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Quantico delivered its most shocking moment yet with a death scene rarely aired on broadcast TV. In the final moments of the ABC drama’s season-two premiere Sunday, the first lady of the United States was beheaded by a terrorist.
The high-stakes hour opened with Alex Parrish (Priyanka Chopra) and New York City facing a new global terror threat. Bombs lit up the streets of Manhattan as a terror cell takes hostages at an FBI summit that was attended by series newcomers President Todd (Danny Johnson) and first lady Todd (Nadia Bowers). The episode flashes back from the attack to one year earlier, when Parrish and boyfriend Ryan Booth (Jake McLaughlin) were first tapped to go undercover for the FBI to the CIA’s The Farm. While training as operatives, they are tasked with uncovering a rogue CIA faction.
Back in the present, Parrish is the only agent who isn’t locked inside with the hostages. She arrives, however, just in time to helplessly watch as a machete comes down on the first lady’s head. The episode cuts to black before following the ghastly moment all the way through, but showrunner Josh Safran assures The Hollywood Reporter that what viewers saw is no gimmick.
“The first lady was beheaded on national television,” he says. “On this show, when somebody’s dead they’re dead, because in the real world, when people die they are dead. It’s about what can happen in a moment. So no one is safe, that’s what the world is.”
Quantico is no stranger to killing off characters, but Safran makes it clear that the decision to push the storyline to such brutal lengths is not for entertainment sake. Instead, it’s meant to reflect the real terror threats of the world today.
“It’s not a decision we took lightly. It’s meant to signal to the characters in the show that this isn’t what they thought it was going to be, much like terrorism is constantly changing directions and never a straight line,” he explains, speaking only one week after the real-life bombings in New York and New Jersey. “Today’s terrorism is meant to be destructive first and foremost. It’s meant to make you unsettled, it’s meant to make you feel unsafe. It’s meant to attack things that you thought were un-attackable. We felt like, if we weren’t going to tell a story that felt like stories in the world, then why are we doing this show? So we decided to not pull the punches and actually tell the story that would happen if this were really happening.”
THR also spoke with Chopra, who says Parrish received Safran’s intended signal loud and clear, as the rest of the season continues to raise the stakes. Unlike last season’s many time jumps, the hostage crisis will play out in real-time over the course of one day, while the show will continue to flash back to Parrish’s training on The Farm. Below, read Chopra’s full chat with THR on filming the intense scene and what viewers can expect this season.
Were you shocked to find out the first lady was going to be beheaded, what did you think when you first read the script?
When I read the end of the script, it took me a few seconds. I was like, “Wait a minute, we’re really doing this?” And then when we shot it. I can’t even watch Game of Thrones, I’m so squeamish. I was dying when we shot it. But it’s something that the show needed and I think that’s a great direction because the stakes are so much higher.
What was it like to film that scene?
The first two times, especially because [first lady Todd] was screaming so much, the first two times were really gory and scary. Especially that last shot with the machete going up. I couldn’t look. I was sitting next to the director, Patrick Norris, and I kept looking away. My nails were digging into his shoulder and I was just saying, “I can’t watch!” He was like, “You’ve been in this business 15 years and you still can’t watch knowing it’s fake?” But it was a lot. It was hard to shoot.
Quantico has seen its share of deaths, but does this stress even more to viewers that anything can happen?
That’s something we set as a precedent in season one: Expect the unexpected. There would always be cliffhangers and things you’d need to figure out. But the best thing about this show is that it’s not unreasonable or doesn’t make any sense. It’s quintessential good television because it keeps you on your toes and it doesn’t take your intelligence for granted, but at the same time, it’s entertaining. So look out for cliffhangers, look out for amazing-looking people in various situations [laughs] and a lot of excitement. I’m on episode seven right now and each one has a lot of excitement.
How does the premiere set the tone for the rest of the season?
You find out as you go along in the season, why and what happens. This show always has little clues in everything. To me, the first episode is extremely provocative on so many levels. The characters that you see coming back, new characters and what they’re dimensions will be with the old characters — who I call the OGs. Even with Alex, she’s going to be so out of her element in the CIA. She’s used to the FBI, which was integrity and truth, and here’s the CIA, which is all about immorality and deceit and lies. She will be a little out of her element this season, and we have to see how she deals with that.
How is seeing such a violent act going to impact Alex when we pick back up next episode?
She decides that life is not going to break her. She’s going to fight back. Alex is a hero. She’s going to do whatever she can. She’s law enforcement, she believes in that. She believes in saving America and her country and that’s what she’s going to try and do. She’s going to be a one-man army for a really long time, because such a violent attack has happened and she’s the only one on the outside.
The show is also taking on this global threat, which is based in reality. How does that up the intensity?
To me, entertainment is a reflection of society and society is a reflection of entertainment. It’s a symbiotic relationship in a really weird way. Unfortunately, the times of today are that we live in a world that has become so desensitized to terrorism and to the war on humanity. We read about a shooting that’s happened two days ago, and we move on two days later. We’re affected by it, but you don’t put a second thought into it because there’s so much that happens. It’s so unfortunate that we’ve become desensitized. Doing a show like Quantico, which is so relevant to what’s happening in the world today, not just the terrorism aspect but in terms of pop culture, there are so many things we talk about. Gay rights, Israel and Palestine, atrocities on people of color — various things that are affecting the young people of the world today, this show reflects all of that. I think that’s why it’s resonated so much around the world. We’re in 216 territories. The biggest shows don’t have that kind of reach and I think ours does because of that.
The future unfolds in real time, which is reminiscent of 24. Is Alex the new Jack Bauer and up for saving the world again and again?
I’d say she’s like John McClane. Let’s go Die Hard about it. She is extremely badass and she is at the same time, sensible. She’s someone who is fearless, she stares right into the eyes of danger and she takes it on. The way I read the scripts going forward, is that she’s a complete superhero but she’s human. And the action sequences — I do all of the stunts myself — they really, really push me this time. I’m fighting numerous people together and it’s extremely challenging and so much fun to shoot.
Did you train differently for this season compared to last?
When it comes to stunts and action sequences, I’ve had so much experience over the years in doing action movies that I didn’t really train that much for the stunts. They call me Spidey on set! What I needed to really do was work on understanding what the CIA involves. We met a lot of CIA operatives and spent a lot of time with them, exactly like I did with Quantico last year. We talked about the vulnerability of the human aspect of all these operatives and how witnessing everything they witness on an everyday level changes them.
How is The Farm different than Quanitico?
It’s much bigger and it’s much greener. [Laughs] The FBI is all about fidelity and integrity, whereas the CIA is completely the opposite. It’s about lies, deceit, immorality, manipulation. Alex is an honest person and she likes the truth. Here, she has to do a job which involves manipulation and taking advantage of people. Her conscience finds it really hard to be dealing with all of that.
It hasn’t even been a year since she lost Simon and shot Liam. How will the repercussions of season one rear their head in season two?
She’s extremely affected, mentally. But she’s a tough girl. Her vulnerability is something she deals with on her own, always. She’s been someone who’s always been a quiet sort of person. She doesn’t believe in sharing her emotions or opening up with someone — which is the opposite of me, by the way. But subliminally, she’s extremely affected by all of the things that happened and that will play into the season. She wants to learn and save the country and be in law enforcement, but it’s morally really hard. I’m enjoying mentally playing that conundrum in her mind.
Josh Safran spoke about a lot of changes this season, mainly that it’s not building up to a big finale reveal. How does this season feel different to you?
It feels a little slower and a lot more thought-out. I think it’s a much better and a much bigger season than we had last year. We have a bunch of really cool actors that have come onto the show and, from everything I’ve read so far, I’m enjoying this season. The stakes are so much higher, the adrenaline is pumped so much and at the same time, there’s laughs and humor. It’s like a massive movie, a really long one.
What can we expect from the next few episodes?
At some point, you will see the past and future merge, and you’ll understand everything that happened and why people are the way they are in the future. Everything makes sense. That’s the format of the show: the more you watch it, the more it makes sense. I’m really excited about people seeing what Alex does in the future when the G-20 Summit is happening. It’s so badass and fun. In Quantico, it’s fun and it’s light and she’s not as jaded and busted up.
Physically, is Alex even more badass this season?
Definitely, badass like a boss. I really feel like Rambo in this show. My crew counts my war scars every time I come on set! She’s emotionally stunted after everything that happened in season one, so to see her being this Rambo-badass person when she’s under stress and pressure in the future, and then vulnerable, emotional and mentally messed up in the past, the dichotomy of that is the best part of Alex.
We see in the future that Alex is returning Ryan’s ring. Are they as on-and-off this season, or more solid?
Alex and Ryan are star-crossed lovers. You see them in the past together, extremely happy. And then you see them in the future where they’ve broken up and she’s returning his ring. Now you have to figure out how and why that happened. They’re definitely more mature and rely on each other a lot more this season, but they’re still star-crossed. You love them and they fight and have this intense passionate bond. But Alex is also a little self-destructive. She’s a solitary person and she’s not vulnerable enough, whereas Ryan really is. She’s a little rough around the edges and whatever’s happened in the past, she has trust issues. So that leads to issues in their relationship.
Well, and at the end of the day, Alex will prioritize saving the world over her relationship, right?
I don’t think that there’s ever that choice. That it would be Ryan versus saving the world. But if she had to make that choice, I’m pretty sure she’d pick saving the world, because she’s that kind of person.
At this point, can Alex trust anyone?
On The Farm, we all have to figure out and suss each other out. Even with Ryan, Alex didn’t even know he was coming into this job. So you don’t know anyone’s complete picture at all. Whether it’s the past or the future. In episode one, we don’t know who is what.
Quantico airs Sundays at 10 p.m. on ABC.
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Robert De Niro