Warning: This story reveals major plot points for the third episode of the ABC drama series Emergence. Continue reading at your own risk.
Emergence creators Michele Fazekas and Tara Butters [Reaper, Kevin (Probably) Saves the World] promised early on that they wouldn’t leave fans of the new ABC series hanging for long and that answers to major questions raised by the pilot would come soon. They delivered Tuesday night in the show’s third episode.
The series began with a mysterious blackout followed by a plane crash in a coastal Long Island burg that appeared to have had a sole survivor in an amnesiac young girl (Alexa Swinton). She is taken in, and dubbed Piper by local police chief Jo Evans (Allison Tolman), who lives with her father Ed (Clancy Brown) and daughter Mia (Ashley Aufderheide) and is on friendly terms with her ex-husband Alex (Donald Faison). Pesky investigative reporter Benny Gallagher (Owain Yeoman) showed up after the crash as both a help and a hindrance. In Tuesday’s episode, after Piper fell ill, Benny and Jo followed a tip into a highly guarded facility to find a cure, and discovered the little girl everyone in Jo’s life is falling in love with is actually… a robot! Sort of.
EW chatted with Fazekas and Butters about the reveal, getting the tonal balance right, and where the show is headed for episode 4, promising this is not the end of answers. Says Fazekas: “I hate watching TV where I feel like either they don’t know what the answer is and they’re just stringing me along, or they’re just biding their time to reveal it. That is boring to me and frustrating, so we have no desire to do that. When we pitched it, we pitched three seasons of big story turns. So in part, it’s helpful that we know where we’re going, so it’s okay to have big reveals and keep the story turning. And again, I think we can do that because it’s not just about the mystery. They just have this whole other element of family that is as interesting as the mystery.”
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So just to be clear, Piper is a robot?
MICHELE FAZEKAS: It will become clearer in episode 4 but remember doctors have seen her, she’s had CAT scans, she’s had blood drawn, and no one picked up on it. So that’s part of it.
So it’s like Westworld in that the androids are incredibly advanced?
Or Blade Runner, that type of thing.
So she’s like a replicant?
In a way. There is obviously an AI [artificial intelligence] story, and what we want to do is tell our own version of that story, and what that means in our real world.
Even though you can still feel her sense of empathy for this “child” she has taken in, it feels very much like Jo is afraid of Piper at the end of the episode once she realizes she’s not human.
I think you can be afraid of something and also love something at the same time. I don’t think it’s mutually exclusive. And that again is this huge stress of episode 4. Because Jo now has to figure out “What am I doing with this information?” And episode 4, the central question that everyone asks is, “What is real? Is Piper real? Are her feelings real? Are my feelings about her real?” And then I think at a certain point you have to ask, “Well, does it really matter?”
I’m not sure if you’ve heard of the show Raising Dion on Netflix? But it feels like there are parallels in the sense that, when a mother discovers that her young son has superhero abilities, the show actually deals with it in a relatable fashion. She has a realistic response of shock and horror and a little bit of fear like Jo does here to Piper.
There is a nice, sort of a thematic similarity in that, in some ways, it’s like raising a special needs child. In Raising Dion, it’s raising a superhero, and in Emergence, it’s essentially raising an AI.
When we were developing this, I had read a study about people who were given a little robot, and you were just supposed to sort of interact with it, and it would ask you questions and then at night you were supposed to turn it off. Except, during the study, the little robot would start to tell the people, “Please don’t turn me off, because I’m afraid I won’t wake up.” And like half the people in the study listened to the robot because they felt bad for it. That’s a robot. Now, what are you going to do when you see an AI that looks just like us, acts just like us? And are you going to treat it like, “Well that’s just a computer?” I don’t think so. We’re already not doing that.
And that’s in part why we wanted to have this reveal early on in this series because I want to tell that story. I think that’s so interesting. And it’s coming.
TARA BUTTERS: It’s one reason why I think a lot of people were surprised when we kept saying, “We’re going to give you answers quickly.” But part of it’s because it allows us to tell the stories we want to tell. And with answers, there are questions.
So we weren’t afraid of trying to move the story, because it opened up as a family story, actually. And that’s one of the places I feel like this show is different than a lot of other genre shows, that the family and their stories are just as important as the mystery.
In this episode, we see Piper having these flashes that seem like memories where it looks like perhaps she had been on an operating table, and she took over the scalpel, and the surgeons are saying, “Don’t!” How much are we supposed to think that she knows about what she is?
FAZEKAS: She does not know. She has these little memory flashes, but she does not have a memory of anything really before Jo found her. I think she’s suspecting, and I think she’s afraid, like, “What if I’m bad?” And she wants to hide that.
But she believes that she is human?
FAZEKAS: Yep, she does.
Now that you’ve made this reveal, are you prepared for AI experts to come out and nitpick?
FAZEKAS: Here’s the thing about that: We don’t know where the program came from and what the purpose of something like Piper is. So, everything that we think we know about AI is all well and good, but it’s not necessarily relevant to Piper.
Which brings us to the great Terry O’Quinn from Lost showing up as Richard Kindred, the man, presumably, behind the AI. He seems like the villain but I have a feeling it’s not that simple?
BUTTERS: As the series goes on, you will definitely have a greater understanding.
FAZEKAS: He’s not a good guy, but his motives are maybe not what you think they are. And he is certainly not telling us the whole story.
How did Terry come into the picture?
FAZEKAS: I believe ABC casting was the one who suggested him. We have a huge love for his work and when his name was mentioned, it was sort of a no brainer.
BUTTERS: We lucked out where it was just like, “Oh, he’s available? And he wants to do it? Great!”
Just as an aside, as you have in all of your shows, you continue to juggle humor and suspense and drama, particularly the bit where Alex is reading a Chrissy Teigen profile in a magazine at Piper’s bedside and says something to the effect of “I feel like we could be friends.”
FAZEKAS: That’s what’s so fantastic about this whole cast. They’re all really funny, but Donald, Allison, Robert [Bailey, Jr.] (who plays [Jo’s police colleague] Chris), and Clancy, they all have this wonderful comic timing. And Tara and I, our jam is blending genres and just putting everything together. It’s what we did on Agent Carter. And so you can have something really serious right up against something really funny, right up against something fantastic and magical and sci-fi, and it all kind of works. But it really only works because the cast can sort of roll with a lot of different things.
Back to that central question of what constitutes “real.” On Battlestar Galactica, for instance, they called the original robot Cylons “toasters” and there was a faction who believed vehemently that even the “skin jobs” i.e. human-looking models, were still just disposable machines. So I’m guessing there will be varied responses as to what to “do” with Piper: treat her like an appliance or a person?
FAZEKAS: Those are the huge discussions we have in our writers’ room. And half the writing staff is like, “Nope, get rid of it,” and I’m like, “I could not do it.” But it does challenge your perception of the world. I like having the argument.
Is the other big argument about whether to reunite Jo and Alex? After this episode, I’m guessing the audience will really be rooting for that.
FAZEKAS: We love them. And so it’s like, “Well, we don’t want to mess with that.” Right now we’re just letting the characters tell us where to go with that and just let it happen organically. But I know, they’re freaking delightful.