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Julie Plec on Saying Goodbye to ‘The Originals’ and Hello to Directing

The fourth season finale of “The Originals,” which aired in June of last year, might have served as a series finale. The CW’s supernatural drama — centered on the vampires, werewolves, witches and hybrids of New Orleans — succeeded in saving its youngest cast member Hope (Summer Fontana) from the Hollow while forcing the Mikaelson siblings to separate forever, or risk the danger returning. Although apart, most of the Mikaelsons were at peace — and finally able to focus on something other than their dysfunctional bloodline.

But series creator Julie Plec did not design the episode, entitled “The Feast of All Sinners,” to be a series ender. “When you don’t know what your future is, you want to protect the show in two ways: You want to be able to feel like you’ve given it a finish that won’t betray the audience but you also want to be able to say, ‘Hey audience and corporate, there are more stories to be told here,’” she tells Variety. So when the CW came calling for a fifth and final season, she felt she had an opportunity for a “clean start point” for one final run.

“We were able to do a big time jump — we were able to come back to these characters after [them] having lived seven years of their lives without each other,” Plec says of the season 5 premiere episode entitled “Where You Left Your Heart.” “We had everybody in a new place with a new attitude and new experience. It was actually really fun to be able to say, ‘OK what’s everyone been doing and how can we put them back together?’ And I think it also adds stakes because the thing that tore them apart in the first place was successful for seven years.”

Plec, who signed a new overall deal with Warner Bros. TV in October, acknowledges that not everyone gets a choice of how and when to end a series. But saying goodbye to “The Originals” this year follows in the footsteps of getting a final season sendoff for its predecessor, “The Vampire Diaries,” last year.

“If you are able to have the luxury and get the blessing to have a final season, everything changes,” she notes. “You really are shaping a story with a real beginning, middle and a true end. And that’s the most satisfying thing for the writers and hopefully the audience.”

Ahead of the fifth and final season premiere of “The Originals,” Plec talks with Variety about working with the network to craft the ending, how plans for a potential spinoff affected characters’ arcs, and her plans to continue directing.

What was the discussion like with the CW over how and when to end “The Originals”?

There’s probably no bigger fan of the show than [network prexy] Mark [Pedowitz], so it wasn’t exactly a debate. He was like, “If I can keep it on the air, then I’m keeping it on the air,” which was great. I think they saw what we were able to do and what an emotional experience it was for the crew, the writers, the network, the studio, the audience, and any time they have an opportunity to replicate that, I think they’re going to do that.

The fourth season ended with the characters — namely Elijah [Daniel Gillies] — well removed from the typical dangers and detriments of their family. How did you approach having to undo that?

It’s a tragic construct — a deeply dysfunctional, wildly codependent, damaged and abused family that have had to endure 1000 years of that same dynamic. And they’ve found pockets of happiness and love within a very difficult upbringing. It’s great for Elijah that he’s happy right now, but Elijah has always been completely defined by the role he has in that family and the guilt he carries for his part in the cycle of abuse — as one does with survivor’s guilt. I think there’s still more to be told there, and if and when he is reunited with his family, does he want to have anything to do with them? Does he build to break away? Can he help himself? Can he quit Klaus? One of the strongest foundations of the season, for me, is how Elijah will react to learning that he’s got a past that he’s completely unaware of.

Similarly, how did you approach how Klaus [Joseph Morgan] has handled being not only without his brother but also without his daughter this whole time?

It’s interesting because the opening that we’re telling is that Klaus has just spiraled back into his old behavior and has lost his mind and is “Klaus the Mad King.” But I think the central question as we start the season about Klaus is just how he keeps himself together — has he reverted back into the darkest parts of himself? As we know, Klaus does not do well without the foundational support of Elijah, and his love for his daughter was the only thing keeping him walking a straight line, but now he doesn’t even have her and he’s separated from his family, so what kind of madness is he living in, and are we going to be able to pull him out of it?

How does Hope’s [now played by Danielle Rose Russell] power manifest itself now that she’s older — is she still the positive salvation, or is her path more dark and destructive?

Hope’s entire journey is centered around the question of what kind of burden is it to place on an unborn child that she is this family’s only hope? As you grow up with that burden and are ultimately the one responsible for tearing said family apart, what does that do to your psyche, what does that do to your sense of self? Here’s this girl with all of this kind of magic broiling around inside of her, and how is that going to manifest if she takes after her daddy and his temper problems? I think that it’s all part of growing up. When you’re born into a complicated family and you’re trying hard to find your true self but you’ve inherited whatever disease that gets passed down through the DNA of that family — you’re just trying to be your best self. Sometimes that disease can prevent you from being able to do that and make it a much bigger fight, but when all is sad and down, this is a girl who is deeply loved and wants to live up to that as well. So she’s constantly struggling to be that foundation that her family needs, which is not always easy.

What was the balance of bringing back fan favorites for the final season and introducing new players?

Caroline has a fairly big presence in this season, which for me had a lot to do with the fact that she’s basically the person taking care of Klaus’ child while Klaus is off doing whatever it is Klaus is doing. And now they can communicate, not as the little teenager and the big bad boy but as two parents who can use each other for support and advice and a little bit of tough love. I like that Kol and Davina drop in for family dinner every now and then for the occasional helpful witch spell. And conversely I like that Hayley has a new boyfriend. We [also] had 41-minutes to tell an incredible, all-consuming love story for Elijah. And a different actress never would have been able to do that — Jaime [Murray] really sold it. And I believed them — I believed that they had fallen in love and were happy and they were kinds of meant to be. That’s a great character dynamic to play. We want the Elijah we know to come back and be with Hayley and be with his family, and yet watching this couple blossom before our very eyes all in the span of this one episode makes this want really difficult.

How did you balance the idea of giving beloved characters satisfactory endings even while considering that others could continue on in a spinoff?

Outside of Hope herself we really didn’t think about the spinoff, in terms of how we were going to end the series. The spinoff has always just been a nugget of hope that lives in the recesses of my mind, but I didn’t want to make any real decisions based on a maybe for the future. I really, really wanted to bring Elijah and Klaus and Rebekah and Freya and Kol and Marcel and Vincent — I wanted to bring each of those characters on a final journey and take them to whatever their definition of their end of this journey is.

So looking specifically at Hope, should a spinoff go, do you see her akin to the kind of antihero Klaus was often considered at the start of “The Originals” or more like the untapped potential of Elena in “The Vampire Diaries”?

I always sort of see her as the Angel to whoever the Buffy is. She’s lived a lot, she’s experienced a lot, she’s faced death, and I think the important thing to remember as we head into this season is that death is always a threat — and often successful! I like the idea that at 17 she’s seen more, done more, felt more and loved more than most people at that age.

Where is your focus for the future, in terms of writing and directing?

In a perfect world, you write and you create and then every now and then you get to direct that which you’ve written and created, if you’re lucky. I’m opening the door to being able to try to do both as much as I can because it is a perfect blend of all of the skill sets I’ve learned over the years. [Directing] allows me to get directly to camera and say, “OK this is what I want.” There’s something incredibly freeing about that. That being said, though, showrunning is like that thing you can’t quit. As much as you want to go home at the end of the day and have a weekend, take some time off, showrunning is the draw of the crazy, and I deeply love it. I would never want to forsake one for the other — I want to do both.

You’ve given a lot of opportunities to your actors to step behind the camera and direct episodes, as well. Is that something you often advise actors and other writers to try?

It’s a difficult question to answer because on one hand I have tremendous amount of admiration for directors who only direct — because they know camera and they know light and they know physical and creative acts of directing better than anybody else. Having done it and realizing all I don’t know yet, I would never diminish that — the power and experience of a seasoned filmmaker. That being said, the people who are responsible for the tone and performance being able to get behind the camera and apply that perspective to an episode of television often results in something really special and really high quality. As long as the rest of the crew and the team are there to help them and support them in the things that they don’t know. Because it can feel like you’re embarking on a journey with only half of the knowledge of how to do the job, but the half that they have is instinctively so powerful it’s worth holding them up a little bit on the other side. I would recommend it for anybody [but] I would recommend not stealing jobs from people who do it for a living.

How helpful do you think it was that you got to start directing on your own show, where the cast and crew already respected your authority as the boss?

It absolutely helped and it absolutely saved me because of course nobody was going to let me fail, but I will say, in defense of the writer directing, episodic television is so much about the beats and the tone and you can have a wildly seasoned filmmaker that misses 75% of the beats on the page but shoots gorgeous footage and then you can have a writer who wouldn’t dare miss a beat because they understand the power of how important that is. So it really comes down to, if you’re a new [director] coming out of the showrunning role or a writer role, it’s about defending and recognizing the beats and making sure they’re photographed. That’s the first step to being a director.

“The Originals’” final season premieres April 18 at 9 p.m. on the CW.

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