear it would bring you peace, son of a bitch!”
As they near the fort. The Swede and Cullen engage in a final, frantic tussle that ends with soldiers riding to the scene just before The Swede kills his captor. While Cullen undergoes painful surgery to save his leg, The Swede is tried, convicted and sentenced to death. He doesn’t escape the noose this time; as Cullen watches, he is hanged. Before he meets his maker, however, The Swede is allowed the opportunity to give his final words. Echoing his defiant comeback to a sadistic Confederate guard years earlier at Andersonville, he rejects the nickname with which he has been cursed: “I am Thor Gunderson — from Norway.”
Takeaway No. 1
It’s entirely conceivable that someone viewing Hell on Wheels for the very first time might appreciate “Two Soldiers,” if only for the pungent dialogue (courtesy of co-scripters Thomas Brady and executive producer John Wirth), the tension-building direction of Michael Nankin — and the drop-dead extraordinary performances of Anson Mount and Christopher Heyerdahl. But this is very much an episode designed to provide unique satisfaction (and, yes, a sense of closure) for faithful viewers of the show. Which, of course, leaves us with even higher expectations for the rest of this final season’s long goodbye.
Takeaway No. 2
Right from the start, during the vividly detailed and downright squirm-inducing flashbacks to Andersonville, “Two Soldiers” skillfully strikes echoes of dialogue and dramatic moments from seasons past. As early as Season 1, The Swede has been recalling the horrors that beset him — and inevitably shaped him — during his struggle to survive in the POW camp. In Episode 508, we finally see that he wasn’t exaggerating, and maybe even was understating, when he spoke of awakening to find a famished friend and fellow prisoner gnawing on his arm. The Swede winds up drowning the fellow who tried to feast on him — which, by the way, may partially explain the jarringly serene look on his face when Cullen nearly drowns him. (Worth remembering: Drowing was The Swede's murder method of choice when he killed the Mormon bishop back in Episode 306.)
Takeaway No. 3
Elsewhere in “Two Soldiers,” the writers shrewdly planted several other reminders of previous episodes. For example: Near the end, when the condemned Swede asks Cullen to mercy-kill him, faithful fans doubtless will flash back to times when our hero actually did put friends and acquaintances out of their misery — most notably, when Cullen dispatched the brain-damaged Elam Ferguson in the unforgettable Episode 407. And when Cullen, wearing an enigmatic expression that bears no trace of satisfaction, silently watches while The Swede foams and twitches and ultimately expires at the end of a rope, you can safely assume he’s recalling when he was compelled to witness the execution of the woman who loved him, the tragic Ruth Cole.
Takeaway No. 4
There’s a moment near the end of their journey when Cullen, hobbling yet determined, literally drags The Swede toward their destination. Not for the first time on this show, Cullen appears to be carrying his very own cross. Throughout the series, but particularly in the last two seasons, Cullen has been intent on transcending his violent past — sometimes, at his own peril. When Naomi questions why he doesn’t simply drop the hammer on The Swede, and not run the risk of transporting him to the far-off fort, Cullen explains: “He will hang.” “Then why go?” Naomi responds. “End it here.” Cullen silently shakes his head. It’s not so much the old western movie cliché of a man having to do what a man has to do. Rather, it’s another expression of Cullen’s profound desire to get a shot at redemption. Unfortunately, there’s a limit to how far even the best of intentions will carry you away from your past. After the surgery at the fort, Cullen is warned that some pieces of the bullet fired by The Swede can never be removed from his leg. “It’s part of you now,” the doctor explains. “You’ll be carrying that around for the rest of your life.” Along with all the rest of his baggage.
Takeaway No. 5
Did you ever think you’d ever find yourself feeling sorry for The Swede? Did you ever think you’d see Christopher Heyerdahl sporting as much hair in this series as he does in Episode 508’s opening moments? And tell the truth: While Cullen was undergoing surgery, didn’t you expect — and dread — that our hero would have his leg amputated?