Hell on Wheels S04E07 Recap – Hell Ain’t CivilizedSeptember 17, 2014
For the duration of Season 4, fans of the transcontinental railroad epic Hell on Wheels have been asking the same question: where is Elam Ferguson? The freed slave Elam was mauled by a bear at the end of last season. His situation dire, he was not seen as Season 4 began. Common, the rapper-actor who plays him, was no longer listed in the opening credits with the rest of the cast. Still, we were not told definitively that he was dead.
Hope was kindled last week when he turned up alive, being nursed back to health by Plains Indians impressed by his killing the bear all by himself. He did not come through the struggle unscathed, having lost an eye and bearing massive scars across his head. He seemed to be unsure of who he was, but at the end he sets out to find the railroad camp in Cheyenne, Wyoming. We waited to see how his reunion would go.
Turns out this was a false hope. In an episode that persuasively argues that PTSD has existed as long as people have lived through great stress and strain, Elam is killed in S04E07. Even worse, his killer is his best friend Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount). When Elam arrives in Cheyenne he has three women, two Indians and the white woman who tried to get his help to escape the week before, as his “slaves.” He tries to sell them in the middle of the frontier town. Campbell, the corrupt territorial governor, orders his henchmen to shoot him to save the women. Cullen begs for 15 minutes to reason with his good friend. Nothing from gentle persuasion to the pleadings of his former lover Eva (Robin McLeavy) work. In fact, Elam doesn’t even realize who Eva is, despite his desperation to be reunited with her as was evident in his dreams in S04E06.
Finally, with Campbell’s men preparing to shoot, Cullen takes one more chance to try to save Elam. He nearly gets knifed for his trouble. A one-sided knife fight breaks out, Cullen trying to keep Elam from stabbing him. Finally, the blade of his friend’s knife drawing blood on Cullen’s forehead, Cullen is forced to kill him. Despite his attempts to save his best friend, he has to save himself. The episode ends with Cullen breaking down in sobs over Elam’s coffin, which for some reason he is burying alone.
This episode uses shock value to great effect. Now that we know Elam is still alive, there is no reason to suspect his return is a false hope only. Cullen’s alternating frustration and calming in dealing with his friend is quite effective, allowing Mount to bring out more emotion in a character lost in his own bad war memories for some time. If there is a problem with this confrontation, it comes from Eva and the characters who seem to blame Cullen. While they are showing understandable grief, do they believe that Cullen was supposed to let Elam kill him? I hope this does not mean conflicts are being set up between these characters that are based more on misunderstandings than real hostilities.
An excellent subplot also played out as Durant (Colm Meaney) shows his disregard for the old saying that revenge is a dish best served cold. Having been beaten up by one of Campbell’s henchmen two episodes before, he succeeds in having the man kicked out of town by his patron. Durant has him thrown off his train in the middle of nowhere, then introduces him to his own form of justice. He also modulates his usual gruff persona in a scene in which he (sort of) takes the blame for the death of his goddaughter’s father.
Although there are minor gripes with this episode, Common does get a memorable sendoff. Best of all, the long-simmering conflict between Campbell and Durant seems ready to come to a head. Cullen and the railroad boss discuss how to deal with him, a development that probably seals the governor’s doom. Given how strong this season has been, it’s likely to be a strong ending for this, the best season of “Hell on Wheels” yet.
[Editor’s Note: This was a hard episode for me to watch as it was so tragic. I really wanted Elam to be reunited with Eva. Sadly, that is not to be. This is not the first time Hell on Wheels has boldly killed off main characters and I assume it will not be the last. This really elevates the stakes and keeps the viewer on edge. Finishing a transcontinental railroad requires sacrifice and hard men and, when those two combine, there will ultimately be more tragedy. As the show’s motto goes: “Hell Ain’t Civilized.”]
– Louis Burklow (aka, Hollywood Country Boy), Staff Writer, Phoenix Genesis
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