Following the murder of Lily Bell in the season finale of Hell on Wheels, it's a safe bet that Cullen Bohannon will be all about revenge and/or spiraling out of control when we see him again on tonight's Hell on Wheels Season 3 premiere, right?
While Cullen is deeply affected by the death of his love, star Anson Mount and new showrunner John Wirth sat down with me recently to for a preview of what to expect when the new season kicks off and, for Wirth, how he's handled taking over the job of after John Shiban departed the series at the end of last year...
TV Fanatic: John, with you coming to take the reins, will we see a difference in season three?
John Wirth: I think we're taking the show in a slightly different direction, starting with putting Cullen Bohannon at the helm of the railroad. And then the season is sort of framed by the war between Bohannon and Durant for control of Union Pacific.
TVF: And now that you've kind of fallen into this world and taken it over, was there one big challenge for you?
JW: When you lose your creators and your showrunner two seasons in, for whatever reason, it's a destabilizing event, both for the company, for the studio, and certainly for the actors. And I think there was a lot of angst over what's going to happen, who's going to come in, is this person going to know about anything we've been doing for two years.
So what I really wanted to do was come in and honor the work that came before me, pick up on it, and continue it, and try to improve it to the degree that I can. And I was embraced with open arms, starting with Anson, and he's our literal and spiritual leader in Calgary and so everybody else kind of followed suit, and it's been great. It's a wonderful company, a very talented group of artists up there from the ground up. So it's a joy to be part of it.
TVF: Anson, what were some of those first conversations you had with John about season three?
Anson Mount: I think the initial conversations were just sort of like him reassuring me that my opinion mattered to him and me reassuring him that everybody was happy that he was there and to sort of educate him about where everybody was morale-wise and head-wise. I think John wanted to hear, and I wanted to be heard, on what I felt like we hadn't attacked and there were a couple of big things I felt like we hadn't gotten enough out of.
For instance, the sense of this being a mobile enterprise, we kind of lost the sense of that, and John was on board with that. And then John really came to the table with the season three arc idea, which I think is very, very exciting. And I know generally what it is...at first I wanted to be clued in very much as to where they were going and now I feel safe and I'm like I kind of don't want to know, but I do know the general idea and it's very exciting.
TVF: Where do we start season three?
JW: We start about five or six months after that attack. We pick up Cullen Bohannon in Hell on Wheels, the only living soul in Hell on Wheels. And so our introduction to him and that place is what kicks off the first episode.
TVF: Is it safe to say that Cullen is spiraling from losing Lily?
AM: I think it's interesting to see...because you start with somebody who the trapdoor of their heart is closed, I think what's interesting is to see that trapdoor open, but what's even more interesting than that is to get to see how that trapdoor slams shut again, because we never saw it initially. And you learn more about a character like that. So you have a man who's very practiced in compartmentalizing emotions. I don’t think it quite matters so much why he does it or how he does it, but that he does it and how that affects his relationship with the world around him.
TVF: What is he fighting against? Or is it all about revenge?
AM: For all intents and purposes, [Cullen] has PTSD before we know what that is and his way of dealing with that is he finds a new war to wage by accident, totally by accident. He finds the railroad construction as his war and he thinks he's going to wage it the same way he waged battle, and he finds out at the end of season two battle is not anyway to build a railroad. It's actually the inverse of building a railroad. But if he wants to continue with this one addiction he has that allows him to live and survive, then he has to refigure out how he's going to go forward with this fight and how does he transform a battle-hardened mind into a business mind.
TVF: Tell me about that first scene between Cullen and the bankers. Talk about a different world for Cullen to be a part of!
JW: Mark Richard wrote it and that sequence is really spectacular. And, as I said, that aspect of Cullen Bohannon's character we haven't seen. And you know, with regard to the Lily Bell question, I mean, because we're picking the story up six months after her murder, that's a lot of time to come to a place of equanimity about what happened. And what was fascinating to me, just as a viewer of the show, was that she kind of opened him up...and it's going to be an interesting journey because there's a couple instances where he thinks he's closed the door on that revenge-seeking man, and then that door pops open, and some crazy shit happens, and then it closes again.
TVF: Is it safe to say The Swede is the biggest foe or are there other foes that you'll be dealing with? Maybe Durant or some new characters.
AM: Yeah, we've got some great new characters coming in this season, but we've also got some development of current characters that are going to go some interesting places. [Looking to Wirth] He knows more than I do.
TVF: Where do we find Durant in the first episode back?
JW: Durant went to prison. When we meet him in episode one, he's in prison and his wife has left him. So we introduce some other females in the show this season, some of whom interact with him in kind of fun ways. And it's very interesting to see Durant, who's accustomed to being in control and being the puppet master, suddenly being cast out, and having to worm his way back in, and figure out a Machiavellian way to get control of his railroad back. He considers it his baby.
The historical Durant was hellbent on becoming famous for building the Transcontinental Railroad as well as rich. And it's interesting to note that the historical character died poor and virtually nobody knows his name unlike Huntington and Crocker and Stanford. If you live in California, you know those names.
TVF: With Cullen now in charge, will her have to rely on Durant at all?
AM: It's going to come head to head between me and Durant, I think, is where we're going. At least that's been the energy so far.
TVF: Anything else we should know about the new season?
AM: I can honestly say in terms of the quality and the consistency of the storytelling and the performances that I've seen, although I can't speak for myself, I think it's going to be, by far, our best season.
TVF: Anson, I hear you get to talk more this season more than just the brooding looks, which are always great.
AM: [Smiles] Yeah. I keep trying to cut lines.
AMC has also provided TV Fanatic with three EXCLUSIVE premiere photos. Check them out here:
Jim Halterman is the West Coast Editor of TV Fanatic and the owner of JimHalterman.com. Follow him on Twitter.