What is the legacy of a series? It is such a hard thing to identify, especially within a condensed amount of words or mere minutes after an ending airs. The public opinion will forge what will be considered a reasonably-accepted opinion, such as they did following the “Lost” or “How I Met Your Mother” finales. Yet, those final episodes have their defenders; specifically, we continue to stand by the former.
We do not know the fan reaction to the “Hell on Wheels” series finale at the time of this writing, and hesitate to speculate on it. Our reaction is that this was a great, worthy send-off to the show, even if it could be polarizing to some in how it accentuated one thing more than anything else: Growth. We do think there are some series out there where the characters just are who they are. They don’t quite change all that much, even if you want for them to. We certainly believe that there are “Mad Men” viewers who feel this way about Don Draper, and he used his “getaway time” to eventually craft the most popular Coca-Cola jingle in a generation. How much he really changed is continually up for date.
For this show, there were seismic shifts across the board. Take, for example, Cullen Bohannon working to make his own decisions, and finally freeing himself from the addiction that is the railroad. While it is not known if he makes it to China and finds Mei, the fact that he got aboard shows that this is someone with a different set of priorities than who he once was. Maybe he is still making decisions for his own self-interest, but you cannot excuse away what he is doing this time as him finding a way to get back to the railroad. He had that option if he wanted it in the Southern Pacific, and he had another option to do what Uncle Sam wanted from him as a member of the Army. After a full-circle trip to Washington, one that echoed at times season 1 heavily and also featured the trial of one Thomas Durant, he realized that he wanted to forge his own path entirety. The scene in the church in particular echoed how much power Anson Mount has even without dialogue.
As for Durant, we learned further that the only victory he may be getting from this is Cullen admitting that without him, there would probably be no railroad. This is not a tribute to Durant as a person, but rather just recognition of what are a small percentage of his merits. He is incredibly determined, but also transfixed on his plans and schemes to the point of self-destruction. Since we already knew the character’s ending, there was no way to leave this story with a smile. It was sad, but worthy and appropriate.
While we do wish there were a few more minutes devoted to the farewells for Louise and Mickey, we do recognize that this is a show with a limited run time and number of episodes. (Mickey especially deserved another scene or two, since otherwise his most notable scene from the finale was a fight in the early going following the Golden Spike.) Louise was at least a part of Eva’s story, as she tried to convince her to become something akin to a folk heroine, a woman who could have her life fictionalized in stories across the old west. However, she soon realized that putting on this front was not for her, and she literally chose to ride off into the sunset, her memories in tow. It was such an emotional, powerful, and wonderfully self-sufficient ending. There is no guarantee that Eva ever finds happiness, but we like to think it is possible. She’s at least forging her way to it in the best way she sees fit.
In the end, “Hell on Wheels” delivered on giving us a series finale with resonance, heart, and also a little bit of action thrown in there. It may not be our favorite episode of the show of all time (“Elam Ferguson” and “Further West” are probably high points on that list), but at the same exact time, it did a wonderful job of painting the landscape, while leaving just a little room left in the corner for us to wonder what could be. Finale Grade: A-.
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