OUTSIDERS is now in its second season Tuesday nights on WGN America. The drama concerns a group of Kentucky mountain folk, the Farrells, clashing with the townies and the coal company below.
Peter Tolan (co-creator of RESCUE ME), who executive produces and is a show runner on OUTSIDERS alongside series creator Peter Mattei, sits down to talk about what’s going on in Season 2 and where the story may go in future seasons.
ASSIGNMENT X: Has the way that you and Peter Mattei approach the material changed any from Season 1?
PETER TOLAN: I would say not really. I think in the first season, the network said to us, “You should really focus on the Us versus Them of it all, that it’s the Farrells versus the town.” Which we did. But having done that, and having vigilante groups going up there, we really did want to mix it up this year. So we made some big choices in terms of where the story went, and I think took the characters in some surprising places.
AX: Peter Mattei has said that you did not name the Moregon character [Louise Barnes] after the Irish mythological deity the Morrigan …
TOLAN: Oh, my God. We didn’t know that. Believe me. We went through about twenty different names for that character [laughs]. We put “Shazira” or whatever sounded like superhero names. We’d put them on the board and go, “This is phony, and we can’t.” And eventually we started to look up Irish names. Well, it’s like somebody would have gone, “What was your name again?” “Moregon.” “Isn’t she the goddess of death? I don’t think we should trust her.”
AX: Speaking of things that should give us pause, how much should we trust Big Foster’s [David Morse] seeming change of heart?
TOLAN: I think – this is what I think makes the character interesting, not just for the viewers, but for the actor portraying him – that Big is conflicted. I think when he says, “I’m a changed man, and I’m this kind of man, and I’m a different man,” he really wants to believe that, or he does believe it. Unfortunately, his DNA is wired so that as soon as those words are out of his mouth, within about five minutes, he belies the whole thing. The anger comes back, flashes into his eyes, and people just go, “Well, how can I trust you?” And I think that’s a constant internal struggle for him.
AX: Is there meant to be a parallel that both Big Foster and Little Foster [Ryan Hurst] are imprisoned at the beginning of the season?
TOLAN: Yes. Again, we had a thematic idea from the beginning about confinement, and several of the characters are literally confined. We end up with Little Foster in prison, and where we start [Big’s] character is terrible and interesting. And then G’win [Gillian Alexy], we feel, is confined by responsibility. She is in effect a girl doing a woman’s job, learning on the job, and really feeling the pressure of what it is to be a leader. Wade Houghton [Thomas M. Wright] is feeling pressure because of familial obligations that come up early in the season that were not expected. So nobody is getting a free ride early in the season. They’re all under stress. And then of course we have a character whose idea of dealing with the Farrells is to fence off the mountain. And we came up with the idea of a fence about a month before any sociopaths who have risen to public office came up with an idea to build fences.
AX: Is any of the real-life political narrative having an effect on your OUTSIDERS narrative?
TOLAN: Not at all. It really is chance. The thing about the fence, it was almost like I came in the day that [Trump] said that, and I looked at the rest of the staff, and I go, “Come on.” You don’t want to say, “Did we call that?” because it’s too grotesque an idea, that you can handle a problem by building a fence. It’s insanity. So at least you feel like enough of what you’re doing is landing in the zeitgeist. And the fact that this person was elected to that office by a disenfranchised people, who for the most part feel that they have not been taken care of by the party in power, and our show is about a disenfranchised people who feel they haven’t been taken care of, who cannot get jobs, who cannot take care of their families, and who are blaming it on people who have less than they do. So the idea of Mexicans coming over the border, taking our jobs – I mean, it’s the same thing, but it was not intended. Our main intention is to entertain, and that’s it. Nobody has an agenda here.
There’s a scene later when a character looks into getting an abortion. I must say, of course, there are a bunch of liberals in the room. So we are accurately writing about the difficulty that someone in Kentucky would have to have that procedure done, or to even get the information. And the scene is three pages. At a certain point, I was like, “Well this is a polemic. We can’t do this.” Even though it’s right, even though it is accurately depicting the insanity that goes on in a woman trying to have a pregnancy terminated. But that’s not our goal. Our goal is to entertain. Yes, we can touch on it and whatever, but …
AX: Well, you have to give Sally-Ann [Christina Jackson] a reason to go back up the mountain after she had such an awful experience there the first time, and being pregnant and not being able to get an abortion, it seems like one option is to go to the baby’s father, Hasil [Kyle Gallner] …
TOLAN: [In that situation], your life’s going to change. You’re just going to have to deal with it somehow, and that may include uprooting yourself from a family which has turned their back on you.
AX: When you wrote the opening sequence of Season 2, which appeared to show the Farrells and the town police entering into all-out war, was that like, “Well, we left the audience sort of expecting that they’d see this at the end of Season 1. Now, we can’t actually do this, because that would potentially end the show, but on the other hand, we have to show the audience – so we’ll have Wade Houghton hallucinate it”?
TOLAN: Yeah. Sometimes you want to have your cake and eat it, too. The last thing you saw [in Season 1] is ten or so police officers up on a mountain, surrounded by three hundred people. Of course what happened next – well, hopefully you subvert that idea and show them that it was not quite that. But you give them at least the release of saying, “Here’s the sh**storm that happened. And now here’s what really happened.” We really wanted to start Wade off on bad footing, so to speak, at the beginning of the season. So once you find out what really happened, and he has that cast on his wrist, that cast was meant to be like Hester’s A [in THE SCARLET LETTER]. It was for all to see that he had had this failure, tripped and fallen in fleeing.
AX: With bringing in the Emergency Management team, was that because that would actually happen, or was that to free up Haylie [Francie Swift] to do a few more things as a character?
TOLAN: It actually in a way stepped on a few things that Haylie would have done. It might have taken a few things away from her, which we don’t want to do, because we love that character. But we change Haylie up a little bit. She does some things in the second season that are unlike her. And she is not rewarded for them, let’s just say that. But it would really happen. In Flint, Michigan, during the water crisis, they brought in an emergency manager, who did all of the things that are being talked about here – this person is suddenly in charge of the county or town’s finances and so forth.
AX: And yet, nothing …
TOLAN: Nothing got done [laughs]. That’s the only problem in the story. But at least this guy got a fence built.
AX: Is this season a little more mystical than last season? We’ve got Wade having a vision of lightning, and then the manner of Asa’s death, with what seem to be mystical wolves …
TOLAN: Look, I can’t say that I’m entirely comfortable with elements of magic in the show [laughs], and I was probably against the idea of the reveal of Elon [Aidan Fiske] at the end of Season 1 – that was the last image that people saw, was that Elon is there with Phelia [Kendall Yeaman] – but having done it, we had to then try and figure out an explanation. And so Elon does appear, three times, always in times of crisis, to individuals on the mountain. They’re the only person there, they see him one at a time. And so at crucial points, he appears. So it’s almost as if you can say the mountain is sending an emissary to offer comfort or advice or whatever. That’s about as much magic as I want to have going on. Other than wolves who show up.
AX: Yeah, wolves generally don’t attack humans, and they certainly don’t come into cities to attack humans …
TOLAN: These are mystical wolves. They went all the way to L.A., those wolves. They are mystical wolves.
AX: Is Little Foster, or Hasil, or Sally-Ann, for that matter, going to take over any of the late Asa’s plot function at all as the reluctant quasi-outsider hero, or is that plot function being retired, or is it being distributed among other characters?
TOLAN: You know what? It’s on hiatus, let’s say that. We didn’t feel the need to continue that particular line, because we felt we had so much for the other people to do and we wanted to take them on different journeys, some of which were not on the mountain. But at some point, there may exist, and we haven’t really talked about it, a situation where one of these people rises to a position of, “I am the ultimate savior.” Lady Ray said that maybe Asa was this person, who was the Returned. “The Returned will save us” apparently is their prophecy. There’s a demon who will destroy, and the Returned will save. And it was originally meant that the demon was Big Foster and Asa ultimately, once he fully accepted his family, would have been the Returned. I think we’ve moved beyond all that. But at a certain point, there will probably be someone who will rise to lead.
AX: Can you say how much time Season 2 encompasses plot-wise?
TOLAN: I can’t imagine that the season goes much longer than a month after [Sally-Ann learns she is pregnant]. Maybe even shorter. Because the time is really compressed on OUTSIDERS. So let’s say there were five seasons, it could be less than a year. I don’t think that’s going to be the case, I think we’re actually going to build time into the beginning of the third season.
AX: Do you know how many seasons you’d like to see it go? Peter Mattei was saying that when you started, you didn’t have Season 2 mapped out, but do you know have more seasons mapped out now?
AX: So what does the map look like?
TOLAN: Here’s the thing. It is an interesting show that’s challenging from a writing standpoint, because it’s two worlds. And you have to keep those worlds separate for the most part. When they come together, it’s an event. If it happens too many times, it doesn’t become an event any more. It’s suddenly too easy and too whatever. Ultimately, we’re leading to some sort of a Waco standoff. And I believe, ultimately, we’re leading to a place – and I could be wrong, this could all change – where the Farrells are in fact removed from that mountain, and this version of Utopia is over. I don’t think we can go on much longer than five or six seasons.
AX: Do you have any other projects going on right now that we should know about?
TOLAN: I am very happily rewriting and writing a script with Norman Lear, actually about a neglected audience segment, old people. So we’re writing a show that takes place in a retirement community in Palm Springs. Norman wrote the script six years ago, I’m rewriting it and working with him on it. So I’m doing that and I have a very strong, I think, pilot about a movie studio in the ‘90s that I’m taking out pretty soon.
AX: And what would you most like people to know about Season 2 of OUTSIDERS?
TOLAN: Well, if you can get through the surprises in the first episode, then just trust me that there are many more surprises to come, and if you like the action element of OUTSIDERS, you will be richly rewarded.
This interview was conducted during WGN America’s portion of the Winter 2017 Television Critics Association (TCA) press tour at Pasadena’s Langham-Huntington Hotel.
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Article: OUTSIDERS: Showrunner Peter Tolan on Season 2 – exclusive interview