'Quantico' Boss on Season 2 "Reset" and "Less Confusing" Timelines

Showrunner Josh Safran promises a "deeper, richer, more mature and definitely darker" second season that will be "less confusing" to viewers.
Giovanni Rufino/ABC
'Quantico'

The second season of Quantico might begin similarly to the first, but many changes are in store.

Not only does the sophomore season of the ABC drama move from the FBI's training facility, Quantico, to that of the CIA's, The Farm, but Alex Parrish (Priyanka Chopra) is surrounded by many fresh faces when tasked with saving the world — now, from a global terror threat.

"We hit reset," showrunner Josh Safran tells The Hollywood Reporter about what to expect. "I was very interested in looking at this show as different books in a series, which is different than a sequel."

Last season left Parrish fired from the FBI after clearing her name, and receiving a proposition from Matthew Keyes (Henry Czerny) to join the CIA. Sunday's episode opens with two timelines, one in the present at The Farm, and one in the future when another terror attack hits.

But this time around, Safran says the writers have dialed down the "soapyness" to create a more mature season and, most importantly, viewers won't have to wait until the finale for answers to a season-long mystery. "We decided we’re not going to hold the answers to questions until the end and that we’re going to look at it more like a character study," he says. "It's less about, 'Who is it?' and more about, 'How can you stop it?'"

Here, Safran speaks to THR about the newest "series" of Quantico, how the show takes into account the real war on terrorism and why Alex Parrish is a true action hero.

The premiere episode is titled "Kudove," which is a CIA term. Last year, all of the titles were the last word spoken in the episode. Are you sticking to that for season two?

No, we are not. This season the titles are actual CIA cryptograms. We used the closest cryptogram to the actual CIA that we could for the titles.

And Kudove is code for Deputy Director?

Matthew Keyes, played by Henry Czerny, is up there in the CIA ranks.

So we can take all the titles as clues.

Yes, that is correct.

I assume you are an expert on the CIA now?

Strangely -- and to me this is very fascinating -- there’s more out there on the CIA than there is on the FBI. Because it’s so clandestine, people feel the need to write about it more when they can, so you actually can find more in-depth reportage. Every day you’re reading something in the newspaper about the FBI, so it’s in our consciousness more, between representations on screen going all the way back to the TV show The FBI in the ‘50s, The X Files, Silence of the Lambs. People at least think they know what the FBI looks like or what it is. Last year, it was incredibly fascinating to do a deep-dive into the FBI with our consultant, and we often learned more about processes rather than secrets or secret areas. Whereas this year with the CIA, once we learn about a piece and do research for that piece, we get more specific about it. It’s almost of like you need to know the code word to get into the door and once you get into the door you’re like, "Oh, wait! There is all this information on this."

Does it make you apprehensive at all to be taking on the inner workings of the CIA?

It’s funny, it doesn’t make me nervous. But I do hope that the show  — whether it lasts two or five or 10 years — if you look back on it, will help to serve as a textbook about these agencies. Season one is: Here’s what you have to do to become an FBI agent. Season two is: Here’s what you have to do to become a CIA operative. And I like that. I’m not nervous about it. But we are actually revealing some truths, this is not all made-up stuff. It’s easy for people to think that, because of course we take the stories to dramatic places and have to inflate the reality, but the reality is still there. I like the idea that we are basically telling people: If you got into The Farm, this is a lot of the stuff you’d have to do.

Tell me how you approached season two. Is it a sequel, a reboot — in what ways are you hitting the reset button?

One way we hit reset is to look at the things I felt we didn’t accomplish as well last year that I thought we could do better. The other aspect is: How in this day, in the age of serialized storytelling, do you keep the story interesting?

On the latter point, I was very interested in looking at this show as different books in a series, which is different than a sequel. Like another James Bond book, it’s still James Bond the character but it’s a whole new story. What you’re enjoying has elements of the previous ones, but it really is about this character and the world that they’re in, though they all feel new. It’s not a sequel but a series in the true meaning of the term.

What did you learn from season one, in terms of what works and also what you heard as criticism?

For the first season, I had the ability to know everything was going to come together because I knew from the pilot. But also when the writers came together, we knew that whenever the season ended, whether it ended at 13 or 22 episodes, we’d show how it happened. I think we just took for granted the idea that the audience would relax and be okay with the not knowing, as opposed to getting frustrated. By the time the finale aired, people who watched the finale were like, "Oh, I totally get it, how everything links up." I feel relatively grateful that people did get that, but perhaps 22 was too long of a time to ask people to wait in the unknown, or go down blind alleys.

So for season two, it's more about these people in this world and what this world does to you, as opposed to: "There’s one bad guy and who will that bad guy be? You’re going to have to wait eight months to find out." That’s not what we’re doing this year. There is obviously an event and there are bad people, but it becomes very quickly apparent that it’s about a culture of terrorism.

So the format of Quantico, assuming you'd have a third season, isn't necessarily going to be: A new setting, a new attack, and finding out who's behind it. 

Correct. The show will always be about what it takes to protect the country. That’s sort of the nature of the characters. Protection is the theme and then underneath that, the emotional theme, is about how you have to be gray. There is no such thing as a black hat or a white hat. All of us have to exist in the gray and learn how to somehow be comfortable, especially the people who are the guardians of our country and responsible for our safety. Our show will always be about those two things: The protection of the country and moral gray areas involved therein.

Whether it will be about a terrorist event in season three, I don’t know. Right now, our goal is to make season two better than season one, which I believe that we are, and that requires probably less looking ahead to next year than I was doing last year. For season one, you write the pilot, have no idea if they’re going to shoot it. Then you shoot it and have no idea if you’re going to get picked up for series. Then they pick up the back nine. You’re only looking to the next step. Now we have a full 22 episodes, we know it’s a whole year and now we make sure those 22 are rock solid.

There was a lot of jumping around in time last season. This season starts out with two timelines. Will those two timelines continue through the season?

I don’t want to say yet. We made adjustments to the idea of two timelines, as viewers will see in the premiere. It’s less confusing. We are not looking to make it to the end of the season with this one crisis. I do believe the show is not just easier to follow, it’s deeper, it’s richer, it’s more mature. It’s definitely darker, but it’s also very human this year. I could not be prouder of it.

There are a lot of new faces. Will the Farm crew be as exciting as the NATs were? 

I’d like to think so! They’re exciting, they’re darker, they’re deeper, they’re older, they’ve had full lives. And the things they’re being asked to do are much more treacherous and damaging to your psyche than the NATs in season one. Last year, the premise was that one of those people was a terrorist and you were looking back. This season, any one of these recruits could potentially be a terrorist in the future, and they aren't when the show begins at The Farm. So what you’re actually waiting for is: How many of them will become terrorists? ... And also to find out: Will they be compromised or tapped? It’s active and moving forward with purpose instead of turning cards over, and it doesn’t take you out of the timeline. 

What can you tell us about the Blair Underwood (above) character?

Blair Underwood is just a joy to work with, I’ve always wanted to write for him. We’re all so excited to have him. As Owen Hall, the instructor of the farm, he brings such an energy and knowledge, sort of a sexiness and freshness. You’re as interested in learning about his backstory as you are watching the present day recruitment stories unfold. The Farm is 20 people at a time, whereas Quantico was groups of 50-60. It’s very focused. You all live in houses together, not dorms. The houses are next to each other. So Alex and Harry can go over and sit on Owen’s porch and talk with him. It’s more like Ivy League grad school — except where you learn to kill people.

It’s been less than a year since the events of the season one finale, during which she lost her best friend Simon and shot Liam. Now she’s in the CIA, which goes against her truth-seeking morals. How will the repercussions of season one come out as season two unfolds?

The repercussions of what happened filter through every episode. In the premiere, there’s a mention of Simon and there’s mentions of others as well, and she’s definitely dealing with that and that continues. It haunts her. Other people know about it. There’s a lot of discussion in future episodes about what it felt like to be that famous in that moment. Every episode, people notice her. In episode five, she's almost compromised on a CIA mission because someone recognizes her. It’s actually a good cover to hire somebody so famous because people would never assume you’re a spy. So we have fun with that. 

And the more she’s asked by the CIA to do things that she feels are against her moral character, the more the choices and issues of last year come up for her. Because it forces her to look back more and more and say, "Am I making the wrong choice now by compromising my integrity? Or did I make the wrong choice then by having so much integrity?" That’s pretty much her character conflict of the season.

How many times can Alex save the world?

Well, John McClane made it to five [Die Hard] movies so maybe, five seasons? (Laughs.) That’s how we look at this. That’s another thing Priyanka and I are so proud of: Alex Parrish is not a character who jumps off what she’s doing the second her boyfriend has an issue with her or her family is upset with her, she puts the vision first and she is in that way an action hero. That’s very important to us and something we’re very proud of, so she’ll save the world as many times as it needs saving. She’ll do it while still being herself and not while secretly hope to be doing something else. That’s what makes her so special: That is her duty and she will do it.

This season, she's facing a global threat, not a national one. Airing amid our real-world climate, where only last weekend New York and New Jersey saw bombings, how does this season raise the stakes?

Of course we thought this up well in advance so when these things occur in the real world, it’s always terrifying.  But at the same time, we are reflecting the world around us and that’s part of what the show is about. This is the new reality of the world, which is that terror attacks happen daily, everywhere. Nobody is protected from them. The idea of who is protecting us and how we look at our new world is something we talk about everyday in the writers room. I live in New York, I was here for 9/11 and I’m here now. When you hear a loud sound, you used to say, “It’s a car backfire.” Now the go-to is, “Is that a bomb? Is that a gun?” That is the world that we live in. It’s so terrifying and sad and horrible, but in regards to this show, it’s very much about these people who live in the same new reality that we all do, and they’re trying to live their lives while also stopping the next things from happening.

I actually find that there’s hope in this show. I hope that we have an Alex Parrish, Ryan Booth and Miranda out there doing this for us, fighting on our behalf. Of course, the show is also entertainment but part of being in entertainment is looking around and saying, "Hey, what can we do besides being a fun action show? Can we also talk about what’s going on in the world?" The show this year is actually taking more of a global view and how these terror events are connected and not just happening to us. So I wouldn’t say raising the stakes, but I’d say pulling up to a higher view and that it doesn’t just happen to us, it happens to everyone. 

Will Claire Haas (Marcia Cross) or Caleb Haas (Graham Rogers) return?

Other people from last year will pop up, that’s the best I can say. There were decisions made about what characters would continue immediately. That doesn’t mean past characters won’t come back, it’s about the ways in and showing the audience that everything before still relates. These people are still part of the mix, just not necessarily on page one.

Is there any truth to the rumor about Tom Hiddleston guest-starring?

I’d love nothing more that would be incredible! But I think that’s just because he and Priyanka presented at the Emmys and had great chemistry. By the way, I’m one of the ones wishing it!

What else can you tease about the season?

There are still OMG moments, there just aren’t cards being turned over and revealing another side about somebody. On this crisis timeline, there are things unfolding in front of you and in front of Alex, and you’re with Alex like you’re with John McClane in Die Hard. She turns a corner and there’s something there you didn’t expect. It’s more of a slow descent and the fun is seeing how these people connect with one another and how they put the pieces together. Alex and Ryan are actually undercover inside the CIA for the FBI, so that’s another layer of something that they are hiding. There’s a lot about these pinballs jumping off each other, but not necessarily landing where they’re supposed to go. Of course, we also want to deliver the thrills we delivered last year. In many ways, it’s a bigger show. The action feels bigger and more intense because it’s deeper and darker. You feel it more if somebody’s wounded and scared. It’s a bigger canvas with bigger emotions.

Quantico premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. on ABC.

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