Anson Mount as Cullen Bohannon (Michelle Faye/AMC)
Warning: This interview contains spoilers for the series finale of Hell on Wheels, “Done.”
After five seasons, AMC’s Hell on Wheels came down to one final question: Would Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount) continue to be a railroad man, or is he still a soldier without a war, who’d become President Grant’s Under Secretary of the Western Territories for the United States Army in charge of protecting the railroad from all threats? The answer, in the end: he’s neither. Cullen ultimately decided to board a ship for passage to China to reunite with Mei.
“Allowing him to leave his battle behind, setting him free, opening up a new chapter that allows the audience’s imagination to work rather than closing it down,” Mount says. “All I knew is when I was standing on the bow of that ship, I wanted to close my eyes and feel at peace with the sun in my face.”
Yahoo TV spoke separately to Mount and showrunner John Wirth about the series finale’s most pivotal scene — Cullen in the confessional, a callback to the pilot — and, in the case of Wirth, about whether the writers ever thought about killing Bohannon (yes) and the fates of some of our other favorite characters (Eva literally rode off into the sunset!).
Perhaps the most memorable scene of the series finale is when Cullen, having initially decided to become a colonel in the 4th Cavalry, goes back into the confessional. “Do you seek salvation?” he’s asked. “Do you wish to be saved?” He’s crying, but he’s laughing. Then he says, “Thank you.” What’s going through his mind?
Anson Mount: That was one of those amazing moments where what you’re going through as as a professional and what you’re going through as a character sort of collide and they exist in parallel. The full ramifications of that scene that were implied in the writing — and it was great writing by Tom Brady and Jami O’Brien — I had not considered until I was in that booth shooting that scene. When Cullen sees that bullet hole [that he made at the start of the series], he is suddenly confronted with the entire arc of his journey on this railroad. And what he realizes is that this obscene burden, this tremendous war that was fought to make this engineering project, this addiction that he’s had to this thing — [Laughs] everything that he cursed about it was actually a gift of grace from god. It was exactly the thing that he needed to heal. He doesn’t realize until that moment that everything comes together — his faith gets answered, his self gets answered, his wound is sealed up. He comes to realize the great joke that it all is, and that he didn’t see it until that moment. He starts in that confessional as a murderer and he walks out of that confessional as a complete human being.
I literally did not see that on the page until I was in the middle of shooting the scene, and I went, “Oh, that’s what this is about.” And it was just so beautiful that yeah, I started crying. And I realized what that “thank you" was about. It wasn’t to the priest next to me, it was to god.
John Wirth: It was incredibly powerful to see him realize that. Because we had done a couple of takes on that scene, and he’s always amazing — he was really getting into doing that scene — and then we did a take where it literally dawned on him. That’s the take we ended up using in the final version. You see it happening right on film. You see Anson Mount underneath Cullen Bohannon realizing what it’s all about and channeling that through his performance. It’s really a pretty exquisite moment. I was really happy to be a part of witnessing that. For us, as writers, we thought it would be wonderful to bring him full circle back to where the story started, back to that very confessional where the story started, seeing the bullet hole in the confessional which represented the first man killed on this journey which became five seasons of a television show.
See the scene from the pilot:
John, how long have the writers known Cullen’s fate and what would be the final shot of the series?
Wirth: There was a lot of discussion over the three seasons that I was on the show about what would happen to Cullen Bohannon in the end. We were never quite sure. Stories would unfold, and the story would go in directions that we hadn’t anticipated or we didn’t see coming for various reasons. The closer we got to the end, the more intense those conversations became in terms of what would happen to him.
While we were breaking this final episode, Jami O'Brien, who co-wrote this episode with Tom Brady, came in and she said, “I was thinking about it last night: I’ve decided Cullen Bohannon must die.” It kind of stopped us all. It was not a new idea; we’ve talked about it quite a bit. I actually had a concept very early on for how he should die, and why he should die, and the Swede was involved in it, which I’ll tell you about in a second if you want to hear it. But [what Jami said] sort of stopped us, because we were going down a different road. We really took it seriously, and we really talked through his death and what it would mean for a couple of days. It really got down to what it would mean to the series. I think finally somebody said, “If we kill him in the final episode, what’s it all about? Doesn’t it make the entire series a pointless exercise for the audience who’s hung in there following this guy’s trials and tribulations for five years and then we just kill him?”
We made the decision not to. I felt very strongly that Cullen was our guiding light, our compass, and if we killed our compass, we would be kind of lost as viewers.
On the boat, at the moment he steps on that ship and sets sail for China, the show is no longer a Western. The end of the railroad, the end of the Western — it all happens in one episode.
And what was your idea early on involving the Swede?
Wirth: You know, the Swede is kind of a shapeshifter and he’s obsessed with Cullen Bohannon. My idea was at the end of the series, Cullen Bohannon would be hired on to build the Southern Pacific Railroad. I guess that job would start first with the rail line from Denver to Cheyenne and then south. The Swede and Cullen get into it. The Swede kills Cullen. Then, when Cullen shows up to take that job in Denver, it is the Swede as Cullen Bohannon. He’s dressed like Cullen. He is in every way Cullen. He finally merges his soul with Cullen’s and he becomes Cullen Bohannon. That was my notion. We actually talked about it. We considered it pretty seriously for sometime. Then as I say, the story moved in a different direction.
Colm Meaney as Thomas Durant (Michelle Faye/AMC)
Let’s talk about the conversation Cullen and Durant (Colm Meaney) had sitting in the chairs outside the ballroom in Washington. It’s the last conversation those two characters have. What did you want to accomplish with that scene?
Wirth: Another thing that this show has always been has been a father-son story. There have been many approaches to this, but this was the moment when the son had been anointed by the president to supersede his father. Durant was about to be deposed by Congress for his shenanigans regarding the building of the railroad. Cullen was brought to Washington to testify against him and then was offered this great job by the president. It was the moment between the father and the son where the father was realizing what this had cost him and where the son was letting the father know what he had been asked to do, and sort of setting the stage for how Cullen would handle it when he was deposed before Congress.
Why was it important for you to have Cullen say only those words: “The Transcontinental Railroad could not have been built without Thomas Durant”?
Wirth: First of all, it was true. Durant was not the first guy to dream the dream that there could be a transcontinental railroad, but he certainly was one of the first guys to really latch onto it and then do what needed to be done in order to make it happen. All of his enthusiasm for the project, his bullying of members of Congress, his bribing of members of Congress, his powers of persuasion to get people to commit money to the enterprise when it seemed like the craziest thing in the world — without somebody like that, nothing gets done. I think, for us, Durant was kind of a scalawag; he was in history, and he certainly was in our show as Colm Meaney portrayed him. We wanted to just honor the guy that had the dream, the guy who kept it going. It was obvious to someone like Cullen, who was there every step of the way, and maybe less obvious to the guys in Washington, who were not aware of how it happened or the degree to which Durant’s dream made it happen.
Another moment I think people will remember is Cullen looking at the painting of Lincoln when he’s waiting to talk to Grant. He looks almost startled by it.
Wirth: Being at the White House, about to go in and meet with the president, having fought in the war on the losing side against President Lincoln, everything that Lincoln represents… what Cullen Bohannon had done had been an essential part of unifying the nation which was so torn apart during that war, which cost him so much personally. I think there was deep, deep irony for him as he was sitting there looking at that portrait. Not to mention the fact that his own life was yet again at a crossroads: Was he going to dedicate the rest of his life to the service of Abraham Lincoln’s country now being run by General Grant, or was he going to pursue his heart?
Of course, other characters had decisions to make, too. Eva (Robin McLeavy) decided she wouldn’t even whore her story, which they wanted her to write with Louise (Jennifer Ferrin) as a book. I love that she got to ride off into the sunset, literally. Did you consider any other option for her?
Wirth: Personally, Robin McLeavy scares me. [Laughs] She’s a very powerful woman and she had been telling me for three years that Eva’s going to ride a horse. First, she wanted to have a gun, so I couldn’t stop that from happening because she just pressed down too hard on it. Then, she said, “I’m going to ride a horse.” She’s another character that her survival is really incredible when you think about the true story of prostitutes working on the railroad there. Life expectancy was two years, because it was such a brutal place for women doing that job. The fact that she survived that is a miracle.
We started thinking about her and the character she was based on, Olive Oatman, and just the incredible human spirit that she is in order to go through everything she went through — the slaughter of her family, her captivity by Indian tribes, getting sold to the army, having to work as a prostitute because she was marked, her isolation from regular normal society. All of those things were incredibly moving in terms of what she had accomplished in her life. We thought she’s the spirit of the West. She’s that person who will survive when she shouldn’t and when you think other people would be better equipped to survive and come out on top. They don’t, but she does. What happens to a person like that? They ride off to greener pastures. I have no doubt she had a pretty interesting life after that.
Wirth: I think Louise gets a job with a Chicago newspaper. When she came West, she was sort of running from a personal peccadillo with a young woman in New York City. I think she outlived the shame of that as it were because of her reporting on the railroad she became the most sought after journalist of her time and staring working for a Chicago newspaper. We didn’t really lean to heavily into the fact that she was a lesbian, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Louise Ellison got married in Chicago and continued her career and possibly continued to have relations with women on the side. That would be one possibility. The other possibility, and knowing the actress, is she sticks to her guns and she is who she is and she never marries because that’s not who Louise is. She continues to make her way through what was arguably and remains so for many years after a man’s world, the world of journalistic reporting and did every bit as well as a man could do in that world, but got paid a hell of a lot less. That’s probably what happened to her.
What did you envision for Psalms (Dohn Norwood)?
Wirth: Psalms is a railroad man. I think he continued to be a reliable, hard-working railroad man on the Southern Transcontinental Railroad, which came to be several years after the first transcontinental railroad.
And Mickey (Phil Burke)?
Wirth: What I’m thinking about now, as you’re asking me about the decisions we made in terms of ending the stories for each of these characters, is it all started with going back to the beginning. Who were they? Where did they come from in the beginning? Mickey was an immigrant. He came with his brother. They had big dreams about America, but they were unrealistic, as a lot of our dreams are. We sort of evolved him from this guy who was making his living with a magic lantern show, to a saloon owner, to a provider of labor. His connections with the gangs back East allowed him to provide Irish immigrant labor to the railroad. Then he became a stockholder in the railroad. We envisioned that Mickey would become a labor leader as he went through the next several years of his life. This was sort of the beginning of Industrial America. He goes to San Francisco. There was a lot of industry in San Francisco. We think he went there to become a labor leader and then sort of a mover and a shaker in San Francisco politics.
The big brawl Mickey and Cullen started in the finale was great. It felt like something that the actors may have been dying to do — they were having so much fun.
Wirth: Everybody who does a Western wants to do the barroom brawl. You’ve got to do it, right, because it’s iconic. We have done smaller versions of it in the past, but we have never done a full on, all out barroom brawl. It’s a legacy from the movie that we watched at the beginning of the season, when we began to break out the last 14 episodes. I had everybody watch [1970′s] Monte Walsh with Jack Palance and Lee Marvin. I talked about this before, but that’s a movie about the end of the cowboy era, so thematically, it related to what we’re doing here this season on the end of the railroad.
There’s a wonderful scene in that movie where the manager of the ranch comes into the bunkhouse and he tells all these guys that there’s going to be layoffs, and they’re going to layoff the last guys on and the younger guys who have a chance to get work first, and there’s nothing he can do about it because the Eastern corporations have taken over the ranches. People get laid off and everybody’s kind of hanging around the bunkhouse. Before you know it, there’s a big barroom brawl in the bunkhouse. This was kind of, I hate to say it, a direct rip from that movie — at the end, nobody really knows what they were fighting about. They were just letting off steam.
I thought that this was a really appropriate way to tell the story of what the workers were going through. You can really only understand that scene if you understand the scene that it’s cut against, which is all of the fat cats who came out for the ceremonial pounding of the golden spike who had considerably less to do with the building of the railroad than the men who actually pounded those spikes into the ground, the guys who actually did the work who were not invited to the ceremony. Our guys had a hell of a lot of fun doing it.
Was it all perfectly choreographed beforehand or was there any kind of improvisation happening on set?
Wirth: It was pretty well choreographed, but there was some improv. David Von Ancken, who directed the episode, and Brent Woolsey, our stunt coordinator, figured out pretty precisely what it was they wanted. At one point, I thought it would be funny if you had a guy who was being buffeted around the fight, who really had nothing to do with it, who hadn’t thrown a punch, so they grabbed onto that idea and they put a guy in the middle of it. Of course, my first cuts of this episode I had a lot more of this guy. He’s in sort of a rust-colored jacket and he was just sort of being ping-ponged back and forth between the various guys who were fighting and nobody ever laid a punch on him because he was drunk and sort of careening around. I ended up cutting that way back. It’s been a while since I’ve seen it, but I think he’s still in there. That was a thing that just sort of came up in the moment.
Did you take anything from set?
Wirth: It’s interesting. I got offered a lot of things. I was trying to think what would be really meaningful to me, and the only thing I took was a railroad police badge.
Why did you choose that?
Wirth: Both Cullen and Elam wore it. And one of my nicknames in the writers’ room was Sheriff. I came on the show at the third season, and it was sort of, “There’s a new sheriff in town” thought. It was small, and I could put it in my home office and my wife wouldn’t threaten to get rid of it. She’s in the, “We’ve got to thin stuff out around here” [frame of mind]. She keeps all of her crap, but gets rid of all of my crap. It has a little pin in the back, so I just pinned it up on my bulletin board above my desk. And that’s where it is.
Anything you’d like to add in conclusion?
Wirth: I got really irritated this [week] reading something online about why the show was canceled, and the writer was suggesting that the ratings had slipped to the point where AMC felt the show was no longer viable — which, in fact, is not the case. [Since Season 3], the ratings have actually gone up, and particularly in our key demographics. The move to Saturday night was a genius move on behalf of the network, because it really allowed us to live without being under the pressure of being a Sunday night television show. Really, it had nothing to do with the ratings in my opinion. We are canceled because we’re at the end of the series, and being on for five years is a good, long run for any television show.
Watch our June 8 Facebook Live chat with Anson Mount: