Seasons 1 – 3
A couple of years ago I reviewed a TV Western that had quality, Hell on Wheels, about the construction of the Union Pacific Railroad. It was good, occasionally very good. At the time only Season 1 was available on Netflix; I have now seen Seasons 2 and 3, so I thought I’d do an update. There were two more runs of the show but Netflix hasn’t offered them, at least yet, so I think I’m going to have to buy the DVD of Seasons 4 & 5; when I do, I’ll post a final update.
“Hell on Wheels,” Wikipedia tells us, “was the itinerant collection of flimsily assembled gambling houses, dance halls, saloons, and brothels that followed the army of Union Pacific railroad workers westward as they constructed the First Transcontinental Railroad in 1860s North America. The huge numbers of wage-earning young men working in what was a remote wilderness, far from the constraints of home, provided a lucrative opportunity for business. As the end of the line continually moved westward, Hell on Wheels followed along, reconstructing itself on the outskirts of each town that became, in turn, the center of activity for the Union Pacific’s construction work.” The term seems first to have been coined by Springfield, Massachusetts Republican newspaper editor Samuel Bowles.
The whole notion contained many elements of the classic Western. Railroads, saloons, conflict with Indians, itinerant Westerners, guns. It was ideal subject matter for our beloved genre. John Ford showed Hell on Wheels in The Iron Horse, back in 1924, though it was a very sanitized version compared with the one the Canadian/American TV series gave us between 2011 and 2016.
The series was created and produced by Joe and Tony Gayton, though they seem to have been sidelined somewhat later on, and developed by Endemol USA, and it was produced by Entertainment One and Nomadic Pictures.
The show is very good. There are times when it almost approaches Deadwood, with its intense community of frontier lowlifes, the mud, and its concentration on a few colorful (and very violent) characters. It’s not as good as Deadwood, especially in the language, which aims at an ‘acceptable’ version of profanity (Deadwood went the whole hog) but it’s more than competently handled, it’s well acted (in the case of Colm Meaney very well) and the look of it is excellent.
Many of these shows like to focus in on a small group of characters. It makes the huge sweep of the story manageable and provides human interest. This series centers on ruthless railroad baron (all good railroad Westerns had to have one) Doc Durant (Meaney), a real character – pretty well the only one on the show – who really did single-mindedly drive the railroad across the country with scant regard for the niceties, and an ex-Confederate soldier determined to revenge himself on the murderers of his wife, Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount), who then becomes railroad boss in conflict with Durant.
Thomas ‘Doc’ Durant (1820 – 1885) studied medicine at Albany Medical College where, in 1840, he graduated cum laude and briefly served as assistant professor of surgery. He then became a director of his uncle’s grain exporting company in New York City, and it was there that he became convinced of the need for an extensive railroad network. He and his new partner Henry Farnam created a contracting company, Farnam and Durant, and in 1853 they were given the commission of raising capital and managing construction for the newly chartered Mississippi and Missouri Railroad (M&M). They hired an attorney, a certain Abraham Lincoln, when boat operators sued the company after a boat hit an M&M bridge. This relationship would later come in quite handy. In 1862 President Lincoln selected Durant’s new company, the Union Pacific, and its operation center in Council Bluffs, Iowa as the starting point of the First Transcontinental Railroad.
Durant soon gained a reputation for ruthlessness. He is said to have made a fortune smuggling contraband cotton from the Confederate states during the war. It was said of him that “Like Samson he would not hesitate to pull down the temple even if it meant burying himself along with his enemies.” This is quoted in the show. And he was supremely good at raising money and securing favorable national legislation. He had no qualms about what today would be called insider trading, and he very profitably talked up the stock of the M&M by saying the Union Pacific would link to it but secretly bought shares in a competing line and then announced that the UPR would link to that. Durant covered himself by having various politicians, including future President James Garfield, as limited stockholders. Calling him a shrewd operator doesn’t really cover it.
Since the government was paying $16,000 a mile, Durant had his engineers lay track in huge looping oxbows, even on the plain where a straight line would have been simpler, in order to lay more miles of track. This too is mentioned in the script of the show.
He triumphed. His railroad joined up with the Central Pacific at Promontory Point, Utah on May 10, 1869. Durant nearly didn’t get there. Over 400 laid-off unpaid graders and tie cutters chained his railcar to a siding in Piedmont, Wyoming until he wired money to pay them.
Durant was one of the richest and most famous men in America.
It didn’t end too well for him, though. Like many others, he lost a great deal of his wealth in the Panic of 1873. He spent the last twelve years of his life fighting lawsuits from disgruntled partners and investors, and died in 1885 aged 65.
As the UPR was pushing west, the Central Pacific Railroad (CPR) was moving east from Sacramento across the Rockies, bossed by another unscrupulous, not to say ruthless railroad baron, Collis P Huntington, and we shall meet him too in Hell on Wheels. Huntington (1821 – 1900) was just as proficient as Durant in oiling wheels in Washington, in other words liberally bribing politicians and administrators. Revelation of his misdeeds in 1883 made him one of the most hated railroad men in the country, though Huntington defended himself:
“The motives back of my actions have been honest ones and results have redounded far more to the benefit of California than they have to my own.”
Durant and Huntington became the models for the unscrupulous railroad baron in Westerns. One thinks immediately of Sergio Leone’s character Morton in Once Upon a Time in the West. John Marston portrayed Durant in the Paramount film Union Pacific (1939) and Forrest Fyre portrayed him in the mini-series, Into the West (2005). Irishman Colm Meaney makes a splendid Durant in Hell on Wheels. Colm lives up excellently to his name, which should probably be spelled meanie. Curiously, though, thanks to the actor and script, you can’t help liking him in a way, and wanting him to succeed.
As for the fictional Bohannon, Anson Mount’s mother was a pro golfer and his dad was an editor of Playboy, so that was an interesting start in life. Apparently his great-great-great grandfather was a Confederate cavalry colonel in the Civil War. He said, “I love the long-form format of television. I love being able to develop a character, over a long period of time.” I get that. He also said, “I love getting paid to ride a horse.” Yup. He’s pretty good as the revenge-driven tough guy and man-of-few-words – the sort who saves his breath for breathing.
The transcontinental railroad came to symbolize the bringing of civilization. It brought trade, settlers, goods and amenities, yet at the same time, paradoxically, it brought the flotsam and jetsam of human life to the plains – brothels, alcoholism, murder (the sign welcoming newcomers to Hell on Wheels announces the population as “one less every day”) and every kind of vice. There’s a telling bit when the Cheyenne ride in to parley and are shocked and appalled at the squalor and filth and debasement that they see.
The crew was cursed/blessed with heavy and prolonged rain during the shooting, the result being a sea of authentic mud. The making-of extras on the DVD are interesting and one comes to realize the huge number of people, and their skills, involved in the production of such a show. In the old days trains were two-a-penny and even the humblest second-feature Western would feature one (usually being robbed). Denver & Rio Grande even crashed two head-on. But Western trains are rare beasts these days and so the production teams made one – out of wood and Styrofoam, painted to look like weathered steel. Special effects provided the smoke and steam. Some vehicle pushed it and was then digitally edited out afterwards. Amazing. And it looks really authentic! They were able to rent 15,000 acres of pristine land in Alberta belonging to a Native American people, lay track and create a tent city there.
As is often the case these days, there was a series of guest directors, 26 in all.
Kevin Kiner was in charge of the music and he went down the present-day rather than the (then) contemporary route, with some jangly folksy stuff and the occasional dark ballad.
The 45-minute pilot opens in DC just after the death of Lincoln. A soldier who had been with Sherman in his scorched-earth campaign confesses in church and the ‘priest’ gives him a strange kind of absolution – he shoots the man dead. This is the start of Bohannon’s vengeance quest.
This quest brings him to the railroad camp at Council Bluffs, Iowa. On the way he meets two likely Irish lads, Mickey (Phil Burke) and Sean (Ben Esler) McGinnes, who are on their way to ‘make their fortune’. Sean is the shrewd one, with an eye for the main chance, while Mickey is on the dumb side. Interestingly, as the series progresses, the roles will reverse, and finally Cain and Abel will be referenced.
The brothers set up a tent with a magic lantern show, but are soon shaken down for protection money by the so-called head of security, the sinister Swede (Christopher Heyerdahl, very good), an ex POW in Andersonville. He is in fact Norwegian, as he often reminds us, but to Americans any Scandinavian is just another Swede.
Bohannon signs on with one-handed ex-Union soldier foreman, Johnson (Ted Levine), who, it will turn out, knows more than a little of how Bohannon’s wife came to perish. As an ex-slave owner, Bohannon is put in charge of the Negro workforce, the leading light among whom is Elam Ferguson, played by the rapper/actor Common.
There’s a tent church too, and we meet the Reverend Mr Cole (Tom Noonan), pro-Indian – he is appalled by the massacre at Sand Creek – but no shrinking violet. He rode with John Brown in Bleeding Kansas. His character too will develop well, and in Season 2 he will descend into alcoholism, have a crisis of faith and lose it entirely, in a way slightly reminiscent of Ray McKinnon’s Reverend Smith in Deadwood.
He has a ‘tame’ Indian as helper, whom he calls his son, Joseph Black Moon (Eddie Spears), a Cheyenne converted to Christianity. And we also meet the railroad surveyor, Robert Bell (Robert Moloney) who is ably assisted by his lovely English wife Lily (Dominique McElligott).
Unfortunately, the Cheyenne are not taking kindly to the iron horse and under Pawnee Killer who is Joseph’s brother but not at all tame (Gerald Auger) dog soldiers attack the surveying party and kill Robert with an arrow. Lily is frightfully brave and manages to kill an Indian and then escape – with the precious charts which map out the only feasible route westward the railroad can take.
At the end of the episode, Bohannon learns from foreman Johnson who actually killed his wife but before he can get details Johnson succumbs, as one is prone to do when one’s throat is cut…
Thus the plot is set up for the rest of season 1.
S1 E2 bears the title Immoral Mathematics, and these are the calculations the Swede, a former accountant, makes when estimating the value of a course of action. He has a sawn-off shotgun named Beauty which backs up his calculus. And by the way, the firearms, of which there are many in the show all seem authentic to the time (though at one point I noticed some suspiciously 1870s feed-in cartridges for a cap-and-ball pistol, but that’s just me being picky). I especially like Durant’s pepperbox, which he later replaces with a nifty little two-barrel pistol, with which he will murder a notable.
The Swede arrests and imprisons Bohannon for the murder of Johnson (though we viewers have seen that it was not in fact Cullen who did the deed). As the Swede has just hanged a horse thief, who still resides dangling from a telegraph pole, the omens do not look good for Bohannon. But he escapes and is sheltered by the clergyman in his tent church.
In S1 E3, A New Birth of Freedom, we follow the perils of Lily, as she (just) evades the Indians hunting her, while clinging on to her precious maps. She performs grisly prairie surgery on herself. Durant sends the Swede and some men out to find her. He doesn’t really care about her welfare but he needs those maps back. However, the posse is ineffective. Joseph, then Bohannon, the latter showing himself to be extremely proficient in a fight, will finally come to her rescue, Bohannon also adding a touch of open-air operating as he gets an arrowhead out of her shoulder. Ouch. We also get to know some of the whores, notably the interesting Eva (Robin McLeavy, first class) with a tattooed face dating from her time of captivity with Indians.
S1 E4, Jamais je t’oublierai, gets its title from a plaintive French song sung by Durant’s French butler Henri (Andrew Moodie) as the tycoon starts to woo the fair Lily. Bohannon gets hired by Durant (who knows a tough guy when he sees one) as replacement foreman. The new foreman hears that the sergeant who killed his wife is out at a nearby logging camp.
The title of S1 E5, Bread and Circuses, refers to the prize fight that Durant sets up between Bohannon and leading Negro Ferguson to distract the men from the awkward fact that he is having credit difficulties and there is, again, no cash to pay them. It’s a bloody and bruising battering they get (and bet on) with skullduggery involved too, so far from a fair fight.
We also meet our old pal Wes Studi, always one of the strongest Native American actors, as Chief Many Horses of the Cheyenne and the father of Joseph Black Moon and Pawnee Killer. It is traditional in Westerns to have a statesmanlike chief with a firebrand son and one who counsels treating with the white eyes, and Hell on Wheels is no exception. The Reverend Mr Cole’s daughter Ruth arrives and it transpires that she was abandoned by her clerical father, who wants little or nothing to do with her. There is also a viciously racist worker, Toole (Duncan Ollerenshaw), who seems to have a particular grudge against Ferguson.
Pride, Pomp and Circumstance, S1 E6, sees the arrival of a senator (James D Hopkin) who has come to dictate to the savages how they must accept the railroad and move to a reservation. Chief Many Horses is less than convinced. Joseph and Ruth seem to be attracted to each other. Not sure how that will go down with either father. It appears that Durant has been siphoning off railroad company funds, and the senator is on to it. Bohannon fires the obnoxious Toole. There’s a race between the locomotive and Pawnee Killer on a horse. Lily has some business with a hat. She decides to disinter the maps from their resting place and give them to Durant – for a price. The odious Toole whips up the mob.
S1 E7, Revelations, gives us Bohannon beginning to bond with Ferguson; he gives the Negro a shooting lesson. We see Ferguson as a young boy secretly and seditiously but successfully reading. Back in the present, Toole’s lackeys look set to lynch Ferguson, but Bohannon won’t allow that. There’s a good scene in which Lily, temporarily back East, meets the family of her late husband, and these women resemble black widow spiders, but Lily gives them short shrift. The crisis comes between Ferguson and Toole, with gunfire. Durant manages to screw the senator financially with a clever ploy, and then propositions the returned Lily.
Derailed, S1 E8, gives us a train crash, expertly and convincingly staged (the making-of extras on the DVD tell us how). The unsympathetic Mr Cole undergoes a crisis. The Irish brothers are not exactly making their fortune, though Sean, the canny one, did shrewdly bet on the right side in the prizefight – and probably influenced the result. They go to Chicago and return. There is some disagreement on the name of the battle of Antietam/Sharpsburg. There’s a posse with divided loyalties, a soldier shoots an Indian kid and there’s an attack.
S1 E9 is called Timshel, and right away Joseph shows his brother Pawnee Killer where his loyalties lie. Ferguson takes a scalp. The Swede beats a prostitute for not paying protection money. Lily herself starts surveying – that was the price she demanded for the maps. Toole, whom we thought shot dead by Ferguson, returns, penitent. There seems to be a plot cooking to oust the Swede. The senator uses his contacts in Illinois to locate the missing sergeant that Bohannon is seeking (he missed him at that logging camp). The railroad makes the 40-mile mark, so now the $16,000 a mile government subsidy kicks in. Is Lily attracted more to Bohannon than to Durant? There’s a kiss – and a beheading.
In the last installment of Season 1, S1 E10, God of Chaos, there’s a flashback to Bohannon in the war and we see the fate of his wife. The Swede, who seems increasingly obsessed, meets the mysterious ex-sergeant at Council Bluffs and then returns to the camp with him. There’s a dance, and the reformed Toole is very polite. Ruth and Joseph take a turn on the dance floor. Bohannon and the sergeant come to blows, finally, and the encounter is fatal for one of them – but the ex-soldier pleads that he was not present at the occasion of Mrs Bohannon’s rape and murder. Perhaps he was innocent after all? The sergeant being guilty or not, the US marshals are now after our hero, who is obliged to go on the run.
Here endeth Season 1.
Season 2, which began its first airing in August 2012, opened with a train robbery in S2 E1, Viva La Mexico. Rather to our surprise Bohannon is one of the robbers. He is now part of a gang of renegade Rebs who aim, maybe one day, to join Shelby down in Mexico, once they have enough money. But actually, they’re just robbers. The trouble is, they’re stealing the UPR payroll, so that does not please Mr Durant – or his workers, who aren’t getting paid.
Meanwhile Joseph is now preaching, but not very successfully. The Irish boys are selling town lots and Sean is sweet on Ruth, the preacher’s daughter. Bohannon beats up a couple of Yankees and some graves are dug up. The reformed Mr Toole marries Eva. The Swede has been demoted to the lowly profession of collecting the camp’s night soil. One of Bohannon’s robberies goes bad.
S2 E2 is called Durant, Nebraska. There’s quite a lot of love-making between characters. There’s a weird burial and a (rather well staged) Indian attack on the new town of Durant. Later this town will be renamed Cheyenne, to Mr Durant’s chagrin. Actually, I think the town of Durant was established in Iowa, while Cheyenne, then in Dakota Territory, was first named Crow Creek Crossing but was almost immediately renamed Cheyenne. Never mind. A train-posse sets out after the robbers. The Swede has palled up with the preacher; not easy to say which is the more reprobate. The new foreman (replacing Bohannon) is not a savory type either and Elam stabs him for killing a whore. Bohannon returns.
S2 E3, Slaughterhouse, is ominously titled, and starts with a pretty gross pig-killing. The butcher is a German, friend of the dead foreman, and he seeks revenge on his killer or killers. But the butcher does not survive the attentions of the Irish brothers, who treat him rather like one of the pigs. Eva loves Elam.
As you might guess from the title of S2 E4, Scabs, there’s a strike of railroad workers and the bosses try to ship in new ones to replace them. It doesn’t go smoothly. Eva’s pregnant; but is the baby Toole’s or Elam’s? Ah, who knows? In any case Mr Toole seems to be backsliding into his old ways of bigotry.
In S2 E5, The Railroad Job, and S2E6, Purged Away with Blood, Bohannon’s erstwhile criminal colleagues plan another heist without him (he’s foreman again now) this time not on a train but on the railroad HQ. Durant is shot. The Reb doc (Grainger Hines, very good) tries to help but the bullet is lodged against Durant’s spine and the surgery is beyond him. Durant must go by train to Chicago. But will he survive the trip?
The Reverend dries out with the Swede’s help. Said Swede has somehow acquired a case of repeater rifles that went missing from the UPR store. For reasons of pro-Indian principles on the preacher’s part and sheer malicious glee on the Swede’s, they give these to the Cheyenne dog soldiers. As you know, supplying Indians with rifles in Westerns is situated on the scale of awfulness somewhere between matricide and cannibalism, so this won’t go down well with the whites – or the ‘civilized’ Indians, for that matter, because the Reverend’s adopted son Joseph stops his white daddy’s schemes somewhat definitively. The bad guys led by the preacher hold up Doc’s train. Can Bohannon save the day? Yes. But the cavalry arrive and the most sympathetic of the gang, Bohannon’s friend Doc, is taken. He asks Bohannon for a favor.
In S2 E7, The White Spirit, the Swede goes to some extremes and paints himself white to pass himself off as a god to the Cheyenne. When clothed, though, he is now doing the books for the railroad (he’d been a quartermaster in the war). Bohannon does not take kindly to this, and makes his point with the butt of his rifle prior to locking him up in the rail car that serves as jail. Lily seems to be running things in Durant’s absence and she releases the Swede: there’s no evidence against him. The Irish boys have set their sights on the saloon. They will stop at naught to get it. Lily is obviously attracted to Bohannon, and, let it be said, vice versa. Elam quits. Bohannon considers quitting too. Sean and Mickey get their saloon.
S2 E8, The Lord’s Day, Durant is back. He has recovered – more or less. He has needed liberal doses of laudanum to get through the ordeal and he’s now basically a hophead. He has brought with him Mrs Durant, so Lily is sidelined. There’s an awkward dinner. Joseph, full of remorse at eliminating the preacher, goes back to his people; this leaves the way open for Sean to woo Ruth, though religion will come between them. You’d think it would be alright, what with both being Christians and all, but they are of different denominations, you see, a Catholic boy and a Congregationalist girl. It won’t do. The railroad needs to build a bridge and a steam winch is essential to raise it, but the Swede sabotages the engine. He uses a Norwegian penny, so seems to want to be found out. The Irish brothers fall out. Mrs D evicts Lily from her railroad car accommodations. An irritated Bohannon burns the Swede’s tent.
In S2 E9, Blood Moon, Durant is a full-on addict. Lucy has been relegated to the job of freight clerk. Bohannon reveals that he had a posh background. Durant pays Elam to kill someone for him and Elam may build his own house as a payment. Is it his friend Bohannon he must kill? Is it Lily? Durant wants them both out of the way. Lily takes a ledger that proves Durant’s embezzlement. Bohannon is offered a partnership if he will put the fraud investigators off. And Mr Toole, Eva’s husband, feeling cuckolded by Elam, opts for a dramatic solution.
Now, most annoyingly Netflix opted not to make available the climax to Season 2, Episode 10, Blood Moon Rising. We jump straight from S2 E9 to the start of S3, where someone refers to “the late Mrs Lily Bell”, so we assume that Lily has been written out. Pity, she was rather gorgeous. Evidently the Indians attacked, big time. A bit of a bummer, that. Maybe I’ll see it eventually on the DVD.
The next season began, on August 10, 2013, with S3 E1, Big Bad Wolf. It opened in the extreme cold. Changes have occurred between seasons: Durant is “wintering on the Hudson,” as he puts it. He is in prison. Bohannon, with Elam posing as his gentleman’s gentleman, go to New York and visit a high-class tailor in order to secure their positions on the railroad. The directors have nominated, at the imprisoned Durant’s behest, the weak nephew of one of them to run the road; Bohannon makes short work of that appointment. He is confirmed in his job. We meet rival railroad baron Collis Huntington (Tim Guinee) head of the competing CPR which is moving successfully from the West, using Chinese labor. Huntington tries to recruit Bohannon. Eva has a baby girl; the infant seems white. Durant engineers a release by bribing a judge. Bohannon throws his citified derby off the train and resumes wearing his broad-brimmed hat.
S3 E2 bears the title Eminent Domain and is justly named, for it revolves around a Mormon rancher, Hatch (James Shanklin) who is as supple and amenable as steel. His response to Bohannon’s relatively polite request to move (his farm is in the way of the railroad) is responded to by the shooting dead of Bohannon’s new railroad police chief (Matthew Glave). The shot came from a shuttered house, so we do not see who fired it. Hatch says his son did, and hands him over. The son does not deny it, and is hanged for murder. Bohannon does this despite believing that it was Hatch himself who killed the policeman. The action will come back to haunt him. All this is witnessed, and written about, by a new arrival, New York Tribune writer Miss Ellison (Jennifer Ferrin), who has been exiled to the frontier because she was too, er, friendly with Editor Horace Greeley’s daughter. Sean is now working for Durant, but playing a dangerous double game. Elam replaces the deceased Barlow as police chief.
S3 E3, Range War, starts with a scalped but still alive (for the moment) homesteader. I say for the moment because in addition to the scalping he has an arrow protruding from his gut. The Indians, it seems, have stolen railroad cattle, essential for feeding the crews. Naturally, Bohannon organizes pursuit. It turns out to have been distinctly paleface rustlers who did the deed. They do not prosper. We meet Declan Toole (Damian O’Hare), Eva’s brother-in-law, a none too gentle New York cop, who has come to the camp to take Eva and the new baby back East. Apparently it’s the custom among the Irish community. It’s not my custom, rebuts Eva. A rancher seemingly in cahoots with Durant, Mrs Palmer (Chelah Horsdal) does a deal with Bohannon to provide beef. And we meet up with the Swede again. He is up to no good once more, this time slimily working his way into the good graces of a Mormon bishop, making his way out to Fort Smith with his wife and son. The US Army commits atrocities. There’s another bizarre funeral as Bohannon places severed heads in a cemetery.
In S3 E4, The Game, we meet Jimmy Two Squaws (Brent Briscoe), a coonskin-hatted mountain man figure who assures Bohannon and Elam that he can negotiate with the Kiowa for timber to cut needed ties. Jimmy manages to get them into a game of stickball which makes ice hockey look like a sissy’s pastime. It will not go well. Jimmy neglected to tell the railroad men that if they quit, or lose, they will die by fire. Eventually, though, the trapper gets a new name, Jimmy Three Squaws. In a dramatic ending, Eva’s daughter is babynapped.
S3 E5 is called Searchers (not The Searchers) as the railroad men, Elam at their head (for he definitely considers the bay his, white or not) search for the abducted infant. Bohannon is conflicted because the men need to move the ‘town’, now, before heavy rain hits. He can’t afford the time for a baby hunt. But his humanity prevails. Elam’s brother Psalms (Dohn Norwood) imprisons Declan Toole, and it doesn’t look good for him. But it turns out that Toole is innocent of babynapping. So where is the child? Durant offers a reward (just to slow Bohannon down). Bohannon and Elam return in triumph bearing a bundle that we are supposed to take for the babe. The rains come.
At the start of S3 E6, One Less Mule, we go back to the Swede, who drowns Mr & Mrs Mormon Bishop and dons the bishop’s mantle. But the young son escapes. It looks like Bohannon is going to lose his job. Elam proposes to Eva. The brother of the man Bohannon shot in S1 E1 comes to camp seeking revenge, but doesn’t get it because he is honest. Bohannon forms an unlikely friendship, with General US Grant, running for president. Durant is named Cheyenne. But Grant wants Bohannon as railroad boss. Bohannon fires the untrustworthy Sean. The episode gets its title from Bohannon’s way of dealing with a track blockage.
As you may imagine from the title, S3 E7, Cholera, tells how Hell on Wheels is struck by mortal disease. Water is ultra-scarce, clean water even more so. Durant brings his nifty pistol to bear upon fat US Senator Metcalf (Wayne Duvall), blames it on Sean and the Irish brothers dispose of the bulky corpse in the fire pit where the cholera victims are burned. But Mickey, now very much the stronger of the pair, has had it with Sean. Eva professes love for Elam yet still offers to go to New York with Declan Toole. Bohannon gets cholera too, though seems remarkably resilient and recovers strangely quickly once he gets a drink of clean water. Odd, that. He gets that drink from a little boy, who turns out to be none other than the escaped son of the late Mormon bishop. Traumatized, the child is mute. The Negroes build a windmill to pump the new-found water for the camp. Toole leaves for NYC with the bairn.
In S3 E8, It Happened in Boston, a deeply hurt and furious Elam kicks Eva out and tells her to go back to whoring. Bohannon finds himself with a straight razor at Durant’s throat and blood is spilled. A detective (Colby French) – not a Pinkerton though – arrives from Boston to investigate the disappearance of Senator Metcalf. He is Hercule Poirot-like in his intuitiveness though considerably more muscular. Bohannon says no to the CPR. The boy speaks: his name is Ezra. One Irish brother kills another.
S3 E9, Fathers and Sins, approaches the climax (we actually are allowed to see the climax of this season). Bohannon has nearly got the road to Cheyenne. He and Elam are invited there; it seems that Durant wants to capitulate. But while they are in the burgeoning community (where Mrs Palmer has built a very fancy hotel) a Mormon posse, after Bohannon for his sins, led by the despicable Hatch, descends upon the new town with fire and sword – well firearms anyway. There’s a major gunfight. It’s a bit odd because we saw the Mormon posse clearly approaching Cheyenne, and there were eight of them. Yet once in town there seems to be an endless supply who have to be dispatched. Maybe the producers were short of extras and stuntmen in the earlier scene. Anyway, they biff Bohannon and take him back to Fort Smith. That’s awkward because now he can’t officially bring in the railroad, and in absentia he is deprived of his post in favor of, yup, Mr Durant. Miss Ellison takes the evicted Eva in, though Eva (unjustly) suspects ulterior motives.
And so we come to the final episode for the moment, S3 E10, Get Behind the Mule. Bohannon awakes in the Mormon stockade. He is put on trial, though as you may imagine, it’s not exactly due process – especially because the presiding judge is the bishop and of course it’s none other than Bohannon’s nemesis, the Swede. Elam mounts a single-handed rescue mission but gets into it with a bear. While Bohannon had been at Hatch’s ranch, negotiating, he had, ahem, consorted with Hatch’s daughter Naomi (Siobhan Williams). This scene was strangely brief, almost to the point of incomprehension at the time, and I suspect censorship. In any case, it seemed a bit out of character. Anyway, there were consequences. The girl is now with child. Bohannon makes a bargain and the Swede sadistically agrees, for Bohannon will suffer more. There’s a bit very reminiscent of True Grit with one rider against four in a clearing. Back in Cheyenne, Mickey runs for mayor and Eva has a premonition. The End.
So there you go, an Episode Guide, for Seasons 1 – 3. It’s a good show. I recommend it.