Skip to main content

The Train Finally Comes To A Halt For Hell On Wheels' Cullen Bohannon


Everything in life goes full circle. In creative works, this is often the case. For Cullen Bohannon, the former Confederate Army soldier comes full circle when he begrudgingly returns to military service. The Civil War of which he is a veteran has ended, and the Union and Confederate forces no longer exist as the United States is unified once again. In his heart, Bohannon knows he is serving the Union since the winners have devised the current incarnation of the U.S. Army. While he looks regal in his military outfit, Bohannon is unsure of his future. As the final episode of the AMC original series, Hell On Wheels, comes to a close, Bohannon eventually decides to leave the entire United States behind. He sets sail on a ship to China to find a love who has become lost. The ending is a slightly offbeat one since Bohannon was hardly portrayed as the sentimental sort. May be had emotional leanings in the days before cynicism consumed him.

For several years, Bohannon traveled westward, building the railroad. He kept leaving more and more of his native land behind until there was no more land, only ocean. So he chooses to journey onward into the seeming unknown of the Eastern shores.

The Tortured Journey West Via Hell On Wheels

Hell On Wheels is the name given to the traveling town that houses and accommodates those who are building the railroad across the frontier and into the great unknown west. The town is made up of gamblers, connivers, prostitutes, murderers, and many who are trying to escape or hide their past. Some even see Hell On Wheels as a means of improving their lot in life. The nature of Hell on Wheels can never change. It is a corrupt place filled with shady people. Little good comes from Hell On Wheels other than all its desperate occupants did help build the railroad.

Hell On Wheels is the perfect place for a paradoxically good and amoral anti-hero by the name of Cullen Bohannon.

As the Civil War came to a close, Bohannon's wife and son were brutally murdered by Union soldiers storming their way through Georgia. Revenge is what leads him to Hell On Wheels, where he kills both the guilty and, by mistake, the innocent on his quest for vengeance.

Hell On Wheels truly is the perfect place for someone like Bohannon to live. It is a home that really is not a home. The mobile town creates a false impression of small-town domestic bliss. Bohannon has no home and he has no roots. Hell On Wheels is perfectly suited for people such as him.

While Bohannon acts as the moral character of the series, he is hardly a moral man. Cullen Bohannon is a murderer. He doesn't belong in "polite society". Bohannon may loathe himself for it, but he knows a place like Hell On Wheels is where he belongs.

Scroll to Continue

A Pox On The House Bohannon

Bohannon is very much a cursed man. His attempts at creating a vague notion of healthy life in the center of chaos of Hell On Wheels turns into one-part classic tragedy and one-part twisted joke. Those who get close to Bohannon learn the err of their ways.

His close and only friend Elam is driven insane, which leads to a confrontation in which Bohannon must kill him. He falls in love with Lily Bell leading to his enemy "The Swede," killing her to get at Bohannon. An odd marriage between Bohannon and a Mormon girl is born of his licentious desire, but turns into a real, loving relationship - but she flees with her child, and Bohannon knows not where they ran. Even the conclusion of the series wallows in Bohannon's ever-impossible journey of crafting a normal life.

All those who come in contact with Bohannon suffer, and this does consume him with guilt. The final episodes of the series reveal him to be a beaten and broken man, although the last images of Bohannon on the ship indicate he has regained some sense of hope.

The path Bohannon journeyed in life was a doomed one since it was rooted in a desire for vengeance. Revenge does little more that turn into a form of prolonged figurative - and, possibly, literal - suicide.


The Devil's Waitin' Soon Reaches Its End

Those who live violent lives are not always evil people, but they travel down the same road as those with severe malice in their hearts. Regardless of motivation or circumstance, the immoral and the self-righteous often commit the same sins. Consider it appropriate that the song "Devil's Waitin'" plays during the sequence when Bohannon discovers Lily Bell has been murdered. While there is much sympathy, the audience feels for Bohannon, and as much as the audience wishes to see him get revenge, the viewers - in their hearts - know the devil is waiting for Cullen Bohannon. The man must eventually pay for his sins.

Cullen Bohannon has "seen the battle," and he "has seen the war." Will he eventually find his peace? As the series comes to a close, the audience can surely hope he has found the peace he seeks. Still, his nature makes things very difficult for the man to avoid conflict, danger, and death. Bohannon has spent his life running from who he is. A man cannot outrun himself. He may be able to reinvent and redefine himself.

Those who believe in the character and do wish to see him have the peace he desires can believe this ending to be so. The beauty of the ambiguous ending allows those living through the character on the small screen to craft the final conclusion. What happens when Cullen Bohannon reaches China can very well be a happy ending if the audience so wishes to believe so. And they may want to believe despite all evidence to the likely contrary.

Cullen Bohannon has gone full circle. The cynic is now optimistic again. May he be able to keep those feelings.

Related Articles