Kevin Murphy, Showrunner and Executive Producer of The Son, talks about Pete and Eli’s relationship, Jeannie’s role in the McCullough legacy and ensuring the show’s female characters had prominent voices.
A: It’s a really important step because of the fact that Eli has seen the writing on the wall. He understands that the time of the Comanche is drawing to a close — and that’s something that we’ve been talking about since the beginning of Season 1 — and everything is cyclical. Way back in Episode 3 of the first season, Toshaway had a speech about how one empire is built upon the ashes of the empire that came before it. And it’s very important to Eli to be on the winning side of things.
A: Pete hates it because Pete doesn’t want that responsibility. He’s not interested in making his father a better man. He’s not interested in being his father’s crutch. Eli tells himself that the things that I do, all the bad acts that weigh on his soul, they’re okay because as long as Pete, who’s decent and is honorable, loves me and tolerates me, that is my evidence that I’m not truly a bad person and that my soul’s not damned. Eli needs to believe that, and Pete does not wish to absolve his father nor does he wish to have that responsibility, which is why he pushes back.
Q: Eli goes after Maria only to be shot by his own son, Pete. What was it like for the cast and crew to carry out that scene?
A: It was really hard. It was weird. We knew that we were building to it. Pierce [Brosnan] knew before anyone else in the cast knew because these plans were in the works when we were breaking the story. It wasn’t like we decided at the last second to kill off Eli. It was very carefully planned. Before we began shooting, I went to Pierce’s trailer and we sat down, with Kevin Dowling, our [Executive Producer]/Director, and we walked him through how the story was going to go, so that he understood why Eli was dying and how it worked.
It was bittersweet because it was the best way to tell the story. We wrote ourselves into a situation where it was inevitable that both Pete and Eli could not survive, that one of them was going to have to go, and it would have been a really horrible and unsatisfying ending for Pete to be the one who lost at the end. So Pierce understood that it was going to be a fantastic swan song for his character, but Pierce also really loved playing this character.
Q: Can you explain Jeannie‘s relationship with the truth of how Eli died?
A: Because of how we structured the story, the idea is that the audience is supposed to think that Ulises is telling her something that she didn’t know, but, when you finally get to the finale, you know that Young Jeannie is actually in the room when the family invents the myth about the bear. So you understood that oh my God, I thought the woman was being fooled but she was lying. She was playing dumb. She knew exactly how her grandfather died because she’s the one who discovered the body, and she was a participant in creating this myth. You go back to the finale, there’s a scene where Eli says to Jeannie, you’re the one that will write my legend because she’s the one that will live. And she’s the one that goes to the historical society and tells them the big whopping lie about how her grandfather died, because nobody wants the scandal of how he was killed by his own son to become the defining characteristic of Eli McCullough.
One of the real life things that we pulled from was the historical Edward Doheny who was a big oil guy. His son was killed under mysterious circumstances, and it’s widely believed that the Doheny family covered up the specifics of how it happened to prevent a stain on the family legend.
Q: Jeannie’s character acts as a spotlight on the wrong that everyone is doing throughout the season. Then in the finale, she’s the one who disregards Ulises as her own kin. Why does she do this?
A: I think she’s torn, but, at the end of the day, the legacy of her family is the most important thing, and Ulises has an alternate version of history and it’s a very inconvenient alternate narrative. The thing is that when you’re as old as Jeannie is, it’s really, really difficult to accept an alternative narrative. It’s easier to just kind of go with it. I see that with my own parents. Getting them to change things that they’ve believed all their lives is almost impossible. To admit that Ulises was part of their family means that you have to go back and admit that all your life you’ve been lying about who and what your grandfather was. You may also be dealing with the fact that Ulises may decide that he wants a piece of the family fortune and she doesn’t want to give that up.
The thing that’s awful is that we love Jeannie as a character. She’s an incredibly strong and capable and accomplished woman, and we want her to do better. And she doesn’t. But the thing is that’s kind of true and that’s what people do. There’s kind of a call to arms to us as Americans right now that we do really need to do better even though it’s not easy for us to do. And that is a difficult thing to ask of people.
Q: You’ve brought the story to a close. How challenging was it to do justice to this New York Times best-selling novel that was also a Pulitzer Prize finalist?
A: It took a long time making these 20 hours of television. It was a total of three years in the making, if you count development. There were a lot of moving parts because we had to do justice to the Tejano characters in the story. We had to do justice to our Comanche characters. And we also had to be accurate with our history. That required that all of our writers had to become American history experts in a very condensed span of time.
Q: What were you excited most for people to see this season?
A: What I’m really excited about this season is how the women have come to the forefront in the show. That was one of the real challenges in adapting the novel. The novel is an amazing story. It is justifiably revered, but the women don’t have the prominence in the narrative that the male characters have. And we have such incredible, incredible actresses, with Paola [Nuñez] and Jess [Weixler] and Elizabeth [Frances] and Sydney, that we had to find ways to give them more agency and give them more to do in the story, while also not making it into a fantasy because they had to behave believably as women of their time. That was a big challenge. It was a thing that we wrestled with repeatedly in the writers room. I think that, to a large part, we succeeded. For me usually, the litmus test is if I’ve got actors with smiles on their faces, then it means they’ve gotten good material — and nobody can smell good or bad material more than an accomplished actor that’s asked to play it. And we had a very, very happy cast.
Q: What’s your favorite memory from filming this show?
A: I think it’s the camaraderie that came about being on location in such a beautiful city as Austin. And I think that Pierce was such a wonderful father figure and host to the group. There was a dinner the first season where he invited all of the designers and all of the principal actors and the writers that were in residence to a room in a restaurant, and it just became a thing where everybody would hang out and we ate barbecue and we all drank a lot of wine and just kind of turned into a family. And I think that, as corny as that may sound, the incredible hospitality and generosity that Pierce showed to everyone is the thing that I really take away because I think that started at the beginning and people really came together.
It was a miserable shoot, especially first season, because it was like 115 degrees out in the sun. It was a commonplace occurrence to have at least two or three people taken to the emergency room because they hadn’t drunk enough water. We had Comanche stunt riders too that overheated and fell off their horses. The actors were wearing these heavy cotton period clothes with multiple layers, and the women had all of these complicated undergarments that just were hot and sweaty and sticky and miserable.
In the opening, there was a scene where Jacob is walking through the water. It’s the first shot in the very first episode. And what you don’t realize when you’re watching that scene is that behind him were several water moccasins and Jacob was like, that’s okay, they’re far away, let’s get the shot, let’s get the shot. But that sort of can-do attitude, it only comes when people really believe in what they’re doing, and I think that Pierce really set that tone at the beginning.
Read a Q&A with Sydney Lucas, who plays Jeannie McCullough.
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