After last week’s blood soaked episode, Bleeding Kansas, Thirteen Steps which are the amount of steps that Ruth Cole will walk to the gallows in this episode of Hell on Wheels is quite bloodless. In a word this week’s tale of the railroad’s relentless trek across the prairies and deserts of the American West is grim with a huge dose of somber. Ruth pleads guilty and even acting governor Campbell attempts to get the woman preacher pardoned for her crime of murder using Bohannon’s testimony that she acted to save his life when she shot Sheriff Snow.
Miss Cole declines help from Campbell, Bohannon and even news reporter Louise Ellison who wants to run a crusade to save the “church woman” from hanging. Ruth tells both the judge and the crowd in the courtroom that she intended to kill Sidney Snow, not because she feared for her or Cullen’s life, but because he killed Ezra by burning him alive in the church. She insists that she must pay for her crime.
Ruth’s arrest and conviction has consequences that ripple through the town and affects all who live there whether they personally know the woman or not. Louise and Campbell are driven apart. This couple’s uneasy romance was doomed to be short lived regardless of Miss Cole’s dilemma. In a town where hell systematically breaks lose, most relationships seem doomed. Louise comes in to see the acting governor and finds him practising dance steps, she asks him for quotes about the case and he is not only displeased but feels uneasy about their encounter. Bohannon tries to get Ruth to flee back east and stay with friends and she refuses.
Much later in Hell on Wheels Louise prints her story, this is after the town go through the hell of seeing a grieving woman die for killing the homicidal maniac that was Sidney Snow. The irony is not lost on Miss Ellison that her “lover’ hired the lawman who went on to murder Ezra. It could be seen as Campbell’s fault that Ruth is to hang and that could be the real reason behind the reporter’s decision to break things off.
In Hell on Wheels last week, Mickey’s cousin came to run the casino and his first act was to gouge out the eye of Campbell’s deputy. This week, in Thirteen Steps both men show up to tell Campbell that he will not hang the “church lady.” The acting governor responds to both men, who are pointing pistols at him, that if they think that intimidation will dissuade him from doing his legal duty, they have not been “paying attention.” He goes on to say that he tried to save Ruth but she refused, the men will not take that as an answer and their threat is that if Miss Cole dies, so to does Campbell.
Cullen knocks down the partially built gallows and after a long period of night time contemplation he goes to see Ruth in jail. It is apparent that the railroad lawman is going through his own personal hell. The two spend the whole night talking and reliving events. During the long hours, Bohannon shows Ruth how much the town cares and the two talk of their love for one another. When Campbell and the judge show up in the morning, Cullen tells the governor that Miss Cole will accept the pardon and she says no.
The railroad sheriff says he will have nothing to do with what is going on and leaves, even after Ruth asks him to be there for her hanging. The hangman goes through what will happen and measures Ruth for the noose. When the time comes, the woman walks out to the gallows as people in the crowd strain to touch her and pay their respects. She watches for Cullen and just before the hood is placed over her head she sees him in the crowd. Bohannon moves to the front and removes his hat.
When the hood is put over Ruth’s head, the camera stays under with her. Miss Cole’s breathing is fast, loud and frightened. At the sound of the trap door being opened the camera goes dark. By the end of Thirteen Steps and Hell on Wheels Cullen Bohannon gets the steam shovel to work and tells Durant that he has quit. This penultimate episode before the season finale was slow, sad, and a sobering experience to watch. Seeing Ruth Cole doom herself to being hung was hard. The move of putting the camera inside the hood with her on the gallows made sure that the audience suffered with her as she waited to die. It will be a relief to return to gunplay in next week’s Hell on Wheels season finale.
By Michael Smith