A Million Little Things creator breaks down season finale, Jon's big secret
Well, we didn’t see that coming.
After a season of questions revolving around Jon’s (Ron Livingston) suicide — who is Barbara Morgan? what was Jon’s devastating secret — the season 1 finale of A Million Little Things answered them all, while also setting up further intrigue to come.
Drea de Matteo’s mysterious character is the infamous Barbara, and she solves the Jon mystery for us and Delilah (Stephanie Szostak). Barbara was the pregnant girlfriend of Jon’s college roommate Dave, and she reveals that Dave and Jon were going on a trip together when Jon just missed the flight. It turns out that this was on Sept. 11, 2001, and the flight was American Airlines Flight 11, which never made it to Los Angeles because it was hijacked and flown into the first of the Twin Towers. Jon and Barbara would meet outside the gate for Dave’s next birthday, when she told him that she was engaged to Mitch (Rhys Coiro), who will raise her son to be his own. And back in 2019, we learn that the son is Rome’s (Romany Malco) new friend PJ (Chandler Riggs), who learns the truth via a video Jon made before his death.
That’s a lot, but there was still plenty more to deal with: Rome wants a baby but Gina (Christina Moses) doesn’t; before Katherine (Grace Park) and Eddie (David Giuntoli) can reconcile, he has to come clean first about the baby; a baby that is on the way when Delilah’s water breaks; and Maggie’s (Allison Miller) cancer is in remission, providing a new twist to her relationship with Gary (James Roday).
To break down the busy finale, EW chatted with creator DJ Nash about the origins of Jon’s secret, whether his story is over, and what is to come in season 2.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: We finally know the answer to the Barbara Morgan mystery. Why was this story, with Jon and 9/11, the one you settled on?
DJ NASH: When I was writing the pilot, Channing Dungey, the president of the network at that time, asked me, “Is there any way to invoke Jon at the end of the episode?” And so I thought of a few different ideas, one of which is the one landed on with using the video of Jon from the elevator that day and having his commentary be the voice-over to pull us through the last act of the pilot. Another idea I had was that we discover that the gang was all supposed to be on Flight 11 and didn’t make it. It felt like too big a reveal for the end of the show — and it felt like it would have come up. So I only mentioned it to my producing partner, and then when the writers got together for the first day, I told them everything I knew about the show and they said, “What do you think broke Jon?” And I said, “Well, here’s what I’m thinking,” and I told the story and I saw their faces light up and realize that there’s something really interesting here. We have a consultant on the show, Dr. Barbara Van Dahlen, who specializes in depression and suicide, and she’s someone who I talk to pretty much three times a week about stories that we’re thinking about doing, and I called her up and said, “Do you think that this survivor’s guilt would ring true?” She said it totally lined up.
One of the things that we do on our show that I love is the themes of one person can be seen in another. In the finale, Gary’s standing at the grave and he has survivor’s guilt, you have Maggie, who beat cancer when Linda didn’t, she has survivor’s guilt, and Rome, who took the life-saving call from Gary when Jon died, he has it too. So I like the idea that all of them are sort of struggling with the same themes in their life. We knew that this was going to be the finale, so we could build it throughout. And as we had the rough structure laid out, we could add to it in fun ways, like the painting in episode 9, the idea that that would later be the view of the apartment they had, and later, we discover that Barbara was the artist. Then, in episode 14, when they go to the art gallery to look for it, the painting that they show so quickly actually has the Twin Towers in it. We wanted to tell that story as authentically as possible. Because our show deals with depression, suicide, cancer, adultery, and now some issues of 9/11, we’re really aware that even though these characters are fictional, they are very real people who have struggled in very real ways. So we always wanted to make sure that we were approaching the topics authentically and being true to what these struggles are. In this finale, you don’t ever hear the footage of that morning. We wanted to do it as subtly as possible, so there’s the newspaper that we linger on and there’s the announcement about Flight 11, but we don’t even say Sept. 11. We wanted to be as respectful as possible to the families that really lost people.
So 17 years later, with a family and friends, why was this the time that Jon took his own life? Did you see there being a specific trigger?
The story comes from a real place. I lost a friend to suicide, and even on Friday, I’m a stand-up comic and the stand-up comedy community lost Brody [Stevens]. And with these deaths that we’ve seen, you never fully know why. There’s many stories of people who didn’t get on Flight 11 and they didn’t have the same result, they were able to live happy lives and not be affected by it. So I think everyone responds in different ways. In talking to our consultant and trying to be authentic in our journey of someone who may be suicidal, we wanted to make sure that we weren’t saying it was one thing, we wanted to say that it was a million little things. So as much as I wanted to give the audience and the fans a thing to point to, because from a storytelling and TV viewer perspective you want to know the thing, I also wanted to be true to the topic of depression and suicide, where we never know exactly what it is. We know as Maggie says in the finale, “It’s not one stone, it’s a bunch of stones stacked on top of each other.” So the why now for Jon could have been the buildings, it could have been the affair, it could have been that he kept trying to push this away and he couldn’t push it away anymore. I think for Jon, he tried to make helping other people his justification for why he was still around — and it stopped working.
Is Jon’s story now over? Or will he continue to be a presence and Ron continue to appear on the show?
The only thing more delightful than Ron Livingston on camera is Ron Livingston off camera. I would love for him to be a part of the show. I love the dude, he’s been so respectful and gratuitous this whole season. At every turn, he’s just impressed me with his questions and his approach and his care. He was the only person outside of the writers’ room who knew everything this year. I purposefully only had the actors know what their characters would know. And so Christina Ochoa would know more than, like, Romany Malco, but I was always very careful and the actors were cool with not whispering the secrets. But from the very first day I met Ron, we sat down and I told him everything. He has been a great partner in this, so I’d love to continue to have him tell his story. He has another series that he’s working on, so we may just have find those moments, but I’d love to have him back.
We see Dave’s son, revealed to be PJ, watching video and connecting the dots there, so is the story still open in that direction too?
Yeah, there’s a mystery. When Jon took his life in the pilot, that became the mystery that we were following in season 1. Why, who was Barbara Morgan, and what’s in the blue envelope, those questions that went along with it. We have already started to set up a story for season 2. The viewers may not be aware that they are already exposed to that story, but it’s already there and as we go into season 2, there is a new thing to follow that will play us throughout. A separate issue that is not related to Jon’s suicide.
Moving on to the rest of the group, just as Rome is all in on starting a family, Gina declares that she doesn’t want that. So how will they deal with that moving forward?
At least the beginning of the story is loosely based on my own marriage. When my wife and I got married, we both said no kids and we meant it. We were married eight years before we changed our minds. And luckily for us, we both changed our minds. Had we not, and only one of us had changed our mind, then obviously that’s tough, because you go into marriage with a certain agreement and yet if someone wants to be a parent, then that is something they should probably have the opportunity to do. So we’re going to watch this couple deal with the fact that, right now anyway, they both want different things in this marriage. But that story has been laid out, and we have a plan for that that I think will move the fans in the same way that the Gary/Maggie story moved them in season 1.
Sticking with the baby angle, we have Katherine and Eddie preparing to get back together, having maybe even improved their relationship after all this, but then we end with him seeming to come clean about Delilah’s baby. How will that affect their possible reconciliation?
It’s interesting because absolutely this couple in separation found a better level to exist on. The way that they co-parented, the way that they supported each other, the way that they were honest with each other in a way that they never had been honest before. He was all but home, and then he realized, “The key to our working lately has been my honesty and my truthfulness, and I can’t come home without being honest.” So he’s about to tell her something and we can sort of guess to what that might be. But it’s a dilemma. If he’s coming clean about something he’s done, isn’t that something he never did before? The way you found about the affair, you’re not finding out about this, he’s telling you this. So it’s hopefully a really great dilemma to put this couple in. I found that Grace Park is fantastic when you put her in a situation where the rest of us would crumble and she shows true grit. And so I’m excited for us to have that moment play out with her. I will tell you that when we shot the first half of the scene for the finale, I snuck the pages to the actors and we shot the second half of the scene, and it’s really beautiful.
Continuing on the subject of Delilah and the baby, when she’s going in for delivery, the secret of this unborn child’s parentage seems to really be weighing on her, so should we expect her to feel pressure over needing to come clean?
For sure. She goes over to Barbara’s house and she sees this guy, Mitch, who is a bit aggressive, maybe even violent, and from an audience’s perspective, we’ve seen him call her a couple times and be territorial, so we wonder if this he’s up to no good. Then we learn the story, that he met Barbara when she was pregnant and said, “Let’s get married, I’ll treat your child like he’s my own,” and Barbara said, “No, let’s say he’s your own.” And so the first thing this guy did was lie to his son, and for 17 years, he’s lied to his son. He’s done it out of love for Barbara, but he’s been torn up about this and only took comfort in the fact that only he and Barbara knew this secret. And then enter Ashley and Gary and then Delilah. What I think Delilah sees when she’s over there is the result of when you lie to someone about who their parents are and when you finally come clean, how that plays out. And so she walks out of the Nelson house and sees it as almost a cautionary tale. And I think for her to be in the hospital now and about to deliver a child that is Eddie’s but she’s saying is Jon’s, in season 2 we will have those stories juxtaposed against each other, as thematically they are very similar. As I said, I love the idea that different characters on our show are dealing with similar struggles.
And lastly, with Maggie being remission, what is that going to mean for her and Gary? It’s great news, but cancer is really what their relationship has revolved around since the start.
Maggie and Gary are so much fun to write for, Allison and James are just a delight. The whole cast is, but our fans have just taken to this love story that was about cancer and also about love at the same time. Those two things were so intertwined from the fact that they met at a breast cancer support group. And through the season, we see them struggle with each other, pledging to be together forever even if they don’t know how long forever is. Well, now cancer is gone and the whole way we’ve known each other has been cancer. And as Maggie says in the finale, you’ve got to be careful that you’re not doing the same thing Jon did and trying to save me in the way that you couldn’t save Jon. So we will see this couple struggle to define themselves independent of cancer and the fact that they’re dealing with their own survivor’s guilt for similar reasons — and for different reasons.