Hell on Wheels episode 4.12, Thirteen Steps, gave us a stunning, staggering hour of television. As an experience, as a single, standalone hour, it was close to perfect. And yet, it leaves me with roiling questions about this series and its directions, especially after the announcement that next season will be its last.
There’s two conversations to have about Thirteen Steps: First, about the episode itself, and second, the meta-conversation about what was being done, about the intention behind creating this episode of Hell on Wheels.
First, the episode. Directed again this week by Roxann Dawson, it was a thing of visual beauty. Ruth’s face, these past few episodes, has been a masterpiece of light and shadow, and surely the makeup department deserves accolades. Her grief is there in every line. Kasha Kropinski is 23 years old, and yet manages to convey such weariness and loss. Surely, we understand her actions this episode as being suicidality born of grief, and like anyone who is suicidally depressed, Ruth is seething with anger. She is lashing out, removing herself from those who could not save her son.
One of the great things about Hell on Wheels is the way it does its slow scenes. I’ve complained in the past
that the show drags things out beyond all reason, but when it’s on its game, Hell on Wheels gives us quiet moments that are as thrilling as any shoot-out. Cullen and Ruth, head to head in the cell, discussing love. Cullen showing Ruth the candlelight vigil out her window. And finally, the hanging itself.
When the hood went on, and I understood that we would see Ruth’s final moments through her own eyes, I could barely breathe. It was terrible, and yet compassionate. Cullen called a public hanging uncivilized; we were spare the savagery of it, and Ruth was spared it, by having her own feelings take precedence over a gruesome spectacle.
Until the hood was on her head, I thought it was possible for Ruth to accept her pardon, to back away from this terrible decision. I kept waiting for it, hoping for it, asking myself if it could really happen. And here’s where the conversation must get a little meta: I thought it could happen because things this final, this irrevocable, simply do not happen on television. Main characters do not get killed off like this.
Now, I grant you that the ground of that kind of assumption has changed dramatically. If we want to look at television as a whole, maybe a free reign with killing people off started with The Sopranos, and certainly we’re accustomed to it on The Walking Dead. But Hell on Wheels is not a show about death; it’s not about gangsters or zombies or anything else that inevitably kills you. Lately, though, death has been taking a huge bite out of what we know about this show. While Anson Mount has always been the star of the show, it was basically a two-star show, with Common as Elam Ferguson as the other face of building the railroad. Now Elam is dead, Ezra is dead (frustratingly, without any full-circle confrontation with Gunderson) and Ruth is dead.
Yes, the show has had deaths before. Lily’s death was almost the inevitable conclusion of her romance with Cullen. Reverend Cole was sowing the seeds of his own demise almost from the beginning. Eva’s husband, Toole, was little more than a plot devise who had served his purpose. Sean’s death allowed Mickey to emerge as a more interesting character, and served a purpose for Ruth as well. Let’s look at all that, and allow that the recent deaths are different. For one thing, none are part of a game-changing season finale, although Ruth’s comes closest. For another, I’ve listed all the major deaths, and the past half-season has had almost as many as the previous three seasons.
So, what are the writers doing? It now seems that the entire purpose of Ezra’s death, from a textual point of view, was to lead Ruth to murder and suicide-by-gallows. Turn Ruth into a mother, while still preserving her singlehood (so she can continue to long for Cullen), because loss of a child is something that can drive a good and God-fearing person to kill.
And why kill Ruth? You see, from the point of view of simply watching and enjoying the show, these last three or four episodes have been outstanding: Driving Ruth to this place has given us some great television. But that doesn’t tell us what’s going on in the writer’s room.
Professor Spouse points out, with her expertise on this era, that the story of the railroad must now leave Cheyenne, so if you don’t kill Ruth off, you leave her behind. I’ll add that this is by far the more interesting way of losing Ruth. (Although what about Eva and Mickey, the other main characters rooted in Cheyenne?) Cullen’s night with Ruth in jail, as well as the pain of losing her, drives him to quit–presumably in order to return to his wife and son, and somehow come full circle with Gunderson.
The thing is, it’s hard to feel that this death is justified from a story perspective, even though it’s been great storytelling. Maybe, as a veteran TV viewer, I am too attached to my characters. But, for one example, I didn’t feel manipulated in this way when Lane Pryce died. He had a clear arc that lead him to a clear and tragic place. Ruth, by contrast, feels too written. Is this her character, seeking death, or is it the writers wanting this magnificent episode, written exactly this way? I cannot help but feel it’s the latter.
In other news, Louise and Campbell….zzzzzzzz. Oh, who cares?