‘Hell on Wheels’ season 5 exclusive: EP John Wirth on Cullen’s present state, new characters, and final episodes

Hell on Wheels -Come two weeks from Saturday on July 18, “Hell on Wheels” will be premiering on AMC with its fifth and unfortunately its final season. Seven episodes will air in 2015, seven more in 2016, and then we are at the end of Cullen Bohannon’s journey … or at least the one presented in the show’s narrative. If he makes it out of the series alive, maybe we can imagine him going off and having a happy life.

Regardless of how things end, we do have every indication that this is going to be a final season that sets out to deliver compelling, emotional, and true-to-form television. After all, we spent a good amount of time earlier this week talking about all things “Hell on Wheels” with a man who knows it inside and out in executive producer John Wirth. Following an excellent two-part interview that we had a chance to do with him at the end of season 4, we spoke to the showrunner again this week to discuss putting together the final episodes, gauging possible audience reactions, and course the story specific to a few characters. There’s a lot of ground to cover here, and hopefully this gets you prepared and excited to watch every second of the new season.

CarterMatt – So where are you and the writers at right now in the final episodes?

John Wirth – Episodes 9 and 10 are in script, episode 11 is in outline, and we are breaking episode 12. We’re pretty far along. By the time we premiere on the 18th, my goal is to have everything done before that date. But I think we’ll have 12 scripts by the time we premiere, so I think we’ll have just a couple of episodes left to figure out, the very end.

With the show going into more of a split-season format for the final episodes, does that mean you are going to be doing more work on your end writing?

I’m kind of writing less this season. What’s hard for me or the guy that does my job, it’s hard to write because there are a lot of other things to do. When writing a script in our world it takes a week or two to break a story in a writers room, and that’s pretty much full-time, all-day 10-6 in the writers room. Then it takes a week to write an outline, and then it takes two weeks to write a draft. I just don’t have the time to go away and do any of that.

What I’ve been doing this year is co-writing episodes with Tom Brady, and that works out really well because we’re be able to [divide things up] and spend a few hours a day writing. It kind of gets done in half the time. Tom Brady, we call him Chairman of the Board because he’s kind of in charge of getting everything on the board. Nobody dares writing anything on the board unless you have the beautiful handwriting that Tom Brady does. He’s also been super-influential in terms of the creative direction of this season. I’d say that both Tom and Jami O’Brien have really stepped up and have [driven] the show creatively this year. I’ve been able to step back a little bit from the way that I’m used to running shows. I still write on every outline and I write on every script, but I don’t have to write them from scratch now.

Now that production has started and you guys are all working on the last scripts, are you starting to have those sort of moments, getting emotional about the ‘last time’ that you are doing something?

For sure. That thought, that emotional state is really present and it’s present for everybody and in every significant thing that happens. We say that all the time in the writers room. When I was on the set, I went up there for the start of production, I was standing there with [star] Anson [Mount] and he looked at me and said ‘this is the last first day of a season on the show.’ Everyone is kind of aware of that.

It’s interesting. When this show was picked up for fourteen episodes and I was told that this is it, it was a very kind of bittersweet moment. I was thinking ‘it’s not enough episodes, I can’t tell the story in fourteen but we’ll make it work.’ I called Anson, he and I were kind of in shock actually.

But then, last Friday I had dinner with him and he said ‘you know, this feels right. It feels like we’re moving in the right direction at the right speed. We’ve got the right number of episodes. It all feels just right.’ And I said ‘yeah, I have to agree.’ It’s interesting that we’re designing a show where [the characters are] ending something, and then we’re ending something. Everybody is kind of both in the fictional world of the show and the real world of our show, moving towards the end.

People [move towards an end] differently. Some people prepare for it. Some people are caught completely off guard. My wife used to say about my children, ‘it’s easier to go away mad than sad’ when they were going away to college. I’m starting to see some of that behavior (laughs) amongst people on the show.

Obviously series finales do have a tendency at this point to be heavily scrutinized, and even more so it has become that way over the past year or so. Everyone has their own opinion of how a show will end, and many of them choose to be upset just when the ending doesn’t meet what they specifically want. Is that pressure on your mind, or is this something that you and the writers try to tune out?

It’s really a challenge, because we are hyper-sensitive to how other shows have approached their series finales, and how they’ve been embraced and not embraced. Two shows come to mind in ‘The Sopranos’ and ‘Lost.’ Those guys are friends of mine, and I think they were surprised in terms of how people reacted to the ending of ‘Lost.’ You just have to write the story in the direction it’s going. You can’t please people all the time. Some people are really not going to like the way things end.

I think we have an advantage somewhat on this show, because the ending of this story is written in history, so we know how that story is going to end. There’s really [only so much] we can do with the railroad. The thing that’s been challenging for us is how to end the characters’ stories, who to kill and not to kill. I’ve been teasing people on Twitter by saying that I’ve been thinking about who lives and who dies, and not everybody is going to make it to the end. That part is not entirely arbitrary; we don’t wake up in the morning and say who we’re killing, but there is a certain arbitrariness to that, knowing and figuring out a cool story where somebody can ‘get it.’

Cullen -So in talking about season 5, things are going to be very different for Cullen Bohannon. He’s in a new place [with the Central Pacific], he’s looking for his wife and child, and so many people he was close to like Ruth and Elam are now gone. What is his emotional state?

When we pick up Cullen at the beginning of the season, he’s taking solace in the work. It’s a pretty common thing for people to escape into work when they are dealing with emotional trauma.

We pick up the season a few months after we ended last season. He’s been out in the world with a surveying team, he’s been looking for his family [but] he hasn’t found them. He comes back to Truckee and we introduce the world of Truckee in the premiere. We meet the new characters and we kind of set up the situation. It seems like Cullen Bohannon is suffering some sort of emotional trauma, but I will say this about his journey this season: The Cullen Bohannon [we have] is someone you probably wouldn’t recognize if you are only familiar with the first season. He’s really evolved.

So how do some of these other familiar characters, such as an Eva or a Durant, factor into the story given where they are?

My initial concept for season 5 and season 6, this is what I pitched to the network after season 4, was that we would do 13 episodes on the Central Pacific this year, and we would not see anyone from the show except for Cullen Bohannon and the Swede. Then, in season 6 the railroads would come together and we would [reintroduce the characters].

Once we got the order for 14 episodes, that plan went out the window. We decided to smaller-size the idea. The first three episodes [are] set strictly in Truckee. We don’t see anyone from the Union Pacific side, except for just a glimpse of Durant in the premiere episode. The reason we decided to do that is that we are bringing the two railroads together at the end at the golden spike, and we wanted to make sure that people are invested in the characters on the Truckee side. So we leaned heavily into that world and trying to establish those people. In episode 4, that’s where we pick up on the Union Pacific side.

This is a good question, because we’ve been trying to figure out how to get to one place from the other, what would connect the two places … What we came across was another character from history who’s been rattling around our writers room the past few years. This character’s name is Stagecoach Mary. She was the first female mail carrier in the United States. She drove a stagecoach by herself, she was an African-American woman, and we realized that the stagecoach could run between the two railroads. She becomes a character on the show this year.

So on the Truckee side are there any new characters that you are specifically excited for people to see and get to know?

We’ve got several Chinese characters who are featured in the show. One is this guy Chang, and he is a railroad contractor. I don’t know if I’ve talked about this before, but we’re working with Stanford University. They are about two or three years into a project about the Chinese contributions to the building of the transcontinental railroad and they’ve been doing some deep research both here and in China to try to uncover who these Chinese people were, what records they left if any, what they did on the railroad, how they got here. We kind of delve in this world a little bit; it’s really fascinating. The guy who’s running this project at Stanford is named Gordon Chang, so we named our primary Chinese character after him. Chang [on the show] controls the Chinese labor force. He becomes an antagonist for Cullen Bohannon.

And then there are two other characters who are key for Cullen. There is this guy Tao who is a worker, but he sort of has elevated status because he speaks English. He learned English in the missionary schools, and [we also have his] son. We’re telling the story of building the tunnel this year, which is really different than anything we’ve done before on the show. These guys work in the tunnel. So basically, our story revolves around these three Chinese people, though there were 15,000 Chinese people working on the Central Pacific and it was quite a big workforce.

Let’s move from one antagonist to another. What sort of role is The Swede going to have early on in the final season?

He wormed his way onto the Central Pacific at the end of last season, and he announces himself to Cullen in the premiere in a very forthright manner, and lets Cullen know exactly what he’s doing there and what he plans to do. I can’t give too many more details, but he definitely re-engages Cullen in a way that he hasn’t in the last couple of seasons.

These two guys, this has been one of the most challenging relationships to manage in my career as a writer. There were times in the relationship between these two guys where if they laid sight on each other they would just kill each other. For us as writers, there has been a challenge trying to put them in the same room or the same town without them immediately killing each other. We figured out another way to do it yet again, and they are definitely circling each other. You can’t consider ending ‘Hell on Wheels’ without some sort of confrontation between these two guys.

I told you the last time that we spoke that the mud fight between Durant and John Campbell in the season 4 finale is one of my favorite scenes in the entire series. Are there are any particular moments or scenes that you are looking forward to people seeing?

There are a couple of scenes in the premiere that all revolve around Chang that I think are really amazing. The entire second episode is spectacular. I can’t believe we were able to get this on film and make it look as good as it looks. It’s a little bit smoke-and-mirrors, but it came out incredibly well, and this is a story based on something that really happened. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to tell you that before the rail was laid, they had to move everything by wagon. That includes everything that they use to build the railroad, that includes all the rail, and that includes train cars and locomotives. The second episode is about moving a locomotive from Truckee to the top of a mountain, to use it as a steam engine to haul rock. We went up into the mountains and we shot this incredible episode. Bill Gierhart directed it, and he’s just Action Jackson.

There’s a really awesome sequence in episode 3 that involves Chang and some workers that is not to be missed. Episode 7 is the finale for the first season, and a wonderful episode where President Grant returns. It involves all of our major players. The premiere of [next year], what we call episode 8, [has] some really potent drama. These fourteen episodes are chock full of fantastic character stuff, fantastic action, surprising twists. We’ve created a bunch of the story, we’ve relied on the historical record for a lot of story, and there’s a great Thomas Durant scheme that kind of plays out throughout the episodes that culminates in a fantastic bit of action. I love everything we’re doing, and I think that we’re really going down with a bang, but I couldn’t tell you, even if you pinned me down and held my dog hostage, how the show is going to end. But, I [do] have an idea.

So the last question I have for you is just about the state of the Western genre as a whole, since I feel like this show has done a very good job at bringing to light many classic motifs and themes that may not really be that familiar to this generation. Do you feel the show has been successful in conveying much of this?

I think the show really represents the genre beautifully, and in terms of what is necessary to have in the DNA of a television series today, it also succeeds very well. It’s just impossible in today’s world to go into a network and pitch a show that does not have an angle per se. There was a time before what we call this golden age of television, in my opinion, where we fell into this morass of overdeveloping ideas. You had a cop show that was like ‘it’s a cop show but he’s not a cop. He’s got a team of cops working for him, but they’re not really cops! They solve crimes, but they’re not really crimes!’ You know, it just got weird, and the whole thing caved in on itself.

The cable world kind of opened up the idea vault, where you have an idea that wouldn’t sustain as a traditional television series, but would sustain as a cable television series. That’s a little bit of talking around the horn, but in terms of what [the show] has brought to this world, and [while] I wasn’t there for the pitch meeting or the development of the series, I think going in to say that ‘we’re going to do a Western that is built around the building of the transcontinental railroad’ [was great]. I think that’s the genius of this concept, and it has allowed us to anchor the story in something very real that we can always rely on, which is building the railroad. Then, we can still tell some of these traditional Western stories. We have a very iconic sort of hero, we’ve got lots of iconic kinds of characters that populate the world, and these are characters that if you change them a little bit you could plant them in the world of ‘Gunsmoke’ or the world of [many other Westerns]. Many of these archetypes exist in the Western world, but this is a fresh take on it.

Again, I think they did a great job of giving us this great world to work with, and I couldn’t be happier with it.

Thanks again to John for being so generous with his time and taking on a variety of different subjects! The new season of “Hell on Wheels” starts on AMC Saturday, July 18 at 9:00 p.m. Eastern time.

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