AMC’s “Hell On Wheels” 412 – “Thirteen Steps” last night was, perhaps, one of the best things I have ever viewed on television. The episode demanded, like a pop-quiz, loyal viewers show what they have learned from the cable network series story, its characters and their development, and their evolution of group dynamic and growth since the start of this post-Civil War transcontinental tale of man and railroad in the unsettled West.
The Main Characters in 412 – “Thirteen Steps”:
Railroad Sheriff Cullen Bohannon – The former southern officer and slaveholder in the Civil War has turned into a determined railroad engineer and builder. As we learned in an earlier season of the series, Bohannon is highly educated, not just some renegade gun-slinger. He lost his wife and young son to murderers while he was off fighting in the war. In his quest West he was looking for the murderers of his family and found a new purpose in life in the railroad that at the time of his arrival was going nowhere slowly. Upon his setting up digs in the nomadic community he fell in love with Lily Bell, the widow of the railroad designer who was killed in an Indian attack on their journey. She too would be killed when “The Swede” murders her in an earlier season. But Bohannon is a man of wisdom and perseverance. His best friend and loyal partner is a former slave Elam Ferguson, whom Bohannon was forced to kill a few episodes back when Elam completely loses his mind and becomes violent and deadly after a bear attack. It was a difficult decision that struck at Bohannon’s very soul. He has killed his brother.
Rev. Ruth Cole – daughter of the deceased Rev. Cole who headed the meager church tent that followed the work-in-progress railroad across the rugged Indian and disease wild territory. She informally adopts a young boy Bohannon found orphaned on the open plain in his search for clean water during a cholera outbreak back at the camp. The boy Ruth named Ezra, unknown to Bohannon, is the lone survivor of “The Swede” who murdered his Mormon family on their way to a Mormon settlement not far from where the railroad construction was heading. Ruth’s church was able to be made of wooden walls and floors once they reached Cheyenne. She is the community’s center of mercy, compassion, understanding, and forgiveness. She has been Bohannon’s moral rock since he has known her.
Unelected Wyoming Gov. John Campbell – He and his ilk of federal thugs rolled into town and began taking over everything they could, including private property and the railroad … with a very heavy tyrannical hand. He continually cites the word of law and order, in spite of the reality of the environment he and his men have just invaded. Campbell has managed to spark an affair with the town’s female newspaper editor Louise Ellison, which will be a negative with her coming story of the “Church Lady” that shot the crazy gunman Campbell hired to bully the railroad company and who set the town’s people-filled church on fire and resulted in the death of a boy.
412 – “Thirteen Steps”:
Rev. Ruth Cole has shot the man who set her church on fire and burned to death her son Ezra inside. She views Sydney Snow as the devil and he must be killed. Gov. Campbell is determined to seek justice from the woman after Snow eventually dies from his wounds. (Not for the lack of trying of Bohannon, Durant, and Eva in last week’s bloody episode to save his life in order to save Ruth’s.) Ruth has no problems with that and is a willing prisoner. The petite, frail-looking, and meek woman grows five feet in this episode’s story of righteousness, bordering on foolish self-righteousness.
Federal law and order has arrived in the Wild West in the “Hell On Wheels” railroad town of Cheyenne, Wyoming, and the Rev. Ruth Cole is to be made an example of … An example of the conflict(s) between man’s laws and God’s laws as the wild frontier morphs and merges with the civilized territory as the country’s east (Washington D.C.) reaches them. Within the black and white pages of The Holy Bible that Ruth depends on from the earthly dawn to dusk there is no gray area. Man’s laws offer gray areas for degrees and justifications of guilt, and the political workings of man. But Gov. Campbell is not God, and Ruth believes she more so broke God’s laws than she did man’s laws, and His punishment must be carried out without making deals or plea bargaining.
The acting Wyoming governor, John Campbell, whom we have come to loathe this season, allows his cold persona to crack a bit and his humanity to seep out in this episode. He permits railroad sheriff Cullen Bohannon’s written testimony about Ruth’s shooting of the maniac Snow (that Campbell is fully responsible for having ‘deputized’ and setting loose on the people of Cheyenne) as having been in defense of his life in a stand-off in the street. When asked by Campbell and the judge if this selfless defense was what she would accept and present to the court, Ruth says no, and firmly states she killed the madman because he had killed her son. In other words, she was admitting to revenge. Or was she? A previous episode of “Hell On Wheels” has the show flashing back to Ruth’s childhood as she hid while her preacher father and his men executed ‘non-righteous’ slaveholders.
We are struck in the moment, as Bohannon is, contemplating adult Ruth’s newfound understanding of her father’s black and white laws of The Bible and God, and her rejection of the gray and blurry laws of man that obviously brought about a Sydney Snow and gave the demon unchecked power over everyone in his path. No, Ruth would not be excusing or justifying her own sin in order to save her neck. She would be living her faith in God’s laws to the last breath in this mortal world. Bohannon is in shock and awe as he realizes the possibility/probability of watching the giant heavy foot of the federal government crushing this peaceful mother bird who was only seeking justice for her innocent fledgling son.
After the trial hearing Bohannon meets with Campbell in the street and looks like somebody that has awoken in a cold dark place he didn’t recognize and was unable to control. Cullen Bohannon can fix anything, but is struggling to fix this. We can also see the arrogance within Campbell slipping, as he now realizes he will be putting a poor, helpless, grieving, mother to death. He agrees with the near frantic Bohannon that a governor’s pardon is in order, if Ruth will only accept it. A lifeline that will disappear and lead to the tight looped end of a rope should she not. The control is now back in Cullen’s hands, and he hurries to give the offer to Ruth. She calmly refuses the pardon. She will accept the death sentence for the sin of murder. An eye-for-an-eye. Her self-imposed merciless religious zeal almost equals the uncivilized nature of the world she has been living in, and that of the cold and businesslike laws of men. She has been able to show generous compassion and mercy to Bohannon’s bloody and slaveholder past, to the community’s prostitutes and intoxicated gamblers, and to her own father’s history. But she will not show any such compassion, forgiveness, or mercy to Snow or herself. Why, the loyal viewer is left to fret. Well, because she feels she is now unclean, after crawling into a deeper Hell to meet the murderer on his level to defeat him.
This is experienced when Bohannon, who is spending Ruth’s last night on Earth in the jail with her, calls her to the jailhouse window to see the dark street is filled with her candle and lantern-holding church congregation and town’s people showing their support, and silently hoping and praying she will change her heart and mind to accept the governor’s pardon. Ruth tells Bohannon she is no longer their spiritual leader (almost insinuating they have been abandoned in their own sins), and returns to her cell.
Bohannon tells Ruth the story of his witnessing a hanging in front of a federal building in Washington D.C.. The process seemed so clean and civilized … Yet, the execution was botched, the man not dying immediately and suffering for long minutes as he hanged dying in an undignified manner before the public. It had not been civilized at all. Ruth tells him she knows what he is trying to do, but will not be dissuaded.
The hammering of the gallows has stopped. The construction is complete in the silence and darkness of night.
Bohannon and Ruth lie together in the jail cell, perpendicular on the adjoining benches, Ruth’s head on Bohannon’s shoulder. She asks him if he loves her. He does not hesitate to say yes … But it is not a ploy to win her acceptance of the pardon, nor is it some brotherly or plutonic love. No, followers of the show know there is a silent connection between Cullen and Ruth. You know this is his confession of love for the woman ‘Ruth’, but a women he has obviously felt unworthy of, given his soiled soul and her pristine soul. Viewers are confirmed in their seasons-long suspicions of Ruth’s ardent but silent love for Bohannon as the real reason why she rebuffed Irish Mickey’s brother Sean’s love and request of marriage. Ruth finally tells Cullen, “I love you”, and it is as if she had said it to him a million times and we ponder she has inside her private mind and heart. She asks him if he loves his young (and arranged) Mormon wife who had his baby. Bohannon is slow to admit it is even love. He is confused and unsure of its defining it as such. We now know his love for Ruth is true. He says he cannot lose her (Ruth) … And he cannot. She, as I pointed out, is his touchstone to his soul that has kept him sane. She has been his angel on this dirty and evil Earth. Ruth strongly encourages Bohannon to go back to his new wife and be with her and their son. He is not sure she will have him back, he admits. It is Ruth’s one last attempt at saving Bohannon’s soul from “Hell”.
Dawn’s Early Light:
Bohannon and Ruth are awakened by Campbell. Cullen insists to the waiting men that Ruth has changed her mind and will accept the governor’s pardon. When Campbell asks her if this is true, Ruth denies it and says she is ready to accept the consequences of her actions. Louise Ellison helps Ruth dress, and tells her she will write the story of her loss of Ezra and her execution at the hands of these men. Ruth assures her that when the railroad is done and time has passed them all by nobody will remember her, or the reporter, at all.
Looking pale and very human, Ruth holds her own as she courageously and calmly walks the 13 steps from the jailhouse to the hangman’s gallows. The town’s people have gathered in their mourning black as they line her path, bowing heads, removing their hats, men and women weeping, reaching out and touching her arm and her dress as she passes them, just the way the followers of Jesus Christ had touched Him when He would pass. Ruth looks down at the hangman’s apprentice child, a boy younger than her own Ezra who deems such things as this nothing more than a business, but he offers her a small, friendly smile … We know she is taken back to that terrifying night in her childhood and is puzzled by this child’s cold compliance with this execution. She must also be pondering her lost Ezra’s nature in comparison to this little assistant who helped craft the gallows. One murderer’s sin is another’s profession.
Ruth is strong until she is at the top of the gallows and looks out at the distraught crowd gathered to witness this abomination of justice. *At the top Gov. Campbell turns his back to Ruth but looks down in the crowd at his unsure fate awaiting him should this execution see fruition. His convictions to his laws of man are just as strong as Ruth’s are to God’s laws.
THIS is where I knew there would be no fairytale reprieve or rescue of Ruth Cole in the series. To do so would have completely trashed the episode. THIS is where the writers and producers of “Hell On Wheels” showed their courage and convictions at accepting the consequences of their storyline(s). The loyal fans would now be faced with the sin of having possibly taken the meaning of the minor character of “Ruth Cole” for granted…
Ruth does not see Cullen Bohannon. Now she feels abandoned, and her blood must immediately turn to ice as it rushes through her veins to her brain, and she begins panicking as the hangman ties her hands and feet. But God’s glory is opening the gates to accept her soul and she is completely oblivious to the warm and beautiful ribbons of shades of amber and pale indigo striping the eastern sky behind her as she looks down the long road to the west at the deep dark shadows shadows and burned wreckage of her church at the very end where her son Ezra had been burned alive by the demon Snow. We anticipate Ruth must be grasping at remembering Jesus’s plea, “Father, why have You forsaken me?” but cannot bring the scripture into her memory now. This forebodes the future of an often time Godless darkness America’s western territory has ahead of it. Her courage begins to fail her and she starts to whimper and cry. Ruth asks the hangman if he can loosen the rope a little, and he soothingly, politely, and trustingly tells her, “No, Ma`am”, and here is where we know he is very good at what he does. He will not allow her sudden death to be mercilessly botched at his hands. He wants her to die a good death, with the only discomfort being the slightly tight rope as she stood there waiting.
And then Bohannon pushes his way through the onlookers and Ruth shouts, “WAIT!” before the black hood can be placed over her head. A single tear rolls down her cheek as Gov. Campbell asks her, “Any last words?” possibly in hopes of her telling him she will change her mind and accept his pardon. Bohannon removes his hat and silently looks up into her calming gaze. Instead she takes a shallow breath, offers a gentle smile to Cullen Bohannon and the hood goes over her head. Bohannon stands at her feet on the ground below, as Christ’s most loyal beloved ones stood at His feet during His execution on the cross. Cullen is now Ruth’s rock of strength. He is her angel. His final gift to her unconditional love for him is his acceptance of her decision. He owes this to her with everything inside of him. And just as with Elam’s death, and the death of his wife and son years ago, and Lily’s death, it will cost him dearly as Ruth will take yet another huge piece of Cullen Bohannon’s soul. Ruth Cole is dying for the sins of everyone in that town that she has lived beside in “Hell On Wheels” … all the whores, the drunks, the gamblers, the cheats, the oppressors, the tyrants, and the killers.
The black hood is placed over her head, and we hear her rapid anxious last breaths as she strains to see Bohannon between the glimpses of light between the weave of the fabric’s darkness. We hear the lever release the floor beneath Ruth’s feet, and there is immediate blackness and silence. The hangman and his apprentice had done their job to perfection. No man standing there in the street of Cheyenne can match Ruth Cole’s courage and convictions.
Life Is For The Living:
Louise Ellison has written her story of Ruth, and hands Campbell the first print draft. He asks her if he is one of the devils in her story. She is very short and businesslike as she sets the type and ink and puts the press into motion for the first page. *But Campbell has bigger devils to deal with ahead. Irish Mickey and his Irish mafia he had shipped into town have warned Campbell that he would pay if he carried out Ruth’s execution. Everyone will carry the black mark of Ruth’s execution on their hearts, minds, and souls … even those who believe they can put this messiness behind them and just get back to business as usual. Louise refuses Ruth Cole’s truth and memory to fade into the darkness.
Cullen Bohannon is met on the train platform by a group of church ladies who had arrived in Cheyenne to take Ruth’s body back east with them to be buried in a church cemetery. Very business like he states Ruth has been buried beside her son in the town’s cemetery. He climbs onboard the construction trolley with the other workers and blandly tells the women, “God didn’t do this”. This is meant as Bohannon’s way of making sure the men that did take Ruth’s life, from Campbell’s radical federal government tyranny in hiring Sydney Snow and the madman’s murder of Ezra to his convicting and executing of Ruth, remained in front of their faces as a stark reminder for as long as they ruled in Cheyenne.
Bohannon sees to the successful test of the mountain rock-moving construction contraption and hands it over to the impressed railroad crew. He then tells Durant that he quits…
This episode of “Hell On Wheels” was Emmy worthy, including the performance of Kasha Kropinski (Ruth), the writers, and the producers, especially that of actor/producer Anson ‘Cullen Bohannon’ Mount in his selfless ability to let the story roll completely on ‘Ruth’.
This is what television writing has been missing for years. THIS is TV writing for thinking people. To have walked into last night’s episode without having shared in the commitment of the previous episodes/seasons would have been meaningless. As I said, it was a major test of loyal “HOW” fans to see if they could connect the dots the series had thus far laid out for them. I did. Hopefully others did as well.
This season 4 of “Hell On Wheels” was supposed to be the last for the AMC series. However, the cable network has granted a stay-of-series-execution and given it an anticipated 14 episodes season 5 renewal to be split evenly between summer 2015 and the last 7 episodes a year later to tie-off loose ends and come to a dignified and satisfying conclusion.