[This story contains spoilers from the finale of The Morning Show season three, “The Overview Effect.”]
The Morning Show’s season three finale is the first time a season of the Apple TV+ series didn’t end with a black screen.
Both seasons one and two had wrapped with a broadcast that cut to black, delivering back-to-back cliffhanger endings that provided then-showrunner Kerry Ehrin, who developed the series, and the writers with enough runway to completely shift the series when it returned. When Ehrin departed as showrunner after season two (she remains on the series as a consultant and has an overall deal with Apple), Charlotte Stoudt says there were enough breadcrumbs in the season two finale for her to piece together and begin to plot season three, which released its finale Wednesday after a weekly 10-episode season.
“There was a lot of opportunity to play with what [Kerry] left on the table,” Stoudt, who has worked on Fosse/Verdon, Homeland and House of Cards, tells The Hollywood Reporter about taking over as showrunner on the Emmy-winning Apple TV+ series.
For Stoudt’s first Morning Show season finale, she chose to end the season not on a cut-to-black broadcast but instead on two solo shots of her main characters, played by Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon. The fiery friends, loyal co-anchors and ethically blurry truth-tellers at The Morning Show‘s UBA network have always ended the season by blowing up the place up from the inside out: first in the #MeToo era and then during the pandemic. To end season three, they are still side by side, but only temporarily.
The final scene sees Alex (Aniston) supporting and escorting Bradley to the FBI, after the latter made the scary but right decision to turn herself in and face felony charges for protecting her brother (who assaulted a police officer during the Jan. 6 insurrection; a moment she captured on camera and withheld in her reporting). A terrified Bradley enters the building with Hal (Joe Tippett) — her future unknown — while Alex seems hopeful as she heads back to UBA, where she has finally earned a seat at the table after pitching a merger between UBA and rival network NBN, outsmarting her romantic interest of the season (played by Jon Hamm). The two women have never been further apart in their career trajectories, yet they’ve cemented their bond as the key relationship of the series.
“The show is a love story between these women. The core of The Morning Show is their dynamic and how they change each other,” says Stoudt, as she begins to plot season four with her newly opened writers room following the end of the Writers Guild of America strike. “And I think that always has to be there, absolutely. So, we’ll find a way. They’ll be in the same room, somehow!” Stoudt shares more about season three and plans for season four in the interview below.
What were some of your trepidations and what excited you about taking over as showrunner for The Morning Show’s third season?
The show itself excited me, because it feels like nothing else on television. I was so impressed with how season one looked at, among other things, not only sexual misconduct but also how different women react to an environment like that. I thought it was very smart and brave to take on patriarchy in the workplace and that really excited me. Also, the fact that you can talk about current events, but you have to find an interesting way to talk about them because you’re always going to be slightly behind the timeline itself when the show airs. I liked all of those challenges.
It’s a show that can talk about the moment we are in, and what it feels like to be alive right now. That’s such a confusing, crazy, thorny thing in itself; I love that the show is a box that you can put all that stuff in. I was also super excited that at the end of season two Kerry Ehrin had left so many delicious breadcrumbs, and it seemed like there was a lot of opportunity to play with what she left on the table.
Did she leave you a roadmap, or did she want to leave it up to your interpretation?
Kerry was so generous. She said, “This is yours now.” But I really wanted to connect with her and show respect to the person who created this show and these amazing characters. It’s a hard thing to do, to make a show that people really love to watch. It’s not easy. So, props to Kerry.
You didn’t have an official season four renewal when you were making season three.
Right. It came before season three aired, but after [we had finished].
I spoke to your executive producers and it sounds like, at the time, you all were pretty confident about a fourth season. But, given how this season ends, was there any part of you that was crafting this finale to double function as a series finale? And would you have been OK if it ended here, with Bradley (Witherspoon) turning herself into the FBI?
You always live and hope! I think, in any season, whether you know exactly what the future of the show is, you try to give some narrative satisfaction. But, even if it’s the last season, you never want to tie everything up so neatly. So I think I would approach it like you do any season, where I would want to leave some things open and then resolve other things. I think that’s just a habit most writers are in when they write a finale of any season.
When it ended I immediately thought, “I’m so happy there’s another season.”
Well, you are always hoping that’s the response! (Laughs)
At the start of season three, I spoke with Mimi Leder, Michael Ellenberg, Kristin Hahn and Lauren Neustadter in your absence, due to the writers strike. Kristin and Lauren highlighted how first Kerry and now you are able to read the tea leaves and deliver prescient storylines. They told me you revisited the script in hard prep to crash in the Supreme Court leak around the Dobbs v. Jackson decision and write the episode that portrays Roe v. Wade being overturned. But Lauren said there were already elements of it in the script, even before the decision was official. What was the writing on the wall for you and what was the experience like of crashing that in?
The Roe v. Wade issue is so key to the DNA of the show overall. The show is really about women’s agency and autonomy, and what sort of things challenge that. It seemed thematically right on. And when we started the season three room, we knew certainly that the Supreme Court would be ruling on that in the summer sometime. So we knew that would be an issue and we knew that Roe was probably going to fall, so we wanted to acknowledge that in some way, because it does seem so on theme with the show.
Then when the leak happened, it sort of dovetailed so perfectly, because I was always think of Cory’s (Billy Crudup) mother [Martha Ellison, played by Lindsay Duncan] as a woman who spent her entire adult life fighting for progressive causes and trying to push women’s freedom forward, and how this would be such a blow and such a disappointment to her. So I wanted that sense of a generational response to Roe. And when the leak happened I was like, “Oh my God, we can literally just put it into episode seven.”
Your EPs said the themes you came in wanting to tackle this season were women’s autonomy and agency, as well as a media landscape in crisis, the state of truth in journalism and “the lies we tell ourselves,” said Mimi. And that’s all on top of the show’s undercurrent of tackling systemic racism, sexual misconduct and social division. So why did you want to center so much of the season around Bradley Jackson’s big secret (revealed halfway through the season via flashback)?
I was looking for the tension between what Alex is trying to do in the present, which is trying to have some say in the direction of UBA. That was one force pushing against the season. And then something that would possibly really put that in danger would be Bradley’s secret. So I thought about it more as, ” How are the two women’s stories pushing against each other, and trying to always set them up so they’re going to have a dilemma and struggle between the two women? Like, what should we do now?” I thought of it more as that.
But [Michael] Ellenberg asked me a question very early on, which was, “What happened during the two years between season two and three?” That got me thinking. The question of Bradley and Cory comes up, because he said “I love you” at the end of season two. And I thought, “Wouldn’t it be interesting if they had a secret that wasn’t romantic, that had possibly more stakes and that was really about their sense of vulnerability and trust in each other? And that would actually emotionally cut deeper than just a more straight-up romantic story of any kind.” I also thought that the Bradley-Laura [Julianna Margulies] relationship needed to be played out; we needed to spend more time with them to find out: What is at the core of that relationship? What might be an obstacle?
But early on, we always said there was going to be an episode called “My Pandemic,” and it’s not going to be about COVID at all.
Did the insurrection plotline come to you quickly, or was there another event you considered for the backdrop of Bradley’s secret?
Really there wasn’t. Because I do think that on the subject of ‘the big lie’ and the lies we tell ourselves, I was really interested in how two people can be at the same place at the same time, or watch the same thing on television, and have a completely different reaction to it. I wanted to explore that sense of polarization in America; not in an overview red-blue way, but in a family situation. That seemed a lot more human and relatable for people along the political spectrum. That’s why I did it.
But I knew that Bradley gets a little high on her job and might overstep. And to tell herself that it was for a good reason and part of a larger ambition to do important work: “But if I just cross this little line, does it really matter?” And it turns out, it did.
The characters on this show always make controversial decisions, but as journalists, you push them far ethically with Bradley committing a felony and Alex getting into bed with Paul Marks [the tech billionaire played by series newcomer Jon Hamm] — even though we enjoyed watching the latter! Were there debates in the room about how far you could push your main characters?
I was always interested in making Paul Marks both good and bad. He should be like any character on this show; he has flaws, he might overstep, but also, he’s a human being. So I saw him less as an antagonist on the show and more just similar to everyone else and how they operate in this world. My focus was more: Can I humanize this guy? And, can you root for this relationship even though you know it’s going to be problematic? Could we walk that line? When you have an actor like Jon, you can walk that line! This is someone of her stature. This is an equal. And I think for someone like Alex, there are not a lot of people like that out there in the world, and he’s kind of turned on when she says no. He doesn’t want anyone who is charmed by whatever he does; I think he likes the resistance that she puts up.
The question I’m left with after the finale is: Do people get second chances, especially as journalists? Bradley’s career is so important to her, what does she look like if that’s taken away? And Alex, meanwhile, is now living out her second chance. How will you plan to explore second chances in season four?
We just started the season four room, it’s literally such early days. But we’re absolutely going to play out the consequences of what we saw in season three — in every sense and for every character. If we asked the audience to go on that ride, then we have to honor that ride.
You didn’t cut to black for the first finale yet in the series. Why did you end on those shots of Reese and Jen instead?
I think because the show is a love story between these women; that really is the core of the show. And I think it is a show that’s built to showcase these extraordinary actors and how many we have in the show; there are just so many great performances. But it’s a show that comes down to the human face. To me, it’s about the human face and all the conflict that plays out inside and outside; and how you are both a private person and a professional person. This crazy relationship that began when Alex was trying to save herself turned into this spiky friendship where they really are the people who hold each other to account.
Kristin Hahn had said, “Bradley didn’t have to take that walk alone. Alex showed up to walk her to that [FBI] door. That’s what family does.”
That’s much better put! Yes, I think they are there for each other, absolutely. And Alex knows how big it is for Bradley to do this, and how difficult and scary it is.
They are both on different paths now. Will you keep the Alex-Bradley friendship front and center?
To me, the core of the show is their dynamic and how they change each other. And I think that always has to be there, absolutely. So, we’ll find a way. They’ll be in the same room, somehow!
The ending left a few other characters up in the air: Laura, who explodes on Bradley over her Jan. 6 cover-up and leaves her; Cory, who gets pushed out of UBA over accusations that he groomed Bradley; and definitely Paul Marks, who gets uncovered for his (illegal) schemings, outsmarted by Alex and dumped by both her and UBA. What can you say about who will be returning, and who you’d like to explore more of?
I think all of those people actually have a lot more … you can turn a lot more cards for all of those people. They have a lot more to do in their journey to be integrated as people.
I always think of TV characters as people who are not fully integrated. In comedy, you never want to integrate them, so they’ll stay funny. As human beings, they can’t quite piece together all their different selves. But I think in a drama, you are moving towards people becoming more whole and able to deal with all the different, conflicting parts of themselves.
There has been a positive reaction to the ensemble expansion this season — Karen Pittman (who plays Mia Jordan), Greta Lee (who plays Stella Bak) and Nicole Beharie (as new anchor Chris Hunter) especially shine. In a show where Jen and Reese are the leads, you brought many other actors into focus. What was most important to you when it came to diversifying the stories you told?
Again, it’s just that the actors are extraordinary, so you want to give them a platform to show their stuff. Karen, Greta, Nicole… they are all just so, so strong. You want to give them as much trouble as possible. But also, in the wake of George Floyd and all of that, we want to tell those stories. There’s that, and then there are a lot of other stories to tell about all the characters.
I do think Stella is a person who is chasing being a leader, and I think it will be interesting to see how that plays out. She is extraordinarily bright and ambitious and, how is she going to move in this space where the rules have really been defined by white guys for so long? Is she going to do it differently? How will she do it differently? What are going to be her challenges? Digging into that for her seemed interesting.
Will you time jump again for season four?
I think you probably have to have some kind of time jump, because it takes so long to write and shoot and post the show. You don’t want to get too far behind in real time, in terms of the era we’re playing and when people are watching it. But I think those time jumps, actually, are great. Because they allow for really surprising reveals at the top of the season. It’s a little bit of: “How did they get there? Wait, he’s doing what? Those two are together?!” I think just on a sheer deliciousness of story, you can have a lot of fun with this big cast.
As the WGA and SAG-AFTRA dual strikes were happening, I was wondering what The Morning Show would do with this news story and how those anchors would cover it. How do the strikes impact your approach to season four; have you thought about how they might tackle it, or even, how it’s affected you as a storyteller?
I think it’s hard to say right now when we’ll pick up. We could be past both the strikes, I think. That’s likely, to be honest. The one nice thing [during the strike] was that you could daydream and look out the window and think about what kind of story you wanted to tell.
On a more global scale, the Israel-Hamas war is bringing up complications for media and how reporters cover this conflict in the age of disinformation and social media warfare. Is that bringing up any ideas for storylines?
I think again, it’s so early. We obviously look at everything that’s going on in the world and whether it’s that conflict or something else, we always try to be as thoughtful and as intentional about it as we can. For anything that’s a real-life event, I feel strongly about just trying to be really thoughtful about this stuff.
What excites you about exploring what Alex may do with the newfound power she’s come into heading into season four?
I think Alex is so multi-faceted, its fun to turn the prism and see a new side of her. She even said it in the last scene: Bradley was like, “Oh, you could remake this place.” And Alex was like, “Yeah, be careful what you fight for.” So there may be a little of that. It’s one thing to throw spitballs from the sidelines, but when you’re someone in charge, the equation becomes a little different. I think it would be good to see her struggle with all of that — in her very funny Alex way.
Are you someone who reads reviews or follows the online discourse? Do you follow along and see what people are saying as the show comes out?
I think with this show, because it has the lovely virtue of being watched by a lot of people, even if you don’t look at a lot of press, you hear things. So I kind of got a sense of what people liked. Actually, what was interesting is that I think people responded to what we call the really “crunchy moments.” The interview with Cybil [Holland Taylor] and Chris in episode three, the Stella ad buyers lunch scene at the restaurant in episode four. I think people are interested in really difficult moments and how people get through them. So I was encouraged by that, because it was inspiring to say: What can we do that’s both really truthful and is saying something about how it is to be in this world? But also, a great moment in a scene.
Did the response to Jon Hamm’s character make you happy?
It did. I think as soon as [he and Jen] did a scene together everybody was like, “Oh my God, this is magic.” Even when they were rehearsing and talking about the two characters, I was just sitting there looking at them going like, “Mhmm.” But I entirely credit that to the two actors, and also Mimi’s work with them [as director]. I can’t take credit for just excellence in chemistry, that’s for them!
The bromance [between Jon and Billy Crudup] was really fun. The same goes with Alex, you are always looking for: Who can out-Alex Alex? Who can out-Cory Cory? You’re always looking for the scene partner who can really keep them on their toes and have them scrambling. It was fun to watch Jon, and weirdly it was a little triangle with those three [including with Greta Lee].
When you think about the longevity of this series, as you are now working on the next season, are you interested in doing more and have it continue on beyond season four?
You can always say something new about what’s going on in the world. I think we live in such complex times and a time when people are really thinking a lot about power and how power works and how power can shift so quickly, just with the online world. I think it is a really interesting time, and there’s so much disagreement about what the story is, what the point of view should be. The election, obviously, being sort of case study A. So I think there will always be a place for this show. I have no idea about how long people want to go on, but I do think it’s a show that can constantly reinvent itself. I will be honest, right now, I’m just thinking about season four!
Is there anything that was a learning curve or a challenge, or something you held onto that you will bring with you for season four?
Trying to be really bold with the storylines. Keep them grounded of course, always. But to make sure we stay bold and challenging. And also, to continue to learn how to gracefully weave in everyone’s story to do justice to this incredible ensemble. That’s on my wish list. It’s really a show that I think is incredibly fun to write. It’s really, really fun to write. When writers come on, they say something and I say, “You want to write about that? That’s a Stella story, come pitch it.” And I think that’s tremendously exciting, actually.
Is there something you are really proud to have pulled off this season?
So many things. That we survived! (Laughs.) That I made it through. That there’s a last scene. You never quite believe it until they actually shoot it.
I think there are a lot of things. I loved the Jon-Jen story, I loved seeing Alex be vulnerable, the flashback episode; I think that’s a beautiful episode. And I’m really proud of episode three, introducing Chris and really giving her a strong story. We had a lot of feedback that that resonated with a lot of people, and I love that It’s connecting with people on an emotional level. That’s really important to me. We’re just going to keep experimenting with it and see where we can take it, while never messing with the core stuff that works.
The Morning Show season three (along with seasons one and two) are now available on Apple TV+.