Episode Title: "God of Chaos"
Writers: Tony Gayton & Joe Gayton
Director: David Von Ancken
Previously on "Hell on Wheels":
In flashback, we see Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount) returning from the Civil War only to find his home ransacked and his barn on fire. He looks through the house for his wife, Mary and he discovers her dead in a hangman's noose. Sometime later after burying his wife and son, Cullen rides away from the home, never to return. In the present, Cullen is looking for his current nemesis, The Swede (Christopher Heyerdahl) after learning that he had alerted Federal Marshals about Cullen's bloody vengeance for his family… which includes several Union soldiers that Cullen killed back east.
The McGinnes brothers, Sean (Ben Esler) and Mickey (Phil Burke) tell Cullen that The Swede rode out of Hell on Wheels with two bottles of whiskey, presumably to get drunk. But in reality, The Swede has located Sergeant Harper (Ian Kilburn), the last man alive who was partially responsible for Mary Bohannon's death. By plying the desperate man with booze, The Swede convinces Harper to return to Hell on Wheels and testify against Cullen. Back in Hell on Wheels, Cullen notices Lily Bell (Dominique McElligott) attempting to install her own floorboards beneath her tent.
Lily swallows her pride and asks Cullen for his help; which he gives. They start to bond over the chore until Cullen discloses that he lost his wife and son to the war. He tries to leave, but Lily urges him not to let the man his family loved die for the sake of vengeance. Thomas "Doc" Durant (Colm Meaney) sees Cullen emerge from Lily's tent and he is instantly jealous. Durant then approaches Lily with a new dress and he asks her to stand by his side to impress some potential new investors for the railroad at the night's fancy party.
Meanwhile, Reverend Cole (Tom Noonan) is attempting to dispose of Lieutenant Griggs (Ty Olsson); after Cole went all Spartacus on him in the last episode and cut off his head. Much to Cole's surprise and annoyance, Cullen comes to see him and he asks for guidance about whether he should abandon his quest for vengeance. But because Cole has become disillusioned to his calling, he spins a parable about the devil's triumph over God and he urges Cullen to choose hate because it's easier. Later, The Swede arrives back in Hell on Wheels with Harper riding by his side. Cullen practically strangles Sean when he mentions seeing Harper wearing his Sergeant stripes; which means that Cullen's revenge is almost complete.
Elam Ferguson (Common) finds Cullen in his tent and he suggests that Cullen may be wrong about Harper. He gives Cullen a taste of his own advice when he urges Cullen to let go of his past. But Elam has some problems of his own. Ever since he returned from the hunt for the renegade Cheyenne, Elam has been acting in an extremely arrogant way, alienating his followers in the freedmen. Eva (Robin McLeavy) also becomes angered at Elam because she believed that he intended to marry her, when instead he simply wanted her to be his exclusive woman among the whores.
That night, the fancy party gets under way and the investors are suitably impressed by both Lily and Durant. Alone at the party, Eva is invited to dance by Mr. Toole (Duncan Ollerenshaw) despite their history. Elam comes across them and he threatens Toole with violence. But Eva takes Elam aside and says that there is nothing between herself and Toole. She loves Elam, but she wants to settle down and doesn't want to sell herself any more. She then returns to Toole and resumes dancing. At the same time, Sean and Phil lead the beleaguered merchants of Hell on Wheels against The Swede as they violently tar and feather him before running him out of town.
Elsewhere, Cullen tracks down Harper, who pleads that he's innocent and that he wasn't even in the army when Cullen's family was slaughtered. Undeterred, Cullen strangles Harper to death, shortly before discovering Harper's discharge papers that prove he was telling the truth. Stunned by his deadly mistake, Cullen staggers off. At the party, Cole's daughter Ruth (Kasha Kropinski) invites Joseph Black Moon (Eddie Spears) to dance with her. Lily also catches sight of Cullen while she dances with Durant, but he is gone by the time that she twists around.
Later, Cullen finds Elam and he admits that he killed the wrong man. Cullen then rides away from Hell on Wheels with the clothes on his back. In the morning, Harper's body is discovered where Cullen left it and a manhunt ensues. Somewhere on the road, a burnt and scarred Swede notices a wanted poster offering $250 for the capture of Cullen Bohannon.
When "Hell on Wheels" was first announced, it was widely assumed that it would be a program on par with the late and lamented HBO western series, "Deadwood." Those may have been lofty expectations, but no one ever assumed that the network behind "Mad Men" and "Breaking Bad" would ever let anything less than a great TV series on the network to dilute AMC's ever expanding brand.
Well… that happened. And "Hell on Wheels" is most definitely not the next great western TV series; much less deserving of a place among the best shows on television. But the most frustrating thing about it is the sense that "Hell on Wheels" could have been so much better. Some of the pieces fit together and the earlier episodes had some intriguing moments of promise that made it seem like the writers had a master plan to bring it all together at the end.
For a season finale, "God of Chaos" is surprisingly bland and largely drama free. Aside from Cullen's fate at the end, it barely seemed any different from an episode normally found in the middle of the season. The dramatic beats of Cullen killing the wrong man and becoming a fugitive seemed blindingly obvious. And as much as this is presented as a game changer for Cullen's role going forward, keep in mind that the cliffhanger about Cullen becoming a fugitive was already used earlier this season. That was resolved fairly quickly in the next episode when Cullen beat The Swede senseless with his belt.
As an adversary, The Swede never recovered from that sequence. Villains are supposed to be at least as formidable as the heroes. So once The Swede was reduced to minor foil to Cullen at best, he could never be taken seriously again. It's one of the tragedies of this show. Christopher Heyerdahl gave such an enigmatic and strange performance early in the season that The Swede was one of the most compelling characters on the show who also had intriguing shades of grey. But as a villain in these last few episodes, The Swede was a flop.
AMC stupidly spoiled The Swede's tarring and feathering in the preview trailer last week. But even worse than that decision was the choice to leave The Swede alive at the end of it. The character has now been effectively neutered TWICE. And there is no coming back from that. His usefulness to this story is over. That makes Durant the sole face of villainy now. But suddenly Durant's grandiose desire to build the railroad has been trumped by his cartoonish jealousy of Cullen's burgeoning relationship with Lily.
Clearly the writers of "Hell on Wheels" have no love for subtly, as Durant openly spells out his motivation for helping The Swede get rid of Cullen. Is it weird that "Hell on Wheels" now resembles a parody of itself so early in its life? Cullen's scene with the bloody reverend Cole also seemed to strike more unintentional laughs than any real drama. There may have been some missed opportunities for dark comedy there and Tom Noonan was definitely bringing the crazy. But then Cole completely disappears and he doesn't even get a chance to react to his daughter openly flirting with Joseph after seducing him in last week's episode.
Another issue with "Hell on Wheels" is that it has all of the emotional complexity of a CW drama. Eva and Elam's relationship problems just didn't ring true and apparently Mr. Toole was resurrected by the writers just so he could dance with Eva in this scene. And if both Eva and Toole are staying behind to presumably be written out of the series, than what was the point?
Not to mention that fact that Cullen and Lily don't really have a relationship; much less one that Durant should be going Zack Morris over. Although I suppose that analogy makes The Swede into The Screech. I didn't mind the slow buildup between Cullen and Lily, but to try to pretend that have something real between them now is pretty uninspired and unearned. If the writers really wanted to pursue this, then Cullen should have been putting in her floorboards a few episodes ago. And no, that wasn't meant to be a dirty metaphor.
Ultimately, I've lost faith in the ability of Tony and Joe Gayton to convincingly tell their western story. "Hell on Wheels" isn't how the west was won. This is how the west was dull.
Crave Online Rating: 5.5 out of 10.