SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched “The Interview,” the first season finale of “The Morning Show.”
Apple TV Plus’ “The Morning Show” launched its series with the firing of morning news anchor Mitch Kessler (Steve Carell) amid sexual misconduct allegations. To bring the show full-circle, the season finale ended on a long, wide shot of Mitch sitting with the weight of what he has done. It came after veteran anchor Alex Levy (Jennifer Aniston) and her new co-anchor Bradley Jackson (Reese Witherspoon) outed their network for knowing and helping keep quiet about the allegations against Mitch for years — an emotional action they took after the death of Hannah Shoenfeld (Gugu Mbatha-Raw).
“Her casualty is something that we’re acknowledging happens to people who are victimized and assaulted. Did she have to die? I think that’s a question the audience needs to answer. Did she have to die in order for our characters to have stood up and pulled the plug on the network, exposed the network to their knowledge of their abuses? Of course it’s the moment that ignites Alex and Bradley, absolutely. It is a defining moment,” executive producer and director Mimi Leder tells Variety.
In the eighth episode, “Lonely at the Top,” “The Morning Show” flashed back to the show-within-the-show’s trip to Las Vegas to cover the Route 91 Harvest Festival shooting. During that trip, Mitch raped Hannah in a hotel room, and when she attempted to say something to network executive Fred (Tom Irwin), he didn’t allow her to get the full story out but instead offered her a promotion. Hannah then began to struggle with substance abuse, presumably to numb her pain. As Bradley began to dig deeper into the allegations against Mitch, preparing to interview him on the show, Hannah told Bradley her story. But before anything could be done, Hannah overdosed.
“I wanted the aftermath to slowly wash over the audience. I really wanted to slowly reveal Hannah on the floor and not have any pills there, kind of leave it as a question to the audience, ‘Did Hannah commit suicide?’ You could bring a lot of different ideas and backstory, but I wanted the audience to ask the questions [of] what happens to a person who has been assaulted. There are so many different degrees of pain,” Leder says.
The news of Hannah’s death hit everyone hard, especially recently-ousted produced Chip (Mark Duplass), who was the one who leaked the story of Mitch’s misconduct to the press in the first place. Learning just how far his former star went with the women on their team caused Chip to attack him, a scene Leder says encapsulates the shifting tones needed for such complex characters and topics as “The Morning Show” explores.
“These middle-aged men beating each other up, rolling on the ground, in some ways was just hilarious and in other ways just completely tragic. At the end of it, you feel their pain so deeply you’re not laughing anymor,” she says. “You do have to modulate all the way through and know where you are in your storytelling. We’re at a point where you’re at such a dramatic high that you have to just take it, and it is very hard doing a finale, but I think we all wanted it to be operatic and really take us on a ride. ”
At first, Hannah’s death turned Bradley away from the show. She was the one tasked with delivering the news to the rest of the show-within-the-show’s staff — in a sequence that Leder shot in slow-motion, cutting between closeups of Bradley’s face and the faces of the other staffers as the tragedy sunk in. But because it was done in slow-motion, the sound was out of sync and therefore not used. Rather than hearing cries of anguish, editor Carole Kravetz Aykanian left all ambiant noise out and only focused on scored music.
“It was completely emotional and dramatic, and that was my intent in shooting it slow-motion: I wanted to be in Bradley’s head; I wanted to be in everybody’s heads in their reactions. Specifically for Bradley, it’s the feeling of being underwater and complete and utter helplessness,” Leder explains.
The shock of this caused Bradley, a usual champion for telling the truth no matter what it may blow up, including her own life, to want no part of the show or the culture around it that would allow Hannah to suffer in silence for so long. But at the same time, her death ignited the fire in Alex to finally stand up to the toxic culture and abuses of power she ignored for so long. Together, they sat at the news desk and went off-script to address the nation with the culpability of the network, and of Alex, who let it go on too long, too.
“It’s always challenging to get emotions right — like the moment where Alex walks out of Fred’s office and has agreed to let Chip go. It was written for an elevator hallway, but I found this escalator and wanted to put it on that so they were forced to look at each other when they crossed. It just felt so metaphorical — two people going in different directions. And then to put the opera against it, it just felt like they were both crying — very beautiful and painful,” Leder says.
“You’re constantly walking that wire — the believability wire. You’re in these characters’ heads and arcing out where they’re high and where they’re low, and there’s a lot of emotional characters being at the breaking point in this finale. And then it bursts. And that’s what any good opera will do.”
The breaking point for Alex is also a turning point for Alex and Bradley as a team, Leder acknowledges. Previously, the two were on a roller coaster of ups and downs, being each other’s allies and opposition, in the first season. The finale episode started with them working against each other, as Bradley plotted to sneak Mitch into the studio for an interview Alex would know nothing about, for example. But “in terms of what they are doing together, in calling out the network for knowing the truth and withholding, it certainly is a reckoning,” Leder says.
Leder shares that the speech Alex delivers to the nation, as shown in the episode, is mostly from the first take they shot of the sequence. Although, as with any complicated scene, she spent time on-set talking through the beats with both Aniston and Witherspoon, she credits Aniston for the “visceral emotion” delivered.
“What came out of Jen was something so deep and so guttural. The pain she was feeling was so real. I think she surprised herself,” Leder says. “It was really hard to film. It was really painful to watch. There were a lot of tears. It was quite a moment to film. It’s not a typical moment for women in television, taking that power, but what came out of those women was just a complete honesty: no more looking the other way, no more silence. They were at that moment being the truth-tellers and living in their truth and taking control and taking their power back.”
But just as the show started with an incident about Mitch, so too did it end on one. The network pulled the plug on Alex and Bradley’s expose before they could go into real details, cutting to a test pattern. The show itself then chose to end its first season on a long, still shot of Mitch sitting alone in his house.
“This felt powerful; this felt strong,” Leder says of the choice of closing moment for the episode and season. “All through the season, he’s very much in denial and doesn’t really quite get it, and I feel in this last scene where Mitch is at the table, the whole idea of where his mental state is is that after the death of Hannah, he finally gets it. It’s starting to penetrate, and he is numb. I put him on the kitchen island to symbolize here is a man, alone, on his own island — the island of his making. His actions caused a death — cost a life — and there are repercussions.”