SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not watched “Fever,” the second season finale of “The Morning Show,” streaming now on Apple TV Plus.
COVID-19 is still very much a threat in the real world, though with mask mandates and vaccination requirements, businesses have opened back up. But in the world of Apple TV Plus’ “The Morning Show,” lockdown is just beginning.
The second season finale of the fictional morning news drama, titled “Fever,” saw the pandemic really hit the United States. Alex Levy (Jennifer Aniston), who traveled back from Italy where she briefly reconnected with her fallen co-anchor Mitch Kessler (Steve Carell), was diagnosed with COVID at the end of the penultimate episode. The finale followed her harrowing journey through the disease while also exploring how the rest of the team feared for their safety due to exposure to Alex. In the end the UBA team was confronted with having to change how they delivered the news because of something they once didn’t think was big enough to be on their news show.
“The conceit of the season was that everybody just ends up isolated. I really didn’t want to play it through the whole season; I wanted to do it at the end and put it right on the precipice of quarantine to show how isolated we all became from each other and community itself and also how much we needed,” says showrunner Kerry Ehrin.
And as Ehrin previously told Variety, “People who are really sick are so raw and unguarded,” so putting Alex in this position was a way “to get to her a raw place where she could just be honest.”
Alex was sick, yes, but she also had to work. With the pandemic sweeping the country and UBA’s new streaming app tanking, remote work and live-streaming were becoming essential. Alex went live from her home, with Chip (Mark Duplass) producing in another room, and between the comfortable environment and her new state of mind, she spoke more frankly with her audience than ever before, including about those calling for her cancelation.
“We had lots of conversations about cancel culture in the writers’ room. It’s a whole new kind of scrutiny,” Ehrin says. “Before, people watched who you dated and what you were wearing, and now it’s this whole other layer that I think is probably both necessary and exhausting. And we wanted to show that side for a public person.”
The more time spent with Alex speaking directly into her computer, the more important her placement in the frame became for executive producer and director Mimi Leder, who wanted to make the scenes feel as cinematic as possible while still getting inside Alex’s mind.
Leder was cognizant of just how familiar everyone was with Zoom boxes and knew the importance of the background. But she didn’t want anything to distract from the powerful story told through Alex’s words and on her face in these moments.
“It was necessary for her to hit rock bottom in order to start building back up, and when you lose everything, it’s easier to get to the roots of what matters to you,” Leder explains. “Does she have to fit the persona that people expect her to? You don’t have to when you lose everything. So, she gets to that place. She’s tired of condemning herself and I think she’s finally forgiving herself. I think she has somewhat of a liberation — an epiphany — that she really doesn’t care anymore what people think of her and her past. What’s important is to look to the future and reflect on, ‘Who am I now and who can I be? Can I be a better person? Do I need all of the things I thought I needed?'”
Counterbalancing those intimate scenes with Alex were the wider perspective of moments with Bradley (Reese Witherspoon) as she searched New York City streets for her missing brother, and Cory (Billy Crudup), who had to adjust to doing his job behind Plexiglass and then also in a public New York hospital as he helped Bradley.
The latter was shot in a real-life abandoned hospital in Los Angeles, Leder shares. All of the extras in the background were real — not digitally inserted — and the cast and crew were rigorously tested to make sure they could shoot the scene safely but also honestly.
“We looked at images as to what hospitals looked like at that point in time,” Leder says. Production designer Nelson Coates and cinematographer Michael Grady, who shot the finale and Leder wanted the scenes to feel edgy.
“It was hand-held to give the viewer the visceral experience [Bradley] was feeling,” says Leder, who notes that “it was really strange to make it come to life in the middle” of the real-life pandemic.
After Bradley struggles with the need to take care of her brother all season, Leder says that at the end, “There are a lot of forces pushing Bradley to fully claim who she is and acknowledge her love for her brother.” This includes Alex, who Ehrin says acts out of genuine care when she advises Bradley to stop worrying about her own image and to use her platform to ask for help about her brother.
By the end of the season, Bradley has rubbed off on those around her, too, though — namely Cory. “In Season 1 he was in the catbird seat and he was trying to shoot down someone above him, and this year he’s at the top, and it’s a different type of job and it’s less fun for him; it’s more of a moral responsibility. And also, Bradley has had an influence on him and he’s thinking a little bit more from his heart and his sense of morality,” says Ehrin.
This may be why he doesn’t immediately try to go against Paolo’s (Valeria Golino) wishes to try to get her documentary about Mitch ready for release — but Ehrin says that thread is left dangling on purpose because he still “wants to be successful.”
Some other things left to be resolved in a potential third season are what happens with Daniel (Desean Terry), who quit the show-within-the-show and was driving across the country to take his grandfather out of a care home; whether Stella (Greta Lee) will also leave because she hasn’t been able to enact change quickly enough within UBA; and if Laura (Julianna Margulies) riding out the pandemic in Montana will lead to the end of her relationship with Bradley. But one thing that Ehrin explicitly states she does not want the show to do in the future is depict how the U.S. handled COVID long-term.
“I wanted to make it feel like it was very much here, it was happening, it was quick,” says Ehrin of the Season 2 finale, but moving forward she thinks it should be about “moving past it to the other side.”
“Part of it is just practical. COVID just separates people and everyone has something on their face,” she continues. “It was funny, when they first came to me about rewriting the season and putting COVID in it, my initial feeling was, ‘Why are we going to want to watch anything about COVID in a year?’ This was the way I thought I could talk about it but it doesn’t have to be front and center constantly; it created a nice shape for the season.”