8:59am PT by Jackie Strause
'Morning Show' Boss After Cliffhanger Finale: Season 2 Will Be "Escaping From the Wreckage"
[This story contains major spoilers from the season one finale of Apple TV+'s The Morning Show.]
"We haven't been honest with you."
That's how the anchors played by Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon open their searing on-air takedown of the broadcast network home to The Morning Show. After 10 episodes of delivering a nuanced, layered and multi-faceted portrayal of a morning news show culture rife with misogyny, toxicity and sexual misconduct, the Apple TV+ drama from showrunner Kerry Ehrin laid all of its cue cards out on the table in the final moments of its season one finale.
"The abuse of power, the corporate corruption, it has to end. We cannot accept a culture of silence," proclaims co-anchor Bradley Jackson (Witherspoon) after name-checking network boss Fred Mickland (Tom Irwin) as central in an environment that silenced women who came forward with claims of sexual misconduct. Knowing they only have one minute to deliver their manifesto before someone pulls the plug, Bradley and veteran anchor Alex Levy (Aniston) go rogue and — with the assistance of news boss Cory Ellison (Billy Crudup) — they lay bare all of The Morning Show's secrets for America, including disgraced anchor Mitch Kessler's (Steve Carell) inappropriate relationship with a female producer and Alex's own complicity in turning a blind eye to his pervasive behavior. After previously defending the "boys' club" of The Morning Show, Alex admits to viewers, "I'm as culpable as anyone in not calling out or helping to end the sexual misconduct that goes on in this fucking building."
Alex apologizes to the women of The Morning Show, namely Mitch's ex Mia Jordan (Karen Pittman), and vows to do everything she can to make it right. "Corporate culture comes from the top down, and Fred Mickland dictated a culture of fear and silence and paranoia and pain, and it permeated everything," Alex declares through tears. "As many Fred Micklands are out there, there are billions more people like me and like Bradley and like you."
But before Bradley can close out their message, the feed to the nationally broadcast morning show cuts out. The finale ends in deafening silence, as fired executive producer Chip Black (Mark Duplass) watches a blank screen from Times Square, and Mitch, bruised after a beatdown from Chip, stares blankly into space with a look of realization: He is just like the predators and monsters he had self-righteously separated himself from all season long. Only moments earlier, Mitch, Chip and the entire staff of The Morning Show learned that Hannah Schoenfeld (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the producer whom Mitch assaulted while on location in Las Vegas, had died of a drug overdose. The tragic news prompted Alex and Bradley to go on-air and blow it all up.
The Morning Show launched by setting up Mitch as a casualty of the #MeToo movement — a man who abused his power by having extramarital affairs with women he worked with and got taken down. But in the eighth episode, which played out in flashback form, Mitch was unmasked to be the monster he had been running from. He took advantage of junior staffer Hannah when he invited her to his hotel room and had sex with her. At the time, he viewed the night as consensual. But through a painstaking performance by Mbatha-Raw, viewers come to realize in the penultimate episode and finale just how much the trauma of that night, when she was sexually assaulted by her boss, haunted Hannah for the rest of her life.
"When you actually see [the assault] happen, it breaks your heart," showrunner Ehrin tells The Hollywood Reporter. "It breaks your heart for her in the largest way. But it was such an avoidable incident. And it changed her life forever. That absolutely changed her life forever, and that is tragic."
Below, in a chat with THR, Ehrin digs into the nuances of the #MeToo story at the center of the first season and explains why she left Hannah's death open-ended. She also unpacks the bombshell that Alex and Bradley dropped on the network and explains how it will impact the show when it returns for season two, which might include Carell's Mitch: "It’s like a huge building fell on everybody and it’s about escaping from the wreckage."
What happens between Mitch (Carell) and Hannah (Mbatha-Raw) unravels over the final three episodes and explores each of their perspectives. Why did you want to tell their story in this narrative way?
I definitely wanted it to all to circle around Hannah. I wanted to show the story of a person who got thrust into a situation that she didn’t ask for and that she didn’t know how to extricate herself from at any point, and how that circled around her and eventually just closed in on her from a bunch of different ways. It was also showing how everybody had an angle and something they were trying to get from it. Even with Bradley, who feels she is trying to do the right thing and seek social justice, there is also an ego part of her and a reporter part of her where when she’s talking to Hannah she’s not just talking to her as a human who has been through something traumatic. She’s pushing her because she wants to get the best story for a means to her end. So it’s really about how this woman, Hannah, got in the middle of all these people who needed something from her and wanted something from her, and wanted to manipulate her and pull her and stretch her in these different ways, and she wasn’t equipped to handle it. And, who could be?
Mitch remembers their night together as consensual. And yet what happened to her is — to borrow a phrase from your show — insidiously systemic in our culture and is an abuse of power. After the eighth episode, some people might have thought, "Well, she didn’t leave." And it's about so much more than that. Do you hope that by the end of the finale you will have shifted those perspectives? What dialogue do you hope to start?
I think they might start by saying that, but if they watch the whole season they will feel the truth of it. That was my hope and my goal. Because when a subject becomes such a hotbed topic and people take sides, then they are really reacting to it like a political thing and not as a human thing. And I really wanted people to connect to it like a human thing, and to experience it through this woman, this young woman, who really did not deserve that. If Mitch had treated her as a human being, it would not have happened. Imagine the story if Mitch was the guy who found her on the street and that they talked, they had a human connection and he cheered her up. They made each other feel better as comrades; they watched a movie and that was it. And then he saw her at work the next day and mentored her. It didn’t need to go where it did. And I think that’s what’s so tragic. It’s easy to choose not to do that — to choose to see people as human beings.
The assault episode played out with the Harvey Weinstein story breaking in the background; Matt Lauer and Charlie Rose have also served as inspirations. How has Mitch been informed by the spectrum of men who have abused their power in the #MeToo era?
There’s a feeling that isn't always what’s reported in press releases. People are saying “I’m sorry” and all this stuff publicly, but then these other attitudes seep through where they don’t think they did anything wrong, or where this person is making excuses. Anyone can make a million excuses as to why something did or did not happen in their own head. And I wanted to just look in the simplest form; to watch a human being go through this. She went up to his hotel room, she wanted to leave and he hit on her and she didn’t know how to leave. And you see how hurtful and wrong it is. Your heart kind of breaks when he does that, because I think there’s part of you that really wants to believe that he’s not the bad guy. There’s part of you that wants to think, “Oh, he is this guy that everybody loves. And maybe they got it wrong and maybe he didn’t do all this stuff.” And then when you actually see it happen, it breaks your heart. It breaks your heart for her, obviously, in the largest way. But it was such an avoidable incident. And it changed her life forever. That absolutely changed her life forever and that is tragic. That scene breaks my heart.
In the final scene, Mitch seems to truly understand what he has done. Now that Mitch has been fully unmasked, how would you describe him?
Ultimately, he is kind of a monster. What I did not want to portray him as was an obvious monster. And I guess it gets into semantics of, what is a monster? Is a serial killer a monster? Is a monster someone who deliberately goes out and does something and knows in the front of their brain? Which degree of monster is he? Who can get into that and come out alive, honestly? But I think he is a damaged person who is narcissistic, who has not thought of people around him as human beings. He’s thought of them as people who, in a variety of ways, served his purposes. Is that a monster? That depends on your definition of a monster — but it’s definitely a shitty human being!
Hannah delivers powerful words when she confronts Mitch with her side of what happened and explains to Bradley how the trauma has affected her entire life. What research went into telling her story; did you work with Time’s Up or speak to sexual assault victims?
We in the writers room have our own experiences and we also did research and talked to doctors. We mostly did research. I didn’t actually talk to a victim personally. We have all had experiences. You get inside the character and you write her psychology really carefully when you set her up about why she is a little fragile. She lost her mother really early, she doesn’t have family or a support system in New York. And that’s a lot of people, especially young people, when they’re starting their careers. They don’t have a family system nearby to support them and they are just out there. And I think that’s why they are targeted, because they’re needier. They have more to lose. It’s so sad. It’s hard to talk about.
Do you have a predominantly female writers room?
We have about half and half.
Can you talk about the conversations that you had in the room about Hannah killing herself. Did you consider not? Why did that need to happen to precipitate the ending?
We did. We discussed it all around, up and down. It was always an instinct from the beginning to revolve a movement around the story of this victim, but in a way where the victim becomes a victim of it. That seemed to bring home the story in a way that was symbolically important to me, which is that these experiences alter people forever. And in a way, their old self does die. It hit home more, where the tragedy of it forces everyone who was circling her to take a step back and say, "Oh, what the fuck did I do?" And to get out of their own heads for a minute and think of the person at the center of it. To feel the loss of her and the tragedy of the loss, and the pointlessness of the loss. We tried to ground in that she definitely used drugs at work. She had hard hours, anxiety and emotional issues, which is remarkably common. It's frighteningly common the amount of young people who overdose now from drug use. It’s really tragic and so much is connected to anxiety.
Hannah didn’t leave a note behind. Was her overdose on purpose?
I actually don’t think it was on purpose. I think she was overwhelmed and I think she wanted to go to L.A. and get the fuck out. But I left it open because one ever knows. When people overdose, you really actually never know. That’s part of it. You don’t have the closure. You don’t get to know, because of this terrible thing that happened, was it a combination of things? Was it accidental? But definitely, she was driven to medicate herself because she was in so much emotional pain. She was terrified it was going to come out and that she was going to be painted in a certain way. She was mortified and she wanted to go self-medicate to stop having to feel it.
Bradley (Witherspoon) blames herself. And Hannah’s death makes them all confront their own self-serving goals and complicity, including Alex (Aniston), Chip (Duplass) and, finally, Mitch. Where did they go wrong in pursuing this story?
That’s sort of the Catch-22 of it. Pursuing the story is 100 percent correct, because you want to expose everything. But then there are aspects of pursuing it, like the success of pursuing it or the personal motivations. People are very complicated and very fascinating. Altruism doesn’t really exist as pure altruism. It exists because it serves our egos on a certain level. So when you really break all of that down, there are no clean answers. I think yes, you should pursue these stories. You should try to get people to talk about it when they’re ready to talk about it, if they want to talk about it. But at the end of the day, it’s such a psychological web and the takeaway is that these are human beings; this is all very avoidable and to have the simplest human respect for another person. It’s been going on for a long time — this sexual conquest mentality.
Alex admits she was on the wrong side of this until the end. How does her finale confession redeem her for her complicity?
She takes a step toward redeeming herself. But one of the other things that was important in the story was for all of us to look at our behavior and our complicity, even when we didn’t know we were being complicit. There are things that go on in the world where you say, “Well, that doesn’t affect me and it’s not my business.” But then when it becomes an issue and you see it from the other side, it’s kind of horrifying. I’ve worked in this business a long time and I’ve seen many things. And to see them now from the perspective post-#MeToo is just very enlightening. I guess the message is just for people to think about what they’re doing and to try to be a fucking decent human being.
If season one is the reckoning of #MeToo, season two seems on course to reflect a world where wrongs could be righted. Alex and Bradley’s on-air takedown is something we haven’t seen in the real #MeToo era. Was some of that wish fulfillment and will that propel where season two is going?
Definitely. For me, it was definitely wish fulfillment. That’s a huge, huge thing that they do and there obviously is going to be a lot of fallout and a lot of upheaval. I would say season two is a lot about transition. And still, at the same time, a lot of the same shit goes on! You set new rules, but then it falls back. This is true in the real world. Where it becomes: are we paying lip service to women’s rights? So it’s really just examining the transition period more but with the same themes of: What is real? And people having this desire to have control over their own lives, which they perceive as being through power.
They essentially drop a bomb on the network. For season two, are you now looking at how a network could survive this size scandal?
Yes. It's not simple. And also, just the timing of it now. The world of media is changing so rapidly and the story of a broadcast network in that universe is very interesting to me.
Many people in the #MeToo era have been accused. Some go away, others mount comebacks; some get pushed out from the top and others go unpunished. Where will Fred fall?
It plays into part of the second season, so I don’t want to say too much! But it definitely has a big effect on Fred.
How will Alex and Bradley’s relationship continue to evolve?
The interesting thing about Alex and Bradley is that they still barely know each other. They’ve known each other for like, three months of working together. If you work with someone for three months, you don’t know them super well. They’ve gone through two really traumatic experiences together, which has sort of forged their souls in a way. But they still don’t really know each other as people, so we’re playing some of that in the next season.
Cory Ellison (Crudup) has been a fan-favorite character. Will he play a big part in season two?
Huge. Yes. I love him. I love that character and Billy is just a genius. He’s so much fun to work with and so smart and passionate and just committed. We both mutually adore that character.
Chip was revealed to be one who leaked the Mitch investigation to the New York Times. In terms of his silence and complicity, how much does that act of social justice redeem him?
It does [set him on that path for season two], although the great thing about all of these characters is that they all have skeletons in their closets. Chip is going to be haunted by remembering that scene where he was standing outside the elevator and Mitch says, "Send Hannah." And he knows he shouldn’t, but he does anyway. He will be haunted by that for the rest of his life. They do try, they have made good gestures, but you don’t just get to erase that kind of guilt and that’s part of the complication going forward. You get back into normal life and ambition, and then you have that haunting you.
The very final scene of Mitch looking at the camera seems to be a man who finally realizes he is the monster he thought he wasn't. Is this the last of Mitch or will he return for season two?
We would like him to be back in season two. It’s in the works, but it’s not a done deal yet. That’s all I can say. But I would very much like him to be and I think that continuing that story is actually important.
What would a continuation of his story look like, if he came back?
Well, he’ll still be narcissistic because you don’t get to change that so easily. He’s still be the same guy, he’s just going to have more awareness that he is not a good guy. But people don’t change completely overnight, even in a tragedy. People are so wired; we have all our habits and neurosis wired into us so deeply that you fall into your old habits of denial or making excuses. But it’s still about that struggle now of actually knowing the truth — that he did very, very bad things. It's not about a comeback. It’s about something else.
Since you have already begun working on the second season, how would you sum it up so far?
It’s like a huge building fell on everybody and it’s about escaping from the wreckage.
The Morning Show is now streaming the fill first season on Apple TV+. Head here for more show coverage.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.