August 18, 2017 at 03:25 PM EDT

Captain Chandler may not be on The Last Ship‘s titular vessel anymore, but the USS Nathan James will be embarking on a new mission nonetheless.

When the TNT action drama returns for its fourth season with a two-episode premiere this Sunday, viewers will find Eric Dane’s Chandler enjoying self-exile on the shores of Greece — just as a new virus called the Red Rust starts killing crops across the world. It’s up to his old crew to stop yet another global disaster, but can they pull it off without their captain?

We spoke to showrunner Steven Kane about all that and more from The Last Ship‘s fourth season, including its classic Greek influences, exotic new settings, and how star Eric Dane’s bout with depression affected the show’s production.


ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Every season brings about new challenges for the crew. What are they up against in season 4?
STEVEN KANE: The crew of the Nathan James is focusing its attention now in the Mediterranean region, and they’re searching for a bunch of stolen seeds that contain the DNA to look for a cure for what they’re calling the Red Rust. It’s a mutation of the Red Flu that affects crops. It affects the weeds, grasses, rices, corn — all the basic food crops and also the crops that are necessary to maintain the biosphere. So it’s not just a famine; every animal and plant and life form on the planet is at risk. That’s the engine that drives the mission. But as always, the real story happens on the ship between the people and their own personal odyssey they go on.

Who specifically will they be combatting to stop the Red Rust? Do we know who’s behind it?
Well, we come across a whole host of players in this season, people who have a vested interest in finding and using these seeds. The people who stole the seeds are run by a North African warlord who operates in the northern Sahara between Morocco and Algeria. So that’s one gang. There’s also a Greek mafia gang that are in cahoots possibly with the Greek city-state in this post-apocalyptic world.

We’ll see that a lot of the former countries of that region are no longer countries. They’re city-states. It’s back to the ancient Greek times where you had city-states rising. So you’ve got city-states in Athens, you’ve got a city-state in in Alexandria in Egypt, you’ve got a city-state in Italy. These are all run by extra-governmental strongmen essentially who have access to the assets of the former regime, so they have access to their navies and weapons.

So the Mediterranean region has become a very dangerous neighborhood where you’ve got 33 former countries and some 50 languages being spoken. You’ve got Greek warlords, you’ve got Arab warlords, and you’ve got a certain very interested party who has the science to back up his claims, but who wants the seeds for his own purposes.

So the crew of the Nathan James is out to find the seeds and bring them back to the states to try to find this cure. It’s a multinational operation that takes them on a journey all along the Mediterranean.

Sounds like quite an exotic journey for the ship.
It really is. The travelogue aspect of the show is really fun for us, and the Mediterranean was such a tantalizing location for us because it’s also the site of one of the first great epics of the sea, which is The Odyssey. And so in some ways, we are telling our version of The Odyssey, of a ship just trying to get home with its crew intact and its mission accomplished. But they face danger at every turn, and so they kind of face their versions of the Sirens, and the Rock in the Hard Place, and the Cyclops, and the Land of the Dead. We kind of mirror a lot of that storytelling — hopefully subtly, but sometimes overtly.

And where is the ship’s Odysseus in all this? Surely Chandler won’t be separate from the action for long?
When we find him, he is a little bit like Odysseus — sitting under an olive tree, looking towards home, wondering if he is ever going to back there again. Wondering if he ever wants to go back. Of course, he’s self-exiled on this island after last season, but like Odysseus, he is a legendary hero and he’s got a destiny. And so the question is can he really fight his destiny? Can he refuse the call to action once again when the world needs a hero?

He may have been an unlikely hero to begin with because he was just a sea captain among many in the fleet who happened to be on the right ship at the right time to save the world. But since then, he’s become an icon. He was painted on walls in season 3, and he was the most famous man in the world — and that’s part of what he ran away from. He just didn’t feel like he deserved that title of this kind of hero, and so as he struggles with his own humanity and his own violent urges that revealed themselves to him when he killed Shaw in cold blood at the end of season 3, he’s also fighting the destiny to become the hero he’s meant to be.

How long will it be until Chandler reunites with his crew?
In the spirit of the Greek storytelling — tragedies and destiny — his story is destined to collide back with the story of his crew. How that happens we want to leave it a little bit of a surprise, but it’ll be a fun way. There’s a bond between him and Slattery and Sasha and his ship that is so powerful that even when they’re miles apart, they can somehow be on the same wavelength. So he finds himself getting involved in one set of issues and stories that seem unrelated, yet somehow he winds up working the same story from a different angle.

Production on the show was shut down for a while to let Eric Dane cope with depression. Did having that time off for the show change it in any way? Maybe give you guys more time to plot the course of the series, or work on certain plot lines?
More time always gives us more time to do everything, because we work at a breakneck speed. Every episode we make is like a brand new feature film really. If you don’t have time, you have to have money. You have to have one or the other. So having more time was good for Eric and his health, which of course is the most important thing. But for us, we used the time to be able to be more efficient and plan ahead and be ready to go once he came back and was firing on all cylinders. So I’m not happy that it happened because I don’t want Eric to be unwell, and I want everyone that I work with to be happy in life — but we used the time. We definitely used the time.

The Last Ship season 4 kicks off Sunday, Aug. 20, at 9 p.m. ET on TNT.

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