The AMC Western Hell on Wheels returns Aug. 10 with a two-hour premiere that picks up in the winter of 1867. We find former confederate soldier Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount) readying to assume control of the Union Pacific Railroad, emancipated slave Elam Ferguson (Common) wondering whether wearing a badge will be too dangerous for a new family man, and railroad impresario Thomas “Doc” Durant (Colm Meaney) scheming to get out of jail and back into business. Here are 10 things you can look forward to in season 3:
1. A peek at Hell on Wheels in the winter: The cast and crew had been wanting to see the town — which will feel more mobile this season as the Union Pacific races the Central Pacific to lay the transcontinental railroad — covered in snow, but the production schedule never cooperated. “We got lucky with the [spring] blizzard,” Mount says. “Just two or three days before I was flying [to Calgary, where the series films], there was no snow. And then it just dumped, and it’s gorgeous.” Executive producer Mark Richard, who wrote the first hour, scripted that Cullen rode out the winter in a burned-out caboose after the Sioux leveled the town and Lily Bell (Dominique McElligott) was murdered in the season 2 finale. “He thought it was a perfect opportunity to see the long, dark night of the soul that Cullen’s likely to be going into between seasons,” Mount says. “To see that encapsulated in a railroad that’s been shut down for the winter, and he’s the only person there — he’s like, ‘We can’t miss this. We have to do this.’” The writers also came up with the idea for Cullen to take a dead man’s pipe. “I saw it as a visual metaphor between me and my train. I’m getting my fire stoked, the train is getting its fire stoked,” Mount says. “And my one thing coming in to this season was that it’s a season of maturation for Cullen. So to move past the sort of Clint Eastwood cigarillo to something that when it’s evoked seems to involve more thought was a nice change.”
2. Cullen and Elam heading to New York for railroad business — and a surprisingly comical fistfight: Once Cullen emerges in the premiere, he asks Elam, who’s awaiting the arrival of Eva’s baby, to accompany him to New York and watch his back as he tries to convince the board to make him chief engineer. After being treated as “the gentleman’s gentleman” and not being allowed to carry a gun, Elam is understandably touchy when they retire to their room. The disagreement turns physical. “Common accidentally knee’d me, not in the ‘nads, but right on the tip, and, like, caught it between his knee and my pelvis,” Mount says, laughing. “The crew thought it was so funny that they nicknamed him the Tip Whacker, and they changed the name plate on his chair and on his dressing room to TW.” Another fun fact: HoW had intended to use sets from the BBC America show Copper for the New York scenes, in exchange for use of the HoW trains. At the last minute, that deal fell through and the HoW production team had to scramble to build sets and find locations where they could shoot tight, Mount says. “I thought our production designer did a bang-up job. We went over budget doing it,” he adds, laughing again, “but we did it.”
3. A Charlie Daniels’ cover of “Cotton-Eyed Joe”: Look for it in episode 6, in a scene in which Cullen is “cuttin’ loose,” says Mount, who brokered the deal. He and Daniels follow each other on Twitter, and after Daniels mentioned how big a fan he was of the show a couple of times, Mount bit the bullet. “I sent him a direct message, and I was like, ‘I’m sorry, but I have to ask you this,’” he recalls, laughing. “‘Do you have any interest in writing a song for the show?’ He said, ‘Yeah, absolutely what do you want?’ So I put him in touch with the showrunner [John Wirth], and they came up with a scene in which they needed a song. It’s a perfect song to do some two-steppin’ to. When it came time for the showrunner to ask him what he wanted to be paid, Charlie said, ‘Just have Anson play a round of golf with me when he’s in Nashville.’ So that was really sweet. ” (In the meantime, they sent him a case of wine.)
4. A new saloon: As previously mentioned, Hell on Wheels was burnt to the ground in the season 2 finale, as were the show’s sets. The Phoenix saloon, owned by Mickey McGinnes (Phil Burke), has risen again. It will feature prominently in episode 5 — with Mount’s sister Kristin serving as a background extra. “My sister came and visited, and I made her a whore,” he says. “‘Cause how often can you tell your sister, ‘I’m gonna make you a whore,’ and follow through on that promise?”
5. No love interest for Cullen: At least not if Mount has anything to say about it. “I mean, come on,” he says, laughing once more. “It’s not a show about love. That’s part of the reason, I think, the writers killed Lily Bell. There’s just no room for that. It’s a show about ambition,” he insists. “Now in terms of the maturation of the character,” he clarifies, “something like that could come in to play later on, but the character’s not ready for it now.” (That said, there is a scene in the premiere that will definitely have fans talking. Rather than spoil it for you, we’ll wait until after it airs to share what Mount had to say about why he fought for it.)
6. The return of the Swede: Cullen intended to hang him after The Swede killed Lily Bell, but the Swede jumped off the bridge. “How did he survive the fall? It’s television,” Mount jokes. He’ll make his first appearance in the Aug. 17 episode riding west with a Mormon family and inventing a new identity. “He gets his own little plot this season, because if he and I are brought into the same world too early, it just becomes a cat and mouse game all season,” Mount says. “So we’re really taking our time in bringing those worlds together.”
7. Cullen vs. Durant: “During the construction of the transcontinental railroad, Doc Durant really was removed at one point, and then found a way of getting himself back in. I think it’s just wonderful to see how this incredibly smart businessman can show up with nothing and use nothing but his smarts to gain power again,” Mount says. Could Durant’s plan have something to do with the show also building a replica of Cheyenne, Wyoming for season 3? Wait and see. “It was the first major outpost built in preparation of the railroad coming through,” Mount says. “The town itself plays a very big part in the plot of this season.” Here’s what we do know: Sean McGinnes (Ben Esler) will be Cullen’s new railroad accountant — and also recruited by Durant to work as a spy.
8. The introduction of Louise Ellison (Jennifer Ferrin), a reporter for The New York Tribune: She’s dispatched to Hell on Wheels to cover the building of the transcontinental railroad. We meet her at the top of the premiere’s second hour. “I think it’s a smart idea to have somebody representing the press in a show that is about an industry that is really the first spearhead towards America becoming a superpower. It changed business, this railroad,” Mount says. “To have a reporter that has a voice that the entire nation is hearing leads to a lot of interesting plot development.”
9. Minister Ruth (Kasha Kropinski) becoming Cullen’s consigliere: As Mount explains it, “You can only stick your stuff in your blind spot until the blind spot fills up, and then it spills over and you have to look at it. He is starting to recognize he can’t handle it alone. So he is, without being willing to admit it to himself, interested in the light, for lack of a better word, and she represents that. It’s safe for him to see it as a friendship. But she does represent a kind of consciousness that he’s never exercised before. I think it’s becoming a big theme this season — the first part of maturation is an ability to be present with yourself and to have consciousness.”
10. Another sad death: “He’s being killed off, and he doesn’t know yet, and I’m gonna have to break it to him,” Mount whispers. The “he” that he’s referring to is Cullen’s horse (Quigley), who has his own Twitter account and frequently trades barbs with Mount. “It’s a dangerous position being Cullen Bohannon’s horse. I went through, like, five of them the first season,” Mount says. “I’ve been on him the longest, and he really is the best horse I’ve ever ridden in my life.” Though they found Quigley’s twin, Mount thinks they’ll ultimately have to go in a different direction for his replacement. “His death is so much of a plot point this season that we can’t just say, ‘Oh, it’s another horse that looks like him.’” Hey, that’s something, Quigley.