Alexi Hawley talks to EW about wrapping up a major cliffhanger and how national conversations about policing are fundamentally shaping the show.
Credit: ABC

Warning: This article contains spoilers about Sunday night's season 3 premiere of The Rookie.

The Rookie is back, and John Nolan might just be stuck in that titular purgatory forever.

On Sunday night's season 3 premiere of the ABC drama, Officer Nolan (Nathan Fillion) must contend with Detective Armstrong's (Harold Perrineau) frame job that ended season 2 on a cliffhanger. He immediately calls Wesley (Shawn Ashmore) to act as his lawyer, who advises him to stall by making police wait for a warrant to enter his home and to hide the evidence Armstrong planted.

They bring Nolan in completely by the book, a courtesy Wesley notes his brown and black clients would never receive. While Nyla (Mekia Cox) and Sergeant Grey (Richard T. Jones) must contend with the Internal Affairs investigation this situation ignites, Lucy (Melissa O'Neill) and Tim (Eric Winter) confront their old enemy of Rosalind Dyer (Annie Wersching) to dig up — literally — more dirt on Armstrong.

Jackson (Titus Makin) helps keep eyes on Armstrong in the hospital. Meanwhile, Lopez (Alyssa Diaz) reveals her pregnancy to Wesley after he discovers her test in their trash. They decide to keep it a secret when Lopez finally makes detective.

Nolan devises a plan to go after the Derian crime family by going undercover, selling his desperation as a way to get them recorded on a wire. Things go haywire, putting Nolan's life in danger as Ruben Derian invites Armstrong to shoot him. But there are no bullets in the gun, Armstrong gets shot in the crossfire, and Nolan wins out, arresting Ruben.

While Nolan escapes with his life, there's still consequences to face for his and Harper's rogue attempts to investigate Armstrong. Grey chastises them both for "noble cause corruption," and having an "ends justify the means" mentality. He gives them a notice of intent to discipline, which for Nolan means both that his rookie period is extended and that he'll likely never have the opportunity to be promoted beyond a patrol officer.

We called up series creator Alexi Hawley to close the case on this cliffhanger, as well as to discuss what this means for Nolan's future, where season 3 is headed, and how national conversations about policing are fundamentally shaping the show.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You ended season 2 on a cliffhanger, setting us up to pick up where we left off with Armstrong framing Nolan. Since then, we’ve faced a global pandemic and more pertinently, a sweeping social justice movement and a renewed conversation around policing, particularly how it’s depicted on television. How much did that shift your approach to this cliffhanger and how you would resolve it/begin season 3?

ALEXI HAWLEY: It had a huge impact. Both occurrences. The pandemic was first. And so, there were some adjustments made right when we started to break season 3 in terms of time-frames. I was very committed from early on that I didn't want the show to be in masks this season. I just felt like we were escapist, and after however many months of living in a pandemic, we weren't necessarily going to want to watch it on television. The adjustments we made from that were coming in and thinking about the beginning of the season, that's the last 30 days of their rookie year. Then, George Floyd was killed and everything changed. We did a very deep dive into how as a show we could honor the conversations going on and the movement, which involved talking to a lot of people. Obviously, the first episode back is a cliffhanger and so we needed to honor paying off that story, which I think we did with a great amount of intensity. But there were definitely some adjustments we made based on the conversations that were going on.

There were a couple scenes in there that were incredibly necessary. One was the one between Nolan and Wesley, about how Nolan's experience differs from many other people. Specifically, Wesley's clients of color. Him being a white male cop had a profound impact on the way they dealt with him versus the way they would deal with other people who didn't look like him. Then there was the scene with Commander West talking about the fact that Internal Affairs has been made the bad guy. And really has been the bad guy in popular entertainment for decades. IA have always been the rat squad; they've always been the guys that cops can't trust. Really their job is to police the police to keep them from doing bad things. Those scenes probably would not have existed in the form that they have without this movement going on.

You referenced this glimpse into the processes of Internal Affairs. Grey explains the term “Noble Cause Corruption.” This show has always been interested in showing us the nitty-gritty, step by steps of policing, but are those things you felt more compelled to delve into following these conversations?

We've been really committed to showing you the inside baseball of police work in a way that other shows don't do. In the pilot, we had a whole sequence on how to set up a police car. Even taking you through what an arrest and processing looks like. In season 1, when Nolan shot and killed an armed robbery suspect who pulled a gun on him, we took the audience through the process of what should happen, and happens in some places, when an officer does that. The scary thing is that there's almost 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the United States and they don't do things the same way. We've always been invested in getting into what the real is in terms of policing and this season, we dug even deeper. The show was always designed to be aspirational in nature, to try and show an inclusive cast of cops doing the job the way it should be done, but it felt like this year that wasn't good enough. That by focusing on being solely aspirational we were portraying a version of policing that didn't exist for many people. What we could do as a patrol show, because we tell so many different stories within an episode, is to really dig in all season long into a multitude of policing issues that are complicated. Whether it's defunding the police or community policing and that's all stuff that we start to get into after the premiere. Because the premiere had to wrap up this story.

Ok, let's stop the conspiracy theories now. We hear that Armstrong is unconscious and not breathing, but it's never officially confirmed, so is he dead?

Nick is dead, yes. It wasn't my intention necessarily for him to die at the end of the episode. When we were breaking it, I did think that having him around still might have value. But as I got into the script and I got to that scene it really felt like the most powerful version of the story was to have it end in that tragedy.

Nolan getting a letter of reprimand as a rookie means he’s unlikely to ever be able to move beyond being a patrol officer, yet we know it’s his dream to become a detective, so how will this impact his journey going forward?

This season we needed to live in a world where actions have consequences. I firmly believe that the only way that policing changes is if cops start to police themselves. If cops start to change themselves, that is as vital as it is that people take to the streets and bang on doors and do all the things they have to do. Until the police actually decide that they want to become better, the change isn't really going to happen. It felt valuable for us to tell that story and to have Sergeant Grey ultimately say that this ends justify the means mentality is a cancer and there has to be repercussions for it. We have to put our money where our mouth is. It does tie our hands in some way. We basically said that we can't have cops going rogue anymore, because that's not okay. And that's sort of a foundation of TV cop shows. We definitely have set up an obstacle for Nolan which is very real. But it also opens up other paths for Nolan to take which might ultimately be better for him emotionally and as a person. Nolan is a glass-half-full person. He doesn't have a 20-year career staring him in the face. He's 46 years old. That's always been the point of his desire and desperation to get ahead quickly. He doesn't have a long career ahead of him, so what's he going to do now when doors have been shut? That's where growth comes.

Can you explain what his immediate punishment means? He will have to stay a rookie longer than his friends, yes?

His is extended, yes. So, the last 30 days of Jackson and Lucy's rookie year play out in the first 9 episodes. It would have been Nolan's last 30 days, except for what happened at the end of episode 1. Now he has an additional 30 days beyond that to remain a rookie. We have a whole thing where rookies sit in the front row of roll call, and there will come a point where he's the only one left and Jackson and Lucy are now sitting behind him. That's going to be hard, but what's important to us on the show is that Nolan not be bitter about this, that Nolan ultimately understand that the punishment he got was for a reason. He needs to make his peace with it, but that's not always easy to do.

What about for Nyla? She’s just now won respect and trust back, so how will this hurt her going forward?

Nyla is in a different place. To a large extent, she's already had advancement in the career. She was a detective already. She was one of the top undercover cops in the state. She's already been to the mountaintop a little bit. The first episode that she was in was called "Warriors and Guardians," which is really the two views of policing. Her journey in season 2 was to find her way back to becoming a guardian, and Nolan played a big part in that because that's really who he is at his heart is a protector. So, for her the letter of reprimand and the punishment, it hurts, but at the same time, her needs and her desires are really based around her daughter. She'll wear that letter of reprimand without the consequences that it has for Nolan.

You brought Rosalind back into this action again, tying off her storyline with Armstrong. But now she’s clearly intrigued by Nolan. Can we expect to see her again? It seems like she’s definitely not finished with him. Might she be like Castle's 3XK killer and keep returning? 

I don't know honestly. I love that he hung up on her at the end. I do think that she delights in that relationship, and I thought it was super important to have Nolan not. He's not invested in the same way that she is, and he's so burnt by the end of that episode. She might come back. I don't know that she's a 3XK type of character. We do try and keep the show grounded, although within reason, it is television. I'm not saying no, because I love Annie as an actress and her character. But we'd have to come up with a special story that felt grounded for her to come back again.

Lopez is pregnant, but also has just now made detective. How will this complicate things for her?

Alyssa just had a baby in real life. That was part of our journey this season was her calling up to say, "I'm pregnant" and us going, "Okay, great you're pregnant on the show." Because it's 2020 and we're just rolling with everything. But I do think that ultimately it's been a great storyline for her character. It really does add a level of reality to her experience to finally get this job that she wanted so much, but to be pregnant going into it and knowing the consequences that could come if people knew about it. I think it will resonate with a lot of women in the workplace who have had to walk that line. It does add a great layer of drama and complication to her story. How does she navigate being pregnant on the job? How does she navigate when and where to tell people? And then also how long can you really do the action-y part of being a cop when you're pregnant? There's a lot of really rich stuff that we mine with her.

How much is wanting to keep her pregnancy secret going to become a challenge for her and Wesley?

The keeping it secret not as much, but there's some potential complications with the pregnancy which come up down the road. There is definitely a bit of a culture clash between them. He grew up as the only child in a wealthy household with nannies, and she grew up with four older brothers and a mom who worked two jobs. The experience of children and babies are just different in their world, so we do have some fun with that, as well as the different expectations of what a baby needs and how she needs to treat her pregnancy.

What can we expect for our other core characters, especially Lucy, Jackson, and Tim, this season?

In the next episode, Jackson gets a new training officer, played by Brandon Routh who ultimately starts a new storyline for us that's complicated for Jackson. Brandon plays a character who's very polarizing. We get to explore some hard conversations about policing through him. That's a big journey for Jackson is how he navigates being a rookie who literally still can get fired for anything at any moment. How does he navigate having a training officer who he has problems with? Tim and Lucy get drawn into that conversation in some unexpected ways.

How would you tease next week's episode?

At the end of this three part journey, we go back to the normal of our show. We've got some fun storylines going on. Nolan and Harper get assigned to work at a neighborhood community policing center. It's a way for us to get out to the community and deal with the unexpectedness of what we might find there. There's definitely fun to be had, but also some new challenging storylines that we start.

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