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'Quantico' premiere postmortem: Showrunner Josh Safran talks alternate crisis setting, casting this year's recruits

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Giovanni Rufino/ABC; Inset: Patrick Randak/Getty Images

WARNING: The following contains spoilers from the season 2 premiere of Quantico. Read at your own risk!

Show of hands: Who guessed Alex (Priyanka Chopra) was still with the FBI? Anyone?

If you did, kudos, because Quantico pulled off a looong con that began with the season 1 finale, when Alex appeared to accept an offer to join the CIA after being fired by the FBI for her involvement in the Quantico crisis. As the season 2 premiere revealed, Alex now works undercover for the FBI and has infiltrated the CIA’s training facility, The Farm, where she and Ryan (Jake McLaughlin) are both working to uncover a rogue faction of operatives that have spawned from inside the agency. With this development — and the introduction of a hostage crisis one year into the future that traps Alex inside enemy territory — EW called up showrunner Josh Safran to answer some burning questions.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Let’s start with the last scene of the premiere, in which the First Lady is beheaded. That might have been the most morbid scene ever shown on Quantico. What were the discussions about it in the writers’ room like, and how did you come up with this early death?

JOSH SAFRAN: We believed in looking at a more global view of terrorism this season, and to also try and be more mature and therefore more accurate and less silly [in our storytelling]. In looking at terrorism, we really had to take a step and say, “Okay, what are the most emotionally violent acts of terrorism?” We now live in a world where it’s no longer a car backfire that you automatically assume you’re hearing outside the window, but maybe a bomb. In that world, just looking at, say, ISIS, what they do is they destabilize us and disrupt us by taking down things that we think of as places that are safe. They destroy art and architectural ruins. The new world of terrorism is such that things are attacked for their symbolic nature, not just for revenge or retribution. So the conversation became, “If a terrorist event happened, and these people were all there, what would be the thing that unsettles the world, not just America, immediately?” The conversation progressed from there.

So the point is to show the audience how ruthless this terrorist group is.

The moment shows the audience that with these terrorists, the plan that they say is not the plan that they really have. This is not an isolated moment that is never spoken of again. There is a reason that will be uncovered, and there is a connection that will be made.

The future timeline looks different from last year’s, and there are also the neat new transitions. Just from a technical perspective, can you tell me more about how you reached the decision to change the look of Quantico?

We have an incredible director of photography in Tony Wolberg, who was with us for the second half of season 1, and we just all had a lot of talks about how to best differentiate the present and the future, because to be honest, I really hated the transition last year. They were asked for, and if I had had my way, this show would have just been one where it would become quickly obvious which timeline you were in, especially as Alex was on the run as the fugitive in one, and sitting behind a desk and making out and learning lessons in another. [Laughs] But I understand that that is not how the audience would see it, so we had to add these transitions in that I would call our Law and Order “dun dun” [effect], and I didn’t love that. 

We talked a lot about how to make transitions better this year, so at first we talked about coming up with a new transition itself, for the actual backward-to-forward moment that you see there, but we also talked about making it very clear that if you looked up from your iPad or from your computer or went to get a glass of water, you could come back and know where you were. So the decision came to sort of desaturate one of the timelines and that’s where we went.

Giovanni Rufino/ABC

You told me that Die Hard was a jumping-off point for the future timeline crisis, but what other inspirations — in film or in real life — came to mind when you were writing the hostage situation? 

Actually, something I haven’t told anybody is I spent several months last year working with the UN to [set the story] at the UN, and I’m not exaggerating, five days before shooting, that fell through. So, after six months of work to the point where everybody had been involved in it and it looked like it was going through, we had to very quickly come up with something else, and what we came up with was — and I think in some ways it’s actually better because we couldn’t take over the UN realistically, we would have shot there a little bit, but we’d have to digitally create [the rest] later — to look at what other events are like the UN General Assembly, in which many countries come together to talk about one global initiative or one idea.

We very quickly came to the G20, and the G20 let us use the name which is great, and by creating our own G20, we weren’t beholden to the UN. We didn’t have to knock on their door and say, “Can we shoot today or are you actually saving the world?” Hopefully in the future we can go to the UN and shoot an episode.

Pivoting to the present timeline at The Farm, we see that Alex and Ryan are both working undercover for the FBI. How and when did you arrive at that twist?

During season 1, when we came up with the plot for season 2, we knew that she’d be fired from the FBI in the finale as a show of theater. The UN approached me in January, when we were probably breaking episode 16 or 17, so we were kind of, on the back burner, breaking season 2 at the same time. Because of that, we knew that we could back-fill and put in the pieces that we needed, like Alex being fake fired, and Ryan not being able to know, and so when that car pulls up at the end of the finale, she’s been waiting for that. 

And the entire cast knew about that twist at the time?

Yes. They all knew.

Giovanni Rufino/ABC

When Alex and Ryan make it to The Farm, they meet a new assortment of recruits. How did you come up with the recruits’ identities? Did you have a list of characters you wanted to write?

Well, and this is one of the fun things about having a second season for the show, I knew I wanted to be more global [in writing characters], because the CIA operates globally. Because of that, I wrote specific roles for specific actors. I knew I wanted to work with Russell [Tovey, who plays Harry Doyle], so I crafted that role for Russell and he was the only choice. If it hadn’t been Russell, we would have come up with a different role for a different actor.

I came upon Pearl [Thusi, who plays Dayana, Alex’s new roommate], because I really wanted to tell a story about a character from Africa who had become American and was now fighting for America, so I did a lot of research on African actresses and Pearl just blew me away, and then we just wrote a role for her. 

I also knew I wanted to deal with a character from Mexico, because the border is so close to America and [I wanted to explore] what that means, and so I came across Aarón Díaz, and he was incredible, and the role was sculpted to him. I think the only person whose role was not written for them was [David Lim, who plays Sebastian]. I knew I wanted to write a character that was Asian American and a deeply good and moral person, so David Lim auditioned, and he was amazing. It’s great to have him.

One other thing is that this is the third show out of three for me and David Call, who plays Jeremy Miller in the premiere. David was on Gossip Girl as the teacher Serena had slept with in boarding school who was Katie Cassidy’s brother in prison, and David was Jeremy Jordan’s brother on Smash, and now David is here as Jeremy Miller. It’s just a neat little trio. I’ll never be able to do anything without David in it. And Jeremy Miller’s books are about a character named Jake Eagle, who’s our Jack Ryan. Jake Eagle was the [real-life] assistant to one of the EPs on the show, and his name was just so perfect. When we needed a name for the Jack Ryan character, all the writers were like, “Jake Eagle!” 

Now as for Lydia, you know she’s not really a recruit… 

Right. She turns out to be an instructor and Owen’s (Blair Underwood) daughter. What is their dynamic like? We see they’re friendly — for now. 

They’re friendly, but they’re frosty. This season is a slower boil, and there’s always twists, but the twists, I’d say, stay between the goal posts and don’t suddenly jump into another field. Lydia and Owen definitely have a complicated relationship, and we deal with their backstory and history and their moves within that. They have this very clearly defined issue that they’re always playing with.

Giovanni Rufino/ABC

What do you mean by staying “between goal posts” for the twists this season? Can you give me an example of a story that strayed beyond those boundaries in season 1?

Liam’s story last year had layers upon layers. It ultimately all came together in the end, but I think when you were watching, it was like, “He and Alex suddenly have a thing! Oh wait, they don’t. He has an estranged daughter! Oh wait, he doesn’t. He was with Miranda! Oh wait, he wasn’t.” It was constantly changing, and there wasn’t one issue he had. I think the revolving door of romance kind of made us switch from field to field as opposed to staying with one game, and I think this year the goal is everybody is set up with their issues. The buttons that get pressed, instead of having them just pressed once and moving on, this year, once that button is revealed, it’s continually pressed. We go deeper into why that is a button in the first place.

It looks like Alex’s button in the present, so far, is her failure to be at the top of her class. How will her Murder Board ranking affect her mindset going forward? Will she become more competitive, or is this going to shake her to her core?

We talked to Priyanka a lot and amongst ourselves, the writers, and [we realized that] last year, Alex won a lot. I mean, granted, she got framed for an act of terrorism in the future timeline, but still, at Quantico, she always won. She had the answers, she had the solutions, she was the smartest, she was the fastest thinker, so we talked a lot this year about how the FBI and CIA operate incredibly differently. It is true that at the FBI, you are taught to be true and just and moral, and at the CIA, you’re actually taught to lie, to deceive, to manipulate, so somebody who has been so good at truth, justice, and the American way will have a harder time than somebody else who couldn’t quite hit that benchmark.

What we’re going to see this year is an Alex who is having to struggle more than she has before, and the question for her is, “Am I right to feel like this isn’t the way things have to be done, or do I actually have to loosen myself up to go into more of the gray area that I witnessed other people going into last year, and that I’m witnessing now in Ryan?” He’s somebody who has been able to go into the gray a lot more than Alex, and I think watching him have a facility and an ease [with their tasks at The Farm] is going to be hard for her.

Last year, the episode titles referred to the last word spoken in the episode. This year, the premiere is titled “Kudove,” a word that wasn’t uttered. What is the game behind the episode names this season?

They are just simply cryptonyms [used by the CIA]. They relate to the episode, but that’s about it. If you look it up, you can find [what it means].

Looking ahead, what can you tease about episode 2? 

That it is nice to see Alex and Ryan getting some time alone again. [Laughs] I think that’s a pretty good hint. 

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

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