No Salvation for the Pure of Heart – Hell on Wheels S04E11-12 Recap
The excitement for Hell on Wheels fans was palpable. When AMC announced the fourth season of the transcontinental railroad saga would be 13 episodes instead of the usual 10, there was every reason to expect an increase in the dramatic impact as well. Unfortunately, the first of these three extra installments have lessened the dramatic impact of the earlier ones. While they are well-done and have some gripping moments, the overall effect is that of filler. While it has not ruined the season it proves (as with so many other things in life) less really is more.
The first of the new episodes, “Bleeding Kansas” (S04E11), goes back to the end of the previous installment and the gunfight that wasn’t. Ruth (Kasha Kropinski), the church lady who stood out as one of the forces for civilization, has just shot the evil gunman Sydney Snow (Jonathan Scarfe). Cullen Bohanon (Anson Mount) struggles to save the grievously wounded pistoleer. For his part, Snow does not want to survive if it means he will be able to walk up the gallows to his execution. Cullen brings railroad baron and “Doc” Thomas C. Durant (Colm Meaney) to treat Snow. His reasoning for saving the man he was ready to shoot earlier that same day is simple: if Snow dies, Ruth will be hanged for murder. Taking extreme measures (a gruesome amputation of a leg that will remind some viewers of another AMC series, “The Walking Dead”) means nothing when Snow tries to escape. Tearing up the stitches designed to stop the bleeding, Snow dies. Ruth is arrested for his killing.
On the surface this episode does not seem to offer much that is new. We do not come to any new understanding or sympathy for Snow. What makes the installment compelling anyway are the flashbacks to Ruth’s past. Growing up in territorial Kansas before the Civil War, she sees her family massacred in the battle over whether slavery would be permitted there. It becomes clear that religion offered her a way out of the heartache and bitterness that seem to be all life offers her. Her loss of faith and willingness to kill thus make her more tragic than is clear at first. Her action seems almost a suicide by murder and there looks to be no way her story can end well.
The next episode, “Thirteen Steps” (S04E12), shows the trial. Ruth adamantly refuses Cullen’s attempts to save her life. She considers herself to be guilty and refuses to make any other plea. Cullen tells Territorial Governor John Campbell (Jake Weber) he will know no peace in Cheyenne if he allows the former minister to hang. He is perfectly willing to pardon her, but she will not accept this charity, nor will she go along with Cullen’s idea to put her on the train for New York. She points out she was ready to leave town, to go back to Omaha with Ezra, the boy killed by Snow; Cullen had asked her to stay then.
An angry Cullen leaves, telling Durant he can do nothing for her. Doc replies that he needs to be with her now. He goes back and tears down the gallows under construction for the next day’s public hanging. A sleepless night in the jail cell ends with Ruth telling Cullen she loves him, but was a coward never to tell him before. She asks if he loves his wife Naomi. When Cullen replies that he might, Ruth urges him to go to her. He does not stay for the execution (shown – effectively – from Ruth’s vantage point), going back to use a new steam shovel to move a pile of rocks. He marches to Durant’s tent, announcing, “I quit.”
The highlight of this installment was the all-nighter in jail of Ruth and Cullen. The obvious attraction she felt for him all season is finally brought to the fore; Ruth’s smoldering morphs into a resigned depression. The world has bested her attempts to overcome tragedy and she does not seem too surprised at this outcome.
This Saturday brings the concluding episode for the season. As AMC recently announced the renewal of “Hell on Wheels” for a fifth and final season, a cliffhanger is practically a required element. While the performances in the past two installments has been excellent and some set pieces have offered memorable glimpses of characters, these extras have lost a bit of momentum from the summer episodes. While the dramatic impact of the original ten is not destroyed it has been lessened a bit. Here’s hoping the conclusion will leave us wanting more.
– Louis Burklow (aka, Hollywood Country Boy), Senior Staff Writer, Phoenix Genesis
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