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Post-apocalyptic dramas haven’t exactly been in short supply in recent years, but The Last Ship docked at TNT last summer with a slightly unique spin on the genre, focusing on the crew of a U.S. Navy destroyer who unexpectedly find themselves in the position of having to save the world from a global viral pandemic. Having wrapped the first season with a whopper of a cliffhanger, the crew of the U.S.S. Nathan James returns on Sunday to discover that having a cure for the virus doesn’t mean that their mission is at an end.
Executive producers Steven Kane and Hank Steinberg spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about this season’s bad guys, returning guest stars and increased sexual tension.
Season one ended in a bit of a cliffhanger.
Hank Steinberg: That’s an understatement. (Laughs)
Is it safe to say that the cliffhanger is resolved during the season premiere?
Steven Kane: Watching these guys get out of this mess is the fun of the season opener, and then after that … really, it sets the tone for the whole rest of the season, because the season is really about home. Finding and making the cure turns out to have been the easy part. Getting the cure where it has to go and trying to do it in a world without civil authority or central authority, a world of panic and devastation, is a lot harder than just coming up with a cure. Season two really becomes an exploration of that part of the pandemic process, and it’s also a journey to America, because they stay on the ship, but they also travel a lot, especially through the south. There are a lot of echoes of post-Civil War America, too, where America was fractured, and we play on those themes as well as we go forward in season two.
Was it always the plan to enter season two with the cure in hand?
Steinberg: We didn’t want to have four seasons about trying to find the cure. (Laughs) When we came up with the premise of the show, we asked ourselves, “How long can we sustain the idea that they’re going to be looking for the cure?” We didn’t want to fall into the trap that some other serialized shows have, of trying to slow-play or long-play as part of the idea, and have the audience feel like they’re being made to wait too long to get into what they’ve been promised. The premise of the pilot was, “We’re gonna stay alive at sea ‘til we find the cure, and then we’re gonna go home.”
Kane: Finding the cure is really just the beginning. Then for Dr. Scott to find a way to get the cure to lots of people, for the ship and the captain to figure out how to get that cure to lots of people, that’s plenty of story to tell there.
Steinberg: Season two is going to ask, “What is home? What do we find when we go home?” The season is all about what America is when they get there, what the state of things is, and how they’re going to deal with it.
Season two also provides a pregnancy to deal with, courtesy of Kara and Danny’s relationship. Getting a sophomore year clearly gives you more of an opportunity to explore the characters.
Steinberg: Season two is more character-driven. We’re going to get inside the characters even more and deal with their struggles. It’s darker, it’s edgier, and the issues and scenes that they’re dealing with in terms of what is America now that they’ve gotten home is even more provocative than some of the stuff that we dealt with in the first season. But that’s what’s fun about doing a serialized show: you keep growing the characters and going deeper and deeper into them, you bring in some new characters and some new people to meet, and you grow the show in that way. Some other smaller supporting characters can become more fulfilled, and of course your main characters have new, different, interesting challenges that they have to face that reveal who they are.
Kane: As we get to know them better ourselves as writers, we start writing for those strengths and weaknesses, so we hope viewers will come along for the ride and really start to empathize more with these guys.
In the midst of the action, there’s clearly been room to find a little sexual tension here and there.
Kane:The question is how do you deal with that? We deal with it with humor a little bit. Some new sailors join the crew this season, one of whom is an attractive Israeli woman, and one of our crewmembers takes a liking to her, and they have this great Moonlighting-type vibe, where they love/hate each other, and they’re not acting on it because they’re sailors on the ship, but that actually makes it more fun. When you have restrictions, things get more exciting.
Steinberg: It’s an interesting conflict that’s particular to our show: those kinds of relationships are forbidden on the ship, which gives all those kinds of relationships an extra tension. Whereas on other shows there may be other obstacles to people falling in love or falling into the sack, but in this case it’s not condoned, and you get in trouble. It’s forbidden. That actually adds a whole layer of tension to it.
Kane: What makes people excited to watch these things is the tension more than it is really the act itself. It’s easy to write a love scene or a sex scene: you just have them start kissing. It’s much more challenging, much more exciting to write a scene about not doing it but wanting to. Actually, we looked at some of the old Hitchcock films like North by Northwest, the great flirtation between Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint. In all those films made during the Hayes Code, when you couldn’t actually show people fooling around, they did such a great job with innuendo and double entendre. So keeping that in mind, we were actually able to have fun and still play with the romance and that kind of stuff, doing it in a way that would still show that these guys follow orders, but … they’re still human beings. (Laughs)
Will you be further exploring the Tex/Rachel flirtation?
Kane: Their relationship is complex. It’s certainly based on mutual respect, and they’re both outsiders in the Navy culture, so they have that in common. But they also have a deep respect and love for the captain that they’ve developed over the time they’ve been on the ship, so … it’s an interesting triangle.
Steinberg: Tex and Rachel are oil and water: she’s a cerebral, intellectual, slightly uptight Brit, and he’s this rough-and-tumble, easy-rider, devil-may-care guy. That’s what makes their interactions so delicious. Of course, the actors bring so much to it, and they have such great chemistry both on and off camera.
Because of the post-apocalyptic aspects of the series, do you occasionally find yourselves having to actively avoid plotlines that feel too much like those of other shows?
Kane: The apocalyptic genre has been around for a long time, obviously, so we’re not the first, and certainly it’s popular, so we’re not the only game in town. But I honestly don’t really watch the other shows so much. I just focus on the “what if?” scenario in my own show. We’re also dealing with reality a lot more than other shows are. You saw this in western Africa and the outbreak of Ebola: the way they reacted – in some cases with great heroism, in some cases with great cowardice – and the quarantine, whether they worked or didn’t work. We saw it in the panic in the American hospitals when the patients showed up here.
The only time I really worry about it is if I say, “Oh, I have a great idea,” and I say something, and some 25-year-old on the staff says, “Uh, they did that on The Walking Dead.” (Laughs) If that happens, then I go, “Oh, okay, we should do something different, then.” Otherwise, I really don’t think about it too much, because I’m just focused on our show. What’s unique about our show is that it’s the Navy, that it’s a ship and these characters, so we just take it from there and hope that what we come up with is original.
As far as guest stars go, Alfre Woodard and Titus Welliver appeared in the season finale. Will they be carrying on into season two?
Kane: We’ll certainly see the return of Mrs. Granderson, played by Alfre Woodard, because she’s our surprise super villain we met at the end of season one. We’ll also see Titus Welliver’s character because he was the guy we thought was the villain, but it turned out he was one of the good guys.
Steinberg: It’s really fun having them and being able to cast them against type. Part of the conceit of it was that we really needed to be able to sell that flip of expectations in the finale, so it was really fun to cast them against what you’d normally expect to see them play.
Kane: We’ll see the return of Niels the scientist, who we last saw on the Russian ship as it was sinking. Then we have a few other surprise guests who come about.
Based on what you’ve said thus far, is it oversimplifying it to say that the Russians were the villains in season one and Americans are the villains in season two?
Kane: It’s definitely simple to say that. (Laughs) But it’s not wrong. In season one it was more about how everybody wanted the cure for their own reasons, usually having to do with power, control, money, or fear.
Steinberg: It’s actually a group of Immunes who are the villains in season two, and they’re not primarily Americans. I don’t want to give too much away, but the Immunes are a global organization.
Is there an equivalent to the Russian commander as the big bad, as it were, for season two?
Kane: In season two, we’re talking about the effects of the virus on society. You have pockets of people – one, two, three out of every hundred people – who find themselves not getting sick, and yet everyone around them is dying. They lose their wife, their husband, their kids, their parents, their friends, their co-workers, and yet they don’t ever catch the disease, even though they’ve been exposed. So they walk around like zombies, really, just lost and wondering what happened, and with this crazy sense of survivor’s guilt. Like, “Why am I still here?” A lot of them probably wanted to die, because they can’t deal with the reality around them.
In the midst of all this, someone approaches them and says, “Hey, come with me, I want to tell you something: you shouldn’t feel bad, you shouldn’t feel guilty because you’re alive, you should realize that you were chosen, that you’re alive for a reason and that you have a mission on this earth.” They transmute all their pain into a different place, where they now have a sense of purpose, and it gives them joy, because now they feel like there’s a reason for them to keep living. These people start to feel special and empowered and … chosen.
But then they hear there’s a ship out there with a vaccine that can make everybody immune to the disease. If you’ve just been told, “You’re special, you’re chosen, you’re selected, your pain has a reason and it’s because you have a natural ability,” and then you’re told, “Now everybody can be like you,” suddenly you don’t feel so special, suddenly you don’t feel so chosen, and suddenly you start to say, “Wait a minute, I feel threatened by this.”
Steinberg: The Immunes are interesting, rich, fascinating villains that we’ve managed to create … and it feels both plausible and scary in how they see themselves and why they want to try and stop our heroes. Whenever you’re coming up with a storyline, it really comes together when you figure out who the bad guys are, because the good guys are always reacting to what the bad guys are trying to do. When you hit that and you get excited about that, that’s when you know it’s all going to come together.
The second season of The Last Ship premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. on TNT.
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