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A heartbreaking episode brings T.K. and Owen closer together
[Warning: The following contains spoilers from Monday's episode of 9-1-1: Lone Star. Read at your own risk!]
Will T.K. Strand (Ronen Rubinstein) ever catch a break? After waking up from another coma, getting back together with Carlos (Rafael Silva), and reuniting with the rest of the 126, T.K. received a devastating phone call letting him know that his mother, Gwyneth (Lisa Edelstein), had been hit and killed in a freak accident with a delivery bike driver.
In accordance with traditional Jewish customs which require that a funeral take place within 24 hours of the time of death, T.K. and his father Owen (Rob Lowe) boarded the last possible flight from Austin to New York the following morning. Struggling to come to terms with Gwyn's passing, T.K. began to reflect on the time when his mother accompanied him on a fateful flight from New York to California, where he underwent a 30-day stint in a rehab center for the first time.
But when the plane experienced a mechanical failure, T.K. and Owen were forced to spring into action to save the life of their seatmate, who was partially sucked out of the jet after a piece of debris broke a window. While they were not able to make it to the funeral, T.K. and Owen landed safely back in Austin and, with Carlos, they decided to have Chinese food in honor of Gwyn.
TV Guide spoke with Rubinstein about the process of shooting the episode that he has called his "opus" as an actor, the internal battle that T.K. has to fight to maintain his sobriety, and the impact that Gwyn's death will have on T.K. and the people around him going forward.
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There were a couple of allusions to Gwyn's mortality in T.K.'s dream sequence earlier this season — namely when he asked if she was already dead — but this twist caught me off guard as much as Charles' (Derek Webster) passing last season. Did you already know that Gwyn was going to die when you filmed those scenes, and what was your reaction when you ultimately found out about this storyline?
Ronen Rubinstein: I had no idea. I found out maybe two weeks before we started shooting the episode. [Showrunner] Tim [Minear] called me and the first words that came out of his mouth [were]: "I have a gift for you." And I said, "What are you talking about?" He said, "Well, you've been asking a lot about, over the past three seasons, how truly bad was T.K.'s drug problem? And are we ever gonna really go down that path? We are finally gonna see it, however… It's gonna come at the cost of Gwyn passing." And that shocked me 'cause no one saw it coming, myself included.
So then once I had to come to the realization of that, I knew what it would take to do the flashbacks justice, and I knew that it would take some really difficult extra steps to get there, and I went all in physically and mentally. It was rough, man. And then along with that, in the present day stuff, I'm dealing with the loss of a parent. I think, for an actor, it's like the top two things you could deal with—the loss of a parent and a drug problem—and they just shove it all into one episode. So I knew that it would be a lot going into this episode.
How did you prepare to get into that headspace?
Rubinstein: I was very lucky 'cause we shot all the flashback stuff in the first week, and then the present-day stuff was the following week, so I knew I had to sort of go a little extra hard for it because I didn't want to just fake it with make-up and lighting. So, the week prior to shooting, I was eating under 500 calories a day, I was barely drinking water, I started smoking cigarettes, and every morning I would wake up an hour extra to jump in the sauna and just get really dehydrated and gaunt. I really wanted to physically feel what it would be like to have withdrawals and what it would be like for somebody that's really going through being sick from not having drugs in their system. I was ill and did not feel good, so I knew that would be a big part of pulling off his performance. I always like going towards these kinds of things from a physical aspect, and I think the emotional sort of comes out of it.
In the immediate aftermath of Gwyn's death, T.K. shows up at the firehouse and considers getting high on fentanyl before Owen finds him. Why was it so important for T.K. to eventually admit to Owen what he was planning to do, given how differently Owen and Gwyn handled T.K.'s addiction in the past?
Rubinstein: I think it goes back to the pilot. His dad finds him overdosed on drugs within the first 10 minutes of the episode, so I think T.K. knows the trauma and the experience that Owen has with this already. I think, playing the present-day stuff, the big thing that I circled was the line, "I can't believe I was gonna do this to mom." And I think that was sort of my driving force for all the present-day stuff. It is very much confessing to Owen, but I think the bigger picture is after everything that his mom went through with him—bringing him to rehab, trying to get him off the drugs—he needed to get it off his chest because there was a chance of [them] not making it on that plane. I think it was just sort of this one last confession of like, "Well, if we die, I need you to know the honest truth that I was gonna betray you guys again, specifically mom." And I think that was sort of the big scene for me at least when it comes to the present-day stuff.
In their emotional goodbye before T.K. goes to rehab, Gwyn says, "I've traveled with you as far as I can. The next steps you take are yours." What was it like to film that final scene, which essentially doubled as the real goodbye that T.K. wishes he could have had with his mom?
Rubinstein: That scene was the one I was the most excited for and the most nervous about when I read the script. It's sort of the opus of the whole episode, and it does very much have a double meaning—it really, honestly, has a triple meaning, 'cause it's sort of saying goodbye to Lisa Edelstein, who has been one of the greatest highlights of my life and definitely this show.
I came into the flashbacks so raw and physically just barely hanging on by a thread that I think I cried every single take. And every single time we would cut, I had to walk off and collect myself and do it over again. But it was something about every time she said, "My sweet boy," it was like a knife in the stomach—every time, even in rehearsals. I felt everything bubbling up and I was like, "Oh, man, this is gonna be a long day." And 20-something takes later, at the end of that day, I physically could barely stand, and that's the scene—that was always the scene for me—and I'm so relieved and proud of how it turned out.
Even though T.K. has grown closer with Owen, he was still very close with Gwyn, and it's particularly evident when he lashes out at his dad and says, "You may not have loved her anymore, but I still do." What do you think this episode really says about T.K.'s relationship with his mom?
Rubinstein: I think that's the beauty of the dream sequences. It was finally a chance for us to truly dive deep into how close they were and how much she meant to him. The fact that this poor kid is in a coma, and the one thing that keeps popping up into his head is his happiest moments with his mom, that says something. She was truly his everything, and I think we didn't get too much insight [into] him and his mom in Season 2, so I think this was a chance for us to bring it all back together.
I'm just so heartbroken that she's leaving the show and we're not gonna get that character anymore. But as you know, [Edelstein] gave one of the most powerful, epic performances that I've seen on TV, and especially network TV, so I think it's just such an epic way for her to go. And I owe all of my stuff to her, because she was right there with me, and I felt so safe and open to do what I needed to do, especially in the flashbacks. That stuff is really difficult, so I'm so happy that I had her as a support system there.
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What was it like to shoot that terrifying scene in the plane when a window blows out and partially sucks a passenger out into the troposphere?
Rubinstein: I keep joking that the plane rescue is the most mellow part of the episode. [Laughs.] From a shooting-wise perspective, that was really fun, because there [were] a lot of crazy special effects. We had this plane on a rig and it would shake, and we had this amazing suction mechanism blowing debris all over the place, and people were screaming, and it was really chaotic. It almost felt like a rollercoaster ride, but it's an emotional scene. We're trying to save this mother who is on the way to see her son, and [T.K. is] going to say goodbye to [his] mother. I think that's a really, really crucial sequence of events for Owen and T.K., 'cause I don't think we have seen an intense rescue for the two of them since the landmine scene [in Season 2, Episode 6], where T.K. figured out that he wants to be a paramedic. It was nice to see us back in action and again at the highest possible stakes, so that was actually kind of fun, but I think when you start thinking about what that scene was emotionally, it was very intense.
During his dream sequence, T.K. and Gwyn spoke about his relationship with faith, and he even said a prayer in Hebrew when he thought he was going to die during the ice storm. Would you say T.K.'s faith is shaken now, or will he try to become more involved in the Temple again, like his mother would have wanted?
Rubinstein: That's always been a storyline that we were sort of playing around with this season, and Tim really wanted to dive deeper into that. I think when you come across death enough times, you have to start believing in something bigger than us, and T.K. has been near dead five times at this point. [Laughs.]
They're trying to kill you, man!
Rubinstein: I know! They keep doing it! [Laughs.] And I can only take it as a compliment 'cause it just puts me in really epic scenes and really emotionally driven scenes, so, in a weird way, I kind of enjoy it. But yeah, I think we'll go down that path. I think we'll see more of it definitely, probably later in the season. That was sort of something that Tim warned me about earlier in the season—[T.K.] being on the verge of freezing to death was definitely the first glimpse of that.
How will the loss of Gwyn ultimately affect T.K.'s relationships with Owen, Carlos and the other people around him?
Rubinstein: I think it's gonna linger for a while. I think the beauty of this season is that we're not letting a really traumatic storyline just sort of disappear; I think we're letting storylines breathe. We're seeing that with Tommy (Gina Torres), and I think it is gonna bring him closer with certain characters, especially people that have dealt with loss, and we're actually gonna see an amazing storyline in Episode 9 that deals with that in great detail.
When it comes to Owen and T.K., I think they have such an almost unbreakable bond after everything they've gone through the last three seasons. I think that it might bring them even closer, and I think the foundation of that relationship is really solid, but I think we're gonna see the biggest changes with Carlos.
I think, with Carlos, it's gonna affect their relationship. They've been through so much this season, and just as things are starting to look up, all of this happens, and we're definitely gonna see how that affects their relationship in the next coming episodes. Carlos is obviously gonna be there for him every step of the way, but I just think it adds another emotional layer to what T.K. is going through. He's been going through a lot these past three seasons and this is the biggest one of all, so it will definitely add some drama in their relationship, and we'll see that very soon…
There were some hints that T.K. might be hiding something from Carlos when he said he just went to the firehouse but didn't specify why. Carlos doesn't seem to know the full story about T.K.'s past, does he?
Rubinstein: He doesn't know. There's an episode we just shot—I won't say which number—and it definitely dives deeper into Carlos realizing what it is to be with an addict and a former addict. It's sort of gonna be through Carlos' perspective of understanding what that means to be with somebody like that, and especially because, again, everything is so recent and so fresh and T.K.'s gonna have a hard time, I can say that.
9-1-1: Lone Star airs Mondays at 8/7c on FOX. Episodes are available the next day on Hulu.