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After weeks of following Alex (Priyanka Chopra) in both the present and the past as she attempts to uncover which operatives are the terrorists behind the G20 Summit attack in New York City — and why — the most unsuspecting character revealed himself to be under one of the black masks in Quantico‘s midseason finale Sunday.
The episode followed format by playing out in both timelines, and moments after Alex accepted his marriage proposal in the past, the present storyline ended with a cliffhanger as Ryan (Jake McLaughlin) unveiled himself as a member of the Citizens’ Liberation Front before locking Alex away.
Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter, showrunner Josh Safran explains that the Ryan situation isn’t so black-and-white. The clue arrived earlier in the episode’s timely conversation between sisters Nimah, now also a terrorist, and Raina, a hostage (both played by Yasmine Al Massri).
During their showdown, Nimah explained that the group is trying to liberate itself from America and the “lie it sold for centuries that there’s such a thing as freedom and it only exists here.” She tells her sister: “This country would deport you if it could. Deep down all of us have built a wall with all those we want to keep out with it. You’re white? So am I, you’re welcome here, but not them. You believe in equality? So do I, you’re welcome here, but not anyone who disagrees.” In order to survive, she says, they have to fight as dirty as everyone else.
“Nimah spills the rhetoric that there is a civil war in this country and we can’t pretend it’s not here. Like there are civil wars all over the world, instead of pretending it doesn’t exist, it’s time that we fight,” says Safran about the scene, which had initially been cut but was added back in after Election Day due to its prescient message. “Moving forward, that is the underlying statement and purpose of the season.”
Below Safran discusses the surprising events of the midseason finale and reveals how the ABC terror drama plans to continue to reflect reality in the wake of a president-elect Donald Trump. Chopra also speaks to THR about the Ryan cliffhanger and what it will mean for Alex when the show returns in January.
Nimah explains that the terror group sprang up over feelings of being alienated by America. The conversation reveals the motives of the Citizens’ Liberation Front and also speaks to current fears in America. Why did you initially cut it from the episode, and why did you then add it back in?
Josh Safran: We had removed it for plot purposes, and now it’s back in there not necessarily for plot purposes. Clearly it’s back in there because it matters. We had a reason to write it in the first place, and we should have never let it go. It’s a piece of a much larger whole and the piece we’re talking about is very topical, even though it was written two and a half months ago. At the time, it was a natural extension of Nimah and Raina. In the beginning, Nimah wanted to become an FBI agent because she felt prejudice in the world and wanted to find a way in America to fix and fight that. Raina felt the same prejudice but tried to forgive and understand people through their education. That made Nimah even angrier, because she felt you shouldn’t forgive their prejudice. Now, Raina says to her, “You couldn’t just fight hate, because you feel hate too.”
We will learn more about what it means and what this civil war in the country really is, and who these people are fighting and why they think it’s going to accomplish anything. For the moment, it’s sadly prescient and very odd to see that conversation be so relevant. That’s why after the election we woke up and said: We have to put that back in. It’s an important conversation to have. The whole world is crazy right now. You see the swastikas in Brooklyn’s Adam Yauch Park, and last week, my boyfriend was harassed politically by Trump supporters. Somebody yelled at him, “You probably voted for Hillary, you faggot.” It’s always been here, but now people feel the freedom to express it as if it’s okay, and nobody from a position of power is telling them it’s not okay. And that’s really difficult.
You said the show will shift in the wake of the election. The story is so timely — did you find that you have much to alter?
Safran: We’re shooting episode 12 now. The show will return with episode nine, so the post-election shift I spoke about won’t go into effect until after it returns. Unfortunately, in light of the recent state of the world, it’s sad how prescient the show still is, so I don’t think I would have had to adjust anything anyway. We were always going to wrap up the terrorist event halfway through the season and it’s not over, the story continues, but the story we’re going to tell is going to talk more about the state of this world. The idea is not to make your heart race when you turn off the television by looking at how dark the world can be. It’s about people who do not want the world to be as dark as the world is and how they can help that. As opposed to just portraying the world as it is, it’s portraying the people to help the world not be what it is. That’s how it shifted.
Will the show explore both sides to the conversation even more now?
Safran: The idea that this show can represent sides instead of just one side is very important. Clearly I am of a liberal viewpoint, but I try to understand everybody. Nimah and Raina are on opposite sides, but we have empathy for both of them as characters and for the predicament they’re in. Sebastian having issues with his sexuality coming from such a devout point, that’s also not easily answered. You don’t just kiss somebody and then become gay. We are always trying to look at and understand everything, so I hope that in light of everything happening in the world we can continue to look at both sides through listening and ask: With both sides talking to each other, can anything ever change?
Priyanka Chopra: It’s a wonderful scene. Both the sisters are speaking on behalf of massive sections of people and contradicting points of view. That’s what I love about this show, that it gives all of us the opportunity to open up that dialogue and debate. I was there when Yasmine was doing the scene, and it was a really moving performance. We talked about both the characters and their points of view. It gives you discussion points. The environment of the show and the episodes coming forth are definitely going to be a reflection of the debate that the world is going through right now. I’m very happy with the direction that it has gone in and is going in. We bring it up whenever we shoot it and applaud the writers when they have a point of view that they write onto the show.
The episode ends on the big reveal that Ryan is also part of the terror group. But now that we know Ryan, Nimah and Miranda are on the “bad” side, are we to take away from the Nimah-Raina conversation that the line between good and bad might be blurred more than we think?
Safran: You definitely are meant to think that. I don’t want to give away much more. The situations that made me come up with Quantico in the first place were to look at the gray areas. From the very beginning, Alex’s fear was that she killed her father, who seemed to be a bad person, but no one is ever truly bad. So how do you rectify the sides of yourself when you learn good things about people you thought were bad, or when you learn bad things about people you thought were good? This is continuing that story. The Citizens’ Liberation Front might look like terrorists and are committing acts of terrorism, but that doesn’t mean that people who commit acts of terrorism don’t have their reasons. Every bad guy has good in them. It all starts from someplace, and that’s the story moving forward. Can you ever wash the blood off your hands? It doesn’t matter what the blood was committed in the name of, can you ever wash it off?
Chopra: Alex is definitely black-and-white when it comes to good and evil, that’s why she’s in law enforcement. She believes that the law has been made for a reason and the Constitution has been made to protect us. She believes that, and she upholds it. So it will be difficult for her to deal with as it goes on and that will be the conflict on the show, as she tries to figure out what is actually the truth.
Since you are shifting away from the terror plot when the show returns, what can we expect from the rest of the season?
Safran: Season one was more about ideology, and this year it’s more about politics. Last season, the politics were in every episode, it was very on the surface. This year, I knew it was going to take until the midseason finale for viewers to understand the political statement we were making, which was this Nimah-Raina speech. I hope people understand that’s the story we were telling all along, and that the politics became front and center even sooner because of the state of the world.
Chopra: The second half of the season is going to be a lot more streamlined. There will be the introduction of new characters and lots of old ones. It will be the same show but done differently. You won’t want to miss the last five minutes of each episode.
How will Alex’s decision to go rogue and stay undercover at The Farm impact her when the show returns?
Safran: Alex is now feeling the freedom of being a free agent, and she has a lot of fun with not having to answer to anybody. She also has a surprise in store in episode nine, when we return. It was directed by Gideon Raff, the co-creator of Homeland. The episode is all about seduction.
Chopra: You know Alex, she doesn’t listen to anyone, even herself. She is somebody who has been right in the past, and she has crazy courage. She has integrity and believes fully and completely in what she’s doing, and that comes into play when she stays back at The Farm.
When will Alex find out more about Ryan?
Safran: You will not find out right away. We’re slowly marching deeper and deeper into each of our character’s psyches.
Chopra: That was a big shocker. None of us saw that twist coming. I think that takes her a while to also understand, and she goes into figuring out why Ryan would do what he did. And the answers will be very interesting. It is a theme of the back half of the season.
Do you think, or hope, that Alex and Ryan can ever get their happy ending?
Chopra: Of course! I totally believe in a happy ending if Alex would just stop sabotaging, like she does. She is a survivor all her life, it’s hard for her to create relationships. But I do hope there’s a happy ending there for Alex and Ryan.
Quantico has a female president. After the first lady’s death, the president stepped down, and we learned Claire Haas (Marcia Cross) is now in the Oval. Will we see Marcia Cross return in the role?
Safran: I can’t say. But what I can say is that starting with episode 13, the show definitely changes its structure.
There’s a trend on TV of female presidents not getting elected when they become president, like President Haas. Why do you think that is?
Safran: I can’t comment on whether Marcia returns but I can say that if she did return, I think she would have a very long sequence where she discusses that exactly.
How do you think that lurking theme is reflective of reality, given that America did not just elect its first female president?
Safran: That’s another sadly prescient thing that happened. There is a sequence that’s very much about the fact that — at the time it was “probably” but now it’s “definitely” because we have the liberty of editing — America would not elect a woman and therefore, should a woman get that position, the way that she has to keep it is incredibly different than a man. How every move you make could be the wrong move, and you have no idea until you’ve made it. So can you even make any move at all, or are you simply supposed to be a figurehead and stand there and nod when everybody tells you what you are supposed to do? I’m very proud of that as well, but it’s totally sad that it was written before the election. It was shot after the election by a day, so we were able to make that word change. But shooting that scene was rough.
Chopra: I hope and look forward to the day that there will be a female president of the United States. There have been so many nations around the world that have had female leaders, including India. I’m not American, but I do have an opinion, and I think that right now, it is what it is, and I think the country needs to come together to say: What is the America we want to create right now? The same thing will happen on television now going forward if we do have a female president. It will be something that will be discussed.
You said you planned to infuse hope in the show when it returns. How will you do that?
Safran: The terrorist event was always supposed to wrap up midseason, and there is new information that pushes forward the rest of the season. It’s not so much about hope. It’s more that, initially, I would have focused more on the acts of terrorism and how people can live with these acts of terrorism. Whereas now my plan is to focus more on: You’re trying to stop these acts of terrorism so you can live your life positively. It’s turning a dial just a little bit. The hope is in the idea: Let’s stop these so we can all get along. As opposed to: Why are all these things happening that can’t be stopped? It’s an ideological or an emotional shift inside the characters. The plot isn’t changing.
Chopra: Alex is a true beacon of hope on the show. People experience Quantico through her eyes and her experiences, and she is someone who has integrity, honesty and who fights for the truth. She’s reflective of the modern woman today who lives life on her own terms and who isn’t apologetic. Everything isn’t perfect, she has her flaws. But she’s not afraid of living life on her own terms, and that’s a really great character to have on TV.
In what other ways are you being mindful of inserting timely aspects into the show?
Safran: The hardest thing for us was that we definitely would love more than anything to talk about what’s going on in the world, but we do have a female president who ran on the Democratic ticket. We’ve established that. The way to look at the current state of politics in America knowing that our president does not reflect the president in the real world is to look at all of our characters around that president who might have similar ties to what’s in the world. The thing that excites me is not to do an action show. We’re here because we want to talk about being Muslim in America, being a child soldier who spends her life trying to make up for it, or the idea of, if you’ve ever done anything negative in life, how to wash all that blood off your hands? We’re trying the best we can to reflect the world, but we already were. Because sadly, even though Trump’s election I think surprised some people, it definitely didn’t surprise us here. As you see, the stuff we’ve shot two and a half months ago is just as relevant now as it was when we wrote it.
Season one is more insular, about where people came from and what makes them tick. This season is more about: what is the current state of the world and how, if everybody disagrees with everybody else, can we ever expect anything to happen? And if you’re fighting for good but all you see around you is bad, do you have to start changing? Does that affect you and make you do things that you never would have done before, in the name of good? If you’re doing things in the name of good that you shouldn’t be doing, isn’t that basically what other people are doing and we don’t agree with them? So how do we all realize that we’re all thinking the same — like Nimah says. It’s a big mess that we’re trying to get through and there’s no easy answers, and that’s what makes the drama.
Quantico moves to Mondays when season two returns with new episodes Jan. 23 on ABC.
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