[Warning: Spoilers for Hell on Wheels series finale.]
Tonight, we said farewell to the world of Cullen Bohannon as he crossed the country on the railroad he built and left the land entirely to sail across the world to Mei. It was an intriguing turn of events for a man who had spent most of the five years we followed him hardened, hurt, and hollowed out from grief and rage.
In these final seven episodes, we met a changed Bohannon, who turned a corner toward, or maybe back to, a more compassionate, empathetic man. He was wearier for the path he’d walked but finally ready, with a renewed sense of hope, to turn away from violence and killing and see what else life might hold for him.
The decision to bring in Mei as a turning point for Bohannon began when the creators were plotting the last season. “Jami OBrien had a thought before we started breaking the last 14 that it would take someone really outside the box to break through all the armor that Cullen had been putting on over the years and that not even Naomi or William could break through that armor and allow him to change his life,” recalls Wirth. “It would have to be someone who came from completely left field.”
“That’s how the whole concept of Mei came about. Their relationship goes from nowhere to somewhere pretty quickly. [We] played out many different versions of that. We weren’t even sure until the very end that he was going to get on that boat and go to China.”
That relationship was also an extension of showing Bohannon’s humanity. “Anson was very interested in portraying the human frailty of Cullen Bohannon and breaking down the hero, and so we worked really hard to map that out so we could break him down piece by piece, particularly in the back 7. [After The Swede dies and] he comes back to the homestead and realizes that what may be best for him is to get back together with them, but that’s not what’s best for them.”
“The beautiful part of that [goodbye] was he went one way and she went the other. He’s emotionally overwrought at saying goodbye to his son [and then] you see the Cullen mask come back on and he rides out of the barn. That builds into the moment at the end of 13 where he finishes the railroad, and he realizes, ‘What did I get out of it? I’m all alone.'”
Wirth says they also played with different ideas of whether or not Bohannon would make it into the iconic photo at the beginning of 14. “We always had it in our mind that there are the men who built the railroad and the men that took credit for building the railroad,” he says.
Regarding one of those men, Durant, Wirth says the real man didn’t die penniless but he came close, and the kidnapping that got Maggie killed was based in fact. “The real Durant did stage his own kidnapping and the government paid his ransom, but we had to up the stakes a little bit for Hell on Wheels,” he explains. “He did lose all of his money in the crash of 1873. He had embezzled, in 2015 dollars, close to 300 million from the railroad and he lost it all.”
Bohannon’s realization after talking with Custer that the post he accepted is vastly different in practice sends him West, and Wirth says that was a spin on what most of his writing staff have experienced in their own careers. “[For Bohannon], when you’re going down the road and all these tragedies come your way, you can convince yourself things are going to be this way [always],” he says.
“His realization [and decision to walk away] came from our writers’ experiences in Hollywood with executives who would say, ‘I’m your friend.’ As Cheech Marin would say, ‘Some people learn the hard way and some learn the hardest way. A lot of those sentiments came from the writers’ experiences and we put them in the mouths of our characters.”
Wirth says they landed on the final scene of Bohannon on the boat out of a mix of completing the story while also still being beholden to the larger, mitigating factors of budgets and locations. “Sometimes you know this is the way to go. Or you hope your instincts are right, or there are practical production issues where you can’t do the things you want to,” he says. “Some of those considerations weigh into creative decisions. [Our ending] is conclusive, but it leaves it open-ended. Who knows what happens when he gets over there?”
As for where Eva is heading when she rides away at the end, Wirth says, “She’s going West into the unknown.”
Mount’s favorite moment from the finale is the bookend scene to one from the pilot where he kills a man in the confessional of a church. We see him sit down in that same booth to find that the bullet hole is patched with a thin strip of wood. “The brilliantly written [by O’Brien and Tom Brady] scene in the confessional was full circle. It was one of those rare moments as an actor where the realization of the work coalesces in the realization that the character is having,” he says.
“The point of the scene didn’t register–only did I realize in the [moment] when I see that bullet hole and [Bohannon] goes back across his arc. I went into that scene thinking, ‘Look how far I’ve come.’ In the moment, I realized, he realizes that this ordeal he’s been through and all the pain and the fight and the battle, it was a gift of grace from God that allowed him to heal. And I got it in the moment.”
He continues to be grateful that they ended the show on their terms, and he kept a couple of mementos from playing Bohannon. “Not many of us had any practice at ending a series. It was blessing. Anytime you are allowed to finish a piece of work [is fantastic],” he says. “I have a small flask collection that I added to. I did keep the [railroad] ring, but there’s not real inlay, so [the lettering has since rubbed off].”
Next up, he’s working on two independent films while Wirth is underway on his next project.
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