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Quantico postmortem: How the writers came up with that explosive midterm exam

We’ll also meet more of Caleb’s family, showrunner Josh Safran promises

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Jonathan Wenk/ABC

Quantico‘s latest hour explored how agents are expected to put their loyalties ahead of themselves. In New York, Alex and Simon find Raina, but end up putting her in more danger. Nathalie turns in Ryan and Shelby, only to let Ryan and Alex go. And back in the Quantico timeline, when the NATs are given the most unconventional midterm exam, they learn to put their lives on the line, even when they don’t see the full picture. 

Showrunner Josh Safran chatted with EW about creating Miranda’s twisted pass/fail midterm exam, the twins’ introduction in the New York timeline, and what’s coming up before the midseason finale:

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: The first thing I want to know is how the idea for that exam came about. Did you work backwards from the bomb to figure out how it would play out?

We talked a lot about having a segment teaching sacrifice, so I think we did go backwards from there. How do you teach sacrifice, especially in the sort of lower stakes world of Quantico [at the academy]? And we also knew we had an “is it real or is it not” exercise. There are simulations of such that have existed in movies and we just liked that construct. In the episode, Alex is like, “Even if it’s fake, it doesn’t matter, we still have to go through with it,” and we just really liked that idea. I think that’s kind of what everyone’s dealing with in the episode in some ways, like, what does this really mean? 

Elias said the scenario was like “the last 10 minutes of Saw.” Did it concern you that the viewers would know all the characters would survive the “bomb”? Did you and the writers talk about that?

We actually talked about that a lot but it was good for us, because the point of this is what they’re thinking and how they’re feeling. The whole cast, the crew, and the director, Patrick Norris, who did a lot of Gossip Girl with me, did an amazing job. You still feel that tension. You know they’re gonna survive, but it’s about what you do when you’re pushed to the brink. And by the way, we talked about it being a real bomb. We had many iterations but we can’t keep playing it like there are crazy stakes and someone dies.

And Miranda definitely masterminded all this?

Yes. She went to Brandon and she told him, you’re gonna do this thing, and you’re going to pretend for the week before that you’re a little unhappy.

She’s nuts. I kind of feel like she’s the terrorist if she can think of an “exam” like this.

I mean, I think everything is changing so rapidly that a test like this isn’t so far-fetched… You have to simulate it. So actually while you may think that she’s nuts, I actually think that it’s interesting what she’s doing. I think it’s preparing them for the modern age of terrorism.

She also brings out the twins. Can you tell me about how actress Yasmine al Massri has been handling the process of playing the twins? This feels like the biggest episode so far for her.

Don’t forget: She knew she was playing twins when she auditioned way back in the pilot. We had the actresses auditioning for Nimah read a side for Raina as well, even though the audience didn’t know. She was cast in March, so we’ve had a long time to talk about the two different sisters, and even though this seems like the big episode for her, she’s played Raina and Nimah in every episode so far and for any episode they’re both in, she has to shoot twice. And this episode is not different for her from any other episode, because she’s always doing it both ways. Also, I think she loves the challenge. I think she feels they’re both a part of her, you know? And I’d say Nimah and Raina stories have been inspirational for all the writers.

In the Quantico timeline, we saw Elias leave. Will we see him again?

Elias does not return to Quantico.

Okay, so…

I think the answer’s in there, but I will say: Isn’t it great to work in a show that has two different timelines?

In the New York timeline, Nathalie lets Alex and Ryan get away. What’s running through her mind in that final scene?

It’s been very tough for her. She’s always known that she’s taken second place in Ryan’s heart… She knows when she’s lost. She is putting the greater good of Ryan ahead and believing what he believes, and she loves him, knowing that he does not love her the same way.

On the subject of love triangles, what will we be seeing in the Caleb-Clayton-Shelby story?

The story continues, and you will be meeting Claire [Caleb’s mom, played by Marcia Cross]. All of the Haases have C-names, including his sister Cassie, who you will not meet right away, but you will meet in the future.

So they’re Quantico’s Kardashians.

Yes, exactly. And Caleb’s contentious relationship with his father, and Caleb and Shelby’s relationship really deepen. There’s an absolutely heartbreaking and beautiful scene in the next episode between the two of them where he’s forced to come clean with secrets about his past that we’ve only been hinting at but we’re finally catching on to.

Speaking of the next episode, what else can you tease about episode 8?

Episode 8 connects a bunch of dots, especially as we’re off for a week heading into our sort of last piece before our midseason finale, so a lot of things come to a head. There’s a great exercise on the present day [Quantico timeline] that presages the future [New York] story in an interesting way… Nimah and Raina have a very interesting road to walk down now that they’re both allowed to be public as themselves, and Simon now has to see somebody that he’s come to fall for emotionally as two separate people. Does that mean he only liked them when they were one person? Does he like one of them more than the other? There’s a beautiful story there as well.

Quantico airs Sundays at 10 p.m. ET on ABC.

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