‘The Morning Show’ Boss on Dramatizing the ‘Absurd’ Aspects of a Sexual Predator’s Death, Bringing COVID to UBA

The Morning Show Season 2 - Jennifer Aniston
Apple TV Plus

SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not watched “Testimony,” the penultimate episode of “The Morning Show” Season 2, streaming now on Apple TV Plus.

How should you remember a once-beloved public figure who fell from grace when it turned out he was a sexual predator?

After an episode in which “The Morning Show” characters are scrambling to confirm the death of their former colleague Mitch Kessler (Steve Carell), they are faced with his memorial in the penultimate episode of Season 2, titled “Testimony.”

Different staffers face different kinds of grief when Mitch’s ex-wife Paige (Embeth Davidtz) asks them to attend the event because her kids have asked about their father’s friends. Alex Levy (Jennifer Aniston) is one of the hardest ones hit, not only because of her past intimacy with him, but also because she was one of the last people to see him alive, visiting him in Italy and having an emotional confrontation. Things are similarly complex for Mia (Karen Pittman), who also had a deep, personal relationship with Mitch that has now been soured by his darker truths being revealed.

“The whole show, to me, is about the complications and messiness of being human and people having both altruistic impulses and also self-preservation impulses — how those things are often at odds with each other and how we’re all in the mud with that constantly. This was part of it,” showrunner Kerry Ehrin tells Variety.

The memorial is only one part of “Testimony,” though, as the season is also inching toward the explosion of COVID-19 in the U.S. Bradley (Reese Witherspoon) has been juggling personal life complications as well — both with her addict brother Hal (Joe Tippett) resurfacing, and her romantic relationship with Laura (Julianna Margulies) coming out in the press. In this episode things also finally came to a head with Maggie’s (Marcia Gay Harden) book.

Here, Ehrin talks with Variety about juggling all of these big plot points with emotional turns for the characters.

Mitch’s actions drove the story in Season 1 but after keeping him so isolated from his former UBA family in Season 2, how did you determine how big to make the memorial moment?

I wanted the memorial to be a much bigger set piece and really provide more social commentary on the politics of it with who shows up, who shouldn’t show up, is it OK to show up — the absurd aspects of a death like that. Ultimately we didn’t have the space to do it. We had already signed Marty [Short], so I knew we wanted to have him there, and we knew Alex was going to come in and say something, so it got truncated to that.

Did the writers’ room draw on any specific real-world examples of people’s responses to those in the industry who were found out to be much more problematic than first expected when the speeches about Mitch were being written?

Not really, no. A goal of that in the zeitgeist of the world and certainly thinking about that story is, how do you categorize people that this has happened to, and do you separate out good and bad or does it all become bad? That was the question everybody was grappling with.

Alex has this slow reckoning through the episode of how problematic she has been, especially when she and Laura discuss her ghosting Laura after she was outed years ago. That, plus her grief over Mitch, certainly puts her in a very emotional place. How much is that mental state affecting the fact that she, a woman so used to having to put on a certain persona in public, not only speaks so freely but also is later surprised when she is filmed? 

The intention of that speech was originally a person who was trying to justify her own crimes through talking about this other person. It went through a lot of different transformations. There was a scene where they were taking people’s phones. I had to make a lot of cuts for budget and time and that was unfortunately one of them. And it was originally written a little different; Jen worked with it a little bit. It was a little more unhinged, I would say, and I think she was less poised. It was meant to be a person where all of her worst fears just happened: She has this terrible fear of being exposed for things she feels guilty for, she went back and had this grueling reconnection with this person that she both loves and hates, and then she just left her job, so she is in such an alien place for her. I think she is not fully dealing with sound reason or logic. But in a way, it’s more sound and reasonable because she doesn’t give a shit anymore; she’s just doing what she wants to do.

Bradley has also struggled with image a lot this season. How much of the way she takes Maggie to task was to separate herself as a quote-unquote good journalist, compared to Maggie’s sensationalism, versus feeling a need to stick up for Alex?

I think Bradley was at a point where she could have buried Alex and she didn’t. She did what she believed was correct. Bradley, as a character, very much has her own rudder of what’s right and wrong, and I think in that moment, she was like, “Why are you trying to bury her? That’s not fair.”

What inspired having everything with Hal also come to such a big point as rehab in this episode, keeping Bradley so far away from the memorial?

Bradley is embracing being successful and embracing trying to live her life as a successful person. And I think Laura is a really good example of that and a role model for her. And her family is the thing that has always pulled her back down. So it seemed like an interesting predicament to put her in about, “Do I write off my crazy family? They’re not putting any effort into changing, but do I have the nerve and the fortitude to turn my back on them? And is it the right thing to do?” Everything goes back to these questions of, is that right or is that wrong? And I don’t know. People who have dealt with a person with substance abuse in their family, it’s definitely hard to turn your back on them and it’s also hard to let them keep defining your life.

Speaking of Laura, there have been moments this season where it seems like Bradley has needed more of a mentor than a girlfriend. How did you walk that line, and how much was determined by Reese and Julianna’s chemistry?

Honestly, I get attracted to people in my own life that I feel like I learn from. Every significant other that I’ve had has been a bit of a mentor to me, so it’s just my personal take on relationships. [Laughs.] It was definitely in the scenes and they both just picked it up and obviously ran with it in a really great way. And I think the other element of it is that Bradley has never had parents, and I think that this person is a little bit of a parent to her. And I think that’s also something that happens with significant others: We become each other’s parents. [Laughs.] And I think Bradley is sorely in need of a parent.

There are a few things sprinkled throughout the season that seem to call back to Julianna’s past work. The way she did the doctor hand scrub in this episode, most prominently. Were you intentionally tossing Easter eggs in?

[Laughs.] No, that was not intentional.

At the very end of the episode, Alex is diagnosed with COVID. Why did you want to do that?

People who are really sick are so raw and unguarded, and the idea of putting Alex in that situation was really interesting to me. She, all season, has been worried about her image and who she is and how people perceive her, and to get to her a raw place where she can just be honest — to me, it really is the culmination of what we started in the pilot, which was where the foundation of her world cracked when the truth came out about Mitch. The foundation got more and more messed up, and she had to redefine herself inside, and this is a coming-of-age arc of a person who’s coming to a stronger place of knowing who they are and feeling like they don’t have to fit into someone else’s idea of what they should be.

“The Morning Show” Season 2 streams new episodes Fridays on Apple TV Plus.