The rival construction crews near their date with destiny.
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 513, “Railroad Men.”
They’re still working on the railroad, all the live-long day, and reporter Louise Ellison is on the scene to cover the progress of the rival Union Pacific and Central Pacific construction crews as they race to the finish line in Ogden, Utah. Unfortunately, that progress is significantly impeded when workers from both teams are lured away to labor at The Six-Mile Canyon Mine, where the overseer is a fellow known as The Pirate. Cullen (representing the Central Pacific) and Mickey (now a Union Pacific stockholder) go to the mine to find out who’s been pilfering their employees — and discover The Pirate is none other than James Strobridge, who’s still resentful after being canned by the Central Pacific back in Episode 510. Not surprisingly, Strobridge won’t allow his new Chinese employees to take a couple days off to help Cullen win the race to Ogden. (He also refuses to let his Irish workers make a fleeting return to the Union Pacific crew.)
Disappointed but undaunted, Cullen steels himself for the formidable challenge of laying ten miles of track in a single day. Before he starts, however, he takes time for a chat with Eva, who tells him why she left the Indian tribe with whom she’d lived for years — if she hadn’t left with her U.S. Cavalry “rescuers,” the tribe would have been massacred — and pointedly tells him that, sometimes, the “loving thing to do” for someone you love is leave. (The words have noticeable impact on Cullen, who’s obviously missing Mei something awful after her departure.) Cullen also shares a drink with Psalms, thanking his former co-worker for past favors and toasting him as “the best goddamn railroad man in the business.” And he has another drink with Mickey, who notes that, while the Union Pacific crew doesn’t have quite as much work to do before reaching Ogden, “After all this time, I’ve learned never to bet against Cullen Bohannon.”
And so the race begins. Huntington tries (and fails) to bribe John Campbell, who’s been appointed by President Grant as Deputy Secretary of the Interior (and, more important, official arbiter of who wins the race to Ogden). Durant orders his workers to cut corners and move faster. Louise dictates observations: “Race will be won by feet, not miles. By heart, not manpower.” Ultimately, however, it all comes down to Cullen’s ability to inspire loyalty. First, Chinese workers return from the mine to finish when they started. Then, after Durant makes the major mistake of condescending to his laborers once too often, Psalms leads a group of his fellow freemen over to the Central Pacific side. Cullen personally drives the final spike — and Huntington claims victory.
But, of course, it doesn’t end there. Durant interrupts a conclave between Huntington and Campbell to announce that President Grant has changed the rules of the game, so that inspectors will be brought in to survey the quality of the construction work – and inspect the accounting books of both the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific teams. Huntington agree to let Durant declare himself the winner — as long as Huntington can hold on to a large sum of government money (and set fire to all incriminating evidence). The episode ends with a very drunk Cullen leaving the end-of-construction festivities, wandering back to his railcar — and weeping like a man whose heart is breaking because he misses the woman he loves.
Takeaway No. 1
OK, tell the truth: For a few moments, you feared Cullen was having a fatal heart attack at the end there, right?
Takeaway No. 2
Kudos to Tim Guinee and Jake Weber for their charged give-and-take as Huntington vainly attempts to win Campbell’s favor by fair means or foul. Huntington relies on grandiloquence, and then outright bribery, while pressing Campbell to tip the scales in his favor. But Campbell isn’t so easily swayed. Indeed, he appears at once amused and contemptuous as he delivers a withering put-down: “You’re every bit the snake that [Durant] is.” Scripters John Wirth and Thomas Brady give Guinee and Weber some choice dialogue throughout the episode, and these two exceptional actors make the absolute most of every line.
Takeaway No. 3
Let us now praise Dohn Norwood, whose robust and reliable supporting performance as Psalms Jackson has been invaluable yet under-rated throughout the run on Hell on Wheels. He and Anson Mount bring out the best in each other as Psalms and Cullen pay tribute to each other’s professionalism in a scene that plays like something straight out of a classic Howard Hawks western.
Takeaway No. 4
And while we’re handing out compliments: Robin McLeavy and Phil Burke take full advantage of their own opportunities to shine in Episode 513, giving us fresh insights into their characters while interacting with Mount, who once again proves that he reacts just as impressively as he acts.
Takeaway No. 5
Yes, it’s the second-to-last episode and, no, we don’t want Hell on Wheels to end. But consider: Cullen certainly seems to have developed a taste for Asian cuisine. And he’s taught himself quite a bit of Chinese. Do you think he might be preparing himself for a trip somewhere to reconnect with someone?