by Bryan Caswell and Heather Clancy
In the summer of 2016, one of my personal institutions came to a close. AMC’s gritty, historically-grounded series Hell on Wheels wrapped up its final season and sailed off into the sunset. Hell on Wheels is one of my all-time favorites, and with the intent of reviewing it on Concerning History (and introducing Heather to it), we have recently been watching the entire series. In order to give due justice to this loaded show, Heather and I will be breaking it down into three separate reviews. What follows is the second, covering its third and fourth seasons.
The finale of Hell on Wheels’ second season is draining. Cullen Bohannon’s budding life on the railroad is shaken to the core, and all that exists for him to care about now is finishing the road. As we enter Season 3, we find Cullen a (literally) frozen shell of a man, but as winter ends and the railroad thaws out, our familiar cast of characters returns and Cullen begins to pick up the pieces and move on. No sooner does work resume, however, than Cullen, now chief engineer of the Union Pacific, runs into a big problem: Mormons! His actions resolving a dispute over Eminent Domain will echo throughout the rest of the series and will ultimately cement his Batman-Joker relationship with the villainous Swede.
Seasons 3 and 4 of Hell on Wheels are lighter on historical goodies than the two previous seasons or final fifth. Most of the weight of these seasons comes in its personal storytelling, and Season 4 in particular has a few episodes that really pack a tearful punch. It is a period show, however, so there still remain a few good historical grounding wires. The largest comes from the aforementioned Mormons and their ‘Lion of the Lord,’ Brigham Young, who becomes a recurring character in Season 4. The choice to not just include but focus on Mormons in a Western is a welcome acknowledgement of their presence and role in shaping the frontier, a fact that is all-too-often overlooked. Beyond their inclusion, however, I’m afraid I can’t comment much upon accuracy, as I haven’t studied much of the detailed history of the Church of Latter Day Saints.
The second big historical touchstone of these seasons comes in the fourth with the appearance of John Campbell, first governor of Wyoming, as an antagonist for Thomas Durant and his Union Pacific. Campbell is an historical figure, and they make sure to mention his close relationship with Ulysses S. Grant and prior role as Reconstruction mayor of Atlanta. He and his carpet-bagging companions provide a compelling mirror for Bohannon, and it is in these third and fourth seasons that Cullen (mostly) lets go of his Confederate past and fully admits the wrongness of his former cause and even some particular actions during the war.
A number of other tidbits and easter eggs can either excite or disappoint the discerning historian. Cullen and Elam engage in a game of lacrosse, Native American-style; a US Cavalry colonel spouts some wonderfully-nineteenth-century phrenology ‘facts’; U.S. Grant himself even shows up for an episode or two, and the mutual respect that grows between him and Bohannon is a delight to watch. On the other side of things, the material culture and costuming for the show continues to go further and further off the rails. All in all, Hell on Wheels begins to plateau in its third and fourth season, but for a fan of the American West, the American Civil War, or beautifully-realized period pieces in general, it continues to offer satisfying fare.