This fourth season of Hell on Wheels has centered mostly on the Campbell vs. Durant feud, with pretty much all of Cheyenne uniting in their hatred towards the town’s newest mayor, Campbell. However in these last few episodes, Hell on Wheels has turned Campbell into a less obvious antagonist, and more of a misunderstood leader. Most of this change is due to his tryst with newspaper editor Miss Ellison, but somehow, Campbell hasn’t ended up looking like that bad a guy. Even if (just one episode ago), he tried to rid the town of most of its inhabitants.
But the easiest way to avoid being the most hated man in town is to find a person even more despicable. Oh, and maybe hire this new awful person to be your new marshall. Thankfully for Campbell, by the end of “Return to Hell,” everyone—himself included—hates Sydney Snow.
Cheyenne might be a mostly lawless town, with bar fights late into the night, and the dead losers being picked up in the morning’s streets. But hey, Cheyenne still hates a dead kid as much as the next town. After Cullen returns the men who Campbell tried to get out of his town, the recently freed all end up in Ruth’s church. With this opportunity, the rogue Sydney Snow locks these people into the church and sets it on fire. Thanks to Cullen again, the men and Ruth all escape, but it isn’t until the next day when Cullen discovers that Ezra—the Mormon boy Ruth has been watching all season—has died in the fire.
This might sound awful, but the death of Ezra is a great idea for the show, for several reasons. First, Ezra was hardly even a character, but more of a way to give Ruth some purpose this season. She’d teach him lessons or worry about him, but it all added up to a bunch of nothing. That also makes Ezra’s death a great direction for Ruth’s story. She has also been, for the most part, a non-entity ever since her father died, but “Return to Hell” changes that later in the episode. And making Snow responsible for a child’s death unites the entire town—even Campbell—into a desire to make Snow pay for what he’s done. By the end of the episode, Campbell regrets ever making Snow his marshall, then gives Cullen the job, even though he still wants his main priority to be the railroad. When Snow appears in town, Cullen refuses to shoot the town’s new villain, yet Ruth has no qualms with shooting the child-killer down.
I’ve always felt like Ruth is the perfect woman for Cullen to end up with, and after this episode, it seems like these two have a similar path. They both discuss the painful loss of their children in the past, and they’ve always had an unspoken understanding that feels like a bond that few people in Cheyenne have.
But let’s not forget the freak show that is Hell on Wheels: Thor Gunderson, aka The Swede. It seems like his strange time with Brigham Young is coming to an end, as he plans on going to work for the Central Pacific. It’s weird, but the abusive relationship Thor has with Brigham, and hopefully this new path will set him up to meet with Cullen once more. No matter how many Sydneys and Campbells this show throws at us, the true villain of Hell on Wheels has and always will be The Swede.
So far this season has been about the unity of Cheyenne as a community. Through pain, loss and new leadership, Cheyenne has grown more powerful and stronger as a group. Even when outside forces threaten to tear up their town, mutual hatred brings them altogether. As the show takes a hiatus before the final few episodes of the fourth season, the show seems to know where its flaws are and is attacking them accordingly, while making its characters stronger, its stories more compelling and creating a stronger ensemble in the process.
Ross Bonaime is a D.C.-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.