The Expanse showrunner weighs in on Fred Johnson shocker
SPOILER ALERT: This interview contains information relating to major plot points from the season 5, episode 4 installment (titled “Guagamela”) of The Expanse.
First, a rebel faction of the OPA attacked Earth and Mars. Now, they have attacked their own. On Amazon Prime Video's latest “Guagamela” episode of The Expanse, Marco Inaros’ Free Navy set its sights on Butcher-turned-Belter hero Fred Johnson and the Protomolecule sample he had hidden in his office aboard Tycho station — assassinating Johnson, and sending in an impenetrable salvage mech recovery droid to steal the sample.
We spoke to showrunner Naren Shankar about the extraordinary Protomolecule extraction sequence and the decision to kill Fred Johnson. We also asked the showrunner if he ever considered keeping Johnson (who also dies in the books on which the show is based) alive, and how actor Chad Coleman (who played Johnson and knows a little something about being killed off from his time on The Walking Dead) took the news of his impeding doom. Shankar discussed all of that, plus the long-awaited reunion of former flames Naomi and Marco, and the new home of Clarissa Mao.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So, book readers all knew this was probably coming at some point with Fred Johnson being murdered. Did you ever consider giving him a stay of execution?
NAREN SHANKAR: Well, we actually changed it because he lives longer in the books. He goes out in a different way. But as we were going through the events of episode 4, we really started talking about feeling the cost of this particular loss. And it was such a nice relationship that was building up with Fred and Holden over the season. We realized that that would be a reasonable change to make from the books and actually put a real cost on it. And it does ignite a number of other elements in the storyline.
And we brought back Bull, who wasn't in season 3. We bring Bull back into the fold. So we did a little bit of rejiggering there, but I think it worked out really nicely. And it was such a shocking, shocking moment when Fred gets killed. It's pretty wild.
I remember talking with Chad when he got killed off on The Walking Dead. How was his sendoff from The Expanse?
Before these things happen and before script, I always try to talk to the actors first. Chad’s been on the show for a long time and he's such a pro. I called him up, and I said, "So, it's the end of the line for Fred Johnson." And he goes, "Huh, I figured that."
It was cool. But he's such an interesting character. And one of the interesting things about it is Holden's recollection, and this happens later in the season, that’s just sort of the kind of guy that Fred was and how he never really lied to him. He was always straight with him, even though no one trusted him. And anyway, yeah, that was a big moment.
Tell me about filming that scene with the robot taking the Protomolecule from Fred's office, because that is one of the best scenes you guys have ever done. And I imagine that was not easy to execute at all.
That was not easy to execute at all. The director, Nick Gomez, did a great job with that. And we knew we were going to have that neck come out of that thing very early on, so we started the concept art, the development of that, quite early in the process.
We sort of based it on ... I saw an article on this undersea robot that was used for working on fiber optic power lines and sort of underwater work. We sort of based it on that because it had a great unfolding capability. And we just started developing that on the concept art side. And if you look very closely, it's a Savage Industries neck. Adam Savage created that mech's neck in season 3.
That scene was awesome.
Yeah. It was super. I mean, those are always the toughest to film because it's visual effects, live-action, and has CG and a performer sort of mocking the performance of the mech. It's a combination of so many different elements. Those are always the trickiest to pull off. That was one of the most complex sequences we did this season.
Switching gears, big Naomi and Marco reunion here. Just tell me what it was like getting these two together, because obviously we've all been wondering what it was going to look like and feel like. I'm sure it was exciting moment for you as well.
Oh, yeah. This is something that we've been talking about and hinting at for years, and to have it happen under these circumstances, and especially at the end of episode 4. The funny thing about episode 4 is so much stuff happens in it. And then you go, "Wait, wait, there's a lot more to go." And I hesitate to use the word a little bit, but it is descriptive — the cruelty with which he greets her? It's just brutal. I mean, I think he's angry that Filip did this. And so he's prepared something to just put the screws to her. It's mean.
Another thing that I was really looking forward to — and I'm sure you were also looking forward to, but also wondering, "How the hell are we going to do this?" — is the maximum security prison stuff with Clarissa.
That was a tricky one. We ended up shooting it at the base of the CN tower in Toronto. It's under the footer of it, so you're literally underneath what was at one time the tallest building in the world and this massive concrete footer. And it was a place where they had done tours and virtual reality things, kind of games and stuff years ago, but it was such a great location. And I felt like it was one of the things that we looked around for a bit, because it's a tough one to get that kind of scope. It's hard to build and you really wanted to get the sense of a tomb.
It's a combination of two sets. One is the old Toronto stock exchange, the entry point. So the idea being that it was just this kind of old building or an old facility that had been converted into a prison. So the upstairs has got this kind of nice deco sort of a look to it. And the overhead shot that you go there is a hydro plant outside of Toronto.
And then you go into it and you're in this country bunker and that's the new side of it. It was pretty cool. And I think it's one of the reasons we did so much more location work this season. It really felt like it opened up the scope of the show in a great way.