'Chicago Fire' Boss on Killing Off a Major Character and How It Changes Everything in Season 8 (Exclusive)

Chicago Fire

Showrunner Derek Haas breaks down the decision to say goodbye to a series regular and what this means for the firehouse moving forward.

Warning: Spoiler alert! Do not proceed if you have not watched Wednesday's season eight premiere of Chicago Fire.

The huge factory fire that left the fates of members of the Chicago Fire crew up in the air came to a fatal end.

On Wednesday's season eight premiere, titled "Sacred Ground," Casey (Jesse Spencer), Severide (Taylor Kinney) and their teams unexpectedly said goodbye to firefighter Brian "Otis" Zvonecek (Yuri Sardarov), who succumbed to his injuries. His abrupt death was felt throughout the firehouse, but perhaps affected his best friend and roommate, Joe Cruz (Joe Minoso), the most. Otis' death prompted Joe to seek answers to existential questions about their time on this Earth, leading Chief Boden (Eamonn Walker) to erect a memorial so Otis' memory would never be forgotten.

"It's been a long time since we had a main character go," showrunner Derek Haas tells ET, adding it's "awful writing off a character." "You can only write them in and out of corners so many times before the audience just stops caring about the situation."

There was a lot to unpack from the season opener, which also dealt with the aftermath of Casey's inciting factory fire call, Brett's (Kara Killmer) engagement and the task of filling Otis' shoes. Following the premiere, ET hopped on the phone with Haas to discuss the decision to kill off one of the show's series regulars, the aftermath of the death and what viewers can expect moving forward.

ET: There wasn't any indication that we would be losing one of the members of the squad following the factory fire. What was the decision behind having Otis die in the premiere?

Derek Haas: It's awful writing off a character, especially when you are tight with the actors and you've known them. I've known Yuri since before Chicago Fire, since he was a junior in college. We did a movie together that I wrote and produced back in 2011. He's a great guy. But you think, "OK, what can I do that's going to really put some teeth back into this show, in terms of these dangerous situations that we put our characters in?" And you can only write them in and out of corners so many times before the audience just stops caring about the situation. 

But if you kill off a main character like we're doing, then you have that threat throughout the season. It's been a long time since we had a main character go, but we've definitely had a main character say they were going to leave and then did. We've had the death of a longtime character, that was the father of one of our leads last season in a middle episode. I just think those things are important to keep the audience saying, "Oh wow, Chicago Fire will do it at any time." You got to pay attention. I know most of the audience is like, "Ah, no problem. They'll get out of it." Then they're going to watch this episode and go, "Oh wow, I forgot that."

His death hits members of the squad in various ways, but it affects Joe the most. What are the lasting effects of Otis' absence in the firehouse?

We didn't want to just write it off in the first episode and then forget that he existed. That's not real life and that's not the way it works. So this time, I think even more so than we've done in previous iterations, we wanted to see how this affects different people in different ways and over a period of time. Playing off that notion of tragedy takes time before you can get to the other side of it emotionally. That clock is different for different people. The way it affects Joe Cruz, his best friend and roommate, is going to be different than the way it affects Boden, who was his chief, and the way it affects Casey, who is his captain. And the way it affects Brett, who was also his roommate. To see those different elements and not cheapen them, and really make it have lasting effects, that's what we're doing.

Otis (Yuri Sardarov) and Joe (Joe Minoso) in happier times on the season 7 finale of 'Chicago Fire.' - NBC

There's also another three-month time jump. How did you land on that as a good amount of time to jump forward to have the dust settle, so to speak?

That was something we've done in the past because, just from a production standpoint and a realism standpoint, we stop shooting in the beginning of April, where it's still cold enough to see your breath and then we start shooting in July, when it's hot enough to be wearing no clothes and sweating. We tend to do some kind of time jump in our first episode. Either it's at the beginning, like we did last season, or it's inside the first episode. We knew we were going to do it and it's just a matter of crafting the story around it. What it did do was give us a chance to make good on our threat that Brett had accepted a marriage proposal and was going to move to Indiana. I think a lot of people, longtime TV watchers who have seen five million shows think, "They're just going to reset that, as soon as the season starts." Nope, we wanted to do it and I got to bring Hope back.

That segues perfectly to my next question. We see Brett putting her resume out there and applying for other jobs at different firehouses, but Brett and Kyle aren't seeing eye to eye on her role in the relationship. Can you talk about that point of contention for Brett and Kyle? 

I've always liked thematically the idea of "you can't go home again" because the town you left when you were one age is not the same town it is when you come back. You are not the same person when you came back. The romantic side of "I'm going to go back home and start over and slow things down" doesn't always add up to the person that you are. And so you see the hints of that in the first episode, but where it's going from there, you're going have to wait and see.

And obviously, there's the Casey of it all. How does he factor into Brett and Kyle's impending marriage?

Casey and Brett, there was definitely a two-ships-passing sort of energy between the two of them for a lot of last season. And right now she's engaged to marry someone else and so he's got to look at it like that. Whether that energy re-emerges, that's something we can play with over season eight.

Casey is having a very difficult time. There's the inquiry into his call calling for more help in the mattress factory fire and the consequences following the hearing when Boden essentially takes the fall for him. Where is Casey's headspace currently?

This isn't like working as a manager at a coffee shop. He's got people's lives in his hands and he came face to face with that and he's dealt with loss before, but not as the captain of the company. I think you're going to see how he deals with it. He's definitely going to look carefully at who he wants on the truck now knowing that the shoes that he needs to fill and what it's going to mean to the house and what kind of energy he's going to need -- like a coach putting together a team. 

At the end of the episode, Boden memorializes Otis' death with a poignant and enlightening speech about those the firehouse has lost. Was that your way of addressing the characters who have come and gone over the years?

Yep. That question that Joe asks in the middle of the episode when he's talking to Boden, I think that's a universal thing that everyone goes through who has worked at a job for a long time and they think, "OK, 10 years from now somebody else's going to be walking these halls, is anyone going to remember? Is anyone going to even know what I did or remember what we did here?" With firefighters or any first responder, that can be felt even more because so much of what you do is thankless. I don't know the right way to say that. It's almost like it's just expected that these guys run into places that people run out of. Joe's dealing with that. And I wanted Boden to say the kind of things that -- we all deal with [loss and death] but when you see someone down here looking at this, I want you to bring it to life for everyone. Yeah, it was something I wanted to say.

What can you preview for the second episode?

The second episode is called "A Real Shot in the Arm," and the idea is that Casey is looking for someone who can come to this firehouse and be that shot in the arm because this firehouse has been dealt with so much tragedy.

Chicago Fire airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on NBC.

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