November 23, 2014

SHOWBUZZDAILY Season Finale Review: “Hell On Wheels”


The fourth (and as it turns out penultimate) season of AMC’s HELL ON WHEELS was its most conventional and choppily focused.  Under showrunner John Wirth (the show’s 3rd in that post), the neo-western has abandoned its original concept of post-Civil War protagonist Cullen Bohannan (Anson Mount) as a man of murderous vengeance and turned him into a traditionally taciturn and intense good guy, and this season its theme of building the transcontinental railroad was mostly in the background as well.  Hell has always had an uncertain hand with its supporting players (it’s never satisfactorily replaced one-time female lead Lily Bell, who didn’t survive Season 2), and that was more true this year than ever.  Colorful railroad magnate Thomas Durant (Colm Meaney) was mostly marginalized, and although it was apparently the choice of the actor Common to concentrate on his musical career that led to the death of his valuable character Elam Ferguson, Bohannan’s only friend, the show itself decided to kill off complicated preacher lady Ruth Cole (Kasha Kropinski), while it stubbornly refused to let go of  its craziest character, accountant/psychopathic murderer/fake Mormon bishop Thor Gundersen (Christopher Heyerdahl), who spent much of the season traveling with none other than Brigham Young (guest star Gregg Henry).

Season 4 lurched from one mini-story arc to another, starting with Bohannan more or less imprisoned in a Mormon fort after taking young Naomi (Siobhan Williams) as his wife once he’d impregnated her, then moving the family to the railroad hub of Cheyenne, from which Naomi and Bohannan’s son soon exited (back to the fort) not to be seen for the rest of the season.  A pair of episodes re-introduced Elam, last seen attacked by a bear, as a madman whom Bohannan eventually had to put out of his misery with a bullet, then another set of hours had Ruth kill sociopathic deputy Sydney Snow (guest star Jonathan Scarfe) after he was responsible for the death of her adopted son in a fire, and insist on being hung for the crime.  The initially promising plotline that introduced John Campbell (Jake Weber), the first Governor of Wyoming, as an ambiguous civilizing influence (Hell at its most Deadwood-ish) made Campbell little more than a well-spoken thug, and for some reason included lesbian newspaper editor Louise Ellison (Jennifer Ferrin) suddenly turning straight so she could have an affair with him.  Some of these episodes were effective in isolation, especially the Ruth arc (mostly because of Kropinski’s commanding performance), but the season was never able to develop much of a head of steam.

Tonight’s season finale, written by Wirth and Consulting Producer John Romano and directed by Adam Davidson, served mostly as a transition to Season 5.  Bohannan went back to the Mormon fort in search of Naomi and his son, only to find everyone there dead (by smallpox), and he journeyed on to Salt Lake City, where he learned that Naomi’s vengeful mother had sent her daughter and grandson west before she died.  Conveniently, Durant’s Central Pacific competitor Collis Huntington (guest star Tim Guinee) was eager to have Bohannan join his railroad for its westward push, and he joined them, although he doesn’t yet know that the Central Pacific’s Mormon workers are led by Gundersen, setting things up for a final to-the-death confrontation between those two before the series ends.  Saloon owner/pimp/entrepreneur Mickey McGinnes (Phil Burke), now joined by Eva (Robin McLeavy) as the head of his prostitution division, are also headed west along Durant’s trail, so the show seems to be leaving Cheyenne behind for good.

Hell On Wheels is a handsomely produced show, which makes good use of its Canadian locations to simulate the untamed west, and Mount provides a strong presence as Cullen Bohannan, balanced nicely by Meaney as the more talkative if less trustworthy Durant.  It’s never quite been able to put itself together as a fully satisfying drama, though, and this season was more uneven than most, as though the writers had only figured out where the show was going to be a week or two in advance of any given episode.  The ratings, while stable and not bad for Saturday nights, have been less than thrilling, leading AMC to issue its final order (which in the network’s usual cost-cutting way will actually air over two years, eight episodes in each of 2015 and 2016).  Perhaps the knowledge that the end of its line is near will finally lead Hell On Wheels to lay its own track more effectively for the final stretch of its run.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."