Well, fellow Hell-ions, it’s been a long-ass wait, but here we are – the last half of the last season of the great Hell on Wheels. I’m bummed I wasn’t on board to begin, but I’m honored to cover the caboose. We all knew at the start that the railroads would meet, and just a year shy of the six it took to hammer in the historical spike that made the Transcontinental, we’ll see it happen on AMC.
When we left off for the longest “mid-season” break in history, Cullen Bohannon pissed off (and on) everyone when he convinced Ulysses S. Grant to leave the destination of a Utah terminus up to the winner of a “race” between the Union Pacific and Central Pacific. One of Eva’s girls was found to be a thief (and a threat), so she paid with her life. The Swede quickly left Brigham Young’s community after orchestrating Brigham’s unsuccessful murder at the hands of jilted son, Phineas. And Cullen discovered the location of the Hatches and the menace headed for his family.
On to the beginning of the end …
As the episode opens, we finally get some real history on Thor Gundersen.
In 1863, he was a “member” of the Union Army. He is younger, looks far less worn and seems genuinely good-natured. His high spirits and harmonica bring some relief to the young soldiers who raise a toast to his efforts. Unfortunately, their levity is cut short by unfriendly fire and those who live through the onslaught become prisoners of war. The Swede is among them.
The prison camp is deplorable, and Gundersen’s thick beard is a measure of the months he’s spent there. With dirty hands, he lifts a rock and uncovers the one possession he’s managed to retain – his harmonica. The moment he puts it to his lips, he’s accosted by a Confederate who viciously berates him. Despite that, Gundersen clings to his last shreds of dignity and humanity: “My name is Thor Gundersen, from Norway.”
The man takes the harmonica and slices Gundersen’s lip. It’s brutal, and I can’t believe I feel sorry for The Swede.
In the next scene, we see Gundersen selflessly giving his food to another prisoner, a friend from before their capture. He is mercilessly whipped for this. The scene after shows The Swede waking to the same friend biting into his arm. Horrified, he tries to remind the man, who is just too far gone, of their friendship. The man continues to attack and Gundersen drowns him in the mud. I wonder if this is the moment that changes him forever or if it’s the moment he comes to terms with who he’s been all along.
Suddenly, I pity The Swede. It was so much easier just to hate him. Now it’s “complicated.”
After the opening credits, Naomi sings to William. All is well with the Hatches, but then all goes suspiciously quiet. Naomi senses something wrong and steps outside. First, she finds Sarah mortally wounded and breathing her last. After grabbing a shotgun, she sees her father stumble from a shed with an axe in his back. Before dying, he tells her to run.
She races to the house. Seconds after she barricades herself and William into the bedroom, the assault is upon her. The threating voice on the other side of the door is unmistakably The Swede. The true reason for the chaos he left behind in Brigham Young’s community was to find the Hatches before Bohannon.
She makes it out with William but no weapon. The Swede nabs her shotgun. She manages to put some distance between her and Gundersen, but he’s still too close for comfort. It looks like The Swede will once again get away with murder, but before he can fire, he hears a horse. It’s Bohannon, and he’s well aware of The Swede’s intentions.
The thrill of murdering Bohannon’s family is short-lived for The Swede. Cullen arrives too soon, and though Gundersen remains ahead, it’s not far enough to avoid locking eyes with Bohannon. Now desperate, he continues forward hoping to still somehow pull it off. If anything, he may at least have the satisfaction of seeing Bohannon’s pain before catching the next ship to Valhalla.
Cullen finds Naomi hiding with William. They are shrouded by a deadfall near the river. As he steps up and whispers her name, The Swede shoots. Bohannon falls face down into the river. It looks bad, but when Gundersen investigates, Bohannon is far from finished. He overpowers his nemesis and holds him underwater. I think this is it, but I am profoundly disappointed when he lets The Swede live. I know he has his reasons, but I still can’t believe it.
Back at the farm, Isaac guards Gundersen, looks at his dead family and hopes for a reason to shoot their killer. Inside, Naomi does her best to stitch Bohannon’s wounded leg. She begs him to stay and receive the real medical attention he needs, but stubborn as always, he refuses.
He has finally found his family, but he’s going to leave again … it’s beyond my comprehension, but if there is one thing I admire about Cullen Bohannon (among a million others), it’s his resolve. He intends to make sure The Swede is finally brought before a jury and hanged for his crimes.
Naomi doesn’t understand … why, if The Swede’s death is to be the end result, won’t Cullen just do it himself? As much as Bohannon might want to be judge, jury and executioner, something within him won’t allow it. Part of it might be moral obligation, but mostly I think he knows how much worse it will be for Gundersen, a lying chameleon from the start, to be publically outed for the crimes he’s remorselessly committed.
During the trek to Camp Douglas, Gundersen does all the talking. Bohannon won’t even grace him with acknowledgement. The Swede knows where they’re headed, and all of his chattiness screams dread. It gives me comfort to feel some hate return.
Yeah, I felt sympathy for Gundersen earlier, but given a chance to think, I’ve reconsidered. Suffering is part of being human, but we have a choice what to do with the pain we experience. We can let it consume us and turn us ugly, or we can let it save us from becoming ugly. In the end, we choose. The brooding Swede being led to his undoing barely resembles the humble man with smiling eyes from the start of the episode.
During his chatter, The Swede reminds Bohannon that he’s been spared by the Heavenly Father twice and expects to be spared a third. Bohannon has no comment. Gundersen makes reference to Bohannon’s leg wound several times in an attempt to rattle him … his friend at the Confederate prison camp was also shot in the leg before gangrene set in. Bohannon is fazed only by the fact that The Swede actually had a friend.
They camp for the night. Gundersen is tied up, and Bohannon hops about on an iron will. A snake slithers up to The Swede … I’d call it excellent symbolism, but I like snakes. The terrified Swede begs to be untied, but Bohannon kills the snake instead. After the head is removed, Bohannon watches the body twist for a few moments longer, commenting on how death spasms are indicative of the soul leaving the body. The amount of time they last depends on the kind of soul on its way out. This will hold more meaning later.
The slain snake becomes dinner. I’m pleased it did not go to waste to calm the fears of The Swede, who will not partake in the protein necessary for the remainder of their trip. No matter … God’s got his back, right?
After dinner, Gundersen tries a few more Jedi mind tricks. Cullen should be eating dinner with his family rather than snake on a stick in the middle of nowhere. Gundersen believes Bohannon fears killing him, and maybe he does, but he wants The Swede to meet proper justice. Gundersen reminds Bohannon that both are guilty men in need of proper judgement. Both have swept bodies and bad deeds under the carpet. Cullen gets it and smiles … The Swede is mortified.
Morning breaks, and The Swede sleeps. Cullen assesses his leg. It looks gnarly, so he goes about cauterizing it with what he’s got, which is gunpowder and fire. He may have bought himself a little time, but the rest of the ride to Camp Douglas will be rough. Gundersen knows this, and while Bohannon works on his leg, he procures the rock he’s been after. His confidence returns, even if it’s false.
So … Into the desert, then …
Within view of Camp Douglas, Gundersen makes his move. He dismounts his horse and insists Bohannon and he settle it in the desert … God’s plan. He is frantic. Bohannon refuses, but he is weak and The Swede is desperate. He pelts Bohannon with guilt-trips, breaks free and then pounces. The two struggle for what seems like forever until Bohannon finally shoots Gundersen in the shoulder and cracks him unconscious to shut him up.
He may be wounded, and he may be wiped, but there is nothing that will stop Bohannon from seeing this through. The horses fled during the previous fray, but Gundersen will hang … even if Bohannon has to drag him to the gallows. He tries like hell, but finally gives in to firing off two rounds before he drops.
Bohannon lays on a table in a fog. Men stand around him. One (Jeff Fahey – this guy’s in everything!) digs deep into flesh to remove what he can of Gundersen’s bullet. Cullen keeps his leg, but discovers remaining shrapnel is part of the deal. This doesn’t sit well. He also finds out that Gundersen has been found guilty. This news is better received.
On his day of judgement, Gundersen waits, balled up on the floor of his cell, but then he hears the harmonica. It’s a young man standing outside the jail. The Swede is immediately interested. He is excited. He explains the intimacy between the instrument and its player … how its player shares with it the most cherished gift … breath.
When Bohannon comes to pay his last “respects” to Gundersen, who sits over a last meal of maggots and gruel, we learn his mother gave him his first harmonica on his tenth birthday. Again, I feel pity crawl back and it stays with me long after the final credits roll.
Gundersen begs Bohannon to have mercy and kill him before he hangs. His pleas are so convincing that Bohannon actually considers it. He wants Cullen’s forgiveness. I’ve seen him play people with more skill than he once played the harmonica, and I’ve wished him dead repeatedly during the course of the series, but now sense sincerity. He’s going to die. He knows it, and yeah, maybe he doesn’t want to do it on the end of a noose because it’s a barbaric way to go … but maybe it’s more. Something deeper.
Whatever the case, he goes to the hangman. And it’s not the trap-door kind of hanging. It’s the extra slow, pulled up by the neck kind. The eye-bulging frothing at the mouth kind. The kicking and jerking until the bladder lets loose kind. The absolute worst kind. And when it’s over, there is no peace for Bohannon – relief maybe, but I don’t see peace. Maybe Gundersen’s death spasms lasted longer than expected.
Cullen immediately leaves the camp, cuts the splint from his leg and walks into the desert with his horse. Alone.
This episode isn’t about railroads or politics. It’s about two men – a hero and a villain. Or maybe it’s just about two men. I don’t know. What do you think?
Comments are welcome, or let’s chat on Twitter @KimberlyThies1
New episodes of Hell On Wheels Season 5 premiere Saturdays at 9/8CT on AMC.