'Graceland' Boss Discusses Mike's Fate: "We Didn't Have a Lot to Lose"

"Any credibility we may have lost, hopefully we'll regain once [viewers] see where we take it," creator Jeff Eastin tells THR.
USA Network; Getty Images

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from the season three premiere of Graceland, "B-positive"]

The members of the Graceland house assembled for a funeral on Thursday's season premiere but it wasn't to put Mike to rest. As the opening moments of the hour revealed, Mike (Aaron Tveit) did actually die for six minutes, but thankfully Briggs (Daniel Sunjata) found him flat-lining just in time to get the doctors who brought Mike back to life. However, Mike's ordeal is far from over.

The Hollywood Reporter spoke with creator Jeff Eastin about Mike's new mission, his "reset" relationship with Briggs and looking "inward" this season.

Did you always know Mike would live? Was there ever a thought of actually killing him?

Not really. We discussed it for a half-second. ... The intent really was to play out two things: No. 1, the fact that Briggs is always a master chess player. He's always trying to manipulate and maneuver and pitting that against this belief that Mike has, when he was clinically dead for six minutes, he believes he saw something. We touch on it a little bit in the first episode but that really becomes the major issue of the season is what Mike believes he saw and what he does about it. We always had that in in mind when we came to that conclusion.

That is a bit of a shift from what we've seen in the past. What was the thinking behind that?

Ultimately, I think at the end of the season, you realize it's not different, that it's exactly the kind of territory that we usually explore on the show, which is this battle between Mike and Briggs that we've always played. It was just looking for a new twist on that concept.

Was there ever a concern about losing credibility with the audience and not having them feel cheated by having Mike die for six minutes and come back?

Sure, we worried about it quite a bit. Ultimately, the answer was: why not try it? At this point, with so many shows on TV, we figured we didn't have a lot to lose in that case. It was a concern, but at the same time we had come up with this idea that we wanted to play with. It seemed to make for a pretty good finale if nothing else. Once people will watch it, any credibility we may have lost, hopefully we'll regain once they see where we take it.

How will this near-death experience impact Mike going forward?

That was the other real issue with this, which is saying, "Can we fundamentally really change one of our main characters?" As you'll see moving forward, it really does. Not only does his near-death experience affect him a great deal, we spend a great deal of time really talking about his budding drug addiction. Mike goes from a guy who just needs the pain killers to wanting the pain killers to having them take over his life. We do really spend a long time on that. Hopefully, treating it fairly realistically. I lost somebody very close to me to an overdose of pain medication. It was something that was really close to me that I wanted to hit. It's something that we treat fairly realistically throughout the first half of the season.

Mike has changed so much every season of the show. He started out as a rookie and now it sounds like he's where Briggs was before the show started. Was that something you were aiming for?

From the conception of the show, Mike and Briggs were always designed to be parallel. Briggs scored the highest at Quantico; Mike got the second highest score. … The idea was how do you take somebody who is such an ideologue, who believes he wears the white hat and turn him into somebody like Paul Briggs? How do you make that transition? A lot of the show has been that journey with Mike to see how he becomes Briggs.

Briggs was the one to save Mike and bring him back when he died, so how does their relationship change after that?

Their relationship is really reset at the beginning of the year. They had gone from being very, very suspicious of each other to this year where we see a different Mike after this experience where he really is very forgiving. For him, he looks at what Briggs has done for him and they begin this season with a very close friendship.

Would you say that's also why Mike goes out of his way to help Paige? She's really pushing him away in the premiere and yet he still goes out on a limb for her.

Exactly. We're looking at a kindler, gentler Mike and that's really what we were hoping to achieve with this. He's not the same guy who was a by-the-book rookie who looked at things black and white. Now he can see the nuance, he can understand those things. I know in a lot of ways he forgives Paige much more than she forgives herself.

Touching on that as well, Paige tells the rest of the house that she's applied to leave Graceland. What is coming up for her and how does she fit into the house when she's trying to exit?

Two things: One is Briggs is pretty good with secrets and right now there's only three people that know what Paige did and that's Paige, Mike and Briggs. Mike is more about forgiveness and Briggs doesn't tell anybody so for a while at least, the house doesn't understand Paige's decision to leave. Ultimately, especially towards the middle of the season is when her storyline really kicks in and a lot of that is this self-flagellation she feels. Her feeling that she really has betrayed Mike and has betrayed herself and it's her coming to grips with what she's done to him. It's her ultimately trying to forgive herself.

Is the romantic aspect of her and Mike's relationship definitely in the past? Or will that be revisited?

For the moment, it's definitely in the past.

Because of Mike's injury, he's not able to get back on duty right away. How much will he be involved in the cases that the rest of the house is involved in?

We get Mike back pretty quickly. We allude to it the first couple of episodes, but what Mike has come back with is a burning desire to figure out what happened to him in those six minutes. What ultimately drives him through the season is his discovery of a case that he believes is an answer to those questions. That's really what gets Mike going this year and gets him out. The answer at the end of the year will hopefully be very surprising when it comes to that case and why Mike takes it.

What else can you say about this case?

It starts small but the stakes become huge very quickly. Mike believes more than anything that it was the reason he was sent back. Whatever people think about that, hopefully the real reason will be a real surprise.

What is Briggs' journey this season?

The problem for Paul is that at the beginning of the year the murder tape is still in existence and the FBI decides to pinch him. We're borrowing from the real Whitey Bulger case, where an FBI agent who was with Whitey and knew about all the murders and every other bad thing he did is still serving time in prison; that's the box they put Briggs into. But for Briggs, he never takes anything lying down, so there's never a time where he's not playing chess. Really, by putting him with Ari who is just this psychopathic killer, and Briggs knows ultimately if this ever goes to trial, that he's going to end up eating those sins. That's really what's pushing Briggs forward. At a certain point, the Briggs story and the Mike's story crash into each other in a pretty interesting way.

There is still the question of Briggs' relationship with Charlie and their unborn baby. What can you say about their relationship this season?

For Charlie, it's really a choice between whether she wants to be a mom, or does she want to be an undercover agent? It's really that battle that she's fighting with herself and that battle drives these decisions. Charlie and Briggs started as best friends and they're going to go on a pretty tough journey, but ultimately they'll hopefully find their friendship still intact.

One of the most shocking moments from the premiere was seeing Sid get in a car with Johnny at the end of the episode. Why does Johnny start working with Sid? What are his motivations?

Johnny's storyline last year was one of the most interesting. He finally got on his first big undercover case and promptly screwed it up by falling deeply in love with the daughter of the head of the cartel. Where we pick up now is Carlito is holding on to Lucia, and Johnny's essentially become his pet cop — his dirty cop doing his bidding, or something bad will happen to Lucia. Johnny is really in a terrible place. He doesn’t want o be a bad guy ever but he's terrified of losing Lucia. Johnny will finally get pushed deeper and deeper into a dark place until ultimately he's decided he can't take it anymore.

Aaron and Daniel have said this season would look more at relationships within the house and not be so spread out. Can you elaborate on that?

Ultimately, this show really is about the relationships between everybody in the house. This year we hit that pretty hard. We hit the fact that these guys are in a pretty unique position. They care about each other a great deal, but at the same time, any friends, any roommates are going to have some pretty ugly fights. This year, if anything, we tried to go back to restoring the house as a character and really spending time with these guys, understanding why they're doing these things.

Was that difficult at all? You're picking up right after the end of last season so you have all these different moving pieces outside of the house.

It was a matter of turning and looking inward a little bit more as opposed to big external storylines and being able to pull them back in. Being really responsive and saying, "OK, we need to see the scenes where our characters are interacting, where Briggs and Charlie are talking or Paige is talking to Mike." It was more just a shift in the way we approached the material instead of the material itself.

What motivated you to make that change and look more inward?

What hopefully made the show special was this idea that we were about this family of agents who are in this house and just getting back to that as opposed to being a show about several undercover agents. It's this group of undercover agents who are a family and who care about each other.

What is the theme of this season?

The theme is how far would you go to defeat evil? How far would you go to defeat that external evil, but also how far would you go to really defeat that internal evil. In Mike's case, this drug addiction that he develops or Charlie trying to understand what she's going through in terms of whether she wants to be a mom or an undercover agent. For Paige, it's trying to understand what she did to Mike and being able to ultimately forgive herself. For Johnny, it's about that war inside between this girl he's in love with and the people he cares about.

Graceland airs Thursdays at 10 p.m. on USA.