‘Hell on Wheels’ season 5 exclusive: EP John Wirth on Eva, Naomi, and John Campbell’s futures

Yesterday, we posted the first part of our lengthy “Hell on Wheels” post-finale interview with executive producer John Wirth, and we’re back this morning to conclude the conversation.

Once again, Wirth was extremely generous with his time, and gave some thoughtful answers to a variety of questions about the excellent AMC drama. We would of course advise you to read part one first, since that focuses mostly on some events in the finale itself. This portion of the interview is more geared towards what could be coming up in the 14-episode fifth and final season.

CarterMatt – Do you think it’s possible that someone like Eva could find happiness over these next fourteen episodes?

John Wirth – I guess I would say ‘define happiness.’ I don’t know if she can be happy. She’s kind of loosely based on Olive Oatman, who had a very interesting life after she returned from her time with the Indians. I don’t know if we’ll start trying to base this character on what happened to Olive, but I can tell you that we have some very strong women writers in our writers room, and they are always railing against the victimization of Eva, and being very protective of her and wanting her to rise up above that.

As [writer / producer] Jami O’Brien was always saying, ‘we gotta pull her out of the mud, we gotta get her a gun.’ That kind of led to that sequence in the finale. I don’t know if she can find happiness, but I think we can empower her in a way within the confines of that world and what was really happening, and what the reality was for women in that world, particularly whores. Particularly marked-up whores … I don’t know if she can find happiness really, but she can be stronger and have a little more control over her circumstances I think. Maybe that will just have to double for happiness.

I’m interested to see where you go with the whole town of Cheyenne now. Ruth is obviously gone, and Eva and Mickey seem to be gone, and Cullen’s already gone. Now you’ve got Durant, you’ve got John Campbell, and you’ve got Louise. 

With John in particular, when he was first announced I just thought that he was going to be in the mold of the Big Bad, where he would just be around for that the season. Was that the plan for him, and do you think there is more story to tell there?

I don’t know how much we will see John Campbell in the future. I think initially our idea was that he would be a one-season storyline, but we fell in love with Jake [Weber] and how he played that character. I would certainly like to see more of him, and he and Durant together are very strong.

In terms of Cheyenne, we’re not going back to Cheyenne. As a matter of fact, I think they struck the set already. I don’t even know if it’s there anymore. One of the aspects of this show is that it’s moving. The railroad is moving, and as you saw in the finale with the summit of Sherman Peak, at the downslope of Sherman Peak was Laramie. I think to the extent that we see the Union Pacific side of the story next year, if they’re in a town, that town will probably be Laramie.

We’re going into the final season, and this is a hard time for really anyone in your position because series finales are the most debated and discussed. We’ve seen it both ways over the past couple of years. Is it difficult to get yourself in that sort of headspace yet, since you have other premieres and [the midseason finale] to work on with the writers? Are some thoughts on the finale accumulating?

I’m sure every one of my writers has an idea of how the show is going to end. There’s a historical context to it. We know that they drove the golden spike, and that was a very big production to do that. There is a very famous photograph of the two engines right next to each other (see the attached image), and the guys hanging off the engines toasting each other. I had always assumed that this was champagne or whiskey of some kind, but I had found out at the railroad museum in Sacramento that the guy at the Central Pacific side had a bottle filled with water from the Pacific Ocean, and the guy from the Union Pacific side had a bottle filled with water from the Atlantic Ocean. This is an interesting piece of business that we’ll probably play.

So I’m sure everyone has their ideas about how the show will end. I certainly do. I have some conflicting ideas about who is going to be there at the end. It’s an enormous responsibility. Nobody is ever happy with the finale. Remember the craziness that followed ‘The Sopranos’ finale, and when I think about it now, and I think that one has probably weathered the best. The ‘Lost’ finale, those guys were much-maligned about how they ended that series. I was not happy with how they ended ‘Breaking Bad,’ although it’s engendered a lot of conversation in my writers room. It didn’t end the way I thought it should end.

It’s hard to make everyone happy, and I don’t think that this one will be any different. I think some people will embrace what we do, and some people won’t. Even with this finale; I was glad to see your review and see it so quickly, but there were some people who weren’t happy with it. Some felt like nothing happened, that Cullen’s story was not what they wanted it to be, that the ‘old man fight’ went on for too long. You just have to get a vision for [the ending] and drive towards that vision and make it work. If we can do that, then it feels gratifying. That’s about all we can do.

You don’t have to tell me this, but will Mackenzie Porter return as Naomi, or do you think that this will end up being a fruitless search [by Cullen]?

I think one of the interesting questions that was posed by Huntington to Cullen was ‘how badly do you really want to find your family?’. I think it’s at the crux of the issue for the Cullen Bohannon character. He has described himself in the past as a railroad man and a killer, and into that equation came this sort of relationship with Naomi which he didn’t plan on. It kind of happened to him. I think we saw them get to a place of, if not love, then some sort of respect for one another. In the scene with Ruth in the jail cell, I think that was as close as Cullen could get to admitting that he loved Naomi.

I think there is some desire on his part to find her and William and reunite his family. On the other hand, I think he is quite content to be conducting that search while as the driving force on this railroad. I will say that he is definitely going to be looking for them; if I told you he’s found them that would be a major spoiler, so I’m not going to say that. That search is one of the things that is going to be driving him early in the season next year.

Thanks again to Wirth for all of his time, and we’re of course going to continue to be around throughout the “Hell on Wheels” hiatus with some further updates here and there.

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