Gossip Girl showrunner on the midseason Thanksgiving return: 'Every secret is going to come out in the worst possible way'
This Thanksgiving, there's one more reason to be thankful: Gossip Girl is finally back.
The HBO Max series returns after a three-month hiatus on Thursday, November 25. The second half of its first season arrives just in time because — we need answers!
Let's recap. When we left our favorite Upper East Siders, Obie (Eli Brown) and Julien (Jordan Alexander) were sharing a kiss, despite the fact that Obie is still in a relationship with Julien's sister, Zoya (Whitney Peak). But that wasn't the only messy love triangle. Audrey (Emily Alyn Lind), Aki (Evan Mock), and Max (Thomas Doherty) gave in to their shared urges and embarked on a steamy threesome. Elsewhere, Aki's dad (Malcolm McDowell) decided, incorrectly, to out his son as gay on live television (Aki identifies as bisexual), and he also left his kid a voicemail warning him to stay away from Julien for the foreseeable future.
Since we don't have a Gossip Girl account to get the scoop, we turned to showrunner Joshua Safran for some answers. As it turns out, Thanksgiving on the Upper East Side is way more dramatic than your average family gathering. Who'd have thought it? Safran — whose dog makes a cameo in episode 7 — teases what's to come and which episodes he's most excited for everyone to see. (Spoiler: It's all of them!)
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: One big cliffhanger from the midseason finale was Obie and Julien making out. How do we see that play out when the show returns?
JOSHUA SAFRAN: The whole first episode back is about the after-effects of that choice. You learn how far that choice actually went and whether that's a choice that both people are making forever, or just made in a moment. It's prime Gossip Girl to not be able to actually deal with how you feel about something because Gossip Girl is on your back ready to expose it. I feel like we're back in prime Gossip Girl Thanksgiving territory, where every secret is going to come out in the worst possible way.
It felt like Julien was really making some progress for a minute there, but kissing your sister's boyfriend is... not great. Is she going to continue to do the work or do we see a regression there?
She constantly is going to struggle. It's just three steps forward, three steps back. Julien herself has to come to grips with that in an upcoming episode; the fact that progress for her isn't always a straight line ahead and can you actually be okay with that? Or do you just go, screw it, forget progress, I'm just going to be who I am, all the bad and all the good. That's a big chunk of her arc.
Do you ship Julien and Obie or Zoya and Obie?
Oh, God! Honestly, I would have to say that I ship Julien/Obie because Zoya's too good to get sucked into them. I think Obie and Julien are really messy, complicated people and Zoya had the luxury of actually not being from here and it hasn't yet been fully corrupted. So therefore I don't want her with Obie because whatever happened to Julien and Obie, will just happen to her.
I feel like Obie doesn't like himself as much when he's with Zoya because it shows him he's not as good a person as he likes to think he is. Like, Zoya is who he wants to be, but he's just not there yet.
Totally. Obie is actually able to see just how not as good as he thought he was, he is. [Laughs.] Both he and Julien are going through a major reckoning throughout this season. The breakup in episode one wasn't actually the thing that truly is going to shake them up. It's actually what is happening in episode seven. They're going totally down new paths inside themselves.
Another major cliffhanger was Aki's dad outing him to the world on television. How is he doing with that? Is he reeling?
He's dealing with it in the only way he knows how. It's brand new to him, but as the episode progresses, he learns how to control his own narrative. I'd say that Julien and Obie's arcs in the second half of the season are them melting down and realizing they aren't as good as they thought they were, Aki's arc is realizing he is as good as he thinks he is.
Okay, then there's the mysterious voicemail Aki's dad left him, warning him to stay away from Julien. How quickly do we find out what that's all about?
In the first episode, that voicemail that he's not paying attention to ends up blowing everything wide open. I remember the day in the writer's room, we came up with the idea that... you know how visual voicemail always mangels words? We had a lot of fun with that. The voicemail doesn't even make sense; first, it calls Aki, "A-Keto" because our jokes are always about Keto in the writers' room and then it says "Stay away from hooligans." So not only does the voicemail blow up in everyone's face, but it is also not even properly translated.
I will share this about what's coming, at some point during shooting episode 2, I went to Jordan and I said, "Something bad is going to happen to Julien midway to the end of season 1. Do you want to know or do you not want to know?" Some actors prefer to not know so they can be closer to their reaction when it happens and other actors are like, "No, I want to know, so I can prepare for it." She thought about it and she was like, "actually I would like to know." So I told her. She was kind of like Gossip Girl because she was the only one who knew what was going to come. She knew months in advance. Then when it happened, it's a very sensitive thing, so I included her in the conversations about that and how it was going to play out.
Eek! Very intriguing. Okay, we can't not talk about the threesome. How are Audrey, Aki, and Max dealing with that moving forward?
They're all, like Julien and Obie, dealing with the after-effects and a choice they've made. It's just always fun to work with characters that have experienced something good, but still can't handle it really. It's very easy to write about how hard it is to deal with something when it's gone terribly wrong, but actually to have something be very enjoyable and they're still freaking out over it — that's a really fun place to write from. I really loved how Thomas, Emily, and Evan just really embraced the screwball comedy of that. It's very fun to watch that moving forward. These characters were created to look at how they relate to each other and I'd say this really is an evolving storyline for them, how much they grow and change through this experience. It begins now, but it's going to continue for the second half of the season in a very deep way. Max is the one, I think, that has the most reverberating inside of him to deal with because I don't think he's ever had sex with feelings before.
How is Max also dealing with the fallout with Rafa (Jason Gotay)? We saw him send the video of them together to Gossip Girl, but is he also struggling emotionally with everything that went down there?
I definitely think there's more to mine in terms of what Max went through emotionally from that.
We also saw Rafa delete the video, but Kate (Tavi Gevinson) and Jordan (Adam Chanler-Berat) had already seen it by that point. How is that going to play out between the Gossip Girls, so to speak?
Let's just say Rafa will do anything he possibly can to save his own ass when it does not deserve saving at all and I'd say Kate and Jordan pay a very big price for that.
It feels like Kate's relationship with the Gossip Girl account and her students is becoming unhealthy. Does she continue to obsess over it in the back half of the season?
Kate started this project believing that she could control the outcome and, in this second half of the season, she's very quickly going to realize that nobody can control anything, especially when you leave it in the hands of the world. It may all come crashing down on her and the question is, who will it take down with her?
I love this idea of exploring how the sins of the parents affect their kids lives. Why is that something you wanted to dig into?
We always talked about that in the original in the writer's room — the big bads every season always turned out to be one of the parents. Whether it's like Lily having done something to Serena or Bart Bass and Chuck, Rufus lying to Jenny and Dan about having siblings, there was a lot there. There was always some huge secret that they were behind that was causing the drama. So this was just a way to continue that line. It was funny, I was writing a scene today for season 2 and I realized it's really interesting that it's more out in the open this time around. When you first met Bart Bass, you weren't sure what you thought about him, but Obi's parents and Aki's dad are conservatives. It's a totally different type of world so expect those characters to be morally corrupt, but their children don't fully understand that or see that and they struggle with that. It's a way to really look at that. I think the country has moved a little bit more towards conservatism and although both of those characters are not American, they're still grappling with that, they're reckoning with that. So it just felt like the natural thing to do it as the series progresses, there's more and more of that.
Are the kids starting to stand up to their parents a little more though?
You see them try. Whether they succeed...
Would you ever do a flashback episode with Zoya and Julien's mom, like you did on the original with Rufus and Lily?
We've actually talked about it, not just as something to do later on. Karena Evans, the director of episodes one and two of the show, is an actress as well and that's her in the photos in the show. So we've always talked about wanting to do that. We don't really know much about their mom — even the girls don't know much about it — so forgetting a flashback episode, even a contemporary episode where they want to learn more about their mother, is something that we've actually talked about a lot in the writers' room. But she definitely will never be alive. It'll never be a Bart Bass situation.
Oh, thank goodness. So the first episode back is the Thanksgiving episode. How was having pretty much all of the cast together in one room?
Oh, my God. I mean, it was a dream come true. It was so funny because I directed that episode. You don't often get rehearsal on television because you're shooting five days a week, but this was 17 actors and we had 20 pages basically so we had to bring them in. It was great. It was a challenge for me; it's the most page count I believe that HBO has ever done in a day. They were like, "How on earth are you going to do 11 and a half pages in a day?" And they were like, "If you think you can do it, we'll trust you, but we've never seen it done before." We were able to pull it off, which is incredible and that's because a) we had that rehearsal day so we were able to figure out where everything needed to be and b) those actors, each and every one of them is like the first chair of an orchestra. They just have this ability. You don't need to do multiple takes. They're just so in it because a lot of them are theater actors so they're used to this. Some of the fun things that happened were certain details that I didn't even think of, that just came out through rehearsal, which I'm really grateful for. For instance, when everybody throws their coats on Adam who plays Jordan. I knew they were going to give their coats to him, but then Thomas at the very end threw his coat and it landed on Adam's head in rehearsal and we were like, "Done!" Then Adam knew how to catch it with his head. It was just a lot of fun.
Do you have one episode coming up you're most excited for people to see?
Well, obviously I have to say them all. I would say episode 8, I'm very excited for them to see because the secret about the voicemail really comes home. I love episode 9 so much because it takes place during SantaCon.
Ah, the worst day in New York City!!
Exactly! It's like a long action sequence and that was technically so hard to shoot because we shot on subways and in cars. It's like an episode-long action sequence and that was really fun. Episode 10 has major cameos from the first Gossip Girl, so that episode is incredibly fun for that reason. Episode 11...I don't want to give it away, but a lot happens in episode 11, in that time-honored Buffy or Alias tradition where the second last episode wraps up a lot, but then one big thing happens. So I'm excited about that. Then the finale we went up to Hudson. Everybody goes to Aki's dad's Hudson estate for New Year's Eve and a lot of stuff goes down. That was really great to get out of the city — in a time-honored Gossip Girl tradition — and to stage this New Year's Eve party, which was awesome. They all look incredible. It was the chance to go out on a major high. So I'm excited for them all!
So is that where we end the season, on New Year's Eve?
Yes, and it's a climactic New Year's Eve countdown.
I would expect nothing less.
Gossip Girl returns Thursday, Nov. 25 with episodes 7, 8, and 9.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
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