Gugu Mbatha-Raw on Tragic 'Morning Show' Finale: "Everyone Is Complicit"

The shocking season one ending to the Apple TV+ drama explores the "nuances of all the different perspectives" in tragic fashion, the star tells The Hollywood Reporter of the #MeToo story.
Courtesy of Apple TV+
Gugu Mbatha-Raw in 'The Morning Show'

[This story contains major spoilers from the season one finale of Apple TV+'s The Morning Show.]

Gugu Mbatha-Raw hopes that after the season one finale of Apple's The Morning Show viewers will realize there are consequences in the glossy world of morning news television.

As the final episodes for the Apple TV+ drama revealed, Mbatha-Raw's character, head booker Hannah Shoenfeld, had been sexually assaulted by her then-boss Mitch Kessler (Steve Carell), who has since been fired over multiple sexual misconduct allegations. In a bid to expose the network for covering up Mitch's behavior and for fostering a boys' club at America's top-rated and highly successful morning show, a rogue team made up of co-anchor Bradley Jackson (Reese Witherspoon), news and entertainment division boss Cory Ellison (Billy Crudup) and Morning Show executive producer Chip Black (Mark Duplass) pursue the story of Mitch's inappropriate relationship with Hannah in order to, hopefully, effect change at the fictional UBA network.

The rogue team, however, was operating under Mitch's version of the story at first. It wasn't until speaking with Hannah herself that both Bradley, and viewers, realize that Hannah has been re-triggered by the trauma of the assault and of being silenced thereafter. In the finale, the Morning Show staff are about to go on the air when they find out that Hannah has died from a drug overdose. And it's the shock of her death that prompts main anchor Alex Levy (Jennifer Aniston), along with Bradley, to deliver an on-air manifesto that outs the network for its complicity in fostering pervasive sexual misconduct at the network. The season ends with the Morning Show's live feed being cut, leaving viewers with a cliff-hanger ending until the show returns for season two.  

Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter, Mbatha-Raw says she was drawn to the role because Hannah's story doesn't look at "the victim-predator, black-and-white scenario," but rather at the nuances of the different perspectives and motivations to show how no one is "100 percent perfect or 100 percent evil."

Mbatha-Raw worked with an intimacy coordinator for the first time in her career, had post-table read discussions and many conversations with showrunner Kerry Ehrin, her directors and scene partner Carell in order to get the portrayal of the sexual assault right in the eighth episode, "Lonely at the Top." Then, as the final two episodes show, "Everybody is looking out for themselves and their story, and forgetting the consequences that there is a human struggling underneath it all," she says.

Below, in a chat with THR, Mbatha-Raw discusses the "chilling" real-life parallels of Hannah and Mitch's story to recent headlines surrounding Matt Lauer and NBC News, unpacks the "empty, soul-crushing realization" that preceded Hannah's death and shares her hopes for how the tragedy will impact the series when it returns: "It’s galvanized and emboldened everyone to fully expose the truth."

Since your character’s storyline comes out later in the season, what did you know about Hannah when you signed on to The Morning Show?

I knew the whole arc of her journey. That was really what hooked me. I read the first two episodes, where Hannah is introduced but she’s not in a huge amount, and the rest hadn’t been written at that point. So I had a call with Kerry Ehrin, the showrunner, and Mimi Leder, the director, and they told me Hannah’s arc of the whole show over the phone. And I just got the chills. I thought it was so powerful and such an important storyline. Beyond it being an amazing cast, and an exciting and new Apple debut, for me a huge reason to do it was the really timely and powerful nature of Hannah’s arc.

The Morning Show's first season digs into the nuances and has some tough conversations in the post-#MeToo era. What about that excited you and did any of it make you nervous?

It’s a huge responsibility, but it’s also a privilege to be able to explore these stories. We’ve heard about them so much in the media, but they are very real to people. People have had very traumatic personal experiences. I felt really supported by Kerry’s vision. The writing was very committed to exploring the gray area and that’s what I found so sophisticated about the show. It really looks at not just the victim-predator, black-and-white scenario, but at the nuances of all the different perspectives; and peoples’ motivations and how no one is 100 percent perfect or 100 percent evil. I appreciated those layers in the writing in a way I hadn’t seen before. It’s one thing to take on something that is this emotionally charged, but, as an actor, you want your work to be relevant and provoke conversations. I felt excited about the prospect of this storyline provoking conversation for people. For men to see it, for women to see it and for people to talk about how they view Mitch and his point of view, as well as Hannah’s point of view. I thought it was a really great opportunity to air the conversation in a deeper way.

The last three episodes of the season tackle the Hannah-Mitch story in depth by exploring their differing perspectives on what happened. When you read episode eight, "Lonely at the Top," and saw how the sexual assault would play out in flashback, how did you react and what questions did you have for the team?

I think I held my breath, and I don’t think I took a breath again until I got to the last page. I knew it was going to be a flashback and, the way that the show is structured, it completely breaks the style. So I was excited about that idea to get to know Hannah on a deeper level, even though I knew the backstory. To actually have the focus become about that experience was really exciting. It was delicate. We did a table read where we all read it and talked about it. The producers brought in an intimacy coordinator, which for me was a relatively new experience of having those conversations about how to shoot those scenes. We were very, very thorough and Michelle MacLaren, the director of that episode, was so incredible and so detailed in terms of the arc of Hannah’s emotional journey and her thought processes. There is what happens in the script and dialogue, but then there’s so much more of what’s going through her mind. And working with Steve [Carell], who is just so incredible and talented, and who was very conscientious about getting the episode right. We spent a lot of the time going through the nuances of that with Michelle and Steve.

Kerry Ehrin said she hoped to shift perspectives by the finale's end, especially for anyone who might have initially thought, "Well, Hannah didn’t leave. She didn’t say 'no.'" Can you talk about the importance of portraying this systemic abuse of power, where Hannah was powerless and froze, and how that can be misinterpreted? 

When you get into a very primal-charged situation, and talking to people and researching people who have been through sexual assault, the physical responses of fight or flight is one response to danger, but we also do have freeze as a response. There is a kind of paralysis. I talked a lot with Michelle about that and how that can be misinterpreted by Mitch’s character; how he doesn't see that and how that is actually a very chemical, survival response. Freezing is another survival mechanism that the body has and this takes a look at how that is something that a powerful man like Mitch Kessler wouldn’t be conscious of. That episode very much also shows the culture of Hannah meeting him in that bubble and what was acceptable. The little details at how he behaved and how the whole culture celebrated the boys’ club. That episode really goes to show how those nuances are still familiar to us in our culture and I think it will be interesting to see how men respond to the issue.

How did the intimacy coordinator help you during your scenes?

This was the first time I worked with an intimacy coordinator. It was useful to be able to have a third party who is there for the technical side of things, someone I could talk to. I always felt very comfortable with Michelle and Kerry and Mimi. Being that it was the eighth episode, we had already worked together for a few months and I knew this episode was coming so it wasn’t like I was ever uncomfortable. But I think they wanted to help me through this process by making the intimacy coordinator very available. It was just useful to have another person to talk through the physical nature of the scene.

The assault took place while on location and Mitch viewed the night as consensual. Ehrin has said from the beginning of the season that the Mitch character is not exclusively based on Matt Lauer. But given what happens between Mitch and Hannah, did it feel eerie when you read about the more recent allegations against Lauer?

Obviously those revelations were not out when we were making the show; no one had read Ronan Farrow’s book yet. But it was kind of spooky, unfortunately so, and I have to say that it goes to the credit of Kerry as to just how on point they really were. In the last couple of months as we’ve been doing this show — and I haven’t been able to talk about this storyline as to not spoil it — but it has been quite chilling to learn really what has been going on. I’m proud of the fact that it’s authentic and so zeitgeist, unfortunately so, because I’m glad it’s become more relevant in a way. It’s obviously an important conversation that we need to have.

In the final two episodes, we understand how traumatized Hannah has been when we see her explain her side to Mitch and tell her story to Bradley. "I think about it every day, hundreds of times, every day. This is what has defined me," she says. What research did you do to get into Hannah's head for these episodes?

It was emotional. I have friends who have been in similar situations to Hannah, so I was able to talk with them about their experience a little bit. I really wanted to portray someone who on the surface has just pushed it all down. Hannah is so good at her job; she’s a high-achiever. And this is the moment that has never been fully processed. It’s never been healed. It’s been sort of swept under the rug and she thought she dealt with it, but she really just buried it. There are people I have spoken to who have had things in their past that they thought they dealt with, who had actually built a wall up around that subject. And then the writing was just very emotionally raw and descriptive and that was very helpful. So it was about trying to honor that emotion.

For her final scene, we see Hannah making a call to accept the L.A. job, but then this look washes over her face; almost to signal that she was making a move that she thought would make her feel better, but then it didn’t. 

I’m glad that’s what you got. That was certainly our intention. That she was thinking, "Well, great. This is going to fix it." Thinking this was a Band-Aid to move on, and then to have this empty, soul-crushing realization that she still feels very, very hollow. That is what we were going for in that moment.

What conversations did you have with Ehrin and the writers about her death?

I knew when I signed up for the show that this was where it was going for her. So when I got the finale script, it wasn’t like I was surprised. I knew that was the arc and, without sounding morbid, I was excited to play something that had a sense of completion to it. I felt like that was obviously very dramatic and very emotionally deep, but it also gave some gravitas and depth to this glossy morning show world that we’ve been inhabiting. Because, as entertaining as it is, there are serious consequences. Her death was something, as shocking as it is, that really grounded the world to me.

Hannah doesn’t leave behind a note. Ehrin said she wanted to leave it open, but that she doesn’t think it was on purpose. What is your take — was her overdose on purpose or an accident?

We discussed it different ways. I feel like it’s up to the audience. I don’t want to tell people what to feel. But for myself, I don’t think that she meant to die. But I think she certainly meant to numb. And this was the by-product, unfortunately. In my gut, I don’t think that she wanted to end it. I think it was just her habits and the state that she was in, where it looked like a suicide.

That makes it even sadder.

Yes.

Hannah's death reverberates through The Morning Show and it motivates Alex (Jennifer Aniston) and Bradley (Reese Witherspoon) to take down the network in a final fist-throwing moment. How did you feel when you saw how the season ends and do you think her death can have a lasting impact on that place?

If there is any positive element to be taken out of such a tragedy, it is just that. That it’s galvanized and emboldened everyone to fully expose the truth. Everyone was just looking out for their own ambitions and something as shocking as Hannah’s death has shaken the foundations of the whole establishment. So I think it’s going to have an impact and it will be interesting to see how that plays out in season two.

Where do you think they went wrong in pursuing the story and in how they treated Hannah?

Bradley sort of takes it on herself, but I think everyone is complicit. Still, nobody was to know necessarily how fragile she really was and what she was dealing with. She was covering it. For most of the show, you get the impression that she’s just getting on with it. And then the fact that she’s carrying this deep trauma is a lot like life. Unfortunately, sometimes the people that we least expect are struggling the most. I think the culture is also accountable, the culture of the show. You could argue that Hannah had a responsibility to herself to go to therapy and to try to deal with it. But I think she hadn’t fully acknowledged it, because there was so much denial going on. It’s a combination of many factors, from the fact that everybody is looking out for themselves and their story, and forgetting the consequences that there is a human struggling underneath it all.

When it comes to survivors and dealing with trauma, what do you hope viewers take away from Hannah's story?

I hope that it opens peoples' minds to think about the different sides of the story. I had an amazing message from someone on Instagram just a few days ago who really saw themselves in Hannah and who had been through a sexual assault. She had not told anyone and she had written that seeing the episode helped her to feel more compassion for herself, and she now was going to tell her mom for the first time. That to me is very powerful, to know that somebody could watch the show and, seeing that it wasn’t their fault, was able to see more layers and pass through that human process. That was really moving and ultimately is an incredible by-product of working on something like this. I hope that men see it and maybe think differently, that it could impact cultures in workplaces. But I think especially for women who are struggling with a history of assault, I hope that they can have a compassion for themselves and I hope they seek help.

Steve Carrell might come back for season two and Ehrin said she’d like to continue Mitch’s story. What would you like to see explored with Mitch?

So much. I just want to see him evolve. I don’t know if redemption is really part of the story at this point, but I would just like to see him evolve in a positive direction. I don’t know where it could go, but I want to see him grow.

The Morning Show is now streaming the full first season on Apple TV+. Head here for more show coverage.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.