AMC’s Hell on Wheels, often ignored, but worthy of the great network it aired on among peers like Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and The Walking Dead, came to an end recently with its final seven episodes. Centered around the building of the transcontinental railroad, the series followed some really good characters, as well as a depiction of racial relations at the time, as the workers labored to connect America coast to coast following the Civil War. Now, those last installments are available on Blu-ray and DVD, along with some extras.
What strikes me about this final batch of episodes, which I eagerly devoured in two sittings, is that they are, on balance, more character-driven than most of the seasons. Don’t get me wrong, Hell on Wheels has done some beautiful and disturbing stories featuring its players over the years. But usually those are scenes intermixed with larger arcs and many moving plots. Here, four of the seven episodes really zero in on one or two faces, with much of the main cast sitting out multiple installments, and the finale serves pretty much all of those left standing. This leaves only two hours for the basic narrative about the railroad as a whole.
This works very well, even if it does depart from what most long-time viewers might expect from the show. The completion of the tracks still gets its due near the end, with one more really good story about pulling together and doing the impossible, the two companies racing one another to the finish line. However, by often focusing even more than ever on the central characters, it allows solid endings for a lot of the players we have come to deeply care about. And though many of them either die or leave before the end, each hour shedding another face or two, I couldn’t have asked for a better way to send the show off.
Among those who get an appropriate goodbye are: Fong (Angela Zhou), the woman disguised as a man; Maggie Palmer (Chelah Horsdal), the hotel owner who sees the best in people; Psalms (Dohn Norwood), the former slave with whom our once-slave-owner protagonist forms a bond; Naomi (MacKenzie Porter), the young Mormon wife of our hero, from whom he’s been physically separated; Chinese mob villain Chang (Byron Mann); and, of course, The Swede (Christopher Heyerdahl), the primary antagonist from Norway who has been permanently scarred by the horrors of war.
Then there’s our remaining central quartet, who have been through so much together on on their own, and whom get more than a single hour to wrap their own stories up. Cullen Bohannan (Anson Mount) is not just the central figure, but a man who learns a lot over these past years, and who finds himself at his most vulnerable as things come to a close. Bohannan says so much without words, and I continue to be impressed at Mount’s performance. Thomas Durant (Colm Meaney) is the crooked boss, through whom we begin to wonder if the ends might just justify the means. Eva (Robin McLeavy) is the girl who is perhaps the ultimate survivor, going from prisoner to whore to entrepreneur. Mickey McGinnes (Phil Burke) is the Irish immigrant pursuing the American dream, learning it costs a heck of a lot to achieve. Each of these have very touching moments as their threads tie off.
Hell on Wheels is not a happy ending type of a show. Many beloved characters have passed over the years, and happiness routinely eludes just about everyone. These people live a harsh life with a gritty reality, and that continues through the finale, with no artificial wrap up that’s too neat for their existence. That being said, there’s a full circle to be found, and the conclusions are satisfying in keeping with the series overall.
The extras in Season 5, Volume 2 are unfortunately thin. Three featurettes run less than five minutes each. A little more valuable are the “Inside the Episode” bits, which are about five minutes each, and there’s one for every hour in the set. Still, I wish the producers were a little less taciturn than the characters, and really examined what the show has accomplished over its six year run.
In the end, though, I greatly enjoy Hell on Wheels, and will certainly miss it. If you didn’t catch it during its original airing, now is your chance, as all of the episodes have been released, ending with Hell on Wheels Season 5, Volume 2, on sale now. The Complete Series is also available. I definitely recommend it.