‘Hell on Wheels’ series finale exclusive: EP John Wirth breaks down Cullen’s ending, other key decisions
Tonight marked the end of AMC’s “Hell on Wheels,” and with that the story of Cullen Bohannon as told on screen. The series left us with him getting aboard a boat and heading towards China, and it was one of many emotional, heartfelt moments told over the course of “Done.” Some characters awaited an unfortunate fate, whereas others had a chance at new beginnings.
So what went into many of the choices in the finale? Once again executive producer John Wirth was kind enough to devote some time to an in-depth discussion on certain story points, the decision to flash-forward to the end of Durant’s life earlier in the season, and also a little bit about what he is doing now over on SundanceTV’s “Hap and Leonard,” where he is the showrunner for season 2.
CarterMatt – When did you first decide that the finale was going to end with Cullen getting on the boat?
John Wirth – The ending was always swirling around the writers room as one possible ending, him getting on that ship and going. We had another ending that was even further than him getting on the ship, which was him arriving in China and tracking Mei down. We had various endings of Cullen Bohannon dying, being killed, not surviving the railroad. We had the ending of him staying in Washington, we had the ending of him choosing to be a soldier, actually staying with the job that Grant gave him. There were a lot of endings swirling around.
I don’t know when we decided when this would be it; maybe when we were breaking that story near the end of our time in the writers room. We finally locked it down. I think we probably would’ve tried to keep our options open until the very end. Sometimes these ideas, they rise up of their own accord, and the right idea fights its way to supremacy and you just go with it.
I do remember one day when Jami O’Brien walked into the writers room and said ‘I think Cullen should die,’ and I believe we were breaking this story when that happened, and I think we spent a couple of days discussing if that could happen and how that could happen and what it would mean if it happened. Finally, somebody said ‘if we killed him now, what was the point of the whole series?’ What did we learn, what did we get out of this? It just becomes kind of a jerk-off if you take people through this six-year journey with a character and you just kill the guy. It became pretty clear at that point that we weren’t going to kill him.
And then, what’s cool about him getting on that ship and heading to China is that our cowboy show ceases to be a cowboy show at that point, because Cullen Bohannon is no longer a cowboy. He stepped off the edge of the continent. He’s something else now, which I always felt was kind of fun.
Near the very end, there was a scene where Cullen was standing on the edge overlooking the water, and while I was worried for a second he was going to fall in and die, which would’ve made me really sad, I wonder if that visual [represented] what you’re saying, being on the edge of the continent.
He got where he was going. He was as far west as you could be in the continental United States. It is the point of no return. Where do you go from here? Do you go back and retrace your steps and open up all of the old wounds and go back [to] everything that you’ve been through, or do you keep moving forward?
By the way, you’re reminding me now that we had an ending where he goes on the ship and heads to China, and we had a scene where a young Chinese boy comes up to him, this is when we were going to kill him, and says ‘Mr. Bohannon, this is from Chang’ and stabs him and kills him on the ship, and then throws his body in the water (laughs). I was digging that for a second, but obviously we didn’t to it. Those Chinese tongs, they have very long memories, and there was a big discussion about how long would their memory be and could they track him down, would they track him down.
So I think of standing on the edge of the continent, I never thought there was any chance he was going to dive in, but maybe it went through his mind, the actor’s mind. But it didn’t go through my mind at that point in time.
The ending is not open-ended in the sense that he’s on the boat, but I’m sure you recognize that there will be people out there who imagine that he makes it there to China, finds Mei, and lives a happy life. Do you like that it is open-ended in that sense, do you have that same thinking in your head? Or, is that kind of a dangerous game?
I think it’s a dangerous game. The ending’s only open-ended if you think beyond the last image you see. There’s nothing open-ended about the way we ended the series. I think people will think beyond the ending.
Endings are so hard. I know we’ve talked about this before. I know there are going to be a lot of people who are not pleased because there have been a lot of people critical of the last season on the boards and stuff. I’ve even read about people calling me out, and accusing me with losing touch with the show, calling me a pornographer and things like ‘wow!’ — you have your lead on your television series have sex, and suddenly you’re a pornographer.
I think the ending is a legitimate way to end the series. Cullen could’ve made a lot of other choices; he didn’t. It’s just like life. You’re faced with a number of choices, you make a choice, you move forward, and sometimes it’s the right choice and sometimes it’s the wrong choice. Sometimes you can undo it and go back to where you started and go back in a different direction. Sometimes it dictates what happens to you for the rest of your life and I think it’s an absolutely appropriate and legitimate way to end the series. It sort of allows you to consider a lot of different things. I think that’s the power of it. It doesn’t lock you into what happened to him, and it doesn’t shut down any of the possibilities. It’s sort of like that phrase ‘go west, young man.’ For him, he’s continuing to move forward, and I think that’s really healthy for that guy because everything behind him is a mess.
I enjoyed the ending that you had for Cullen, but I think even more than that my favorite ending of the entire finale was that closing scene with Eva where you had her riding off alone rather than being a part of a partially-fictionalized retelling of her life. What went into that particular decision and that scene?
It’s hard for me to remember who came up with what idea or who contributed what to these stories at this point, but I want to say it was a Jami O’Brien or a Tom Brady thing. It just felt right, and to me it was right because when we were doing it, the sun was right there, the timing of everything was perfect, Robin [McLeavy] was on that horse, she took off and she rode all the way into the sun. We just photographed it into the sun. That shot went on even further than I held it in the final picture, but it was just absolutely perfect for her character. She was really thrilled about it herself, and that was actually the last thing we shot with her.
I remember that we did it a couple of times, and she came back, she rode the horse back, and she was sitting on the horse, and she addressed the crew and said goodbye from the saddle. It was really sweet and really bittersweet and a beautiful moment and that was it. Then she was gone.
What about the decision to go back to Washington in the episode? You had Cullen going to this new world in China at the end, but then you also had him visiting this old world. It was a nice mixture of different cultures and culture shock for him.
I wanted to go back there because that’s where the story started, and a lot of the engine of the story, the subtextual part of the railroad story, was in Washington. That’s where all of the politics happened, that’s where all of the money was generated. That’s where all of the Senators were bribed, where all the money was raised, where all of the deals were made to make this thing happen.
The railroads had people there all of the time. The real Huntington traveled between New York and Washington almost every day while the railroad was being built. In fact he wasn’t out on the railroad, I think it was Crocker of the Big Four who was actually out on the railroad. That was the historically correct way it happened.
There was a lot going on in Washington with that enterprise out there, like you would imagine would be going on with any big enterprise. It was important for me to go back there for that, for Durant to get his comeuppance, but also because that’s where the story began for Cullen. He went to Washington, he went to that church, he went to that confessional, he killed his first man on his revenge journey that kicked off this entire series. I was thrilled when that notion came up there, that we would return there and he would return to that church and that confessional, and he would have that revelation having returned to that point where it all began.
What was fascinating about that scene when we shot it, we shot it a couple of times and Anson [Mount] told me [about it] afterwards and it was a pretty cool thing to witness. I knew something was happening with him when I was watching it because he was doing something that we hadn’t rehearsed and we hadn’t talked about and it wasn’t scripted, when he starts laughing and crying in that confessional. He came over and he said ‘I just figured out what it’s all about. It happened while I was sitting there and acting that. It all came to me, what it’s all about.’ We saw it happening. That’s in the movie. It was really an amazing moment.
Why did you make the decision to give us the flash-forward of Durant earlier on in the season? It put us in an interesting place where we knew his endpoint.
One of the hallmarks of the railroad story is that one of the primary drivers of the story for Thomas Durant was that he wanted to get rich building the railroad, and he wanted to be famous. He wanted to be remembered as the man who built the transcontinental railroad. I always thought it was ironic and tragic that he got neither. He was wiped out by the crash of ’73, financially wiped out, and he was especially forgotten. People know the Big Four on the California side of the railroad, they know Lincoln and Grant were involved in the railroad, they know Judah. They know various people. The later railroad barons are more well-known than Thomas Durant.
He’s the only character who really in a big way didn’t get what he set out to get. I just thought it would be interesting to see, to be informed about that before we got to the end of the series, that way no matter where we got with his story, we would know where his story ended. I think it’s been even more impactful than I realized, and it actually helps to remind me how smart and intuitive our audience is, because they watch these things and they think about them and they get them. Everybody understood that concept. As imperious and squirrely as Thomas Durant was in the series, he did not get what he wanted. It’s pretty cool, and when he’s being deposed there before Congress and Cullen is being asked about Thomas Durant, he says ‘the railroad wouldn’t have been built without Thomas Durant.’ It’s really true. He dreamed a dream, he was the purveyor of the big lies that got everyone on board to push that thing forward when more rational people would have said ‘this is an impossible enterprise. This will never work. Let’s cut our losses and leave now because this is nuts.’ He made it happen.
Is there one particular moment in the finale you’re super proud about, or was there something you wanted to add in that you didn’t have the time to?
I’m really happy that George Armstrong Custer made it into the show. I’ve been wanting him [on the show for a long time]. He was floating around out there. I don’t know how much contact he had with the railroads out west. There was a period in his life, maybe about a year’s time, where he was picked out of the army and put on unpaid leave, and I know he was out in the west and was in Cheyenne and places like that. This was in the late ’60s, maybe eight or ten years before Little Big Horn.
I know he was out there, and I always wanted to work him into the show but we never had the time to tell his story. So we got to the last episode and one of the things that I said was ‘Custer’s in this. I don’t know how, but we gotta put Custer in it,’ and I think Chris Backus did a fantastic job as Custer.
Where are you guys right now when it comes to ‘Hap and Leonard’? Are you working on production right now, or are you working on writing?
We are writing the scripts. It’s only six episodes so it’s not a huge creative output. Jim Mickle and Nick Damici, the guys who created the show, live in New York City. We shoot it in Atlanta. I’m in New York City until October, we’re putting together the scripts right now, we’re in the writers room working on stories. I just pitched the season 2 pitch-out in terms of what we’re going to do. I’m sitting in my office right now looking at the Empire State Building, which is right out the window. That’s the weird thing about being in New York, you can see things like that.
We’re hiring people — we have quite a few new cast members to hire this year, we’ve been making deals with casting directors. They shot in Baton Rouge last year and we’re going to shoot in Atlanta this year, so we hired a new line producer, new A.D.’s, new costumers, new hair people, new makeup people, and pretty much an entire new group of people. We’re talking about a production designer, we’ve gotta build some sets, there’s been a lot of conversation about what sets we’re going to build. We’re really kind of in start-up mode, as it were. It’s not as intense writing scripts when you’re not in production, so hopefully with a little luck we will almost be done writing scripts before we start production. It may bleed over a little bit, but that will be nice since we can be on the set while we’re filming it without having to worry about keeping the writing going.
And, four months in New York City, how bad could it be? It’s nice.
Thanks once again to John for his time, his candor, and his appreciation for the show and subject matter over the years. We’re looking forward to seeing what comes next for him.