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Quantico showrunner talks torture scenes, Owen's future

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Giovanni Rufino/ABC

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

Quantico turned the tables tonight: At the Farm, the recruits got to put head instructor Owen (Blair Underwood) through the wringer — and it was as painful for the writers to write as it likely was for you to watch. But the episode didn’t stop there. In the future, the terrorists attempt to break Alex (Priyanka Chopra) by bringing in hostages, including Dayana (Pearl Thusi) and torturing them in front of her. And though they prevail in learning where the hard drives went — look out, Lydia (Tracy Ifeachor)! — Harry (Russell Tovey), Sebastian (David Lim), and Léon (Aarón Díaz) manage to break her out.

Below, EW spoke with EP Josh Safran to break down the episode’s biggest moments.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Blair Underwood had to put up with some of the most intense scenes so far on Quantico. How did he react when he learned Owen had to be tortured in so many scenes?

JOSH SAFRAN: We told him this was coming up, and he was incredibly excited to do it. He was up for everything; he knew how important the story was, and he was so game for it. One of the things that people wouldn’t notice is that when he’s in that room and the time lapse was happening, Blair had to be in that room for that time lapse to happen, so while the rest of the cast and crew was off on another stage doing other things, he was left alone in there with a surveillance camera, just a camera attached to the ceiling and hours of music blasting. He wanted to get into that headspace. And by the way, we didn’t even have to dunk him. We could have dunked a double, but Blair was like, “No, I want to.” He’s like, “I’m a really good swimmer, I can hold my breath underwater for a really long time. Just dunk me.” Of course, we take measures here to make sure everybody’s protected, and we have a great stunt team. We still tried to make it as real and harrowing as possible, even with Tracy and the waterboarding. Even if that’s not her underneath the water, acting that out is incredibly difficult. 

So he didn’t cut any corners with any of those scenes?

No. He wanted to do it all. It wasn’t just him; every single person understood how important the story was. The director, Steve Robin, who’s one of our house directors, told Blair, “If you’re going to do it, I’ll need to test it out first,” so he dunked himself for the test. It was a bottle episode. It didn’t need to be, it just turned out that way, so we were all together on the stages for eight straight days, so it felt like everyone was living and eating and sleeping under the same roof in a way.

How grueling was it to put all those scenes together?

Less than you’d think, because when everybody’s on point like they are on this show, which I’m grateful for, they’re really locked in when they do these things in rehearsal. It’s much easier to do rehearsal when you’re on the stages. You have the time to delve in.

Tell me about the research process for this week’s lesson. What went into figuring out which enhanced interrogation techniques would be used?

We have our [CIA] consultant about what is taught now versus what was taught in the past, and obviously waterboarding is not something that is sanctioned anymore, but we made the decision to show that they would go too far, so we talked about what that would mean. Our consultant was on set for the majority of this to show us how it’s done, and the research was Gideon Yago wrote the episode, he’s a former journalist, so he had his own research, and we had our own research. We spoke to a bunch of people is all I can say. It’s scarily accurate in many ways.

So ultimately, this was Owen trying to prove that he could still be an operative, right?

Absolutely. I think a lot of it was motivated by a level of selfishness inside himself to prove not just to himself but to Lydia that he was still of value, and instead, it backfired. As Lydia says to him, if that was me I’d let you die, because you can never break. It was a tough lesson for him to learn and will definitely affect him moving forward.

Does his failure here have anything to do with how he ends up in prison?

I wouldn’t say that’s why he ends up in prison, but I would say that it is definitely something that is revealing to him that maybe he wasn’t as proficient as he thought he was, which is going to come to a head in the next episode. That cheesy old adage of “those who can, do [and those who can’t, teach],” I think, is something that Owen is beginning to wonder about himself.

Sebastian barges into Harry’s room and kisses him late in this episode. Why did this coupling make sense, and what are the implications of that kiss?

[Sebastian and Harry] was always a story that we spent a lot of time on from the beginning. For Sebastian, I don’t think he’s ever come across someone so persistent on having him challenge his belief system. For Harry, he has not come across someone who has reawakened old ghosts inside of him from his past, so there’s a little bit of mutually beneficial destruction between them, and that’s always been the story for their characters.

As for implications moving forward, I think Sebastian is questioning a lot and I don’t think it’s just his sexuality. I think in many ways, and we’re trying to leave more open to interpretation this season, so we talked a lot with David and with Russell and Steve, the director, about how that kiss may not be really a kiss of romance or something that’s been building up. It’s also a question, as in, “What does this feel like to me?” and “Is this actually what I want on Sebastian’s side?” So it’s not clean, it’s not like, “This was always inside me, and I’m expressing it.” It’s left open to interpretation and I think Sebastian will have a lot of further thought on that matter, and for Harry, there’s a little as well of like, “Am I pushing things too far?”

Giovanni Rufino/ABC

Alex and Ryan’s relationship seems headed for the rocks now that Ryan’s been tapped to join the AIC. Are we beginning to see their partnership crumble?

In the very next episode, Alex forces a confrontation between all of the FBI side of the story, and a lot of stuff comes to light in that scenario.

Also, we haven’t seen the Murder Board in a while. Could you give us a status update? Is everyone still where they are?

No, they moved up. It’s funny, we had it, but we ended up sort of cutting it, because if the story doesn’t matter, like in this particular episode, they succeeded for the most part, even the ones who objected like Harry and Alex because they were still in the room and let it happen, so no one got to a place where they’re in danger on the Murder Board. When they are in danger, which will happen in the near future, you will see it again.

In the future timeline, Alex gives up the information about Lydia having the drives, but then her face goes blank after the terrorists leave. What’s going on inside her head? It looks like she’s satisfied.

What’s running through her head is she’s not necessarily happy about this, it’s that she’s of the belief that they will never find Lydia, so it doesn’t matter. It’s sort of like, they were thinking that was the worst possible thing they could ask her, and in her mind, she doesn’t care. She doesn’t know what those mean, she doesn’t know if Lydia was telling the truth. In her mind, that’s like spy versus spy, you know? But she still wasn’t going to give them what they wanted until she absolutely had to. That’s not her “alias,” for instance. She thinks that Lydia will, you know, it’s Lydia. This is a trained person, good or bad. She’s not super worried about Lydia, because Lydia can handle herself.

We didn’t see the twins this week. What can you tell me about how much we’ll see of them going forward?

You will see a very large amount of the twins [story] in the next episode. And I’ll tell you this as well, there was an entire storyline involving the twins in [next week’s episode] that we took out because the stories shifted, because they didn’t connect anymore, and then the election happened the other night, and ultimately, [the writers and I] woke up Wednesday morning in a panic saying, “We have to get those scenes back in, because they’re incredibly relevant.” They’re prescient to begin with, and now they’re just even more so, so we scrambled and we reopened the episode yesterday to put the entire storyline back in.

Yasmine [al Massri, who plays the twins] was here yesterday, and we spent like half an hour with her walking the halls to try to help find a solution [to connect the story back] and she found a solution. So, at 9 o’clock that night, we shot a new scene to plug the hole. The audience will never know there was a hole, but she bridged that. I’ve never opened an episode this close to airing to put an entire storyline back in.

Now, you said last week that this was a difficult episode to write, shoot, and watch. What was the hardest scene to do?

I mean, the whole thing was difficult, but I would say oddly it was like a camp atmosphere. We were all in it, and we were going to do this and get through this. Certain things were more difficult than others, for instance the waterboarding, which in an odd way wasn’t as uncomfortable as the scenes of dunking…. I think that first turn where all of them got dark was probably the hardest thing. It was tough.

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