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There’s a moment in the Morning Show season two finale that rings very true to showrunner Kerry Ehrin.
“What’s a contact trace? Who the fuck knows what that is? I don’t know! I’m trying to do all of this by myself and nobody knows anything!” says a rightfully freaked out Stella Bak, played by Greta Lee, in the final episode of season two, aptly titled “Fever.”
Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter, Ehrin says she always personally relates to different aspects of the characters she creates and, in this instance, she recalls feeling the same uncertainty in March of 2020.
“It was so crazy, because, nobody knew how to do anything!” recalls the showrunner about running the Apple TV+ set in the early days of the pandemic. “I remember when it started, thinking, like Stella, ‘What is this contact tracing? I don’t know how to protect all these people — what am I supposed to do?’ No one had the facts. One day, it was good to wear a mask. And, it was so politically divided. It was such a confusing and scary time. But, we’re getting there.”
After a season set early in 2020 and building each week to the full-on outbreak of the pandemic in the U.S., the second-season finale finally came face-to-face with COVID-19 when The Morning Show‘s starring anchor, Alex Levy (Jennifer Aniston), tested positive and experienced serious symptoms. Alex picked up the then-novel coronavirus after visiting Mitch Kessler (Steve Carell) in Italy shortly before his death, and, after experiencing a severe fever, she had a revelation that she wanted to share with her viewers in a personal, remote edition of The Morning Show.
“I think we can all agree that the world seems to be at a turning point, and life right now is presenting me with some adversity,” says the veteran anchor, who faced being “canceled” this season over her relationship with Mitch. Her words are filmed by her go-to producer Chip Black (Mark Duplass) and stream on the new UBA+ amid the larger backdrop of COVID-19 spreading throughout New York City. “I’m looking inward and asking myself, ‘Who is that I actually want to be?’ And then I’m looking in the mirror and I’m asking if that’s actually who I am. I think a lot of people are going to be doing that. At least, they should be,” she says. “The world is never going to be finished piling on. It’s always going to be coming at you. But, it’s life, you know? And I’m alive.”
The season-ending speech — which, for the second season in a row, cuts The Morning Show to black after a broadcast — functions in two ways: It caps the COVID-bubbling season on the cusp of lockdown while leaving the Apple TV+ morning show drama, yet to be officially renewed for a third season, with an open-ended future.
“The fever to me was almost representative as a fire that burned her, and she rises out of it like a phoenix with a better sense of her true self,” says Ehrin of Alex reaching a point of acceptance after a two-season arc of self-reflection. Below, in a chat with THR, the showrunner explains why she ended the season on what she calls a “sort of prayer,” unpacks some of the lingering questions around Bradley Jackson (Reese Witherspoon) and Cory Ellison (Billy Crudup), and discusses where The Morning Show might pick up from here — and where it likely will not — if it returns.
The finale centers around Alex Levy (Jennifer Aniston) being sick with COVID-19. The Morning Show is part of this first wave of streaming and cable shows filmed in lockdown that aim to capture the pandemic. Was the finale’s intention to speak directly to the COVID-era audience or did it just make sense with the story you were telling?
I think the intention with Alex getting COVID is, in part, to portray the illness. In part, people on the news report stuff, and it’s different to experience it. So that was an interesting road to me. And then I think also just the idea of where she was emotionally and in her life. The fever to me was almost representative as a fire that burned her, and she rises out of it like a phoenix with a better sense of her true self and the person she wants to be. And so that was sort of a symbolic meaning for me. And it was always very much attached to her doing a live show where she took people through having COVID. And, in doing that, she re-found herself as a news person and also as a human, and how she connected to people on the other side of the camera, to the audience, in a more human way.
When I spoke to Mimi Leder, who directed the episode, she said your team approached Alex’s final speech as more of a prayer than a pronouncement.
Yes. It was never meant to be: “Oh, here are all the answers.” And it was very much focused on herself: “Here’s what I want to do. Here’s the person I want to be.” Writing about COVID, there’s no victorious answer at this point. It’s a thing that’s upon us and in our lives, and everyone is coping with it and it’s big. And so I think ending on a note of personal reflection and sort of prayer was an appropriate ending.
The words spoken by Alex, particularly the part about looking in the mirror, were felt by many during lockdown. Did you speak with Jennifer Aniston about that before filming the scene — did it feel like a moment where you were all speaking through Alex to the camera?
A part of the character of Alex that I always imagined is that she had a public self and she had a private self, and they were very much apart. Her whole arc is about getting those two pieces together to create a whole that is authentic. That is part of the character that she’s been playing since day one on this show. I think, too, when you write for someone, it very much becomes an unspoken collaboration between your sensibility and the actor’s. Different people inspire different things. But that just seemed very right for Alex.
Reese Witherspoon [at the beginning of the season], told me you are planning for a third season. Officially, what can you say?
Well, we haven’t had an official pickup for a third season. We’re waiting on that.
While you wait, where are you at with doing more of TMS: Are you hoping for a few more seasons, one more season to wrap it up; or would you want to step away for a minute to do other things?
That’s a huge question. I feel like the show has a lot of different projections that would work for it. I think right now, I just finished a season that has taken two years. I am just taking a break! (Laughs.) I do have a development deal [at Apple] and I am working on some other projects that I’m excited about. And, that being said, I love the show and I dearly love the cast of the show and I hope it continues.
Does that mean you approached this season as a possible series finale?
No. I didn’t. You can’t write every year as a possible series finale and have them have any value after a certain point. I wrote it to be the end of the season. We wanted to write about the time, those three months, and the characters in that time and how they all wound up. So, no I don’t think it’s written as an end to the series at all.
“Stay safe and stay sane” seem to be solid parting words for now.
(Laughs.) There really is not much else to say! [Filming this season] was hard but it was really special that everybody really rallied and that we got it done is kind of amazing. I just dearly love all the actors.
The second season picked up where the first left off. If you did that for a third, you’d be right at the U.S. outbreak of COVID. Is that something that interests you as a storyteller?
No. Not personally, no. We all lived that, and there’s certain practical things about it — like people having to have masks on all the time, not being able to see actors’ faces and everyone [on the show] working from home. And I also think it’s going to have been done, done, done. So, it wouldn’t be my instinct.
So, you could jump 10 years into the future, hypothetically? You could hop anywhere.
You could. You could go backwards. It’s such an interesting little universe. You really can put it anywhere in time, and I think the challenge of the show is coming up with that big subject. Because, those are real subjects. They’re not fabricated. They’re pulled from all of our lives and they greatly impacted all of us, and I think that’s always the challenge of the show.
Bradley Jackson (Witherspoon) is left in a possible love triangle, with Cory Ellison (Crudup) confessing he loves her as she returns to making her brother a priority. What can you say about balancing her romantic life this season with her story of family addiction?
The triangle is about the messiness of human relationships and human love. And I do think that Bradley and Cory share a love that is real. Is it romantic? I don’t know. It may just be that Cory is such a fascinating human being and I think he feels close to her and safe with her. And I think that’s such an unusual feeling for him and really precious to him. He doesn’t want to lose her. I think that her relationship with Laura is absolutely the real deal, and I think they have very different perspectives on maybe how to live life. Bradley is just a messier human. She feels very strongly pulled by her dysfunctional family, and I think that Bradley’s greatest dream would be that her family gets their shit together. I think anyone who came from a dysfunctional family, that’s always the dream. Sometimes people just hate their family, but I think most of the time, the reason that families are poignant and heartbreaking is because people do want them to get their shit together because they love them. The relationship with her brother is a long one and whether or not he will be able to step up, I don’t know. But that’s a complicated and deep relationship for her, and I think Bradley’s relationship with herself is interesting. She has a lot of road to go down.
That sounds like something to explore in a third season.
Witherspoon and Julianna Margulies both spoke about the thought that went into portraying the Bradley and Laura romance as a positive workplace relationship, unlike many others on The Morning Show. Can you talk about that?
Where I sort of live as a writer is that I don’t really cherry pick “this is a good thing” or “this is a bad thing.” I kind of just let the characters roam. And, to me, Bradley is a wild character and I love that about her. She’s impulsive. I think she sometimes has deep panic, even though she presents a lot of bravado. In the particular moment of their first kiss, Bradley had connected so deeply with Laura, with this person who saw her in a way other people in her life hadn’t seen her, that she desperately did not want to lose this person who was about to get out of their car. It was meant to be impulsive; not thought out, not overly choreographed. And when it came to the moment, we wanted to balance it with the choreography of it being mutual.
Was Laura envisioned as a one-season role or is there an option for Margulies to return if The Morning Show is renewed?
We didn’t actually have that conversation, but it was in the ether. We love her. How lucky to be able to have her for more seasons.
It’s always hard to know Cory’s intentions. He is at war with himself this season, which you have said is something you love to write. How do you feel about the lows he stooped to and where he ends up?
I loved this season for him because he got to be such a brat the first season; he was targeting the person on top so he could just throw arrows at them all the time. And then when you get on top, it’s a whole different thing. Suddenly, there’s no one else to take down. Now you have the responsibility and are trying to do it the right way, which I think Bradley has influenced him to think about. It probably lived in him always, because he was close with his mom and she was an activist. He’s sort of a split character in that I think he does have these deep and tender feelings. It was very early on in the series that he says his dad basically abandoned them. And I think he dealt with that by being saying, “I’m gonna go kick the world’s ass.” So I think he’s a combination of those two things: of wanting to control the world and make it pay and then having these more tender feelings of someone who had a close relationship with their mom growing up. And I think Bradley probably brings out that mom side of him more.
What he’s grappling with in this season is kind of like a coming-of-age for Cory, where the game of winning is not there so much anymore. He still wants to win; he still wants the network to succeed under him, but he also is more consistently distracted by the morality of things. And his performance: Billy, my goodness, what an honor it is to work with that guy. He totally plays it all. And I think protecting Hannah’s image and memory and legacy became really, really important to Cory, especially because he made that deal with the devil. I think he in the moment made it probably out of a place where he felt like he could do more good by having the job than not having the job. And [Fred] is going to get his exit package anyway. He probably justified it in his own head, but I think the truth of it gnaws at him the whole season, and I think he is ashamed of it. Especially in the presence of Bradley, whom he sees as this moral warrior. So it’s just a very interesting and heartbreaking problem for him to have, that no one protected [Hannah] and that he wasn’t able to protect her under the circumstances. So, in this tiny, tiny way, he just wanted to do what he could to protect her at this point. It would have been very easy to say, “Oh, it’s a newspaper article, who cares? People write all sorts of things about everybody.” But it did really matter to him in a way that he really couldn’t let go of.
Greta Lee spoke about the importance of portraying the anti-Asian hate that has happened amid COVID. By tackling early 2020 — where the racial reckoning was simmering — how did you approach portraying racism through these characters at that moment in time?
I really wanted to do exactly that. To feel that environment that led up to the explosive revelation that happened. It’s such a complicated circus of corporations — and needs of corporations and needs of humans — and everybody trying to “do the right thing.” Sometimes it’s right, but is it really effective? And [considering] all of these things as we’re trying to kind of weed through this. These corporate environments seemed really interesting and rich, and I wanted to show as many perspectives of it as possible.
I don’t really know. There are a couple of different things I could see happening. I think it depends on where the storytelling will go. But I don’t 100 percent know.
Initially, you said this season would be like a building fell on everyone and it’s about escaping from the wreckage. In the end, do you feel like they did?
They didn’t realize there was another mountain that was going to fall on them! I think probably that’s just the story of life. There’s always another mountain that’s going to fall on you. The struggle continues.
Interview edited for length and clarity. The second season of The Morning Show is now streaming on Apple TV+.
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