Season 5, Episode 13
The race to finish the railroad comes down to inches, forcing all parties to contemplate the end of the line, and what the future holds for them.
Louise narrates a history of the accomplishments and challenges faced by each railroad company "between the pounding of that first spike in Council Bluffs and the last, yet to be struck, here in northeastern Utah." Although she calls the railroad a "monument to folly," she reports that the Union Pacific and Central Pacific are now "within striking distance of one another," each racing toward Ogden.
In the early morning, Cullen gets ready for work. He picks up his hat from the dresser, uncovering Mei's tea box.
On the grade in Ogden, the final Hell on Wheels tent towns are assembled -- Central Pacific to the North, Union Pacific to the South. Standing between them, Durant and Huntington make competing pitches to Governor Campbell. Campbell stands firm: "Ogden belongs to no one until someone lays track through it." He picks up a stake and buries it in the center of the grade. Ogden goes to whoever reaches it first.
Cullen rides along the Central Pacific cut and finds that many of his Chinese workers have deserted. "White man offer, Chinaman go," a walking boss explains.
Cullen rides into the Union Pacific camp and ties his horse at the corral. Approaching with a bucket of oats for Bucephalus, Eva greets him. "Figured somebody mighta killed you by now," she says. Eva notices Cullen’s limp, realizing "somebody almost did" kill him and asks whether it was over love or hate. Cullen doesn't answer, instead asking where to find Mickey.
Cullen barges into the saloon and accuses Mickey of poaching his workers. Mickey says his men are gone too -- Dutch estimates they're down 200 men just that morning. The workers have been lured away to the Six Mile Canyon mine by a man they call the "Pirate."
Cullen and Mickey gallop into the Six Mile Canyon mine camp. Irish and Chinese workers scatter in front of them. Cullen spies Mr. Lee, his foreman/translator, who explains that the railroad is almost done and the Pirate has offered them a "long job."
Mickey announces that they're looking for the Pirate, and James Strobridge emerges from the mouth of the mine exclaiming, "You found him!"
In his train car, Huntington tries to bribe Campbell into promising Ogden and the $2.5 million left in government railroad bonds to the Central Pacific, even though "God himself would break his back building 14 miles of track in two days." Campbell declines the bribe, upholding President Grant's vow to keep his administration free from corruption.
Cullen catches up with Strobridge in his tunnel office. Cullen expresses surprise at finding Strobridge "in the hole." Strobridge explains that he stayed out of the tunnel for Hanna, but she's in Vermont with the kids. "Life is simple down here," he says, "Cut a vein, bleed it dry, scrape away until there's nothing left." Cullen requests his workers back for only two days, but Jim is all out of "railroad favors."
In the camp, Mickey resorts to violence to convince his defected workers to return with him.
Cullen offers to match whatever Strobridge is paying the Chinese, plus a bonus if they reach Ogden before the Union Pacific. He says he'll also send their dead back to China. Strobridge interrupts to announce that the workers are free to leave, but he won't re-hire them if they do. The Chinese confer and conclude they can't afford to go. Cullen tells Mr. Lee that his offer stands, and he takes the dead workers back with him anyway. He turns to see Mickey victoriously leading a line of Irish workers home.
Returning to the Union Pacific camp defeated, Cullen stops at the corral where Eva is training Bucephalus, whom she's re-named "Free Spirit." Eva correctly guesses that it was love that nearly killed Cullen, but he says it wasn't love lost -- she ran. Eva admits that she ran from her Mojave family, but "sometimes the loving thing to do is run."
Cullen joins Psalms at a table in the saloon. They share a bottle of whiskey and talk fondly about the railroad.
That night, Mickey joins Cullen standing next to the "finish" post in Ogden. Mickey offers to help if Cullen is looking for work after the last rail is laid, but Cullen hasn't thought beyond the next day. The Union Pacific has ten miles left while the Central Pacific has only six, and "ain't no man ever laid ten miles of track in one day." The two men shake hands and wish each other luck.
Cullen lies awake as the sun rises. He hears a commotion outside. Mr. Lee has returned with the Chinese workers: "Bossman, finish what we start." Emotional, Cullen thanks the men in their own language using the first word Mei taught him, "M'ghoi." Cullen steps into the cut, joining the workers. He raises his sledgehammer and strikes.
Through the day, the Central Pacific gains ground on the Union Pacific. Durant orders Psalms to prioritize speed over safety and half-spike the rail.
Exhaustion sets in and workers on both sides start dropping.
On the Union Pacific side, Durant fires his gun into the air, points at the finish line less than a mile away and gives an impassioned speech about how much he's sacrificed "to get you here." He shouts for the men to "return the favor" and "get me to that finish line!" Psalms stares at Durant, throws down his hammer, and walks toward the Central Pacific cut. The rest of the Freedmen drop their tools and follow, streaming past Durant.
Cullen, barely able to swing a hammer, takes a weak strike at a spike. He looks up to see the Freedmen striding towards him. Psalms nods to Cullen and orders his men to work alongside Cullen. The Chinese resume with renewed vigor.
Alarmed, Durant picks up a hammer and joins Mickey in the cut.
Just feet from the finish line, the Union Pacific workers watch helplessly as Cullen lays the final rail. Cheers erupt from both sides as Cullen drives in the final spike, making the railroad whole.
That night, Union Pacific and Central Pacific workers celebrate together around a massive bonfire.
In Huntington’s train car, Campbell is just about to officially sign Ogden's coal fields and accompanying bonds over to him when Durant saunters in and lays a document on the table: President Grant's recent amendment to the U.S. Railroad Act, under which "bonds are not to be issued until government inspectors have deemed the road worthy." All rail travel must cease until it is determined which railroad has a rightful claim to Ogden. Campbell chuckles and agrees. Huntington is furious, calling it another one of Durant's stunts. Campbell wryly notes Huntington's earlier confidence in his track's integrity and assumes there won't be a problem with it -- "or with your records."
Louise drinks with Cullen on a train's cowcatcher. She asks him, for the record, how he's feeling. "Like it's over," he answers. She asks if that makes him happy or sad. "The cost was high," he says evasively. As Cullen stumbles off, she wonders what's next "for America's greatest railroad man." "The Chinamen got a saying," he says, "Make friends with change. It's the only thing you can count on."
Huntington accuses Durant of trying to scare him into handing over Ogden to avoid a government inspection. Durant assures Huntington that an inspection will "cost you a hell of a lot more than Ogden," while Durant has nothing to lose. Huntington offers half a million dollars to drop the dispute, increasing the offer as Durant refuses. Finally, Huntington gives up Ogden – as long as the ceremony is on Central Pacific soil and Huntington keeps the bonds. Durant offers his hand, victorious. Huntington tells him to go to hell.
Huntington sets fire to the Central Pacific's record books.
Cullen and Durant watch the blaze from afar. "I won," Durant gloats. "You may have gotten here first, but I own it."
Cullen stumbles into his train car. His eyes land on Mei's tea box. He opens it and looks at the note inside. He raises his whiskey bottle for a drink but loses his balance and falls to the floor. His breath quickens and he lies there, writhing in agony, weeping for what he has lost.