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The Rookie's Melissa O'Neil Breaks Down That Shocking Chenford Twist

'We want to build a story that people can follow and grieve and be joyful with'

Max Gao
Eric Winter and Melissa O'Neil, The Rookie

Eric Winter and Melissa O'Neil, The Rookie


[Warning: This story contains spoilers for The Rookie Season 6, Episode 6, "Secrets and Lies." Read at your own risk!]

Melissa O'Neil knows that fans of "Chenford" — the fan-favorite relationship between her character, Lucy Chen, and Eric Winter's Tim Bradford — will have a lot of thoughts and feelings about Bradford's decision to break things off unexpectedly with Chen in the final minutes of this week's midseason finale of The Rookie. Although this breakup may come as a shock to some viewers, O'Neil said it's a storyline that she, Winter, and creator and showrunner Alexi Hawley have been building up to for most of the sixth season of the ABC police procedural, which recently passed its milestone 100th episode.

"I don't know if I should say this, but it's something that Eric has been pushing for a minute because he is really interested in building that [relationship], and that's what we want to do. We want to build a story that people can follow and grieve and be joyful with," O'Neil told TV Guide on a Zoom call just hours before the episode aired. "We didn't know how it was going to unfold, but we knew that this was the arc that we wanted to take it in, because all of the relationships on the show are pretty happy. So we need to have some type of relationship that can represent another color for how relationships can unfold, which is not harmonious all the time."

In last week's episode, titled "The Vow," Tim's past came back to haunt him. After he discovered from his former military comrade Mark Greer (Brian White) that a man now known as Ray Watkins (David Dastmalchian) — their unit member who killed two of their fellow soldiers for an illegal payday — was indeed alive and not killed in action, Tim was determined to prevent Ray from doing harm to anyone else. Ray, meanwhile, threatened to expose both Tim and Mark for knowingly falsifying military documents about his death, so that his family could receive death benefits. All of this meant Tim decided to keep Lucy in the dark, even leaving their date abruptly one evening and going MIA for 36 hours without any kind of explanation.

The discord between Chen and Bradford, who very much still love each other, comes to a head in this week's episode. After catching Tim tailing him with Angela (Alyssa Diaz), Ray uses a device to unlock Tim's car when it is unattended, and he uses the recent GPS searches to find Lucy's home. Shortly after she and Tamara (Dylan Conrique) come face to face with Ray, who threatens both of their lives, Lucy calls Tim and finds him camped out at Angela and Wesley's (Shawn Ashmore) home. "No more excuses, Tim. You have to tell me what's going on … right now," Lucy declares.

With Lucy and Angela's help, Tim is able to stop Ray from kidnapping and sending away a targeted foreign national at a local port. But Ray being placed in custody automatically opens an investigation into the criminal's allegations that Tim lied to the military — a claim that Tim vehemently denies in his disciplinary interview. After coming out of that investigation with his job but not his moral compass intact, Tim decides to break up with Lucy in the parking lot of the precinct, believing that it is the best way to protect her personally and professionally. Lucy, like much of the audience, is left in a state of shock.

Below, O'Neil answers all of our burning questions about tonight's heart-wrenching episode and where "Chenford" go from here, how she tapped into portraying some of the more uncomfortable moments of Lucy's arc this season, and the little cultural details that she has half-jokingly been asking the production team for years to include in Lucy's home.

Melissa O'Neil and Eric Winter, The Rookie

Melissa O'Neil and Eric Winter, The Rookie

Disney/Raymond Liu

When you and Eric spoke with me at TCAs before the start of the season, you mentioned that there were a couple of moments while shooting this week's episode when you had to check in with each other as scene partners, because you were about to act out a particularly vulnerable scene. Were you talking about the breakup scene?
O'Neil: I was speaking about two separate moments. The spot where I wanted to have an aside with Eric was definitely the breakup scene. [When you consider] what's written on the page and then what happens on set, there can sometimes be an evolution that happens, and there were a few changes that we made on the day and that we were also trying to layer in. I think that's born from a place of just being actors that have inhabited these human beings for six years and feeling like maybe there's a way to voice this that would feel a little bit more true to that person. 

The day that we were shooting it, it was the last scene of the day, and there was an energy on set. Everybody was like, "Uh oh, 'Chenford' is breaking up!" [Laughs.] Bill Roe, our director, was like, "Oh man, the internet's just going to rake me over the coals," which I don't think is the case. I think [the fans] will feel sad. One of the wonderful things about working with Bill is that he trusts us a lot, so he came in, and he goes, "OK, what do you guys think? How do you feel?" We workshopped it with him on the day, and then as we were working the scene, there were a couple of things that I wasn't feeling totally solid on, and I just wanted to have an aside with Eric — just the two of us — and hash something out. I don't know what ends up in the final cut, but there was definitely a moment for that. And the vulnerable scene that I was speaking of before [in our last interview] was the argument. 

In the breakup scene, Lucy says something to the effect that Tim doesn't get to lie to her and then use that as a reason to break up with her. It almost feels like she's trying to hold on to him for dear life, but he's quickly slipping through her fingertips. What is going through her mind at that moment?
O'Neil: I feel a deep reflection, as an actor, with Lucy in that moment because it felt like a cheat in a lot of ways. These two have come up together. There's so much trust, there's so much that they've traversed, and then suddenly he comes to this moment, and now they don't have this rapport. I personally struggled with understanding it, and in that moment when she's saying, "You don't get to lie to me," I think that's Lucy being like, "This is not us. We get to have these conversations. We get to go to those hard places and come back from them. I've got you. I've got your back. What are you doing? No, I don't agree with you."

It doesn't work because this thing that we're uncovering with Bradford — it's my lens on it, but him trying to amend and repent for this major grievance from his time in the military is so strong that he's like, "I cannot do something of such great consequence again." It's not putting someone's life on the line, but it is in a way because her job would be gone [if her superiors found out she was involved in helping him with this lie]. 

Eric isn't here to defend Tim, and a lot of fans will definitely want to get a better understanding of where Tim is coming from in that break-up scene. Would you be able to argue his side of the equation? Do you see where Tim is coming from?
O'Neil: Yeah, of course. I mean, this isn't from Eric. I haven't really talked to Eric about all of this, but when I was reading the script and when I was in those moments, it made a lot of sense. I think we've all been in those situations where a relationship might be great, but honestly, "My life is kind of imploding around me right now," or "I have too many irons in the fire. Honestly, I can't do this right now."

We're talking about someone who is so fiercely independent the way he is, and [he uses it as] a protection mechanism. He also has this virtuous heart that wants to protect her. I think Bradford probably perceives it as the most loving action he can take in that moment because he's also self-flagellating and thinking that he is a not very desirable human being — given his history that has resurfaced that he was trying to bury, but is irrepressible and has reappeared and put so much at risk, including the person that he loves. 

Melissa O'Neil, The Rookie

Melissa O'Neil, The Rookie


So much of the last episode and the start of this one has to do with Lucy not knowing how to be there for Tim. She wants to be the "good girlfriend" and trust her partner, but she did kick him out of her place after he went MIA for 36 hours without an explanation. And it isn't until Ray shows up at her front door and essentially threatens her and Tamara's lives that she springs into action and confronts Tim again over his lack of communication.
O'Neil: Lucy feels very capable of handling herself in moments that are dangerous and unexpected. We've seen that time and time again. She's quick on her feet, but I think why she was so reactive in that moment and quick to anger was because Tamara was there, and that's the real driving force. She was like, "You're not just putting me at risk. You're putting an actual innocent at risk who has no idea how to defend herself. What if I wasn't even there, let alone you? What would you have done in that situation? For some reason, this guy who knows you is rolling up at my house, so somehow, I'm involved, even though you're keeping me out of it." … There's a betrayal in there too. "I've been trying to trust, but clearly, I can't. So now I'm also at risk, and this person [Tamara], who is my charge, is now randomly at risk, and neither of us understand what's going on." I think that's why it felt so heated.

It was super uncomfortable to do that scene. Again, I haven't seen it; I'm feeling kind of nervous about it. It's not every day that you're really showing an aspect of yourself that you're probably trying to keep tampered down by and large, and I don't really know how to fake that stuff, so I'm just showing, "OK, here's a version of me when I'm really righteous and upset. So this is awkward..." I remember my coworkers [and I] that day were like, "OK, well, that just happened..." [Laughs.]

For most of this season, as far as viewers can tell, Tim has been the only person who has consistently been in Lucy's corner. How do you think the lack of support Lucy has received from the people around her, paired with Tim's sudden disappearance, has affected her emotionally?
O'Neil: I'm really curious to see how that resolves or if it resolves. We have so many incredible characters and storylines on our show. We can't populate every single character we love with their support network. So, from one perspective, when I'm in the scenes, it definitely feels isolating. It's a little bit like, "Wow, she's really going through the wringer this season, and all of the people that know and love her and support her are just dropping out of the field of view." And then we're just kind of left with, what does Lucy look like when she's navigating really difficult moments [alone]? So that view can seem very narrow.

However, for my own sanity as that character, I try to imagine that she's gotta have some girlfriends. Lucy's a great friend, and I can't believe that the only friends she has are the ones at work — and every character is like that. Every character has a whole world that we don't know about. And in this chunk of the season, we're really getting to see who those people are for Bradford, in a lot of ways. 

How will "Chenford" deal with the fallout from Tim's actions? Will things be awkward between them? Will they be tense around each other? Do they not know how to talk about the elephant in the room?
O'Neil: Given the way this breakup goes, what else is there to say? It's a really painful breakup, and I'm not even talking about this from some oracular perspective. I'm not giving a spoiler. It's a genuine question. What else can you say? When the transgressions are of this nature, they are dangerous, literally. I'm just speaking from Lucy's perspective: It doesn't matter how much he wants to dress it up in virtue. It looks like stonewalling. It looks like he's shutting her out, blocking her off.

I can't help but feel that Lucy, based on who we have known her to be in the last several seasons, has got too much of a sense of self to wallow in that. She's going to be hurt about it. But she was in a barrel with her life being risked, and she was suddenly like, "We're good!" [Laughs.] So she has a very strong sense of self, and she's capable of holding her pain and living her life. 

What can you tease about where Chen and Bradford go from here?
O'Neil: I think the biggest teaser that I could offer is that it's not goodbye. It's not the end. They'll still see each other, as far as that is concerned, and there's still some really incredible storylines that are happening outside of this relationship. As far as Bradford and Chen, their paths will still cross and weave. 

Should fans be worried about Ray reappearing later in the season?
O'Neil: I wouldn't count him out. He's a pretty formidable character. I wouldn't count him out, whether it's in this season or another. 

Earlier this season, Lucy essentially failed her detective's exam. What do you think this setback means for Lucy's future in this line of work?
O'Neil: I'm really looking forward to seeing what the writers want to do with that. When Lucy failed the detective's exam, it was a shock. It was at the beginning of the season and personally was the beginning of me going, "Oh, she's going through it." Even when I was reading the script, in the exam and in the [final] cut [of the episode], you thought that there might be a chance that she won over Prim. You thought that there was maybe a sliver of a chance that even though she inadvertently did him dirty, he saw her value — and that wasn't the case, which was very unfortunate, and I was surprised that it went that way.

Logistically, how many detectives can we have on a cop show? [Laughs.] So I think it was [a combination of the] story and also practicality coming together. And let's be real: Lucy is always winning. So it's been really exciting as an actor to explore what that looks like to have a character, who is usually so irrepressibly joyful and optimistic, just really fall flat and not be able to charm her way out of the situation. 

Melissa O'Neil and Eric Winter, The Rookie

Melissa O'Neil and Eric Winter, The Rookie

Disney/Raymond Liu

On that same token, you've been given an opportunity to delve into some more visceral emotions with Lucy this season. Can you pinpoint a specific scene this season that was particularly difficult for you to shoot?
O'Neil: When Lucy shot that sniper and was in the hospital, it was weird. I've played a lot of characters who just randomly shoot people, and I've never played a character who would have to deal with the consequences of that, and also had the moral compass and heart that would feel remorse for an action like that. So I honestly had no idea what was going to happen or how she would feel about that, and it was a very bizarre day.

Anytime Richard [T. Jones], Eric, and Shawn are together, they're like witches cackling over a pot. [Laughs.] They just have such a good time. So that's happening in the hallway, and I'm in the room looking out at them and all of the background lawyers that were there, and to come into that moment [as an actor] and contemplate, What if I took somebody's life and could I have done it differently?I was really surprised at how upset that made me. It makes me upset just thinking about it [now]. It's a crazy thing to contemplate actively making the choice to take another person's life because it's you or them in that moment.

But after, when she's fine and well, and her life is not being threatened anymore, she's like, "Sh--, I could have done anything else, but I didn't pull my taser. I didn't shoot him in the shoulder." Because you're not taught to do that [as a police officer]. You're taught to suspend those pauses in your reactivity so that when your life's on the line, you make good decisions, and you make them swiftly so that you save your life or potentially somebody else's. That was definitely a moment that I was like, "Whoa, that's a weird thing to feel in my body."

Is there something that you are still hoping to explore with Lucy in future seasons of the show?
O'Neil: I like to think of it holistically in the context of the show. Obviously, I have a lot of questions about who Lucy is, but I also love the structure and format of our show. So when I temper it against that, I'm like, "Oh, what actually makes sense to explore, especially given how many wonderful characters we have to do all of that storytelling with?" So there's a lot, but for both diplomatic reasons and also because I do genuinely feel this way, I'm excited to see what the writers have in store for us. I know that they spend a lot of time working that stuff out, and I'm sure it's going to be great. I feel like the more attention Lucy has been getting, you've got to be careful with what you put out there, because the fans will be like, "Yeah, let's do it!" And then they just start sharing it so much. And I don't want anybody's hand to feel forced. [Laughs.] 

Personally, I still have a lot of questions about her cultural heritage, but I also wonder how they would weave that into the show. One of the fans wondered if Lucy ever tried teaching Tim some Cantonese.
O'Neil: You know what I always thought would be cute as kind of a silent nod that never kind of worked out — because, really, when are we seeing people's feet? But I always said Lucy's apartment should have slides. Everybody should take off their shoes and put on some slides, and that's how we walk around the house. [Laughs.] There should be a rice cooker on the counter. Why is there not a proper rice cooker on the counter?

The Rookie airs Tuesdays at 9/8c on ABC. Episodes stream the next day on Hulu.