Tara Armstrong has been preoccupied with death since she was a child. The creator behind “Mary Kills People,” a drama that follows a doctor who moonlights as an angel of death for terminal patients, says she has been writing about death as a way to try to figure out how she feels about it.
“I wrote this because I think that it’s important to talk about the topic and not just ignore it,” Armstrong says of “Mary Kills People.” “What we really wanted to do was normalize death and the dying process and present a different kind of death than what we normally see on TV. It’s usually fast and not really explored deeply.”
Ahead of the second season premiere of “Mary Kills People,” Armstrong talks with Variety about increasing the stakes, this season’s new villain, and the importance of keeping up the conversation around death with dignity.
The seasons of “Mary Kills People” are only six episodes long, but you pack in a lot of emotional events. What was most important to you in evolving the story from the first to second season?
Everything needs to matter and everything needs to pay off. We talk about every season as being a movie, with the three-act structure. For season 2, we started in a totally different place. We jumped ahead in time. We wanted to see Mary and Des in a totally different place. Mary is happily working on her own, while Des had been sent to prison as a result of what happened in season 1. We approached season 2 really looking at what was successful from season 1, which was always Mary at the heart of it. Who is this character? It’s a total exploration of her and her past and why she’s doing this.
Why is Mary happier working on her own?
Mary is happy in a way because she has control in not having to work with Des and she doesn’t have to compromise with what or how she wants to do. I think Mary is all about control in many ways and even what she does — helping people die — is a way to control things. The service she provides people is that they are trying to put some sort of control on a time in their lives when they don’t feel like they have any.
How is that happiness tested when Des does come back into her life?
They don’t agree with how to handle a patient, and they kind of break up. In many ways, Des and Mary are the love story of the series. Yes, it’s platonic love, but they are incredibly devoted to one another and so what’s an interesting thing you can do to characters in that way? It’s break them apart. So this season you see them break apart and get back together over the course of [it].
Is it safe to say Des is equally as conflicted in the partnership with Mary this season?
His main struggle this season is Mary, in a way. He’s so devoted to Mary and will go to such lengths to try to protect her this season that it’s really to the detriment of his own sanity and morality and everything. Des, too, even more so this season, is doing this for the right reasons and this work brings so much purpose to his life. As we mentioned in season 1, he had this dream of opening a sort of “death retreat,” as he calls it, so this season he’s working on that.
Des isn’t the only one who knows what Mary is doing, yet there’s a sense of if too many people — or the wrong people — find out she could be turned in. How is that in play this season?
Since Grady met his demise at the end of season 1, we have a new baddie in Olivia. Olivia really challenges Mary this season. [She] has this request to kill her husband, and it really takes both Mary and Des to this dark place. I think Mary is never going to really fully trust Olivia [but] I think on Olivia’s side there’s an admiration. Olivia would love to hang out with Mary and have chardonnay and talk about their kids!
Is there common ground to be found between Mary and Olivia?
We really see Olivia and Mary as mirrors to one another. There are so many similarities to them — they are both mothers who love their daughters and would do anything for them; they’re both running illegal, illicit businesses; they’re sort of both rebels, not conforming to the norms of society. Mary is our hero, but when you have Olivia, who’s the antagonist, and there’s so many similarities between them, it causes you to look at Mary in a different way. Where does she belong? Is she a good guy or a bad guy?
Is there also a threat of her family finding out what she’s doing?
Jess knows her mother is hiding something, she just doesn’t know what it is. That secret creates a divide between them, and that plays out over the course of the season, and it’s kind of like, “Is Mary going to lose her children because she’s not being fully honest with them about who she is and what she’s doing?” That’s something we fully explore.
Where do the patients fall in, and how complicated is it to come up with new and unique stories that show that what Mary is doing is helping them?
This show has elements of other shows — police procedural elements and a sort of cat-and-mouse element — but what makes it different and special are those patient stories. So we knew we wanted to have more that were multiple episode stories so you could get to know them. We have one who you meet in the first episode that you get to know over the course of the six episodes. I did a lot of research in the beginning. When I got this idea, I went into a hospice and talked to the people that worked there and all of the volunteers. I was really interested in the people who choose to make death a part of their life because most of us don’t want to talk about it — we put it on a shelf and don’t want to go there. The people that are staring at it every day, these are such interesting characters.
Although things have not always gone perfectly, Mary’s cases have always seemed to be mercy killings. Will there be ones that challenge that notion this season?
Last season was Mary and Des saving the patients, and this season is the patients saving Mary and Des. They go to these dark places because of this criminal world they’ve ended up in and Olivia coming in with this request, and then it’s the patients and [their] stories and needs that bring Mary and Des back to their purpose when everything else is spiraling out of control. [But] this season we did want to introduce some more complicated patient stories, even in the first episode with [a] couple that wants to die together, to challenge Mary’s ethical boundaries. We talked a lot this season about crossing over lines and boundaries and once you do, can you ever come back from that? So we definitely wanted to introduce more complicated cases, but at the end of the day, I think Mary’s very clear on what she’s doing. She’s helping people die who want to die. She really is driven by this altruistic need to help people, but in doing that, it opens up this chaotic nature into her life.
Do you want to challenge the audience’s idea of what is altruistic and moral with these cases?
I don’t know if it’s about challenging the audience as much. I think it’s just about presenting these stories and the audience is free to make up their minds about it — where they stand on the issue. We really never wanted to be, like, rah-rah euthanasia and present only one side of the argument. Assisted suicide is incredibly complex, and I personally believe it’s important to hear all sides of the argument, and I don’t think it’s ever something that we’re going to completely figure out or resolve. And that’s what makes it interesting as a storyteller — there’s all of these gray areas and we get to explore all of them on the show.
Laws around assisted suicide have changed in many places recently, including Canada and California. Have you noticed a difference in the way people react to the topic or the show?
Everybody in my life and people that I meet that know that I write this show want to talk to me about death, and I have the most interesting conversations with people! It’s very cathartic when we talk about it, and it’s very important to talk about. I end up having these very deep conversations with people that I barely know about what I think happens when we die.
“Mary Kills People” season 2 premieres Mar. 12 at 9 p.m. on Lifetime.