Warning: The following contains spoilers from the Season 1 finale of “The Morning Show.”
Veteran director Mimi Leder is already prepping for the sophomore season of “The Morning Show.” But Friday brings a close to the polarizing first season of the high-profile series that helped Apple plant its flag in the original programming space.
“Endings are very hard to do,” says Leder, who directed the season finale. “But the impact is there, I feel.”
Developed by Kerry Ehrin, “The Morning Show” stars Jennifer Aniston as Alex Levy, the co-host of a morning news program whose career is upended after her popular co-host, Mitch Kessler (Steve Carell), is fired for sexual misconduct. Reese Witherspoon also stars as a field reporter who gets caught up in the chaos when she’s bamboozled into replacing Mitch at the anchor table.
Leder, who has worked on TV shows such as “ER,” “Shameless” and “The Leftovers” and films like “On the Basis of Sex” and “Pay It Forward,” helped build the world of “The Morning Show” as its executive producer-director. She directed three of the drama’s 10 episodes, including Friday’s season finale.
The season-ender arrives on the heels of the the drama earning Apple its first Golden Globes nominations — with both Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon nabbing nods for lead actress in a drama, and the series getting recognized in the drama category. It also picked up three Screen Actors Guild awards nominations for Aniston, Carell and Billy Crudup, the latter of whom who plays the show’s smarmy network president Cory Ellison.
But the show’s debut hasn’t been full of bright moments. Early reviews of the high-profile series were decidedly mixed. And Leder recently raised eyebrows when she attributed some of the negative reviews of the series as the work of “Apple haters” who had already made up their mind about the show before watching.
“Someone asked me like, ‘Well, now that you’ve got a Golden Globe nomination for best show and you’re getting a lot of love, do you feel differently?’ ” Leder says. “I still feel there are people who wanted Apple to fail and there are Apple haters and people who are against streaming. I think there’s just an abundance of television. I think people have finally seen our show. And it was really interesting watching those mixed reviews come in and then other reviewers go, ‘Don’t read those reviews. Watch the show.’ I said what I said way off the cuff. I feel that this show is complicated, and I love the show. So it was tough hearing those mixed reviews. But everyone’s entitled to their opinion.”
Now available to stream, the season finale, titled “The Interview,” finds Bradley on the precipice of her bombshell interview with Mitch. But she’s hesitant about moving forward because she doesn’t feel it’s ready to air. And the dominoes fall from there.
“I feel like it’s a privilege to be able to tell this story and to be telling it with really amazing women,” Leder says. “I’m excited about continuing the story of these incredibly, deeply rich and flawed characters.”
Here’s what Leder had to say about three stand-out moments from the finale.
In the episode, Bradley has agreed to interview Mitch on “The Morning Show” — unbeknownst to her co-anchor Alex. Ahead of the interview, Bradley meets with Hannah (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a producer on the morning news program who was a victim of Mitch’s behavior, to hear her account of what happened that night with Mitch in Las Vegas.
Leder: This is the kind of scene you hope that you can capture in the most honest and authentic way. There’s a real responsibility when you’re delivering a scene like this — to keep it as real as you can. For me, it was about getting out of the way as a director, to keep it honest and simple. We built the entire season to this moment. We kept this set very quiet. It was an eight-page scene. When you have two people sitting down for eight pages and they’re talking — albeit what they’re saying is emotional and powerful material — what I said to myself was ... the words are strong. The event that she’s speaking about is so volatile and so painful ... just keep it simple. Don’t try and do anything. The camera doesn’t need to lead the story. The words need to lead, the actors need to lead.
They’re just glimpses of memory, added in during editing. Carole Kravetz Aykanian, an editor, cut the scene and very tastefully set the tone by flashing back to those moments in Vegas. I call them split-second memories. It’s something we used to do a lot on “The Leftovers.” It quickly took us to that evening, to that night, the event.
I didn’t want to rehearse this because I didn’t want to lose it and give it away. When the camera wasn’t rolling, we ran the lines, we talked about where they would be sitting, and how Hannah was going to get [Bradley] out of there — that moment where she rises. I think we read the lines once. And then we just did it. We didn’t do too many takes. Gugu had it. She’s just brilliant. As the director, [you] just want to respect the actor and the character they’ve birthed. You want to let them go. Most of the crew was out of the room. It was the two camera operators, the assistants, myself and the sound mixer; everyone else was off set. When you’re watching scenes like this, they affect you. You have to not cry, to not make a noise, to just breathe. The silence was deafening. It was a powerful scene to do for all of us. It’s also very hard to listen. And Reese was spectacular, just taking it all in.
It really made me think of all the silence-breakers who came forward to tell their truths. One of the questions this show is trying to get as is, “When you tell the truth, does it take the pain away?” I don’t think so. But what you hope it does is give you your power back.
Things come to a head in the final minutes of the episode. Chip (Mark Duplass) has been fired. Word has hit broadcast headquarters that Hannah was found dead in her apartment. Bradley is ready to walk but agrees to do that day’s show after Alex pleads with her. Once the cameras start rolling, Alex loses her concentration and goes off-script. She and Bradley directly address viewers, exposing some of the behavior that has been covered up by the network brass.
Leder: She’s ... losing it. She doesn’t know what’s up. I had all the peg cameras on, which are the TV cameras. Then I had our three film cameras going. So I had seven cameras going, trying to capture what it felt like when she was having her moment, her breakdown, her realization [of] what just happened with Hannah and what she had to do. There was like an explosion happening within her, a rumbling. I wanted to follow her around the stage, as she got up from the chair. What is she going to do? When she initially sits down, she’s trying to be business as usual. But she can’t do it, because everything is clicking into place. The cost of it starts erupting inside of her. And so she starts moving around on stage, not knowing what she’s doing and realizing all these things. There’s that moment when she asks the camera operator his name — she realizes how out of touch she’s been all these years. There’s also like a, “Who am I?” moment happening as well. It was written and there was some improv in there. She went for it. Reese went for it.
It had a real frenetic nature, but it was very much planned. Jen had the freedom to walk wherever she wanted to walk. Because I had my cameras going and we were going to follow her wherever she went. So there was a real freedom in that. There’s always room and openness in that sort of moment for something surprising to happen. Most of the first take of Jen and Reese is what made it in the final cut. It’s raw. It has real, authentic emotion and a real spontaneity to it.
It’s interesting when Jen says “get closer.” You can just zoom in. But I also wanted the guy with the camera to come in. Jen just became fierce. They both were feeling these emotions and coming from different places of how to tell the truth. They knew they were going to be cut off, and they had to be fast. We shot what was happening in the control room on another day, using the footage we shot of Jen and Reese so they could react to it.
Does he finally get what he did?
After the powers that be manage to cut Bradley and Alex’s on-air hijacking, prompting the piercing hum of video signal and color bars, the camera eventually lands on Mitch at his home, seated still in his kitchen as the camera slowly pans out.
Leder: He’s alone on the island of his making, literally. He’s alone in his kitchen. His family is gone. Everyone has left. He’s reflected in this black hole. The question really is, “Does Mitch finally get it? Is this the moment that he finally gets what he did?” That’s what the moment was about, for me. And we tried a lot of other things. I had him crying. We tried different levels of emotion. But the stillness and being frozen and being paralyzed — that felt like the most honest emotion. I took all the music out, all the sound out. All you hear is a little wind blowing in the background, as if he’s on an island, all alone in his misery. You’ll have to tune in to Season 2 to see if he gets it. Do I think he gets it? I think he gets a little bit of it — but that’s just me.
The last scene of Mitch in the show was always the last scene. We did have discussions of whether we should end the show on the color bars. But it didn’t feel as gratifying and haunting without seeing Mitch alone in the world of his own making.