Hell On Wheels Recap Season 5 Episode 8: Two Soldiers

Lori Acken
Anson Mount as Cullen Bohannon - Hell on Wheels _ Season 5, Episode 8 - Photo Credit: Michelle Faye/AMC

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 …

Hell On Wheels the Swede
Hell on Wheels — Christopher Heyerdahl as The Swede. Photo Credit: Michelle Faye/AMC

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.

Hell on Wheels Naomi Bohannon
MacKenzie Porter as Naomi Bohannon – Hell on Wheels _ Season 5, Episode 8 – Photo Credit: Michelle Faye/AMC

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.

Hell On Wheels Season 5 Cullen Bohannon
Anson Mount as Cullen Bohannon – Hell on Wheels  – Photo Credit: Michelle Faye/AMC

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.

19 Comments

  1. live cannibalism DID NOT take place in the Civil War. Because the show started with a totally false depiction of a prisoner camp in multiple ways I could not watch such silly fiction.

    Of course we all understand 99% of tv is nonsense meant to give people a break from the real, often ugly world around us, however taking such fiction and attaching it to an actual historical event is wrong.

    • Honest Abe — while cannibalism may not have occurred. Prison camps on both sides where known to be the worst. You must be an ignorant white man to state this was a false depiction… google it an educate yourself, or read a book…. here what was said about Andersonville, “As we entered the place, a spectacle met our eyes that almost froze our blood with horror, and made our hearts fail within us. Before us were forms that had once been active and erect;—stalwart men, now nothing but mere walking skeletons, covered with filth and vermin. Many of our men, in the heat and intensity of their feeling, exclaimed with earnestness. “Can this be hell?”

  2. I thoroughly enjoyed this show but the dispatching of characters, first Gunderson, next episode his family, is too brusk. The series deserves better than to just walk a checklist tying off loose threads in this fashion. I hope the writers don’t decide to eliminate characters from the story each episode going forwards.

    • Me too, but I think there’s a lot left to cram into the end of the season and the series. Based on the first two episodes, I think we can expect the rest to be action “packed”. Hopefully not all will result in the demise of loose threads. I am excited to see where things go. Thanks for the comment!

  3. Will Netflix just air the show and stop jack assin around, season
    5 #8 if that’s it then play it, I’m subscribed to Netflix, I want Netflix to do me right, Im not going to buy it, I already did with my subscription if Netflix don’t play it I’m dumpin this sob. Choke some one down over 1 dam episode play 5 #8

  4. But will Thor Gundersen gasp to life when they bury him. He then pushes up the dirt like a mole and runs away. Somehow I don’t trust the SOB to die. Someone should have put several bullets in his brain, just for good measure.

    • Hah! Yeah, he did say he’d be spared a third time! I hope it’s not horrible foreshadowing. And there’s always the zombies – so many zombies! This is a good question, and one I hope is not answered with his return unless it’s a flashback. Shudder …

  5. I’m very upset that Netflix left us hanging when Cullen was finally getting close to his family , not at all pleased with this show unfinished
    I loved this show please complete the season for its fans to get closure , I’m a customer paying 12$ a month for a long time now, so I think I deserve getting my opinion out there

    • Hopefully they’ll do it. If they don’t come out on Netflix, I’m pretty sure you can get access to the episodes after they air on the AMC site. It IS a great series!

  6. I’ve been with Netflix a long time, and I understand when a show ends, I also know that I’m only worth 10$ a month, but I promise Netflix if you ever leave me like you did with the glades, screwed, I will dump you like a hot rock. Netflix customer’s pay the price you set and over 160 country’s don’t screw me with cliffhangers like long more and glades. I’d rather watch paint dry, same reason I didn’t Finnish the following, but I’m not gona do it again. Probably screws with blacklist

    • I think you can access episodes right after they air on AMC via AMC’s website. If Netflix drops the bomb, you can still see the rest of the series. 🙂

  7. Just wondering how did they get away with beheading an animal on the show unless it was fake? I’m sure PETA would be all over this. I do love the show dirt and all.

    • I’m sure the snake lived to see another day…though I will say I’ve had snake and it’s good. Sorry PETA. I am a total animal lover, adopt many including a horse that refuses to be ridden, and advocate for animals at every chance. Yeah, I eat meat, but it doesn’t mean I’m not pro-animal. I’m just pro-omnivore, which is what I’m supposed to be. 🙂

  8. Unnecessarily long drawn out episode. Almost like the writers are stalling. Turned it off about halfway in, picked up a book, turned it back on for last 10 minutes. Cullen should have shot the Swede and buried him face down. Even better, Naomi could have waited for the Swede to reach through the broken door to lift the latch and then shoot through the door four times, once she can see his position. Nice tribute to Pioneer Women, and about 10 minutes long.
    PS: Not a shotgun. It’s an 1860 Henry rifle, or possibly a then new Winchester lever action.

    • And that’s why you’re not in charge of this amazing show. You wanted to see a dumbed-down resolution of a series-long feud like it’s a lackluster Michael Bay film (i.e. instant gratification) while the rest of us wanted to see the culmination of six seasons come together in the heartfelt, bittersweet episode that it was. Cullen had plenty of chances to kill the Swede, killing him himself wasn’t the point… and killing him with a couple of shots through the door — from Naomi of all people — would have felt incredibly cheap after everything Cullen and him have gone through as enemies who are more alike than Cullen would ever want to admit out loud. Thank goodness the writers are smarter than you and your boring-ass hipster version. It’s viewers like you that have lead to the majority of television programming being washed up, repetitive tropes over and over and over… because you can’t appreciate the depth of the story or the heavy-hearted emotion it expresses without constant action and filler explosions to make you drool at your T.V. screen. I’m not even sure why you came here to comment if you were “too cool” to even be bothered to finish the entire episode, when this series clearly exceeds your intellectual and emotional prowess.

      • Brent…your passion for HOW mirrors my own. You’re awesome. I’m so happy someone else loves this series as much as I do.

    • I appreciate your schooling on weaponry, but I loved the episode. To each his own. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

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