‘Falling Skies’ series finale: Showrunner David Eick answers your burning questions
“The fight isn’t over ’til it’s over,” Colonel Weaver reassured members of the 2nd Mass on more than one occasion.
Now it really is over: “Falling Skies” aired the finale of its fifth and final season tonight on TNT.
WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD for “Reborn,” the series finale of “Falling Skies.”
Tonight’s finale concluded the tale that began with a ragtag team of alien invasion survivors and ended with that same group of survivors becoming heroes, leading the fight to claim back their home, Planet Earth.
Tom Mason and co. have battled all manner of extraterrestrial creatures, gruesome weapons that manipulated once-loyal members of the 2nd Mass to turn on their own, and fellow humans (non-alien-manipulated ones) who were plenty troublesome in their own selfish or fearful agendas, as if a powerful alien threat weren’t trouble enough. After the final push brings the 2nd Mass to Washington, D.C., Tom (Noah Wyle) faces a giant, formidable alien queen, learns the truth behind the Espheni invasion and delivers a nearly self-sacrificing blow to the queen that finally wins the war against the occupying aliens.
Over five seasons, as the production dealt with a revolving door of showrunners, the plot of “Falling Skies” took several turns – some were compelling twists and character developments that elevated the story, while some new directions were arguably meandering or just plain silly. But the series maintained a core group of characters with fates that fans had become invested in: the Mason family and the fellow survivors who cared for the Mason men and fought alongside them.
When HitFix talked with Eick about the “Falling Skies” series finale, he discussed killing off (or not killing off) characters in the final hour, revealed which season 5 moments were conceived by series producer Steven Spielberg, chatted about casting a “Battlestar Galactica” alum to voice the Espheni queen, and more.
HitFix: I’m surprised more people didn’t die! Why did you decide to have so many of the core cast survive through to the end?
David Eick: On some level this stuff always comes down to subverting expectations. Killing off main characters was only fun when no one would dare kill off main characters. Now that everybody kills off main characters, maybe the zag is to keep them alive. I really felt like the story had been crafted in such a way that the vulnerability and the life-or-death stakes had been made so clear so many times. We’ve killed characters we didn’t expect to kill. And, in fact, in the finale we do kill Pope, we kill one of our new characters in this season who self-sacrifices himself. And we nearly kill Anne, so I felt like we had a sufficient amount of death or near-death. Maybe the thing to do would be, after having killed so many of the regulars, let those who had made it this far actually see the light at the end of the tunnel.
So do Tom and Anne have a boy or a girl?
They have a girl. She’s Mitochondrial Eve.
Wait, that’s this other show…
Oh, sorry, that was the other show. [Laughs] I don’t know. Maybe it’s twins. Who knows?
Have you imagined what happens to all these characters beyond the events of this finale?
Well, what I had originally written in the outline for the finale was the following: We end on the moment that harkens back to Spielberg and “Close Encounters” – “We are not alone” – that I thought was very meta and symmetrical. We hold on the star field, and that’s where it ends now, of course, but in the original outline, we dive back down to the Lincoln Memorial. When Tom releases that little critter from the vial that poisons him to poison the queen, I had that critter disappear behind a pillar or something. And then when the camera dies back down at the very end of the episode, we find that critter, and he sort of scurries into the distance and we cut to black. But they wouldn’t let me do that.
“They” the network?
I think the network didn’t want there to be that overt a “dot dot dot we’re gonna do a TV movie” or “we’re gonna do a spinoff.” They just didn't want to open that can of worms.
You have this great chilling image of the Lincoln Memorial, with Lincoln’s head and hands broken off, covered by vines, surrounded by these glowing alien eggs. Tell me how the look for that came together.
It became a matter of – in what way could we desecrate it so it could still be repaired later? It needed to strike us immediately as foul, evil. His head broken off – you just think, “What's the worst thing you could do?”
With the eggs, we certainly owe a debt to [James] Cameron’s first sequel to “Alien.” Where we tried to make it our own and put our own spin on it was the idea that these eggs held the future race of what was going to be the new Earthlings, essentially. It allowed us, frankly, to have a threat without blowing our entire visual effects budget. Kind of like “Jaws,” it's what you don’t see. The eggs are sort of like the water horizon. You could spend some money on some great practical effects, heighten them a little bit with CG, but you don’t need to blow the bank because you're really just being suggestive about the threat versus overt.
Those eggs in the tunnels under D.C. brought some creepiness back into “Falling Skies” that we hadn’t seen in a while.
Yeah, and I missed some of that too. Part of the challenge when you join a show is you’re learning it as you go. Even though, of course, I had watched the show and I’d studied the show intensely before I took it over, I certainly know the show far more intimately and in a more detailed fashion now than when I started, and if I were to embark on running the show for two years in a row right now, I might make some very different choices.
At the same time, the show got a chance to push in some new directions. It did get darker. It got more human. It got funnier, oddly enough. Noah – he's really got a brilliant intellect, and I knew he was really interested in shades of gray with the character, and he was a bit tired of playing what he thought was a bit of a one-note hero who gave a lot of speeches. And so we got to push with him and try some new stuff. It was a lot of fun. A different kind of fun, certainly, than if it were my own show. But you really learn a new set of muscles, and for me it was an opportunity to learn from other creators who do things differently, which is always a treat, if you’re open to it.
What different choices would you have made if you knew “Falling Skies” as well as you do now when you started working on the show?
I probably would have gone darker with Tom earlier. And I probably would have had the [fourth] season be even more character-driven. To me, it still felt a little like a first season. And in first seasons of shows, they tend to be a bit plotter because you’re stretching and looking for what kind of storylines fit the show. I probably would have been more comfortable to investigate some of that stuff earlier. But I think in the end we got there. I certainly feel the fifth season is much stronger than the fourth.
How did you approach the challenge of making that moment when Tom kills the queen feel earned and satisfying?
It was very difficult, and it required all hands on deck. That particular moment went through a number of permutations all the way up until the day we were shooting – I was on the phone with guys on the set.
First of all, what was very important to me was that Tom had a moment of self-sacrifice where he was literally willing to give up his life to destroy this last f---ing hurdle that stands between the 2nd Mass and victory. We’ve seen guys throwing themselves on grenades. We’ve seen guys saying, “You run. I'll distract the monster.” It was very tricky to come up with something that we felt like we hadn't seen before. When we had this idea of the Dornia giving Tom the lynchpin weapon, it led us to this place where the weapon poses a danger to Tom as well, and he might be able to use that weapon on himself when he realizes that’s his only option. Once we settled on that, I was very excited ’cause I thought, “This feels unique. This feels creepy – you’re gonna let this little creepy thing crawl inside you and poison you.”
Telling stories that involve little props and very specific movements and blocking – it’s much harder than you think. When it’s this little thing in your hand, and your hand’s tied up, working out the logistics of how it could happen visually, logically and in an exciting and surprising fashion forced it to go through five or six permutations before you see what we got on camera, which I think finally does work, but it was a nightmare settling on the exact nuance to make it work.
You told us before the season started that the reason the Espheni invaded was, at the root of it, personal. Now that we know this all goes back to the killing of the queen’s daughter, tell me how you came up with this answer fans have been waiting on for so long.
It was the off-season between seasons 4 and 5, and I knew I was going to be faced with this challenge of ending a five-year show. I kept thinking, “Well, this is a Spielberg show.” I sort of wound up with this job by talking to him and the people at TNT about how it was a family drama first. So I was just thinking about family and Spielberg movies, and those aren’t about tactical, strategic warrior game planning. It’s about emotions and family. And if you’re gonna think about Spielberg movies, you better thinking about World War II. And you read how Hitler may have suspected his father was Jewish, that on some level the Holocaust had this very personal kind of origin. The rage of this guy that drove him to all these horrific things. I thought, “Gee, wouldn't it be great if instead of worrying so much about the tactical maneuvers of an epic final battle, we instead thought about this villain more empathetically?” And seeing the point of view of our enemy and our invaders that for five years we’d never seen – not necessarily to sympathize with her but just to understand it in a way that felt more legit than “Well, we needed Earth because we're fighting the Zandar planet, and you have a strategic location.” We nod to some strategic value that Earth may hold, but ultimately it was really personal, and it was about vengeance and about pain and about rage, and those were much more interesting themes to me than military strategy.
I expected to learn more in the finale about the Nazca Lines.
My only reaction to that is that at a certain point we became victimized by the 42-minute power of television. There was an entire storyline with the Nazca Lines all season long that, in the final analysis, winds up sort of poking its head up a couple of times, the rest of which is on the cutting room floor or the writers room floor. It had to do with justifying or explaining the Nazca Lines as a byproduct of the early visitation by the Espheni that resulted in the queen’s daughter’s ritualistic murder. That idea wound up surviving in a couple little loose end places in episodes, but we never got to the scene, for example, where we go to Peru and we see the Nazca Lines or with the Volm and they explain it and put it all together. We just couldn't afford to do it, and we didn't have room to do it.
“Falling Skies” began as a loose allegory for the American Revolutionary War, and the show dealt with preserving America as a home and a set of ideals even after the apocalypse. What was your approach to carrying out those themes but also making “Falling Skies” a story about all of humanity and not just Americans?
It is about humanity, unapologetically about humanity through a very decidedly American prism. “We’re saving humanity, but goddammit, we’re doing it for the good ol’ U.S. of A.” To me, the importance of the Revolutionary War as allegory was so important that the early versions of the finale had Tom and the 2nd Mass not running through subway tunnels – running through very affordable, reusable tunnels that could be redressed and shot and produced effectively for a television budget – but sailing down the Potomac. So I was really gonna go for it. We would do our “Apocalypse Now” version of sailing the Potomac and reaching some bank and having a battle and emerging victorious. That was the plan pretty deep into the season. I didn’t let go of that until the last possible minute. And it just wasn’t reasonable to accomplish and probably never was.
We also invited a little of the Iraq insurgency into the parallel. As our characters grew darker and our characters grew more desperate and more willing to go to dark places themselves, the show would take on more of a visceral desperation that we don’t tend to associate with the Revolution so much as much as we associate it with more contemporary wars.
In your mind, does Tom end up becoming president?
No, I don’t think so. What I always liked about what [creator Robert] Rodat and what the early showrunners did with the character was that he was a schoolteacher, kind of like [“Battlestar Galactica” character] Laura Roslin, in that he was not trained as a warrior or a military guy but just kind of a passive intellectual and had to kind of force himself into this other role.
I always loved the story of how George Washington – Matt has a line about it – how Washington had to be asked three times to be president before he accepted. We leave open the possibility that if they come to Tom again, he might accept. But if you ask me, he goes back to teaching. That’s the symmetry of the character. He did what he had to do. He rose to the occasion when he had to do it for his family and for his country and for his planet, but in the end, that’s not who he is. And he doesn’t need to be that person anymore.
With this line “I’m done killing,” it certainly looks like Tom is returning to who he was before the invasion.
Some of the nicest writing – I’m credited [as the writer] on this episode, but I know this line wasn't mine cause I’m never this succinct or nicely economic – was someone had the brilliant suggestion to have Tom’s line to Pope be “I'm done killing.” It sounded like something out of “True Grit” or “Unforgiven” or a classic Western. I just loved it. It’s my favorite moment of the episode that I didn’t write.
I’m glad we got that last moment with Tom and Pope, and I really thought we would, since Pope’s apparent death last week didn’t feel like a real conclusion for him.
You’re really dealing with precious page count and running time when you’re trying to put all these characters and relationships and storylines and mythologies to bed and still, God help you, tell a compelling story in the process. You don’t want an ounce of fat, if you can avoid it. Because Pope seemed to have been killed an episode ago, it was like, “Why are you doing this?” And I insisted – this is one of the battles I actually won – I insisted on it for exactly that reason. I didn’t feel that was a suitable end for him. Pope was not just Pope. Pope represented our dark side. When Tom says at the beginning of this year, “We all have to find our warrior,” we all have to go dark, the implication from the very get-go is that there's going to be a cost. Pope is that cost. We had to have him make one small gesture toward absolution before he finally died, and I’m really glad that we were able to win that battle.
How did you decide upon the final line of the series?
This was a big speech that went through a number of permutations and didn’t get finally re-written until I was in the editing room. All of those decisions came editorially because that was a much bigger, longer scene. This was the longest episode in terms of stuff that had to be lost once we got into the editing room. On “Battlestar” we would have episodes that came in 40 minutes long. It was ridiculous. We could’ve canceled production on episodes – “We already have a whole other episode right here!” But this show’s pretty tight. With “Falling Skies,” your first cut would be, at the most, five minutes too long. [The finale], as I recall, was 10 or 12. So a lot had to be just trimmed back. That scene was very much a post-production written scene.
Did much thought and debate go into which stars would be in the final frame?
If there was, it was thought and debate from the visual effects team. By the way, those guys will think and debate that kind of s--- ad nauseam. So I won’t put it past them to have had a very specific reason why we’re seeing the star field we’re seeing. But I’ll let that be their secret.
I want to talk about some things we saw earlier in season 5. I loved Tom’s storyline in “Respite.” It was a good change of pace. So effective and moving for Tom to get a taste of what he’s been fighting for all this time.
It’s the best story of the season. Other than discussing how we were gonna kick off the season and how we were going to end the series, the only other main subject in the meeting with Spielberg at the beginning of the season was the story that became episode 6. It was when we were discussing Tom going darker and Tom reaching a point where he’s as morally compromised as the enemy, Spielberg blurted out, “It would be great if, while Tom’s in that headspace, he came across a family who had been kept completely hidden from the war or had children they didn’t tell about it. In this meeting, Spielberg said, “When Tom meets this family, he breaks down crying just like Jon Voight in ‘Deliverance.’” Well, it comes time to do this episode, and I deliver the outline, and the network was going, “What the hell’s Tom crying about? The woman says, ‘Would you like some potatoes?’ and he starts crying. What the hell’s his problem?”
Oh my gosh, they didn’t get it?
I said, “Don’t you guys remember the meeting with Spielberg and we talked about –” and they said, “Well, yeah, but we just thought he would cry ’cause he was gonna miss the family when he leaves or something like that." I go, “No no no no. Trust me, trust me, I guarantee you a child will understand this when I get finished with it. I promise you it will be clear.” To their credit – I’m not trying to rag on the network – they let me run with it. The punchline of the whole thing is I’m sitting watching that episode with my 11-year-old, and afterward I said to him, “Do you know why Tom cries?” And he goes, “Yeah, dummy, ’cause he saw the family having the life that he thought he wasn’t gonna have.” “Thank you. It worked. Okay, an 11-year-old understands it. That means it wasn’t too crazy.” That was a Spielberg pitch. Ironically, a fight to get it through because it was an obscure reference and an unusual idea.
So you had your “Pegasus” episode.
We did. Yeah, thank you for recognizing the homage. Hopefully it felt more like an homage than a rip-off. Yeah, I felt like we were doing almost the flipside of “Pegasus” in that rather than it being about this group that was trying to use us as fodder for their sadistic thoughts, in this case, we’re talking about a boss who herself is manufactured as an enemy, as a plant. I was able to work in season 4 and 5 with one of our staff writers from “Battlestar,” Ryan Mottesheard. And Ryan’s job was to make sure we steered clear of “Pegasus” as this episode was being worked out. But it deals with some of the same themes, which you’re going to run into with any war story, which are “what happens when people start suspecting each other?” and “what happens when paranoia sets in?” and “what happens when you stop having clarity about who the enemy is and you stop having clarity about what the objective is and what victory is?” Those are kind of impossible to avoid if you want to tell a good war story and if you’ve got 10 hours to do it.
You had Aaron Douglas in one episode last season. Did you try to get any other “Battlestar Galactica” alums to guest star in your two seasons of “Falling Skies”?
Well, Tricia Helfer is the voice of the queen.
Yeah, she and I wound up costing the production money because we couldn’t stop shooting the s--- about “Battlestar” while everyone was waiting for her to record her lines. [Laughs] But it was fun to have her reading my dialogue again and performing for my show again.
Mary [McDonnell]’s got a show. Grace [Park] has a show. Katee [Sackhoff] has a show. I run into James Callis periodically ’cause he lives in the neighborhood with me, and he was working. They’ve all got jobs. I would have cast Michael Hogan in heartbeat, but he had already done an arc on “Falling Skies” and gotten killed, as had the girl who played Kat, [Luciana Carro].
Who was I gonna try to get Eddie [Olmos] to be? Oh, the motorcycle gang captain. Then I got kind of talked out of it ’cause it was inappropriate. I was gonna make the motorcycle gang captain a bigger role in the finale, and I say it was inappropriate ’cause there just wasn’t time to have another new character with a big storyline in the finale. I wanted Eddie Olmos, and we offered it to him, and he couldn’t do it. But that would have been fun to have Olmos on the final episode of “Falling Skies.”
In the storyline of Maggie getting her spikes removed, Maggie apologizes to Anne for doing this behind her back, and that conversation was this great Bechdel Test-passing moment. I’m conflicted about Maggie’s later admission that she got the spikes removed for Hal – on one hand, it’s sweet if she did this for love of Hal, but on the other hand, I liked the idea of Maggie doing this just for herself, to get her own independence and self-control back, giving her a storyline that’s not just driving the arcs of the Mason men.
I’m not convinced that Maggie’s telling the truth to Hal. She might be manipulating him, and she might not be playing it straight with him ’cause she’s annoyed that when he wound up on the rebound, he didn’t wind up with a bimbo, he didn’t wind up with just a piece of ass. He wound up with a really smart, strong, capable, beautiful woman. And there’s anger there.
On the other hand, another interpretation – and I think this is the actress’s interpretation – is she actually respects Hal. It gives her a new respect for him that if he’s gonna find someone else, it’s gonna be someone really worthy of him, who has strength Maggie does not have, and that gives her enough of a respect for him that that’s why he tells him that.
Of course, when she makes the decision with Anne, she doesn’t know about Isabella. So it’s an interesting question. I don't think that there’s a simple answer to it. I much prefer the idea that Maggie’s a survivor and she sees something that she loves being threatened, and everything else is water under the bridge, she’s gonna get her man back, and she does.
After the finale airs, will you be looking at fan reactions online?
I always stay away in the short-term cause I’m too emotional. I will probably check them on Tuesday – I usually give myself until Tuesday. Then I’ll just Google the show. What I normally do is gravitate to the bad [reactions] first and get those out of the way. If there are any hopefully positive reactions, I’ll be looking at those towards the end of Tuesday.
What project are you working on next?
I set up another science fiction series. It’s a pilot order at Syfy based on the novel “Gateway” by Frederik Pohl, which was a Nebula and Hugo award winner back in the late ’70s. I'm collaborating on that with [fellow “Falling Skies” writer] Josh Pate, and we are putting the finishing touches on the script. We’ll hopefully have this thing set up and off to the races within the next month or so.