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The Rookie Season 6 Finale: Melissa O'Neil and Eric Winter Discuss the Future of 'Chenford'

It might not be so smooth for the former lovebirds

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

Melissa O'Neil and Eric Winter, The Rookie

Disney/Raymond Liu

[Warning: This story contains spoilers for The Rookie Season 6, Episode 10, "Escape Plan." Read at your own risk!]

Melissa O'Neil and Eric Winter always knew that fans of "Chenford" — the beloved relationship between their characters, Lucy Chen and Tim Bradford — would not be pleased about Bradford's decision to break things off suddenly with Chen in the midseason finale of The Rookie. But in retrospect, the actors both underestimated just how upset their fans would become and just how long they would voice their discontentment on social media.

"I think it just speaks to the passion of this fandom and what they feel they've earned, and the stake they've put into the development of this relationship," Winter tells TV Guide in a joint interview with O'Neil. "There are so many happy relationships on our show, and that's just not a perfect reflection of life. I feel like we are the one relationship where there is enough baggage and trauma that led into this relationship that would warrant it not to be so smooth."

Since splitting up, Chen and Bradford have woven in and out of each other's lives, but Tuesday's season finale reaffirms that these two partners-in-fighting-crime work better together than apart. After Lucy learns during her latest undercover stint that criminal lawyer Monica Stevens (Bridget Regan) has ordered a hit on a local laundromat where a gang is waiting to collect $2 million in exchange for her life, the LAPD camp out at the venue and get into a shootout with the hit men and other gang members.

During the confrontation, Bradford jumps into the back of a pickup truck that one of the hit men uses to get away from the crime scene, and the two wrestle in the front seat. Following in close pursuit, Chen and Lopez (Alyssa Diaz) get close enough to the pickup truck for Chen to jump into the trunk herself. From there, she is able to physically restrain the driver enough for Bradford to hit the brakes and stop the car. On their way out of the station together, Tim thanks Lucy for saving his life and declares that he will spend the rest of his life trying to make it up to her in whatever small doses she will allow. It's certainly a step forward for the exes on their path to reconciliation.

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Below, O'Neil and Winter discuss the aftermath of the "Chenford" break-up, what they hope Chen and Bradford will be able to learn from their time apart, and what it would take for their characters to find their way back to each other romantically.

What have you both made of the discourse surrounding the controversial "Chenford" breakup? And why did you think a breakup was necessary to further complicate and develop their relationship?

Eric Winter: I learned that Lucy's clearly their favorite over Bradford because they turned their back on me pretty quick. I'm on my heels defending the breakup! [O'Neil laughs.] I think it just speaks to the passion of this fandom and what they feel they've earned, and the stake they've put into the development of this relationship. I was very surprised how big and how fast it escalated. I always felt that there are so many happy relationships on our show, and that's just not a perfect reflection of life. I feel like we are the one relationship where there is enough baggage and trauma that led into this relationship that would warrant it not to be so smooth. 

Melissa O'Neil: I don't even know what the right word is to characterize what happened because it's a very insular space, so it feels really extreme for the people who are talking about it. But I think in the grand scheme of things, I'm like, "Are people really that upset?" I was really shocked to see how enduring that upset [feeling] lasted. I posted about one of [the reactions] on my TikTok. I was like, "Oh my gosh, this girl's really upset," and that kind of broke my heart.

But I think it's really exciting that we did this with these characters, and it's a real credit to [showrunner] Alexi [Hawley] for sticking to it, even though they are a fan-favorite couple. I'm happy that we got to explore it in that way because — and I've said this before — the foundational friendship that Eric and I have lays the space for there to be vulnerability to really go to those places in a way that feels honest. So I'm grateful that we have the opportunity to explore that. It's been real fun as an actor, and hopefully, they're not too mad at us for going there.

Winter: They're mad at me! They're not mad at you! [O'Neil laughs.]

Eric, I think it had something to do with the fact that Melissa told me that you were the one who was pushing for this break-up.

O'Neil: That was an accident! [Laughs.]

Winter: She said that, and I was like, "What?! You threw me under the bus!"

O'Neil: He texted me [after our interview came out]. He's like, "How could you say that?" I was like, "I don't know." It was a mistake. [Laughs.]

Winter: It's not that I pushed saying that it had to go [that way]. I just was like, "There's a lot of room to explore here in a real relationship, in an environment where people could relate." Since their entire working relationship [developed] into a friendship, it's been challenge after challenge after challenge. Tim has a lot of baggage, and I didn't know how this would go down, but I just thought there was a way to explore a lot of real-life relationships in that sense. It's not always perfect on TV. 

How do you hope this separation will make Chen and Bradford stronger in the long run? What do you hope they each learn from their time apart?

Winter: Lucy will probably realize how great Tim is. 

O'Neil: She already knew! What are you talking about? [Laughs.]

Winter: He's even better. [Laughs.] I think Tim is going to learn a lot about himself and learn to really appreciate what Lucy has done to lift him up and get his confidence back as a person. He has this façade of confidence that he puts out there in his career all the time. But I think in his relationship world, it's just been problem after problem after problem, and I think it goes back to his childhood. She's the one that has been trying to support him, like, "You're better than that. You're good." She's really his cheerleader in a sense, and I think he's completely missed that. 

O'Neil: I was just thinking about where that relationship started — and we talked about this a lot before they became a couple. Once you cross that threshold, you can't go back. There is such a sweetness to that dynamic before they became a couple, and that time is so precious. There was a part of me that was like, "Gosh, I wish there was a world where we could reclaim some of that." I don't think that it's entirely possible because even that bantering nature, once they were a couple, had transformed into something different. Selfishly, I really enjoyed watching and doing those types of scenes. So there is a part of my heart that's like, I hope that as they move the relationship forward into the space where it's kind of mended a little bit, maybe we can access some of that interpersonal dynamic again in a different way.

I hope to see Lucy soften a bit. She really took a hard edge, and I think a lot of that had to do with Tamara and her being put at risk in such a crazy situation. [Lucy] got into full mama bear mode and [drew] a line in the sand. But yeah, we'll see how it goes. I'm really curious to see the new scripts. I have no idea where they're going to take it from here, and I know there's a lot of changes in the writers' room.

You had an opportunity to play out little moments after the break-up, when Chen and Bradford don't seem to quite know how to talk about the elephant in the room. How did you both come to understand and justify the different ways that your characters handle the aftermath of their breakup?

O'Neil: A lot of that stuff, for me, is informed by my personal life. I'm a very protective person, and I think that's in alignment with Lucy. It's like, "Okay, we've made this decision [to break up]." So, when she's relating to Bradford, she's like, "I'm good. Are you good? Great. [I'm] moving on, unless you want to have a real conversation... And if not, then I'm going to keep working." That feels very in line with how I think that she would behave.

At the same time, that moment with Kojo [Lucy's former dog, who is now owned by Tim] is a peek into the tenderness of their relationship. She was like, "Leave me alone. Do not come here." And he's like, "Okay, I won't. I'm going to send the dog. And [the birthday card] is not even from me. It's from the dog." I'm so glad that the writers wrote that and gave so much space for me to play with that moment. At the time, it was heartbreaking for so many different reasons. It's a reminder of what [their relationship] was, and also this sweet dog who we've not seen in eons. [Laughs.]

Winter: Yeah. I think it was great just for Bradford probably to go home and sleep in his own bed because we've never seen his house for three seasons. [O'Neil laughs.] I had a roommate I didn't even know. I was basically in a relationship with a roommate, which is so weird, for three years. [Laughs.] So I think it's great that Bradford got to go home and get his dog who probably destroyed the house because he's been living by himself, just feeding himself.

No, I think that moment was really sweet. It was one of my favorite little snippets of a scene — the way that was orchestrated and written for Kojo to show up. "This is not even from me. It's from your dog who you love so much. I'm a dirtbag." I think Bradford feels so bad that it was a great way to try to pry and open the door a little. And it's funny — I didn't even know in the moment how much that little elevator scene from the last episode would matter to so many fans. It was so simple and quick. 

O'Neil: So brief.

Winter: So brief, but so many fans were so impacted by that little moment, and I thought it was well-directed. I thought we did a good job, but I didn't know it was going to be as big as it was. I knew what we were feeling, and it was great for Bradford to get that comfort from her at a time that he was really vulnerable. She put all her differences aside and said, "Hey, I'm here for you." I think it spoke volumes to him to know, like, "You know what? She still has your back."

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A relationship should always be a two-way street. Eric, what do you think it will take for Tim to feel worthy enough of being in a relationship with Lucy again? And on the flip side, Melissa, what would it take for Tim to earn back Lucy's trust?

Winter: Well, Tim probably wants to know that she'll actually sleep over at his house for once because that has never happened. [Laughs.]

O'Neil: Eric wants Bradford to have his own set house so bad

Winter: I need to be back in my house at some point!

O'Neil: He wants it so bad. 

Winter: I do hope, even though Tim's therapist ended up being a lunatic, he does continue going to therapy.

O'Neil: She's not a lunatic.

Winter: Not a lunatic. She made some bad decisions. But I hope that he does continue down that road of therapy a bit. If we get to see it [onscreen], it'd be awesome. But if not, that's fine. I think time heals wounds a bit, and [it's important to show] him being able to reflect on what he's lost and how he's trying to improve and change. And whether that comes with guidance or help, once he feels he's confident in himself again, then I could see him start trying to approach Lucy potentially in that way [about restarting their relationship]. How he gets her back, I don't know. I'm not exactly sure how he wins her trust back, but I hope it's like a fun baby step kind of way, in a way that we're not just jumping right back into something. I hope it really takes a lot of work. I think it'll be very fun to see Tim try to earn that trust in little gestures.

O'Neil: I have a two-part answer. I have the side that is like, "Okay, what do I think it'll take for Lucy to soften and let him back in?" And then I have what I would find interesting to play and see as a viewer. In the character world, there has to be real change. Lucy's a very principled person and disciplined enough that even if she wanted to, I don't think she would let herself get burned twice. You're not going to let a dude tell you twice that he doesn't want to — or can't — do this with you. So I think that Lucy's character is principled enough to be disciplined in that regard. I agree with Eric that I think it would require a lot of consistent, gentle courtship and essentially displaying like, "Hey, I've been changing, and how would you feel if we maybe tried this again?"

But from a viewership perspective, I think they are imperfect in a lot of ways, and it would be interesting to see them falter and slip back [into where they were before], but then also be like, "Nope, we're not doing that because this [relationship] isn't fixed," and then having to navigate that. I would be interested to see [the reconciliation] be a little bit messy. It might not be completely in alignment with Lucy's character, though, when I think about it in that way, because I do think she's really principled. But maybe that's just how irresistible the connection is. Who knows? I can see it playing in a lot of different ways that would be really fun. There's the wholesome route, and that's great. And I can see it being braided in with a lot of messiness too. Or maybe on the show, you're seeing them slowly do the courtship. But in private, there's a reveal that they've actually been hanging out for a minute anyways, and it's just all for show. [Laughs.] So that's my pitch!

Melissa O'Neil, The Rookie

Melissa O'Neil, The Rookie

Disney/Raymond Liu

In the finale, Lucy saves Tim's life by jumping into the trunk of a pick-up truck and helping Tim restrain the driver. Talk to me about the experience of shooting that action sequence using Disney's new Infinity Stage and that final look between Chen and Bradford after they're able to stop the hit man from getting away.

Winter: That stunt was wild, really well-crafted on the page. Our stunt team did an incredible job with the pieces that they put together that make us look more badass. It was really fun and challenging, and the Infinity Stage was something totally unique too. Being in a stationary car and making all that stuff feel like it's happening [in real time] was very fun to act out.

It comes back down to yet another moment where Bradford realizes this woman has his back. Bradford, I think, still has a tough time wrapping his head around that — that someone would stick their neck out that far, even after maybe being burned. It could have been somebody else [to come in and rescue him], but it was her. And the fact that she's the one that jumped in and put an end to the struggle, I think, again just shows him how much she cares for him — not necessarily as a love interest, but just as a human. She has a lot invested in that relationship and that team. 

O'Neil: Working on that stage was exceptional. I don't know in what world we'll have to use it again, but I hope we get to work there again. Actually, wait, I think we might be using it again, but for different applications. That was also personally really exciting because my parents were with me that day when we were shooting on that set, so that was fun. I've never done anything like that before — stationary cars or not. Michelle Lee, my wonderful stunt double, crushed the day that they did it on the street, and I think together, the composition looks wonderful.

That last look is loaded. It's an acknowledgement of that insane physical feat and the way that she laid her life on the line. At the same time, I feel a little different from Eric. I feel like Bradford does understand that risk, especially being a military dude. But again, it didn't have to be her. In that moment, everything is moving so swiftly, and her brain is also like, "Get in the car! Let's go after him right now!" It's one of the wonderful ways that Lucy as a character is really quick-thinking on her feet, and she does what is needed in the moment. Luckily, fate is on her side, and she doesn't land on the street when she's jumping out of a car window. [Laughs.

What did you both want to convey in the final scene between Chen and Bradford in the elevator?

O'Neil: I don't know what it looked like in the [final] cut, but I remember on the day that I wanted it to feel like Lucy was on her back foot, which is why when we were blocking it, I really wanted to make sure I was behind him to hear everything that he was saying. And I like the idea of it feeling like she's just leaving space to be surprised because she probably is missing him at this point, especially after the whole birthday moment. I think she's waiting to see if he's going to evolve or grow in the ways that the two of them have already acknowledged is important, so I think her curiosity is piqued.

Winter: I think a lot of it for Bradford is really him trying to make sure Lucy understands how much gratitude he has for her and what she's done for him in his growth and in the relationship. [He's] trying to really put that exclamation point on the fact that "I am working on myself, but I respect you and I care a lot about you," and that's what I wanted to convey in those moments. It's small, it's short, but I think it's just trying to make sure she feels appreciated.

What are you both looking to explore with your characters individually next season?

O'Neil: My girl has had a tough season, and I'm ready for her to win a little bit. I'm ready for her to be rewarded for the ways that she shows up and kills it at work pretty regularly. I love doing stunt work, so I hope to have more opportunities to explore that. I think telling stories with your body physically is awesome, and I really enjoy it.

But I don't know if I want her to be a detective, and I honestly don't even know if it's going to be in her future because of how she landed. But I would be interested to see her get to explore a more senior position, maybe even if she gets to do more [training officer] work. I really enjoyed the dynamic between her and Lisseth [Chavez]'s character [Juarez], and it would be really cool to see her do more of that. I think Lucy's well-suited to being a healthy, well-adjusted training officer.

Winter: Going into next season, I've pitched that I would love to meet my mom. I feel like Tim probably has a great relationship with his mom, and that was his rock in the family that kept him from completely going off the edge. Maybe we could even bring his sister back, and that could be a thread. She and Lucy got along really well, so that could be a lifeline, an olive branch of "Come hang with my sister, and you never know where that goes." And let Mom hype me up!

Sure, Tim's mom can hype him up, but we also need her to talk some sense into him.

O'Neil and Winter: Yep. [Laughs.]

The Rookie will return with Season 7 in early 2025. All episodes are now streaming on Hulu.