I am addicted to this show.
Set in 1865, post-Civil War America, Hell on Wheels is a depiction of life working on and living with the crews expanding the Union Pacific Railway to the west. It is about one man’s quest for vengeance and another man’s quest for equality. A gritty story of greed and corruption in a travelling ‘tent city’ that is replete with violence, prostitution, alcoholism and racial tension.
Below is a summary of all the episodes shown so far, laid out as an introduction the tent city of Hell on Wheels and all its inhabitants.
Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount), a former confederate soldier, is out to avenge the death of his wife at the hands of Union soldiers. He kills one in a church confessional while posing as a priest. He gets on a train bound for Hell on Wheels, searching for Daniel Johnson, the next man on his list. Johnson turns out to be the foreman supervising the crews, and he makes Cullen a ‘walking boss, on account of his owning slaves before the war.’ Cullen meets Elam Ferguson, who works on Cullen’s crew, which is composed mainly of former slaves.
Cullen is drinking in the saloon with Daniel Johnson, and he knows now for sure that Daniel is one of the soldiers he is looking for. He makes a reference to Meridian, where his wife’s murder occurred. Daniel cocks his gun under the table at Cullen, and orders him outside. Just as Daniel is about to give Cullen the name of one of the other soldiers, Elam Ferguson slits his throat from behind.
Bohannon is accused of the murder and imprisoned by The Swede, who has been tasked by Doc Durant to clean up Hell on Wheels and keep it from imploding. Cullen breaks free from his train-car prison, and heads for Elam’s tent, where Elam cuts his chains. He promptly goes from there to Doc Durant’s trailer to request Daniel Johnson’s job. Durant gives it to him, effectively cutting off The Swede from hanging him.
Cullen learns that one of the soldiers he is after, Sergeant Harper, is just west of the cut, on the logging crew. He sets off on horseback to find him, and comes across Lily Bell and Joseph Black Moon. Lily had escaped an attack by the Indians on her camp. Joseph was bringing her to Hell on Wheels to keep her safe from his band, who were responsible for the massacre.
Elam Ferguson (Common) is an plantation-educated former slave who doesn’t take kindly to white men who ignore the emancipation proclamation, a copy of which he keeps in his pocket. He works on a ‘cut crew’, the crew who prepares the ground for the laying of railroad track. He faces racism and stares down a slave past while trying to make the white men he works for understand that he is equal to them. He meets Cullen when he is hired on as his walking boss. There is to be a grudging respect between the two men, as Cullen tacitly gives Elam permission to lead the cut crew in a motivating chant.
Elam overhears Cullen and Daniel’s conversation outside his tent, and comes to what he sees as Cullen’s rescue. Cullen curses him for killing him before he could get the next soldier’s name. The two men embark on a saving-each-other acquaintance, with each saving the other more than once. When Cullen informs Elam and the other walking bosses that the pay has not come in onm the morning train, Elam challenges Cullen to a fist fight. Cullen climbs down from his horse, and they begin to spar. Doc Durant, who is hilltop enjoying a picnic with Lily Bell, orders them to stop, and suggests a night’s festivities containing a pugilistic match between Elam and Cullen. He will provide all the liquor they can drink. This appeases the crew and men, and they go back to work.
Elam unknowingly cheats in the fight with Sean McGinnes slips his corner bandages that have been soaked in hot pepper juices. Cullen confronts Elam about it, but believes him when he says he didn’t know about the bandages. After the fight, Elam is feeling his oats and goes to the tent-city whorehouse. He meets Eva (Robin McLeavy), who is soon to become his lover, much to the anger of the city’s men who don’t take kindly to interracial relationships. Because of this, he is caught with Eva and the men try to hang him. Cullen intervenes, and the two ride off together. The Swede orders the men after Elam and Cullen, and they are soon killed by Cullen and Elam who lie in wait for them.
Lily Bell’s (Dominique McElligott) husband Robert was the chief surveyor for the Union Pacific Railroad, under the employ of Doc Durant. He and Lily have set off ahead of the railroad work so that Robert can continue to survey and map the route to the west, and through the Rockies. Robert has a terrible cough that ultimately becomes the death of him: they escape the attack by the Indians only to be caught in the woods when Robert cannot suppress his cough. Lily is shot through the shoulder with an arrow, and Robert is stabbed in the stomach. Lily attacks the Brave with his own arrow by stabbing him in the neck with it.
As Robert lay dying, Lily takes his maps and flees. Three braves continue to search for her, and she narrowly escapes by hiding behind a beached log when they make camp for the night not 50 feet away from her. When they leave she wakes, and continues to make her way back through the woods. She lays in afield, and the Indians spot vultures circling in the sky and head towards them. At the last minute, Lily sees them coming and darts back into the woods. A hand reaches out and covers her mouth as the Indians ride by unaware that she is there.
The boy, Joseph Black Moon, tells her he is there to save her and to take her to Hell on Wheels. Before they can leave for town, Cullen happens upon them and informs Joseph that he (as an Indian) would be skinned alive for bringing a white woman into town. Joseph knows he is telling the truth, and allows Cullen to take her back.
Cullen leaves her at the edge of town, and heads off in search of Sergeant Harper. She heads for a cemetery nearby, where she locates Robert’s grave. Durant finds her there, and escorts her back to town. He is devastated to hear that Lily is not in possession of Robert’s maps. She does have them, and at length lets him know and gives them to him. Durant is smitten with her, but he is a married man. She soon moves out of his train car, pitching her own tent in town.
Thomas ‘Doc’ Durant (Colm Meaney) is tasked with expanding the Union Pacific Railway through western America. He creates a unique investment opportunity by bribing a State Senator to pass his bill allowing his company alone to provide materials and crews to build the railroad. He quickly tires of paying the Senator, especially when The Swede informs the Senator that Durant has siphoned $147,000 from the funds into his own railroad speculating business.
When he learns of Robert Bell’s death, he immediately heads back to hell on Wheels. They get to the site of the massacre, and directs the workers to put the bodies back on the ground, and goes to each body stabbing them with arrows. He puts out a reward for Lily Bell’s safe return.
When he learns that she has returned to the camp, he sets her up in a suite in his train car. They grow close, and during this time she confides that she does indeed have Robert’s maps, and she tells Durant he can have them in return for the money that is owed to Robert. Lily soon sees the folly in that as she wants to see Robert’s dream come to fruition, so she gives the maps to Durant.
He gives the Senator a bad stock tip, after cleaning up the mess of the siphoned $147,000 the senator was blackmailing him over. The Senator loses everything, and Durant tells him not to worry, he might still have some use for him.
The Swede (Gunderson) (Christopher Heyerdahl), who continually laments that he is actually Norwegian, is assigned to Hell on Wheels as a constable of sorts by Durant, who instructs him to keep the masses from killing each other. This is not an easy task, since martial law mostly ruled the tent-cities in those days.
Trying to find his own place among the fortune-seekers, he extorts men who have prime tent locations, takes bribes to sell out Durant to the Senator, and follows his own agenda of proving that Cullen killed at least six men. Trying to convince Durant is not an easy feat, as Durant has already brushed it off – he likes his gruff, no nonsense new foreman, and is determined to quash The Swede’s suspicions.
He promises Durant protection for a load of gunpowder coming into the camp. The Swede bribes Cullen to look the other way while his men steal some of the gunpowder, but Cullen demands more money before agreeing. The stealing of the powder goes wrong when there is an explosion. The Swede is never discovered to have been the cause, but Cullen knows.
Still trying to dig up information on Cullen, he tells the Senator about Durant’s embezzlement of $147,000. He asks that in return the Senator look into the whereabouts of Frank Harper, who is from the Senator’s hometown. The Senator reluctantly agrees, and The Swede continues his quest to find out what Cullen is up to. He knows Cullen killed the men he has so far, but he can’t figure out why.
Sean and Mickey McGinnes (Ben Esler and Phil Burke) are two Irishmen looking to ‘find their fortune’ in America. On the train, Mickey tries to read aloud the account of the Union soldier killed in a church ‘conference’. “Confessional”, the man across from them corrects. It’s Cullen, on his way to Hell on Wheels.
Their conversation turns to religion, and when asked if he doesn’t believe in a higher power, Cullen replies: “Sure I do, I wear it on my hip.” He shows them his gun, and they seem very impressed.
At Hell on Wheels, Sean and Mickey unveil their grand plan to make their fortune: the open a ‘Magic lantern Show’, which shows slides of their homeland. As the grand finale, Mickey sings an Irish song, which brings tears to some of the men’s eyes. This makes them money for a while, but eventually the men grow tired of the same slides. Sean laments this, and Mickey, watching the cat house across the ‘road’, says he has an idea – to charge men money to peep in the tent. This works for about ten seconds before the head prostitute, Nell (April Telek), chases them off with a broom.
The Swede comes to their tent for a visit and comments on the prime location of their tent. He tells them they have to pay him a premium for this location or they have to move. The brothers have some money they have saved to send home to their mother, and Sean dips into it to pay The Swede. When he comes the following week the brothers ask for a little more time. The Swede grants it, and returns a few hours later to tear down their tent with the brothers inside.
The boys bet all their money on Cullen to win the boxing match with Elam, and Mickey tends to Cullen in his corner. Cullen says that Elam is not fighting back, which Sean notices too. He slips some bandages to Psalms, who is tending to Elam in his corner. Psalms puts the hot-pepper-soaked bandages on Elam’s hands, and pep talks him to fight back. Cullen loses, and Mickey is beside himself – they have lost all their money. Sean, sitting smugly behind the tent, tells him no, in fact – he had bet all their money all Elam, at 30-1. They’re rich.
Rerend Nathaniel Cole (Tom Noonan) and Joseph Black Moon (Eddie Spears) are caretakers of the makeshift church in Hell on Wheels. Joseph left his band to be baptized by Cole, and to assist him in converting the men and women of Hell on Wheels. After harboring Cullen from The Swede after his escape, Cullen tells Cole that he doesn’t deserve forgiveness for the sins he has committed. Cole eventually tells Cullen that he too has blood on his hands, but that God has forgiven him.
Some of Cole’s skeletons come to light when his long-lost daughter Ruth (Kasha Kropinski) shows up in hell on Wheels to tell him her mother has died. Over his own objections, he allows her to stay in the church tent while he goes to meet with Joseph’s father to end the animosity between the Cheyenne and the railroad. The meeting doesn’t go well, and the Cheyenne proceed to derail a train to make their point.
Joseph knows that his family, his brother Pawnee Killer specifically, is responsible for the massacre that killed Robert Bell. He has confessed this to Cole, who cautions him to tell no one else. Lily discovers this when a group of native women attend a church service that Joseph is conducting with Ruth while Cole is attending the meeting of the chief and Durant. One of the women is wearing a hat that Lily knows belonged to Robert, and angrily confronts Joseph about his lies to her. She tries to take the hat away from the woman, and Cullen calmly steers her away. Joseph later brings the woman to Lily, who offers her the hat and her condolences. Lily takes the hat, but removes the feather attached and gives it back to the woman.
Cole appears to be slowly going mad. Ruth enters his room to find him curled up on his cot. Seeing the bottle of liquor on the table, she instantly assumes that he is drunk. She gets very angry with him, and reveals that she is not her mother – he can drink all he wants, but she is not afraid of him, She angrily pours him a glass, and hands it to him. He knocks it out of her hand and gets up to hit her. She stares defiantly back as he lowers his hand, and tells her to go away and leave him alone as he sinks back onto the cot.
The majority of the characters in this story have come to the railroad and brought all of their baggage with them. While they all have unique experiences, their story is all the same.
With nothing left to lose and everything to gain, they have come to Hell on Wheels to make their way to a better life. While it is a bumpy road fraught with violence, it is unequivocally better than what they have left behind.
Watch Hell on Wheels on Sunday nights at 10:00 EST, on AMC.