'Graceland' Boss on Jakes' "Final Straw," Mike's "Crossroads" and Season 4

"I don’t think anybody can ever believe [Briggs] or trust him, especially Mike," creator Jeff Eastin tells THR.
Jeff Daly/USA Network

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from the season three finale of Graceland, "No Old Tigers."]

The line between cop and criminal has always been blurred on Graceland, but Jakes (Brandon Jay McLaren) officially crossed over to the dark side in the season three finale of the USA drama. The hour ended with Jakes getting into a brawl with Johnny (Manny Montana) and taking the $9 million dollars to leave town and start anew with Courtney (Annie Ilonzeh).

The rest of the house was left in shambles, but not only because of that. Briggs (Daniel Sunjata) shot Ari (Rhys Coiro) in the head to keep his illegal doings under wraps, as Charlie (Vanessa Ferlito) and Paige (Serinda Swan) turned a blind eye. The Hollywood Reporter spoke with creator and showrunner Jeff Eastin about Jakes' "final straw," the struggle to maintain Briggs' moral center and his plans for a potential fourth season.

You were coming off of a huge finale last year that really threw people. How much pressure did you feel to top that or one-up that huge twist?

Honestly, not a lot. I have to admit in the past, we've said, "Alright, we have to top ourselves this year." On White Collar, because we had those midseason finales, in six years we kind of did 12 finales. This year was really about building the arcs up from the beginning and trying to give them some, hopefully, really good endings — from Briggs' execution of Ari to Jakes running with the money — all that we built into it. We treated the last two episodes as a big two-parter. … I'm really, really proud of those last two episodes. It's some of the better stuff I've ever worked on in my career. We just hoped that it was going to be compelling and interesting. My real hope is that people thought it was worth the ride.

How did you decide on this finale? How did you reach this conclusion?

There were really three big storylines we wanted to play with this year. People had asked me, "Did you ever plan to kill Mike?" and the answer was no. What we looked at was, OK, Briggs is really good at manipulating people and especially manipulating Mike. The idea that Mike would have this near-death experience, come back and feel that he had been given a mission, we realized that's a really cool thing for Briggs to manipulate. Mike says at one point, "I gave Briggs a road map to my mind and he ran with it," and that really was the idea for Mike's death even last year moving forward. Briggs, in episode five after Colby dies, decides, "I'm going to go after these guys" — that's actually when the plan begins to form. When he sees that nobody is going to help him, he starts using Mike's diary as a guidepost.

We really copied the Whitey Bulger story. … In the real case, the agent that ran him like Briggs was running Ari is still serving time in prison. For Briggs, we asked, "How do we get out of this?" By manipulating things so he can sweep things under the rug. We also knew from the beginning that for everything with Ari, there was only one outcome: that Briggs has to take on the role of executioner. He has to take on Ari's sins by killing him to protect everyone in the house. That was something we had worked out early on. We debated how best to do that but we decided finally just to have Ari leaning up against that pillar with his eyes closed.

What about Jakes' storyline in the finale?

Jakes has always talked about — even from the first season — that there was a secret that Briggs had on him, this favor that was owed. We had never figured out that one until the finale. We were stumped because those are the things where you reveal them and you think that wasn't as good as I was hoping, but in this case, I actually thought it was good.

For us, a lot of it was just looking at Jakes' character and saying, "Where does this guy go?" Jakes has always been the guy who complained and he came out here for his kid and all this stuff, and everybody in this house has become so damaged by everything that's happened. They've all been complicit in so much that Mike throwing out that threat that of, "Oh, by the way, lawyer up," Jakes was warning about lawyering up last year, and it becomes the final straw for him. He's not going to do well in a cage, and decides to be on the run. He's got this beautiful woman now who's perfect by his side so for Jakes; there was really no choice. If we get a season four, a lot is what happens with Jakes and Courtney. Will we find more about her? Hopefully it's much more interesting than what she's led on.

How does Jakes' exit affect the rest of the house going into season four? Where do they go from here?

We've got the house to a real crisis point. We try to do it every year. … The house is in crisis not the least of which because Dale Jakes, who is now potentially on the run, and if he's on the run, that may compromise the house and that creates a whole lot of problems for everybody. Brandon is a fantastic actor, and I have no intention of not having him on the show next year, so we'll figure out a way where Jakes is still a big part of the show although he may not necessarily be doing it from behind the badge.

Would he still be a series regular if you get a season four?

That's the plan going forward.

Do you have an idea of how far after the events of the finale the next season premiere would pick up?

We've been discussing, and one option would be to jump forward. We've been toying with the idea of six months later instead of a direct pick-up, but honestly, I don't know where we're going to head.

The constant question on this show that arises again is when does everyone's jobs really come into risk because of all of the ethically and morally questionable things they've done?

For our agents, there's a big difference between them crossing the line and their bosses knowing they've crossed the line. … The difference is for somebody like Jakes or Johnny or Charlie or Paige, there still is a very intense moral compass happening and the real hard part is when you know somebody bad like with Ari. We tried to set Ari up as a really bad guy and Briggs knows: If he lets Ari know, if Ari gets into the system, who knows? Could Ari escape? Could Ari do whatever else? Yeah. Also, Ari could damage them and Paul could end up in jail because of it. So putting Ari down, in their minds, is the moral thing to do. The tough thing for us when writing the show is trying to make sure each character tries to maintain that moral center where, at least in their minds, they believe they're doing the right thing. With Briggs, it gets harder and harder every year. (Laughs.)

Where does the Briggs-Mike dynamic go next season after the manipulation that occurred?

It's tough because, looking back on White Collar, the Peter-Neal relationship was obviously critical in that show. Those were two guys on the opposite sides who really liked each other. Who despite their differences — one's a criminal and one's a cop — they found that commonality. The Mike-Briggs relationship is the opposite. Here's a couple of guys who have everything in common. They're both the top of their class at Quantico, they're both probably the best agents out there, and there's that little nugget of friendship and caring that they have. The problem is, ultimately, who they are. At his core, Mike is this boy scout, this true justice kind-of-guy. Briggs, at his core, is a very manipulative guy. He likes to control the outcome. For Briggs, the ends justify the means. The moments of real friendship this season — like when Briggs helps Mike detox — those were real; that was genuine friendship. I don’t think Briggs was looking for anything in that, and Mike can appreciate and accept that. But at the same time, Briggs can look at that and say, "Oh hey, Mike came back with a dream journal. I can use that to manipulate him."

Briggs has violated the trust of everybody in the house. I don’t think anybody can ever believe him or trust him, especially Mike. Mike is really at a crossroads for himself, because on the one hand, Paul has manipulated the system, but Mike signs off on the report. Because he looks at it and says, "It's for the best." Why is it for the best? Mike decides for himself to go for the greater good, which he figures is getting Gusti out, saving the house and, hey, Martun still goes to prison. So Mike himself is not above reproach. Trying to understand how Mike feels about Paul will be critical, because it's hard for him to really throw stones because his glass house is a little bit dark at this point. For Briggs, he can look at Mike and say, "Hey, we are in essence sort of the same person, and we can understand each other," and Mike has been a friend to him. It's really trying to have these two guys that really should have everything in common and should be friends, but who can't quite connect. Hopefully, we can keep playing that out — knock on wood — for a few more seasons.

Finally, how confident are you feeling about a season four?

We haven't been canceled. Our numbers keep creeping up; I'm very happy about that. I'm fairly hopeful.

What did you think of the Graceland season three finale?

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