Hell on Wheels Season 5 Episode 12 recap: “Freedom starts with a single step”

Hell On Wheels Mei Fong Michelle Faye/AMC
Angela Zhou as Mei Fong - Hell on Wheels Season 5

Welcome back, Hellions! We’re in the home stretch and I’m thoroughly enjoying the ride. The last half of the season has been a sensory overload – I’m expecting the Hell on Wheels series finale to be phenomenal. I know we aren’t quite there yet, but the lead up has me convinced we will enjoy an exceptional ending to the series we’ve come to love. I know we won’t get “Dextered.” To those of you who don’t know what I mean by that, just think of a show you’ve watched religiously only to see it sign off for good with a giant middle finger and zero resolution.

This week begins with Chang’s backstory. He’s been an ass since 1863 (or birth). He’s buying his wife – Wai-Ling. That’s Mei’s “Big Sister.” I thought she was just an unfortunate working for Chang, but his wife!? Number one – I should never whine about how rotten my life is ever again. My parents sold me for a lot more than 250 Yuan. Number two – my husband never aspired to be a pimp and whore me out. Anyway, my point is things could always be worse … and also hate Chang more than you do already! He’s terrible!

The next bits show how he ended up in Truckee. His whole pimp and opium scheme … his blah, blah, blah to the right people. A little charm and some fancy words and away he goes with his bride (after he helps her down from an auction block!!!) to start his “business” in America.

My heart goes out to Wai-Ling, who becomes nothing more than a revolving door. What kind of man whores out his own wife?

To see a woman so unhappy and so mistreated hurts my heart. While washing his scarred-up back (what happened to him? I start to wonder but realize I just don’t give a sh-t at this point), she takes an opportunity, grabs a knife and stabs him. Other than some pain and another scar, it doesn’t do much more than piss him off. She runs, but he catches her. He contemplates caving her head in with a sledge hammer but recognizes she’s worth nothing dead, so he uses it on her leg instead. What a scumbag.

And with that said, Chang really knows. I knew it. You knew it. Cullen (welcome back!) goes to Chang insisting that Mei’s father’s wages go directly to him for disbursal. Chang is completely smug because he’s aware of the real reason Bohannon wants Mei’s money. This is confirmed when Cullen sees Wai-Ling wearing Mei’s mother’s dress.

He makes arrangements for Mei to get out of town. Stagecoach Mary will take her to Laramie where she’ll be safe with Maggie Palmer. Mei refuses at first – she wants to stay – they’ll take on Chang together. Cullen won’t hear it. She does as instructed, but I know the plan won’t work. If it did, we’d be disappointed.

Before Mei goes, she tells Cullen she wants a life with him. She loves him. He won’t return the sentiment. I get it. I almost don’t want him to say it. I don’t want her dead, and I’m worried at this point. He remains steadfast. She needs to get out of Truckee, and she has twenty minutes. Talk about a hasty good-bye! But, he’s right. She needs to “run as fast and as far” as she can. Her fate in Truckee with Chang is a death sentence … or worse.

She heads out with Stagecoach Mary. Bohannon trusts her to get Mei to Laramie safely. Trust … funny how that word is so often connected with funds.

Huntington and Chang have a conversation over a meal. It’s duck, so my brain immediately goes to A Christmas Story because I haven’t been able to eat duck without picturing that movie since middle school. My dogs eat fancy-ass, grain-free duck kibble, so every time I buy it, I hear Ralphie’s dad say, “Yes, it’s a beautiful duck. But, you see, it’s smiling at me.” Oops – digression. Sorry!

Yeah, so anyway, what do they talk about? Some serious stuff, that’s what! Who is better and who is worse … they’re both capitalists, so there’s no debate there. Chang’s just a better cook. Business is business, and last week we found out that business is dirty as hell. Alright, we didn’t just find that out last week. Oh, the moneygrubbing! More duck!

Back to Mei and Mary. Mary has stopped for a bathroom break. At least that’s what I assume. She’s gone so long that Mei gets bored enough to rifle through bags. She finds her mother’s dress. Mei offers to buy it, and when the offer hits twenty bucks, Mary concedes. Strange. Mary really wanted that dress two weeks ago.

Bohannon and Huntington have a sit-down next. Bohannon wants Chang out of the picture. There are other workers who come with less issue. Huntington wants that connection with China. He thinks Cullen doesn’t understand. He thinks Cullen doesn’t see the bigger picture – after the railroad is complete. There’s money at stake! Lots of it! Cullen doesn’t care. If Chang is still in the picture after the railroads meet, he won’t be. Done.

Since he gets nowhere with Huntington, he goes to Chang and offers to buy Mei. Chang drives a hard bargain. He wants what he’d get for a good whore. He tells Bohannon that his dear wife, Wai-Ling, brings in $6,000 per year for her assets. Disgusting.

Hell On Wheels Byron Mann
Byron Mann as Chang – Hell on Wheels Season 5 Wheels _ Season 5, Episode 11 - Photo Credit: Michelle Faye/AMC

Bohannon agrees to pay, but Chang wants it per year for at least five. Cullen antes up, but Chang still won’t take it. Seeing Bohannon squirm is priceless. He’s going to find Mei and turn her into the worst thing Cullen could imagine. Chang hasn’t forgotten being stiff-armed on his shares in the railroad.

Cullen tells Chang not to misjudge him. Chang responds with the same warning. Yep.

On the way to Laramie, Stagecoach Mary encounters a “problem.” Some Chinese gentlemen – or thugs, rather – roll up and stop the coach. Thankfully, Bohannon gave Mei a pistol, because the whole sh-t is, well, sh-t. It’s all about money to Mary, and she figures Cullen will be none the wiser. Trust. Yeah, that.

Mei uses the gun to escape the hijacking, though I don’t understand why she doesn’t actually aim it. Maybe fear … maybe morals … maybe both. I do hope I see Mary get what she’s got coming. The world is full of opportunists, but it doesn’t make being an opportunist okay.

I know Hell on Wheels is fiction, but it is based on fact. I find it interesting that things (and people) haven’t changed much. I’m a teacher, and I’ve heard talk of ditching history class. I say that’s a stupid idea, but if history just repeats itself, maybe it should be ditched and replaced with empathy class.

Mei makes it to Sam Yup camp and hides. Chang is right behind her. He inquires but gets nothing. He’s an exploiting trespasser for all they’re concerned. Being polite isn’t working, so he gives kung fu a shot. I hate him, but he is impressive. Just before this all goes down, Bohannon gets a telegraph and gets on his horse. There’s hope for Mei.

She enters a bar. The barkeep asks, “Can I help you, sir?” Okay, I get it. She’s been posing as a boy this whole time, but sir? From day one, I knew she was a she. Rub some dirt on her, and put her to work doing guy-stuff … fine … but she does not look like a “sir” by any means. “Can I see some ID, kid?” would be easier to swallow!

She hears a ruckus outside. It’s Chang. He enters the bar, gun first. He asks about Fong. Barkeep hasn’t seen “him” because “he” is situated under the bar with a gun aimed at Barkeep’s crotch. Chang continues questioning the very nervous man. Chang knows, but it doesn’t matter. Someone tougher isn’t far behind. The drawn out interrogation just gives Bohannon more time to show up – but Mei gets her moment first.

She sends the barkeep out and points her pistol at Chang. He finds it amusing. His men are everywhere.

Then, the door is slowly pushed open with a cane. Bohannon. He cocks his pistol, and before Chang finishes his second sentence, Cullen shoots him right between the eyes … well, not quite, but close. Pow. Dead. I can’t even believe it. I brace myself for the sh-t-storm.

It doesn’t happen.

Once Chang is dead, Bohannon proceeds to kill his minions like nothing. He makes them look so un-badass, it’s almost sad. In less than two minutes, they’re all dead. Cullen Bohannon, I love you. AndI don’t want to compare you to Clint, but the eyeball over the shoulder is a little Eastwoodie. So grimy, and so dreamy. Swoon.

When it’s done, he and Mei walk out hand in hand. I’m a bit taken aback. I know he cares for her – loves her even – but this is unexpected. What comes is even more unexpected.

On the way back to Truckee, she says she won’t be safe there. Bohannon assures her she will. She says she needs to go back to China. He tells her she doesn’t. I’m floored.

Back in Truckee, Mei visits Wai-Ling to tell her of Chang’s death. Mei offers her money to return to China – she can leave right away. Mei tells her home awaits – a place where the sun will shine on her, and it “starts with a single step.” Wai-Ling does not accept. Laramie is home now. I need a tissue.

Cullen and Mei are alone in his quarters. He knows Mei went to see Wai-Ling, who “gave her up.” Mei teaches him a lesson in forgiveness – one he needs. Wai-Ling gave up a lot more than Mei. Cullen says he “can’t shake it.” We know what he means, but Mei begs to differ. She tells him he’s good. And he really is good. He just doesn’t see it … but he will. He has to.

They’re intimate again, but it’s real this time. I didn’t expect this either. Some of you commented on their deep feelings for each other. You’re right. I sat on the fence, and now I’m flabbergasted.

Afterward, Cullen is on a mission. He insists she stay inside with the door locked until he returns. She doesn’t want his life to be difficult because of her. Before he leaves, he says it – he tells her he loves her. It’s really hard and sort of forced, but it’s what she needed to hear.

Cullen meets up with Huntington. The Chinese general from the beginning of the episode is there. Word has gotten back that Chang was murdered by a “white assassin” while trying to retrieve one of his whores.

Bohannon says he’s familiar with a white assassin who killed one of his men. Then he says maybe Chang was murdered over a dispute as to the worth of the whore he was seeking. There’s a lot of unspoken knowledge in the room, but it doesn’t matter.

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

Huntington’s concern that the railroad could be held up due to Chang’s death is squelched when the general says he’ll replace Chang. As the general leaves, Huntington tries to give his condolences. The general says Chang was a pimp and nothing more. What? All this time I thought the world would end if anything happened to him! Dammit!

Bohannon knows Huntington wants to ask it, so he opens the floor only to give no answer aside from donning his hat and walking out. Classic. A confirmation wouldn’t even matter at this point, but at least Cullen invited the question.

When he returns to his quarters, he finds Mei gone. On the bed, he finds the box her father left her – the box that would beckon them back to China once emptied. It isn’t empty. Inside there is a note but nothing more. Mei is on a ship home. She leaves with Cullen’s words in her heart and the belief she’s saved them both.

This episode is epic! What do you think? Sound off in the comments!

I have questions!

  • What’s in store for Stagecoach Mary?
  • Do you think Chang will be outdone by his replacement?
  • Is Cullen really off the hook for what he did?
  • Will Mei’s departure lead to Cullen’s downfall with the railroad, or will it fuel his fire even more?
  • Do you think Naomi is really out of the picture for good?

I love a good discussion! Follow me on Twitter @KimberlyThies1. I tweet during episodes.  


  1. I love this show and Bohannon makes it! But I want to know the name of the song that played at the end when Mai was on the boat back to China, and who sings it. It sounds like Dolly Parton, Please let me know.

  2. I’m not clear what was on the note in the box. Does anyone know ? This series has kept me on the edge of my seat for a week ( binge watched all 5 seasons ). I think Cullen somehow is the one who will be found……by Mei. She travels back and finds him. She knows the turmoil which he suffers within himself and would not just leave him permanently. Her only reason to leave in the first place was to try to keep him at of danger. Now that is over and she will be back to rescue him. If this series ends with heartbreak I am going to be very very unhappy. For once I want a feel good ending. I don’t think I can wait till tomorrow !!!!

    • No one knows, but I’m sure it will be addressed right away tomorrow night. Cullen passed out with it in his hand. I’m fairly certain it’s a way to find Mei if he wants to. I think she pretty much put the ball in his court by leaving. I believe she understands how he works now – probably better than he does. It’s that whole “if you love something set it free” idea with him. If you look at his past relationships, it makes sense. You binged all 5 seasons, so the changes he’s undergone are fresh in your head – I’m a little jealous! I should have done the same – these godawful breaks! He’s way different now. I don’t think he’s going to let AMC give him an unhappy ending! 🙂 They’ve put him through enough!

      • All I can say after watching hours upon hours all in 7 days I will go nuts if this does not end well. Great show and learned so much. Best end well !

    • I’m confused. So Chang ALWAYS KNEW Mei was a woman?? I thought Chang thought Mei was a boy, so how could he sell her to Bohannon? Love, love this excellent show. Never thought I’d ever like a western, but this show is great! And I’ve learned a lot about history too. Thanks!

  3. Please accept my apologies for missing what others may know..what did Mei originally say was in the box?

    • It’s a tea box, so I believe it held tea leaves. Tea is an important part of Mei’s culture, so the empty box would imply an imperative need to return to China so as to not lose that culture. A great question, but a guess at an answer. I wish I could give you more!

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    • Let’s hope they’re just trying to fake us out! Have faith! You know how it works. They’re going to keep us chewing our nails off until the very last second. Lol!

  6. tomorrow night .. we’ll see which direction they’re headed I guess.

    It would be sad if they make no mention of Mei at all though.. not even show Cullen thinking of her at some point..

    • Are you excited? I know I am! Only a few more hours. I think we’re in for a good one tonight! There’s been so much other stuff going on, and they HAVE to get the railroad finished, so I just know focus will be put back on that! I want to see the race! 🙂

    • Ah! You’re researching! That’s funny. I do the same thing in addition to wracking my brain constantly. Over the past few weeks I’ve probably re-written the ending in my head fifty times … every possible scenario I can think of. But I am completely with you in that I’m worried about sadistic writers, but hoping for the best. I want Cullen to FINALLY be happy, for crying out loud! Thanks so much for the discussion! Let’s cross our fingers together. 🙂

  7. One of the most depressing if not the most depressing episode. Why do the writers feel they still need to drag Cullen through the mud with only 2 episodes left? even when in this instance – he did not cause any trouble. He did not cause any of the trouble surrounding Mei, she brought it to herself after being found out to be female and Cullen protected her yet he still had to suffer for it in the end when she left.

    • You make a good point about Mei…I thought they’d find her out a lot sooner. I knew right away. There’s only two episodes left to finish the railroad. If he DOES end up dead because he’s distracted or distraught due to Mei, I’m going to be really REALLY upset! Great comment! Thanks!

    • that would be the best way to finish it but don’t count it. The writers are sadistic. They’ll probably just kill him at the end.

      • Ugh, that would be the absolute worst, but you may very well be right. I’ve begun to prepare myself for the worst even though I do NOT want it to go down like that.

      • It seemed to me that part of the point of this episode was Cullen admitting to Mei and himself that it wasn’t that he’d lost everyone he ever loved, but that he let them go. But now with Mei it’s different, that cycle is breaking, he went after her and brought her back. So when I saw her leave at the end I did not see this as a definitive end to their relationship. Rather, in order to break his cycle, he will probably go after her after the railroad is finished. He won’t let her go this time.

        The writers are actually fixing him.. not leading him to destruction.. If they wanted to destroy him then they would have just let Mei die and not allowed him to save her and tell her she loved her and see his faults.

      • It seemed to me that part of the point of this episode was Cullen admitting to Mei and himself that it wasn’t that he’d lost everyone he ever loved, but that he let them go. But now with Mei it’s different, that cycle is breaking, he went after her and brought her back. So when I saw her leave at the end I did not see this as a definitive end to their relationship. Rather, in order to break his cycle, he will probably go after her after the railroad is finished. He won’t let her go this time.

        • Through reading comments, looking back over my recaps, and really thinking about how I want it to end, I never thought I’d say it … a few weeks ago, the idea of it just seemed too “easy” or maybe even “cheesy” to me, but now I DO want him to go after Mei. I can’t think of a better ending. What else is he going to do after the railroad? Why would he even want to stay in this country with all of the negative he’s been through and seen? Great comment! Thank you!

  8. Love this show. There are not enough episodes. They give us like 5 then its off for 5 weeks and then back. It need to be longer…

    I wish Mai would have stayed with Cullen.

  9. I love this series I have been streaming it for the las two weeks and now I am all caught up. The gradual transformation of Boshanan is handled well through the love scenes. This man who is not afraid of anything cannot take the first step toward the women who attract him. In the beginning with Lilly he cannot take any initiative at all. He is wounded and his defenses would not allow for any of his feeling to surface. He lets her invite him and then he makes love in a way that you see how pain is holding him back . He needs to be human and only sharing his bed with a loving woman allows his humanity to show. He leaves Lilly after their first night together, literarily running away. Bochanan is wounded from the loss of his wife and son and needs to heal.

    Losing Lilly set him back. With Naomi he cannot reciprocate. He stays away maybe because he is still hurting, or maybe because he cannot come close to anyone this time around. We never really know how he feels about her. All we know is that he cares for her and his child. It is only in the farewell scene that Bochanan admits to any feelings for Naomi.

    With Mei Bochanan spends time on the railroad digging and working so he is more comfortable with her as a companion, not as a woman. He gets to know her and he likes that she is independent, works hard and takes risks just like he does. But again Bochanan waits. It is Mei who invites him inside the tent and takes the initiative. She is not afraid to tell him and show him how she feels about him. Again we see the woman taking the first step. Mei is not a timid woman. But Boshanan knows, if he wants her, he must reciprocate. And we see him in the final love scene showing her his feelings. In bed he is different, he gives himself to her, he is tender and passionate. Mei knows what it means, her face the next day is transformed. That he tells her that he loves her in such an awkward and abrupt way, going out the door, only shows how difficult it is for him after a lifetime of losses to share feelings let alone speak them.

    • Great commentary! I agree with you on so many levels. I, too, have thought his inability to commit stems from losing his wife and child. The railroad is something inanimate, and he’s good at it. It will be built, and he will make sure of it. “Loving” something that isn’t flesh and blood will not lead to the pain he’s experienced, and it gives him an outlet for his passion. Thanks for reading. Thanks for commenting. I love this series, too.

  10. Love
    Would he have said it, he would be with his son William.
    Would he have said it, Ruth would still be alive.
    B. Young told him what his future would be like if he keeps saying no to it…

    • You might be right, but he did finally acknowledge that he didn’t lose his people…he left them behind. I find it interesting that Brigham Young, of all people, could teach such a lesson in love – though it was incredibly poignant. Regardless, I would love for Cullen to find happiness. Do you think he will when it’s all said and done?

      • Mei on two occasions told people one of them Cullen where Rev Baker in China is located. That is probably what the note says.

        I have a problem with the storyline. Cullen left his family and a mere 2 months later he is able to open his heart to love. Love that he couldn’t freely give to Naomi and William. They went out if the way to show it was Cullen’s choice to leave them.
        I am a Southern. I know the history of Southern honor. Leaving a child really leaves me questioning Cullen’s honor. If they had shown him grieving hus choices or indicated that several months had past it would have been more palatable.

        He has basically left everyone he loves. Would he have stayed with Mei and their child? Or would all of his many issues lead him to eventually wander away from her.
        With Mary he wandered away because he was bored with farming. He did not see that his family was moved to the safety of Mary’s family. He just went off to war
        The hubris that he and Lily felt resulted in her death.
        Naomi didn’t contact him after she returned to her family. She thought he didn’t want her. She could not bear the rejection.
        Apparently Cullen did not write to her or in any way contact her either.
        His pattern with women is one of carelessness. They have not connected the dots for me to show that he will change his pattern.

        A better ending for me would be for him to forgive himself. Go to Naomi and ask if he could be involved in William’s life.
        A scene of an adult William coming home to the house by the sea warmly embracing an older Cullen would be a lovely ending.
        He has been shown to be an extremely emotionally remote man. Perhaps it is more kind for Mei not to wish him upon her.

  11. I didn’t feel that he told Mei he loved her because she needed to hear it. He seemed surprised, even a little shaken as the words left his lips. I think Cullen himself needed to say those words.

    • Thanks for the comment and opportunity for me to clarify. I agree with you. I think she needed to hear those words to go like she did – she looked completely at peace on the ship home. I think Cullen said them because he really meant them. I don’t think he did it for her benefit. So much going on and so little time left!

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