‘Hell on Wheels’ season 4, episode 12 review: Anson Mount, Kasha Kropinski shine; Ruth’s fate revealed

For at least a few moments on Saturday night’s “Hell on Wheels,” we almost felt like this was the drama’s version of a bottle episode you typically see in a comedy. The difference: Very little within “Thirteen Steps” was comedic.

This episode spent the majority of its runtime within the walls of the local Cheyenne jail, where Cullen Bohannon engaged in a raw, honest conversation with Ruth. She finally confessed to her feelings, and he admitted that there was at least a part of him that could love Naomi. The two were talking, but we felt there was something more still that could be said.

Through these scenes, Anson Mount and Kasha Kropinski gave some of their most honest, understated work we’ve seen on the show to date. In between the death of Elam, the battles with Syd, and the scenes with Kropinski here, we’d be willing to say that Mount is getting an Emmy-worthy resume built up for this season. Whether or not awards shows stray enough from their comfort zone to notice is to be seen.

Ruth has always been a woman of principle, so to see her refuse anything other than her fate by was hardly a surprise, regardless of whatever opportunities for salvation were presented to her. This included Cullen trying to help her escape, John Campbell trying to pardon here, and even Mickey getting involved with threats. To Ruth, the only salvation that she wanted came at the end of a noose. What did surprise us was the tenderness of the executioner, a role typically identified with rage and mystery.

Ruth’s death is yet another game-changer on the show, and regardless of whether or not you felt the move was just, it doesn’t matter. She felt it was. Her life was in her hands, and it leaves Cullen with very few ties now to anything other than the railroad, and to a certain extent his family, who have been out of the picture for at least a little while.

What the episode in the end brought us was a return in part to the series’ origins (at least at first): Cullen the railroad man. The show smartly differentiated itself from Elam with the death and burial of the character, and one of the larger cliffhangers revolved around Louise, who was planning an expose on Cheyenne that had Campbell irate for a number of reasons.

The other? Cullen seemingly losing his purpose in the wake of what happened, and uttering two words that very much change the game: “I quit.”

Tonight’s “Hell on Wheels” may have been lacking in shootouts, but it made up for it with strong, pointed performances and heart. Grade: A.

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