Showrunner John Wirth of Hell on Wheels talks about bringing Cullen full circle in the series finale and which Season 5 scene he appeared in.
Q: What went into deciding how these character’s stories were wrapped up?
A: Joe and Tony Gayton wrote a beautiful pilot in my opinion, with multi-dimensional characters that stood the test of time, and by the end, that gave us lots of options. We explored multiple endings for each character. We kept anything that felt legitimate. We ditched anything that felt forced. We talked about what made the most sense, what would be unexpected yet still ring true. A lot of times these things come down to what you think might really happen to someone, as opposed to what a group of clever people sitting in an air-conditioned room getting paid to think up cool stuff might think is awesome.
Q: What about Cullen going off to China to find Mei? What’s special about their dynamic?
A: The Mei/Fong character was the brainchild of [co-executive producer] Jami O’Brien. Jami felt strongly that if a woman was going to break through the armor Cullen had wrapped himself in, she had to be somebody completely out of the box. Somebody who could come at him from an angle he never anticipated. Somebody he wouldn’t see coming. In our world, that turned out to be a foreigner from a culture Cullen was ignorant of. Mei caught him off guard, got inside, softened him up in a way that no one ever had, not even Lily Bell. I thought it worked beautifully.
Q: What would you say Cullen was seeking in Season 1? Do you believe that, in the end, he found it?
A: Cullen started out on a journey of revenge, and I think that journey became one of redemption, rehabilitation and reconstruction. As he was building the railroad, he was also rebuilding himself. When Cullen reaches the end of the line on the series, I don’t know if he’s a whole person, but I think he’s closer to being more whole than he was when we met him. Close enough, anyway.
Q: Was it intentional to have him back in a confessional in the last episode?
A: It was absolutely designed. We wanted to bring him full circle. When he was in that confessional in the pilot, he obviously didn’t know what was going to happen to him over the next six years, and when he comes back in the finale he’s carrying all those experiences with him. Anson’s work in that scene alone sets him apart from just about every other actor on television. Sublime.
Q: How rewarding was it to film the completion of the railroad in Episode 13? How did the crew celebrate?
A: We recreated the Golden Spike celebration at Promontory Point, making our version of the famous photograph of the two locomotives face-to-face. All of our crew participated and got in the picture, dressed in period wardrobe. I was hanging off the front of one of the engines with a couple bottles of champagne like the guy in the [original] picture. We had a lot of fun.
A: We wanted to surprise the audience – we didn’t think anybody would anticipate the Swede dying in the mid-season premiere because he’s proved so hard to kill in previous seasons. In fact, I think there are still people who believe he’s going to come back! [Laughs] The episode is essentially a two-person play. Tom Brady and I wanted to give Cullen and Swede the opportunity to resolve their story, which in many ways, had become the centerpiece of the series. We’d always seen the two men as being two sides of the same coin, and what better way to explore that than to create a story where the two of them take that last, long journey together. It was very important to us to show the audience who Thor Gunderson was before he became the Swede. And then to see how he became the Swede. And then to see Cullen break the Swede down, peel off the layers to reveal Thor Gunderson once again. And then, to hang not the Swede, but Thor Gunderson. Swede’s last line, “I am Thor Gunderson from Norway” was absolutely inspired and written by Tom Brady. I’m not above taking credit for it, but the truth is, Tom wrote it and it’s perfect.
Q: How does the Swede’s death scene compare to Ruth’s, which you’ve previously mentioned was difficult to write?
A: Those two scenes are cousins, again, because Tom Brady essentially wrote both. I’m anti-death penalty. Swede’s agonizingly slow and horrific hanging is my attempt to show people that death ain’t pretty, whether sanctioned by the government, earned, deserved, or not. We spent a lot of time and resources on the actual hanging in the episode and I let it play as long as possible because I wanted people to understand that it’s not a simple or pretty thing, getting killed like that. It reverberates within your soul when you witness something like that. I knew that if we did our jobs right as storytellers, we could make a statement. Some people might have mixed emotions about it: Did he deserve it? Wouldn’t it have been better if Cullen had just ended it by shooting him? Would life in prison have been a viable option? I just wanted to give people the opportunity to think about it. Swede’s hanging was a complex ending to a very complex relationship, and gratifying I think for our loyal fans.
A: That’s a story taken from history. Durant really was kidnapped. I don’t think they ever proved that he kidnapped himself, but authorities at the time speculated he did and there was evidence supporting it, but ultimately, it was never proved. In order to make the story really resonate for Durant, we put Maggie in the middle of it and it was a turning point for him in the series. Durant has always been able to land on his feet, no matter what he did or how abysmally it failed. This time was different. This time it cost him dearly. In my opinion, he never recovered, which was the point of the flash forward that began the episode.
Q: What do you want fans that are missing the show to know?
A: I’d say thank you for your incredible loyalty and support over the years. If nobody watched, the show wouldn’t exist, and because of you, we are here. Let’s all celebrate the fact that AMC made it possible for us to make a show like this, a throwback Western at a time when there are no others on TV. And, it was as important to them as it was to us to finish the story. By Christmas, there’ll be a beautiful boxed set of DVDs of the entire series — a nice gift for a loved one or yourself! Even though we’re done making it, you guys can go back and watch it over and over. A complete series is the gift that keeps on giving!