In the episode “God of Chaos,” Hell on Wheels comes to the end of its first season. AMC is getting viewers in a western mood by airing Unforgiven as a lead in to the episode. When we last left Cullen Bohannan, Durant had just revealed to him that the Swede had sent word to federal marshals that he had evidence linking Bohannan to several murders. The title of the episode comes from a comment that the Swede makes to Bohannan, referring to the Norse trickster God Loki, “the god of chaos,” as the Swede calls him
Spoilers follow, so read with caution!
The episode begins with a flashback of Bohannan discovering his wife’s body. In the present, the Hell on Wheels camp is still celebrating reaching the 40 mile marker—with Durant inviting the camp’s sex workers to the evening’s party so they can tend to his invited guests. The Swede has located the man Bohannan is searching for—the last of the soldiers who murdered his wife—and hopes to convince him to testify against Bohannan. Lily Bell, who in the last episode was revealed to have surveying expertise, is revealed in this episode to be unable to hammer a nail. The series can’t seem to decide what do with this character. Is she a plucky girl with practical skills? Or a civilized lady who is a fish out of water in the Hell on Wheels camp? If Lily has the engineering skills to replace her husband as surveyor, surely she should have somewhere along the line learned how to use a hammer.
Bohannan goes to Rev. Cole to seek advice on how to leave the dark path he’s on. That Rev. Cole is holding in his arms the severed head of the man he killed while conversing with Bohannan suggests that he’s perhaps not the best person at the moment to offer such advice. “Choose hate,” he offers, “It’s so much easier.”
Durant asks Mr. Gundersen (aka, the Swede) if he ever had his heart broken, and the Swede responds that his wife left him: “My heart was not ripped out, but she did stain my cuckoo clock.” At least that’s what I think he said.
Elam seems to be letting his new position with Durant go to his head. He has a new suit of clothes and quickly finds ways to offend almost every one of his friends at the camp, including Eva.
The Swede should have considered his own warning about the God of Chaos. Trickster Gods are notoriously fickle and unpredictable in their allegiances. At the moment that “Mr. Swede” (aka the Swede, aka Mr. Gundersen) thinks he has control of the situation with Bohannan, his heavy-handed protection racket in the camp comes back to bite him—as he is tarred and feathered by the people from whom he has been extorting money. We see the feathered-covered “Mr. Swede” running away from the mob in the background as Bohannan searches the camp for the sergeant. I kept expecting that we would see the feathered Swede running through the midst of the celebratory dance (chaos, indeed), but that didn’t happen.
Bohannan’s hunt is beautifully filmed. We see Bohannan moving against backgrounds of carefully arranged laundry on lines, glowing fire pots that send up clouds of sparks, exploding firecrackers, and finally the smoke, steam, and lights of a train moving through the darkness. Bohannan catches and kills his man—only to discover that he is innocent. A paper he is clutching reveals that he was discharged before the murder of Bohannan’s wife took place.
And the season ends with a sequence of shots: the Swede discovering a wanted poster with Bohannan’s name on it, Bohannan on horseback riding (destination unknown), and Elam, still unafraid of getting his hands dirty on Durant’s behalf, practicing his marksmanship.