Torchwood Finale Postmortem: Espenson on Jilly's Revelation, Big Twists and a Lack of Aliens
Torchwood: Miracle Day
[WARNING: The following story contains major spoilers from the season finale of Torchwood: Miracle Day. Read at your own risk.]
A hole in the world is the villain? The Blessing tells Jilly she's "right"? Rex is immortal?
So many burning questions linger after Friday's finale of Torchwood: Miracle Day, the end to an ambitious 10-episode season that had big things to say about politics, the media and, of course, mortality itself. TVGuide.com spoke with Jane Espenson -- who wrote or co-wrote half of the season's episodes for series executive producer Russell T. Davies — about Jilly's curious revelation, the distinct lack of Torchwood's usual otherworldly baddies and why Captain Jack and Angelo didn't get to say a last goodbye.
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The Blessing has been destroyed, but The Families behind the miracle are still at large. In the end, we see them re-recruit Jilly (Lauren Ambrose). Has Russell discussed what a continuation would look like? Does he want to follow them?
Espenson: We didn't talk about what's coming up next — but that doesn't mean Russell hasn't worked out... As far as the families, their agenda is your classic world domination. Where we would go specifically? That's not been shared with me. [Starz has not made a decision on whether or not to renew the series.]
You co-wrote the finale with Russell. When Jilly looks into The Blessing, it's a very chilling moment. Her eyes well up with tears because she sees that she's "right." Why did she see that? What did you want the takeaway there to be?
Espenson: That was Russell's line, so all I can do is look at that as a viewer, but maybe a viewer with a little more inside information. I looked at that line too with fascination because I feel like that line gives insight into Jilly, the ego of someone who can look into the void and walk out of it with confidence. It says something about the degree of her self-delusion. But this is just me having the same kind of fun a viewer would have playing, "What does this mean?" I think the line is meant to hang there, unexplained and fantastically question-raising.
One of the biggest differences between the show's three previous seasons and Miracle Day is that there is nothing extraterrestrial or alien or otherworldly working against Torchwood this time. In fact, The Blessing is nothing more than a mysterious hole in the ground exploited by The Families. Why switch things up?
Espenson: Yeah, it's the most terrestrial thing possible. Our "alien" was something very, very earthly. There's something interesting and spooky in the notion that it doesn't have to come from "out there." I don't feel that it diverged from the mandate of Torchwood: creepy, unexplained stuff affects the Earth. Well, that can come from anywhere! I'm sure Russell was thinking he'd just done a big alien season with the 456, and with another alien you'd probably feel like you'd been down that road very recently, and very powerfully.
How soon did you guys come up with the force behind the miracle?
Espenson: That was set in stone — Ha! Like The Blessing itself — from the very beginning. Before Starz had even bought it, Russell worked out that mankind was going to lose its mortality and he had this notion that it would be caused by something from inside the Earth. One of the first things we decided was that it would be a thread running through the Earth, and it was during one of the first days of work that we came up with, "Wouldn't it be interesting if it hit two population centers? What are the closest antipodes? OK, so we're going to end up in Buenos Aires and China." That was pretty early on. When we decided that a pharmaceutical company would be involved in this, we came up with "phi" right away.
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There's always been an element of horror in the show. What felt scary about the conceit for The Blessing, a rift in the Earth?
Espenson: To me, it's the villainy that was going to be so interesting. There wasn't going to be a head alien that we were going to get to. Most of the villainy was done by people who are pulling the strings, done by the way that humanity is affected by the miracle. Very quickly people are burning, very quickly they're re-categorizing. When you push humanity, you don't always get lovely altruisms. Stress mankind and we're a step away from Anne Frank. That felt wrong in the right way. That felt very compelling and very true. I've had tweets from people telling me, "You shouldn't even be referencing Nazis! What a terrible thing to put on television!" And it's like, no. If we forget that mankind is capable of that kind of stuff, that's worse.
There was also a very strong political element in the first half of the season. Mare Winningham played "the darling of the Tea Party" and she suffered a fate worse than death. Why did the writers feel compelled to get into politics so overtly this year?
Espenson: I suspect it had to do with Russell seeing U.S. politics with the fresh eyes of an outsider. Writing a U.K. based show, politics may have felt prosaic, I don't know. It was dealt with in Children of Earth, but more in a government vs. people way. Maybe he felt he had more to say, but it was also the nature of this season's story: Children's threat from outside vs. Miracle Day's threat from inside. And maybe it was a specific reaction to the way the U.S. is right now -- we're so polarized that you couldn't tell a story that affects the world without getting into the politics... It's hard to write something political in the United States without having to take a little bit of a narrative stand on where different people are lining up. I must say, in one of my first drafts, I was more direct about it. I had, "Newt Gingrich is saying this about it..." I referenced the specific points of view of specific politicians, and Russell took that out. I think he wanted to make it more timeless. He probably thought it was a little too inside-baseball, a little too cute maybe... I think he found the right medium.
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Oswald (Bill Pullman) went very quickly from being a virtual TV messiah to a celebrity whose 15-minutes were about up. What happened in the time between, in those two episodes in which he and Jilly don't appear?
Espenson: That was a way to make very really realistic his arc, that he would be elevated and then dropped. That just felt right — humanity doesn't seize on heroes for the longterm right now. Humanity's flailing around, they seize on him for awhile and then he's out of fashion. Also, he's an interesting character to put under stress. This is a guy with a poorly developed sense of empathy, self, dignity, everything. You want to stress him — he's going to be as interesting in the fall as he is in the rise. He can't guard his own impulses, so you want to put him in a situation where you see that play out.
How did you come to the decision that he'd have a quasi-hero moment at the end in allowing Captain Jack (John Barrowman) and Gwen (Eve Myles) to leave before sealing the void?
Espenson: We loved this idea that he knows deep down that he shouldn't be on this earth, that he's a net loss to humanity and wants to die but can't bring that about himself. He's waiting for mortality to return so he can die. So he dies and he helps them, but we didn't want to outright redeem this horrible, horrible man, so he says, "I'm coming for you, little girl." It's redemption and comeuppance both.
You wrote one of the more Jack-centric episodes in which we flashed back to his relationship he had with an Italian named Angelo. Do you wish you could have played that out over more episodes?
Espenson: In early drafts, there was more geographical scope to that relationship. At first, they were on foot in Little Italy, New York, 1927, pitching pennies with other guys in the neighborhood, doing robberies, setting up a shell game. The bootlegging operation was a more complicated thing... Angelo wanted to be a part of the jazz scene! In the end we had to cut it for budget, but that was a blessing, if you will. It allowed us to stay in that room with them, do some more close-up emotional talking. It all worked out perfectly. Sure, you always want to spend more time with a big relationship like that, but it's almost always better to resist that impulse because you end up sort of indulgent. That relationship had a specific function in the history of what happened to mankind and if you keep playing it out, it loses its purpose in the big story.
Was there any impulse to give Jack and Angelo a final moment right before Angelo dies?
Espenson: Yeah, actually, we did talk about that. Russell I believe really wanted to play that tragedy — no, he is gone, they missed their moment. At one point, I put in a draft that Angelo had been conscious up until days ago to really play up their near-miss, but that was maybe too maudlin. Russell was very into them not getting a last moment. But it was brought up a number of times.
Jack is special, in large part, because he's immortal. How did you all decide that Rex (Mekhi Phifer) would now be immortal too?
Espenson: We all really love Mekhi and thought he did an amazing job. That was not something we knew from the beginning. I think it came out of watching Mekhi. This is an interesting guy, and he changes more than anyone else over the course of the season. What would continue that growth? What would be the next interesting step to make Rex broaden his worldview and grapple with something? He's fun to watch grapple with things, you know?... It makes perfect sense within our story — he's full of Jack blood, and it totally changes any story we tell from this point out. And that's great because you want to leave the audience not knowing what's coming next.
What did you think about this season of Torchwood? Are you satisfied by the ending? Share your thoughts in the comments below.