Hell on Wheels Season 5 episode 13 recap: Going for gold

Hell On Wheels Colm Meany Chris Large/AMC
Hell On Wheels — Colm Meany as Thomas ‘Doc’ Durant

Hey there, fellow Hell on Wheels fans. Welcome to the penultimate episode. Are you ready to see the Transcontinental come to fruition? It’s about to happen, and this episode begins with an absolutely beautiful narrative.

Louise Ellison is typing up her account for the New York Times, and we hear her words as keys fall on paper. In conjunction, a photographer develops photos of what we’ve witnessed over the past five seasons. We are reminded of many trials and tribulations. It’s a glorious intro. Maybe it’s because I love to write. Maybe it’s because I love history. Maybe it’s because my show is going to end. Maybe it’s all three. But I’ve got tears in my eyes, bigtime.

Ogden is the end — or the beginning, really. Durant and Huntington eyeball each other through spyglasses. Durant is closer, but Huntington has Bohannon. Who will be the “winner?” The answer lies with “the Almighty above.” Or, how about I just kill the drama because we all pretty much know the answer.

Cullen begins his day with tea instead of whiskey. He is determined to get rolling. It’s crunch time and he’s lost enough. After breakfast, he grabs his hat and heads out.

Cullen Bohannon Hell on Wheels
Hell On WHeels — Anson Mount as Cullen Bohannan Chris Large/AMC

Huntington and Durant argue about who has the right to Ogden. Durant is closer! Of course it’s his! Hell, everything is his, isn’t it? John Campbell settles the feud. President Grant made it crystal clear that Ogden belongs to the first man to lay track there, and just to make sure there’s no question about where in Ogden, he jams a stick into the ground to mark it. Done. It’s a great scene. I’ve had my issues with the Governor, but he’s no-nonsense, to be sure. With all the drama as of late, I kind of appreciate his pragmatic demeanor.

With his nose to the grindstone, Cullen finds he’s down half his workers. Knowing the railroad is all but finished, they’ve left for other work. This is bad, so he goes to Durant’s camp; he must be the “white man” who bought out his workers. He finds Eva working with her horse. She notices his limp and is certain someone tried to kill him, but she wants to know if it was “out of love or hate.”

Per usual, he doesn’t answer. He wants to know where Mickey is. She tells him, and he confronts Mickey in his new “bar.”

Turns out that Bohannon isn’t the only one who has lost men. Mickey’s down 200. They all went to work for a miner called The Pirate. Gee, wonder who that might be? I can think of an angry ex-railroad super with an eye-patch and an ax to grind.

Cullen and Mickey team up to find the jackass who poached their men at such a crucial moment. I kind of love this. I’ll say it again. Mickey has done some really messed up sh-t, but I just can’t hate the guy.

They find their workers and they find The Pirate, formerly known as Strobridge. I knew it. Why wouldn’t it be him? What Huntington and Cullen did was underhanded as hell. I don’t blame him.

Speaking of Huntington and underhanded, he’s in a railroad car trying to haggle with Campbell. He knows he’s got a lot more track to lay than Durant, so he figures he’ll charm his way into Ogden by pointing out every shady thing Durant has done. Campbell won’t hear it … especially since it only comes with a glass of water. He’s steadfast, and if Huntington wants Ogden so badly, he ought to stop “hoodwinking” and start hammering. It makes Collis hopping mad, but it makes me smile. He and Durant both need to roll up their damn sleeves and stop acting like prissy bitches. At this point, I don’t know which one I want to smack more. To be honest, I don’t know that I’d waste my energy on either!

Cullen and his old friend sit down for a chat and some drinks. Strobridge reveals his family is in Vermont. Cullen gets it: Hannah and the kids left The Pirate. Cullen is sorry, but he needs his workers … just for two more days. Strobridge won’t budge. Cullen is going to have to try another approach. He’s going to have to “beg.”

Outside, Mickey is promising his lost workers all kinds of grand things in San Francisco upon completion of the railroad. Unfortunately, he’s not so formidable now that crazy Johnny is dead. His workers have no loyalty to him — it seems they never did — so a frustrated Mickey knees one of his ex-men in the crotch.

Cullen is smarter, and “begs” differently. He makes promises he knows he can keep, and even when Mr. Lee and the rest of the crew decline (well played, Pirate), Cullen still swears their dead comrades will be returned to China. Mickey should pay attention. The two leave without their lost workers and head in opposite directions.

Back in Durant’s camp, Cullen finds Eva. She’s with her horse again, her “free-spirit” who can’t be tamed. Lost until he found her. Their conversation continues. She knows it was love that almost killed Cullen. He doesn’t disagree, but says he didn’t “lose” her. She ran. Eva understands this. She ran, too. If she hadn’t, her loved ones would have died. “Sometimes the lovin’ thing to do is run.” I can tell her words will stick.

Cullen finds Psalms at Mickey’s “bar.” They drink together – old friends, now on opposite sides. Cullen’s been spending a lot of time in Durant’s camp. It’s possible that he’s there fishing for anyone he might sway to help him win Ogden, but that’s not his style. I think he misses the people there. Other than Mei and Strobridge, he didn’t have a whole lot when he joined the Central. He just seems more at home where his story began.

Psalms believes he won’t be remembered for his part in the railroad. Bohannon believes he’s wrong. It’s a fantastic moment.

Dohn Norwood as Psalms Chris Large/AMC


Another follows. Mickey finds Cullen standing at the finish line in Ogden. He offers up a cigar and the two discuss their futures after the last track is laid. Mickey sees a bright one for himself in San Francisco; Cullen doesn’t have much to say about his own. They speculate on who will win.

Cullen can’t see the Central pulling off ten miles of track before the Union’s six, but Mickey says if he’s learned anything, he’s learned not to “bet against Cullen Bohannon.” They part ways, but Cullen calls Mickey back. They shake hands firmly. Cullen gives Mickey that intense stare and wishes him good luck. Mickey returns the sentiment. I’m really tired of crying.

Cullen wakes up — if he ever slept. There’s no time for tea, so he settles on the whiskey. As he gets ready to leave, he grabs his hat and looks sadly at Mei’s box. He hasn’t lost yet, but he looks defeated. Then he hears voices outside. Mr. Lee and the rest of his workers have come back. There is hope!

He is renewed. It pays to be a good man. Mei is right, Cullen — you’re a good man, and when this series is over, I hope you get the ending you deserve.

Cullen shares his doubts with Mr. Lee — ten miles in a day is pretty much impossible. Mr. Lee replies, “That is what they say about the Great Wall.” Bohannon speaks to his men, his friends. The cinematography is amazing. Behind him is the blue-violet of a perfect dawn. With tears in his eyes, he speaks. “We have moved mountains!” Indeed, they have. He is a new man. I believe he is finally the man he wants William to become. He has never been so humble.

The men set to work, and Cullen looks to that blue-violet sky with so much fire. He strikes the first spike with more heat than the rising sun. It’s completely monumental. I’m standing on my couch again. One of these days, I’m going to break my neck.

Cullen and his crew crank it out. They’ve got it down to a science. Everything is dead on, and Huntington needs some sunglasses and a punch in the face … riding around on his horse while everyone else is working to make his sh-t happen. Durant isn’t any better.

In fact, he’s worse. He sees the Central gaining on them and tells Psalms to “half-spike” the rails. Psalms ain’t cool with that. Durant doesn’t care. Time for a soap-box and a stupid move. Arrogance is a horrible drug.

With Louise reporting every piece of track laid via telegraph, Durant can’t stand the heat. He won’t pick up a hammer like Mickey instructs, but he somehow thinks there’s time for one of his egomaniacal speeches. He fires a gun into the air to get everyone’s attention. He basically tells his men that he’s worked his lily-white ass off to get them all there, so they best return the favor and work their not so lily-white asses off to get him to the finish line. Yeah, so he’s an idiot.

Psalms throws down his hammer, and the rest of his crew ecstatically follows suit. Mickey looks like he wants to tear his own head off.

Then they walk that tiny mile over to the other side. The mile just got a whole lot tinier and Louise is getting some damn good material! Psalms steps up to Bohannon, who can barely move from exhaustion, and sets his men to work for the Central Pacific. Guess who’ll be reaching the finish line first?

But it’s only minutes away, and there is still one more episode left. Durant’s mind is off the railroad and onto a different way he can scam an Ogden “win,” I just know it. But we know he dies alone and broke, so whatever he might pull off will be short-lived. Psalms is in a groove; he breaks into song. Everyone, including Cullen, joins in. Never in my life did I think I’d see this from Cullen Bohannon. I like it. No, I love it! He’s awesome.

Durant hears them, looks like his underwear got really tight, and finally picks up an f’ng hammer. Finally! But it doesn’t matter. No-Hammer Huntington watches as his crew lays the last rail at the finish line. He’s a very happy man. John Campbell sees it all go down and pictures are taken and Louise scribbles on her notepad like a madwoman and everything is glorious!

Hell On Wheels episode 13
Anson Mount as Cullen Bohannan Chris Large/AMC

But it ain’t glorious enough for our Cullen. He gets everyone’s attention and starts it up, “Won’t you bring that hammer?” They bust right back into song and go past the finish line. How’s that for insult to injury! Everyone stops to watch him — to hear him drive in that final spike — and join an entire nation. But we have ten minutes left …

This kind of thing brings more than celebration. It’s reality that’s been a long time coming. There’s a lot of happy boozing going on, but the morning is going to come, and the hangover ain’t gonna disappear with a little “hair of the dog,” if there’s even any hair left. Tomorrow is going to be very real.

While Huntington is pouring up some actual booze for Campbell to celebrate the Central’s victory and sign off on the last of the paperwork, Durant comes in to rain on the parade. He has some documents from Grant: No bonds will be issued until a full inspection of the railroad. What? Mr. Half-Spike wants to hang himself just to hold up the “winner” crap? Well, of course he does.

Now, I would think that Huntington would have no worries about the soundness of his railroad, but he gets a little pasty when the paperwork part comes up. Yeah, the paperwork stuff always gets sketchy, but I’m surprised at Durant’s confidence, though he’s such a dick, he’d rather see them both go down than lose alone. They’re like children, and Campbell takes notice. It’s obvious he can’t wait to see which one throws the first shovel full of sand into the other’s eyes.

Louise finds Cullen drinking solo. He sits on the engine of what I imagine is the Central Pacific, though it really doesn’t matter anymore. She wants to know how he feels. He feels “like it’s over.” He’s a man of few words, as we know, and no matter how hard she tries, she doesn’t get much. When she asks him what’s next, he gives her a quote in Chinese. Translated, it means, “Make friends with change. It’s the only thing you can count on.” Perfect.

Collis, in a fit of rage, goes to Durant to make a deal. He’ll give up the win in Ogden if the ceremony takes place on CP soil in Promontory … and he takes all the government bonds. Durant likes this and goes to shake on it, but Huntington realizes his stupidity and storms out. Such stubborn, greedy men. Tsk-tsk. Huntington has some of his workers haul a box of bookwork into the frame-out of a large building, and he starts the whole shebang on fire. It goes up in seconds to the delight of the partying drunkards. Durant looks a little concerned.

And then my favorite part of the whole episode happens … completely childish, but it’s a riot. Bohannon approaches Durant, and they size each other up like kids on a playground. Durant says, “I won.” Bohannon grunts and hands him a bottle of whiskey. Durant continues on about how he won, even though he didn’t, and how everything is his. Well, of course it is!  “I beat you Bohannon! You lost!” Bohannon chuckles the whole time, but he’s drunk and doesn’t give a sh-t.

How’s that for your moment of glory, Durant?

Exhausted and wasted, Cullen heads to bed. Once in his quarters, he falls apart. He sees Mei’s box and opens it. The note is still inside, but he takes one more gulp of whiskey. (I gotta say, the way people in the Old West drink makes me sick just looking at it, and I’m not a light-weight.) Then he falls to the floor in what seems major pain. I immediately think of the lead in his leg, and I freak out. Is he dying? No way!

One more episode … if Cullen dies on me, I quit … yeah, I know the series is over, but still. As the scene goes on, it appears he’s been struck by grief rather than lead poisoning.

I think I know what he’s going to do. What do you think? Sound off in the comments, and follow me on Twtitter @KimberlyThies1. Let’s tweet during episodes!


  1. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/biography/tcrr-dodge/

    Here’s some interesting info that Cullens character is seemingly based off of loosely… might give an idea how it ends……. He did fight in the indian wars but that happened before the railroad was built… so I’m not sure why they are showing him in army uniform in the preview…… I am thinking Durant somehow ends up causing trouble for Cullen with the government and in the end he goes on the run…. Off to China…

    Shortly after building the Union Pacific track to its famous completion at Promontory Summit, Utah,
    Dodge resigned his position; he had no taste for a mere desk job. In 1870 he retired for a while to Council Bluffs.
    The general was a resolute family man who had kept frequent correspondence with wife Anna throughout construction.

    Although Durant had once promised Dodge stock in his secret scam, the Credit Mobilier, it had never materialized.
    Dodge had been eager to get in on the windfall, however, and purchased 100 shares in his wife’s name. It turned a handsome profit —
    341 percent in just 18 months — but when the Credit Mobilier scandal erupted in 1872, Dodge would claim that his wife bought the
    shares from “her own resources,” presumably housekeeping money. A congressional committee wanted to know more,
    but Dodge had no interest in going anywhere near Washington. Federal agents were sent out, but they could not manage to find him.
    Peter Dey, whom Dodge had once replaced as engineer, told Congress that Dodge was “a man of wonderful resources, and can live in Texas all winter, out of doors, if he wants to, where none of your marshals can go, and if he don’t want to come he will not come.” Dey proved correct.

  2. Who was the chief engineer of the Union Pacific Railroad?

    Grenville Dodge (1831-1916): Chief Engineer for the Union Pacific Railroad from 1866 to 1869. A Union Civil War veteran who rose to the rank of Brigadier General, Dodge served in the Army’s war against the Plains Indians following the Civil War.

    • Really interesting stuff! I love the era. I’ve looked into a number of the characters from the show. While many of them are based on real historical figures, Durant is the most true to history. I love the info about Grenville Dodge! Thank you!

    • Everyone in that place was severely over-served! A bar full of bad hangovers is a recipe for disaster! I guess if Mickey won’t serve up the hair of the dog, they’ll have have to work off the damage with good old fisticuffs! 🙂

    • I am thinking the same – many clues this episode! Preparing tea for breakfast, the Chinese saying about change, sending the deceased workers back to China, focus on Mei’s box, etc. Even though she’s already gone, her presence was strong in this episode! I’m really excited to find out!

      • LOL! I’m picturing the ever-intense Bohannon riding off (or sailing?) into the sunset while this song plays and the final credits roll. It’s a pretty ridiculous head movie! OMG! I forgot this song existed, but I’m pretty sure it’s my earworm for the rest of the night! 🙂

  3. They showed her box 3 different times… and the last scene he opens it up.. showing the note inside.. it has to signify something upcoming in the finale regarding Mei

  4. I have a feeling now that once the railroad stuff is over, he will go looking for Mei and the note she left contains information on how to find her.

    Mei’s box was featured far too much.. it was definitely a clue or foreshadowing

    • I think there was a lot of foreshadowing – and I immediately thought of you! Do you feel a little less worried that we’ll witness his death next week? I know I do! I also think the note in the box is his connection to her. China is a really big place! I bet it’s an address or the name of a town. 🙂

      • well if you didn’t see the preview trailer for next week… It shows Cullen in military uniform.. and he’s shooting a gun at something while in that uniform…. so I don’t know what that would be about..

        • I saw it, and now I don’t know what to think…I thought maybe a flashback of sorts, but the uniform isn’t Confederate…

          • it might just be ceremonial.. I cant imagine them having his join the army… 1. He has a messed up leg. 2. He’s probably in his early 40’s… 3. war is what ruined his life. 4. they have been purposely making him less violent and calmer.. which is why he dragged the Swede back instead of killing him..

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