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John Wirth Talks Bohannon, the Railroad, and Wrapping Up Hell on Wheels [Exclusive] 

Photo Credit: AMC
Photo Credit: AMC

Hell on Wheels rolls out Saturday night with the first of seven episodes as part of its two-season renewal. Earlier this week, we chatted exclusively with executive producer John Wirth about that magic number, reinventing Cullen Bohannon, and where we’re heading as the series wraps up. Here’s the first part of our interview.

When the renewal came through last year, fans were disappointed about the short order, and so was Wirth. With time, and actually plotting out the two final seasons, he’s softened on that and realized it worked out perfectly. “I had pitched the idea that we do 26 episodes–two more seasons. I pitched my concept of what those two seasons would be,” he recalls. “AMC decided that the number would be 14 and they would split it over two seasons like they had done with Mad Men and Breaking Bad. I’m not privy to what considerations went into making that decision.”

“At first, I thought it wasn’t enough episodes, but then I kind of embraced it….as I’m getting close to the end. We’re shooting episode 7 out of the 14. We start episode 8 on Thursday and we’re just about finished working out the story for 12. I’m heading to Calgary and when I come back, we’ll have two episodes left to work out. It feels right. I had dinner with Anson Mount last week, and he [agreed]. We were both taken by surprise when we got the order for 14. But at this point it feels like AMC was smarter than I gave them credit for. It feels like exactly the right number of episodes now.”

Wirth took the reins on the show at the beginning of the third season, and he’s purposely set out to move Bohannon away from the revenge-fueled vigilante we met in the first season. “I wasn’t here at beginning, but I think that [creators Joe and Tony Gayton] did a great job in seeding the DNA for this show. One of the things that cable TV in general allows you to do as a writer is reinvent your show season to season. It’s a hallmark of cable TV,” he points out. “I grew up writing network TV, including Nash Bridges. I was there for 126 episodes, I think. On that show, it was a different kind of vibe because [he] had to know everything and be one step ahead and nothing really changed. I was so desperate to have something happen that was meaningful, so we did an episode where we [fake] killed his daughter.”

“In this universe, and this show, we have the opportunity to really change the circumstances for our characters, and primarily Bohannon. When I came here, I wanted to get off the grim revenge jag. I thought he was getting lost in that. There didn’t seem to be any focal point. I think my biggest contribution to the show was to firmly plant Bohannon in the center of the series and have things revolve around him. [We’re] still telling very significant meaningful stories for our other characters, but the show kind of revolves around him going forward from season 3 in a way that it hadn’t in the first two seasons.”

Wirth says he has a plan for where that journey ends, but it’s not an ironclad resolution. “We’ve continued to try to evolve him as a character and see where it goes. Some of it is planned and some of it happens as we see it, as we work our way through it,” he shares. “With this particular season, I have a pretty clear idea of how this thing ends but I’m open to being surprised and taking a left where I thought I might take a right. Stuff happens when you see people living out their lives on camera. Sometimes you see things you didn’t anticipate, or didn’t know were there.”

This season, the setting shifts west for Bohannon as he settles into Truckee, and we won’t pick up with the remainder of the cast until a few episodes in. “It’s all building toward the pounding of the golden spike, which is the completion of the railroad. The first three episodes take place in Truckee,” he explains. “We felt that if we were going to play the race [between railroad companies], we needed to spend enough time with the Central Pacific side for people to get invested in those characters. We build toward the two railroads coming together.”

The town of Cheyenne framed the action in season 3, but that group of characters has moved on to Laramie this season. “It’s a shame, because we built that [the set for Cheyenne] from the ground up and it’s really beautiful. It’s a great Western town,” he says. “We moved our location to a completely different place. We have two separate towns–Truckee and Laramie. In episode four, we re-introduce the Union Pacific side of the story. We see everyone who was previously in Cheyenne, with the exception of John Campbell, although we will see him in the second batch of seven episodes.”

Hell on Wheels begins season 5 Saturday night at 9/8c on AMC. You can catch a marathon of all 13 episodes of the fourth season all day Saturday beginning at 8 am/7c. Check back for our preview of the premiere!

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