SPOILER ALERT: This article contains details about the season one finale of Prodigal Son.
Michael Sheen’s love of the theater – he has played Caligula and Hamlet – and an incredibly lucky slice of timing meant that Fox’s Prodigal Son got the gory end that its creators had always planned.
The first season of the serial killer thriller – Sheen plays ‘The Surgeon’ Martin Whitly – was set to run 22 episodes but due to the Welsh actor’s commitments to tread the boards, creators and showrunners Chris Fedak and Sam Sklaver filmed the final two episodes before they had shot episodes 18 and 19.
This meant that while the show, which is produced by Berlanti Productions in association with Warner Bros. Television and Fox Entertainment, missed a couple of cases of the week, it was able to wrap up its serialized arc before production was shut down due to COVID-19.
The series centers on Tom Payne’s Malcolm Bright, son of ‘The Surgeon’, who as a child was responsible for enabling the police to arrest his father. He has not seen his father in ten years after joining Quantico. Now a profiler, formerly with the FBI, until he was fired, and currently consulting for the New York Police Department, Bright is forced to confront his father after a copycat serial killer uses Whitly’s methods of killing. He finds himself drawn back into constant contact with his father as he must both use Whitly’s insights to help the police solve particularly horrible crimes and battle his own inner demons.
Across the season Bright, and his friends in blue, including Lou Diamond Phillips’ Gil Arroyo, Aurora Perrineau’s Detective Dani Powell and Frank Harts’ Detective JT Tarmel, have solved a slew of cases, often slightly unconventionally.
Then, there’s the dysfunctional family unit, which consists of Halston Sage’s Ainsley Whitly, Malcolm’s sister, and his mother, Bellamy Young’s Jessica Whitly.
In the season finale, Like Father…, Bright continues to unravel as the mystery of the girl in the box comes to a head. Dermot Mulroney, who plays sexy villain Nicholas Endicott, starts to show his true colors and the Whitlys must decide to what lengths they are willing to go in order to take him down.
Below, Fedak and Sklaver tell Deadline how they put together the season finale amidst the Coronavirus chaos, explain how they got away with that gruesome scene and talk through plans going forward as they are “cautiously optimistic” of being renewed.
DEADLINE: How are you feeling now that season one is done?
Chris Fedak: It’s always an adventure and a learning experience when you’re working on a first season of a show. It’s so exciting to make a thriller in 2020 that is allowed to do what we’re allowed to do and to make a family show to explore these characters. I’m really proud of what we were able to do, as proud as you can be about a show about a father who is a serial killer and that’s delightfully disturbing.
Sam Sklaver: So many things have to break your way to get a television show. With no real planning because of the schedule, we had to shoot our finale and penultimate episode, we had to shoot in February, we were so fortunate. When the world slowly started to shut down, we knew that we were able to tell the season long story that we had always intended to. We were so lucky in that way and I feel so bad for other shows that weren’t able to get to where they wanted to. It’s dumb luck and I’m grateful.
You shot your final two episodes in February to accommodate Michael Sheen’s theater commitments, is that right?
Fedak: What we had to do was during that last week of shooting, as it became obvious over the course of a couple of days that we would have to shut down and then we weren’t even sure if we would be able to come back, what we did was quickly scrapped what we had planned to shoot and we shot two scenes and a couple of inserts that would allow us to bridge the gap between episodes 18 and 21. We quickly made a move to cover the serialized storytelling in those two episodes, compacting it down into two scenes.
The final episode takes an unexpected turn with Ainsley ultimately killing Nicholas Endicott. Was that always the plan?
Sklaver: That was always the ending we were building to. We had it in the pitch to Fox when we sold the show, we loved the idea of ending it with Michael Sheen saying ‘my girl’.
Fedak: This show, at its heart, is Tom’s performance, an exploration of a person struggling with the complex PTSD of having a serial killer for a father and all of the things attached to that. He’s our center, our north star, we’re always building it around him. But one of the things that we started to get into as we started to explore the Ainsley character and everyone else in the show, we realised you’re allowed to have issues, problems. We thought the more that Ainsley seemed like she was normal by saying she just didn’t feel affected by her father because she was five, we know that at five you’re forming memories that will stay with you for the rest of your life, so that was a character that we wanted to spend more time with. Then we saw what Halston Sage brought to the character, a kind of wit and charm and edge and ambition, that led into where we wanted to take the character and also wanted to explore in season two. What exactly what will those last few moments of this season mean. Not only for her but for Bright and why didn’t he pull the trigger.
Sklaver: It always very obvious from the pilot that we were telling a story of a father/son relationship and how Malcom was affected by his father and how he felt there was some sort of destiny, or a cloud over him. Secretly, we knew that was a very sexist thing to only concentrate on Malcolm and how he would be affected, of course, his sister would be affected as well. We were sort of doing a card trick the entire time, we knew we were getting excited to tell a bigger story but I don’t know we were telling such a small story that the audience was wanting more. I was very happy at the end of our show that there’s other crazy stuff happening in this world that we don’t know about and Martin Whitly’s reach is much grander than we’d ever imagined.
Fedak: Also, the idea of Malcom Sheen is gen-pop is delightful.
So going forward, we might see the world more through Ainsley’s eyes?
Sklaver: Exactly. But I also think we could see it through Jessica’s viewpoint. To a smaller extent, Gil’s. Everyone who is in Martin’s life, the idea at the core of this show is what if your father was a serial killer but I’m just as fascinated by the idea of what if your husband was a serial killer. So, I do think, we’re so blessed with Bellamy, Halston and Tom, this Whitly family, we can focus on so many aspects of them and we know that our actors can deliver with such high calibre, we can’t really do any wrong, hopefully.
Talk me through that final scene, it’s pretty gruesome. How did you get away with that?
Fedak: We knew we wanted to be shocking. In the horror movie tradition, we had gallons of blood flowing in the scene. That was a big deal for us; we knew it had to be visual and graphic and shocking. We’ve asked our team to shoot for the movie version, what would [Paul] Verhoeven do? We love those what the fxxk moments. That is very much the world of the show, the shock we’re going for. We rented all of the fake blood we could get.
Sklaver: You say we got away with something. I do think we need to thank 9-1-1 and Ryan Murphy for setting the adrenaline bar so high that as soon as we found out we were going to be after 9-1-1, we knew that we were going to have to push the envelope. The tone they’ve set for Monday nights at Fox, Chris and I were very excited for how we could make our own mark and we definitely made a mark at the end of the episode, I hope.
Did you have any problems with standards and practices?
Fedak: We may have taken out one stab. We did the old trick of putting in 37 stabs so we could say we’ll take out a stab.
Lou Diamond Phillip’s character Gil gets stabbed in this episode, does he survive?
Fedak: From our perspective, that’s a story that we’re going to follow next season with regards to Lou. Lou Diamond Phillips is an amazing actor and national treasure, so we would be real dummies, not to bring him back for season two.
Sklaver: I would go further and say that we would be fired. He’s too great. It is a major thing that we’re going to have to deal with.
You seem confident about season two; have you been renewed yet?
Fedak: We’re cautiously optimistic.
Did you learn anything as you were going during season one? Did you get any feedback from the fans that took you in a different direction?
Sklaver: We’re kind of learning along with the fans in terms of what works and where the story really zings. I was taken with how much the fans responded to the characters and the family dynamic. At the very beginning, you’re trying to figure out that alchemy between procedural and soap, between emotion and case, we very much wanted to be able to explore both without losing sight of the family and their mythology. When has there been a show so obsessed with memory? It’s not a straight procedural, it’s all over the place and we felt liberated to tell those stories.
Fedak: It makes our lives 1000% better. Sam comes from comedy and I come from shows that had a comedic element, the idea of just doing a straight procedural wasn’t something that excites us creatively. We want to do a show with edge and characters who have lives our their own and we follow them in their personal lives. That was essential for us as well as Fox and Warner Bros. That’s something you’re always a little hesitant with. But in this case, we sold it to the right place and had the right people. Even though we have our case of the week, which is a great engine and driver for the story, the ability to go back and explore the characters, that gets into the surprises that we as writers don’t even know what would happen. When you’re doing a network TV show, when you’re doing 20 episodes, there are things that you discover along the way.
How difficult is it to combine the procedural with a serialized story?
Sklaver: The great challenge for us was telling a serialized family drama, while also telling a case of the week procedural. For as many fans, that love the Whitly family and their stories, there’s a number of fans that come for the case of the week and we’re blessed to have this other cop family. The dance for us all season was how much we could serialize or really on the case of the week and the alchemy of getting that right is something that we’re still learning. I think we learned that when our cases and our family story shared something, a certain theme, we were always cooking with gas and those were the easiest stories for us.
Dermot Mulroney plays your villain this season; is the idea to bring in a different guest actor each season to be the baddie?
Fedak: I love that idea. Dermot is the prototype of bringing in an actor, who can play your villain and is super creepy but also to have the romantic comedy part of that as well. The charming actor who can play off of Bellamy. We love the idea of bringing in actors and letting them explore these characters with us. Having great actors to play in our delightfully disturbing world is something that makes this show so fun to make.
How far ahead have you plotted the story?
Fedak: We always have ideas. We actually have two episodes that we had to scrap, so those are two zones that we want to go back to. We come at it on a seasonal perspective, this season was about Bright coming back to New York and opening up the mystery of the girl in the box and trying to understand that and in season two, there’s things we want to do, they’re like chapters.
Sklaver: Because this is Deadline and Michael Thorn may be reading this, I want him to know that we’ve planned up through season 12.
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