AMC’s “Hell on Wheels” faced its own internal drama last year when showrunner John Shiban left amid a producer shuffle. But like those trains on the transcontinental railroad, this series about the race to lay down tracks across the U.S. in the 1860s—just keeps chugging along. We sat down with new showrunner John Wirth, a TV veteran who shepherded S3 all the way to its premiere Sat night, to learn about how the series is shifting from a story of revenge to one of redemption.
CableFAX: You’re heading into the 3rd season now. How much of a toll does it take on you as the showrunner?
Wirth: Oh, man. It’s the hardest job in television. You have to be a writer, a producer, a manager, a babysitter, a press secretary, a magician, a wife—I mean, it’s insane… I always tell my wife that it would be the perfect job if I could do it 50 hours a week less than what I do.
CableFAX: You’ve been a producer on several projects, and I assume that was easier than showrunning?
Wirth: On “Nash Bridges,” I was an executive producer with Carlton [Cuse]—he was the showrunner—and he basically said “Just run the writer’s room. That’s what I need you to do.” So that’s what I did. I didn’t edit. I didn’t cast. I would go to San Francisco frequently, either with or without Carlton to hang out with Don Johnson. That’s a whole other set of stories.
CableFAX: That would have to be a separate interview.
Wirth: (Laughs) That would have to be an off-the-record conversation, really.
CableFAX: What do you think will really surprise fans about Season 3 of “Hell of Wheels”?
Wirth: The show began with a simple idea: A guy’s family was slaughtered, and he set out on a mission of revenge to get the guys who killed his family. And it carried the show for a while. But my experience as a viewer was you’re kind of following a guy who is killing people he doesn’t know and who we don’t get to know. And all we know about them is, “You were involved in killing my family.” Blam! Who are you? In my first episode of the season, somebody gets killed. And I have said to everybody because it occurred to me that this is the first time someone dies on this show that you care about. Aside from Lily Bell [played by Dominique McElligott] That in and of itself is a significant change.
CableFAX: So more emotional triggers in Season 3?
Wirth: Yes, more emotional. But we’ve shifted from revenge driving the series to driving toward ultimately redemption, and this part of the journey is reconstruction. So the show was very destructive. Cullen [played by Anson Mount] was in a self-destructive mode. He was just destroying things. He was killing people, destroying lives. After a while for me personally it’s hard to care. It’s just, “ok, so he kills another guy.” So I had trouble getting my arms around him. It took me a while to be able to articulate why, and I think it was because of that, so what we set out to do this season in the first episode was to say that he’s really in a place where he has a choice. He chooses life, or he chooses death. And he chooses life. So once he makes that decision, then you start to watch him reintegrate himself into the world and become a human being, kind of re-humanizing himself in a way. That process opens him up as a character, and I think he becomes more accessible to the audience. The hallmark of this season is that he drinks less and talks more. It’s simple. That’s what it is. He becomes the head of the railroad. So now he’s not just a cog in the wheel. He’s turning the wheel. And it’s just a significant change. In contrast, it forces upon Durant [played by Colm Meaney] a significant change in stature as well because Durant is no longer running things. He’s now fighting to get control. So the whole season is about Durant v. Cullen for control of the railroad.
CableFAX: If you were lucky enough to go a few more seasons, would you get to a point chronologically in which the transcontinental railroad was finished and your characters had to figure out what to do next? Or did it just take so long to finish—
Wirth: Oh it didn’t. We’re in 1867, and they drove the Golden Spike in 1869.
CableFAX: So you’re getting close to that point.
Wirth: If the show goes two more seasons, we could get to driving the Golden Spike at the end. If it goes four more seasons, it might be interesting to explore the idea of driving the Golden Spike earlier—and then what do Cullen and Durant do?
CableFAX: Right. The railroad has been their whole life purpose up until now.
Wirth: The thing about these cable shows, which is exciting, is that they reinvent themselves every season. When you look at ‘Breaking Bad,’ basically Walter White is dealing with making meth every season. The macro kind of stays. But in the micro world… it’s always kind of changing up. And I think we could do that. The transcontinental railroad was just one railroad line that connected the West Coast to the East Coast. There are all kinds of spurs, there’s the Southern Pacific, there’s the Canadian Pacific. And railroad men are railroad men.
CableFAX: So there’s little risk of running out of railroad.
Wirth: I don’t know. I haven’t thought about that. I’m just trying to get through this season.