July 23, 2016

SHOWBUZZDAILY Series Finale Review: “Hell On Wheels”


The final season of AMC’s HELL ON WHEELS was a sprawl, made worse by the network’s decision to play the season in two chunks separated by a year.  This last stretch of 7 episodes was particularly choppy.  One hour was a virtual two-hander for hero Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount) and arch-foe The Swede (Christopher Heyerdahl); another was devoted to the disastrous, fraudulent kidnapping of Union Pacific honcho and eternal schemer Thomas Durant (Colm Meaney); a third featured the final confrontation between Mei (Angela Zhou), Bohannon’s Season 5 love and a Chinese immigrant who was masquerading as a young man, and the evil loanshark and pimp Chang (Byron Mann), who had discovered her secret; and so on.  There was even a flash-forward to inform us of Durant’s eventual fate years after the story of the series would be over.  Individual episodes were fine in and of themselves, and sometimes better than that, but the season was never able to develop a rhythm.

Tonight’s series finale, written by Co-Executive Producer Jami O’Brien and Producer Thomas Brady, and directed by David Von Ancken (who had directed the pilot 5 years ago) went in two more directions.  Last week’s episode had brought to an exciting climax the competition between the Union Pacific and Central Pacific about who would reach the finish line of the transcontinental railway line first.  (In typical Hell On Wheels fashion, the marginally more moral Central won, but Durant stole the credit for the Union Pacific anyway.)  The finale was more of an epilogue with a pair of parallel storylines, one centering on Bohannon and the other on former Apache captive, whore and madam Eva (Robin McLeavy), both of whom were faced with temptations.  Bohannon spent much of the hour in Washington DC, where he was asked to testify to Congress about Durant’s corruption, and offered a Colonel’s commission in the Union Army by President Ulysses S. Grant, a grand irony for a former Confederate who we first saw murdering Union soldiers responsible for the deaths of his family.  Eva, for her part, was given the chance to exploit her life story by having a book written about her and delivering lectures that would paint the Apache as savages.

Both, of course, resisted.  Bohannon, despite all he knew of Durant, refused to testify to anything but the man’s invaluable part in the making of the railway, and after spending a little time with Colonel George Armstrong Custer, he walked away from his new commission, while Eva shook off the symbolically tight dress she was supposed to wear for her lecture.  When we last saw them, Bohannon was on a boat to China to find Mei (a fairly predictable conclusion once he’d learned that the farewell note she’d left him in Chinese was actually her address), and Eva was on the wild horse she’d tamed, riding into the horizon.

For fans of the show, the finale offered some callbacks, including Bohannon’s return to the DC church where he’d murdered a union soldier in the pilot, and barkeep Mickey McGinnes (Phil Burke) throwing out the rosy slides that he and his brother had once used to entertain railroad workers.  As always, the episode was well-produced, belying what had to be a limited budget.  Mount, Meaney and McLeavy all got some meaty material for their final hour (although the last we saw of Durant, he was delivering an unfortunately self-righteous speech to Congress, which became the voice-over narratiun of the final sequences).

In a way, the uneven quality of Hell On Wheels‘ final season was fitting for a show that never quite settled into a groove.  Far from being auteur television, it had a succession of showrunners, and that was evident as the series frequently changed focus and tone.  Mount’s classically taciturn western hero helped to hold things together, and so did the show’s attention to history.  Hell On Wheels, much as one might imagine a ride on the actual Transcontinental Railway would have been in the 1870s, delivered a ride that was bumpy, but that arrived at its destination nevertheless.

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."