VanCamp's finale return as Conrad's late wife, Nic, was a long time in the making, according to executive producer Andrew Chapman. Because her initial exit was sudden, it was halfway through the season that creator Amy Holden Jones suggested bringing VanCamp back to "close up the relationship between her and Conrad." Thematically, it also fit, as Conrad was navigating life as a widower and figuring out if, when and how he could move on amid a tangled love triangle with Billie and Cade.
"Because so much of the season thematically had been about grief and loss and coming to terms with mortality and how Conrad is moving on from his relationship with her and the time jump and being a single dad with Gigi, it felt like the right thing to do," Chapman explained to ET, sharing that the actress was "excited to come back." "She had not had a chance to say goodbye to everybody on the show, the crew, all the other actors. So she felt she needed closure as well."
In the end, it was a conversation Conrad and Nic had in the bedroom after their perfect date night that proved illuminating for Conrad and gave him the permission to move on. "I want you to love someone again," Conrad tells her when they have a frank discussion about what they'd want each other to do should something happen to him. "After a while, I do want you to move on... Just promise me whoever it is, find somebody who loves you as much as I do." And in return, Nic made Conrad promise the same: "Only if you do too."
So who is Conrad moving on with? Chapman broke down Tuesday's finale with ET, from VanCamp's fitting return to his early plans for season 6.
ET: What was the conversation like in the writers' room in figuring out how to bring Nic back? What were those conversations like with Emily?
Andrew Chapman: The beginning of the season, we knew that we were going to lose Emily in this season, but we didn't know when we were going to lose her. We lost her in episode 3 and we really had to scramble, and it didn't give us the closure of the relationship that we had wanted. We thought we were going to have her for a couple more episodes and it wasn't anybody's fault. She had a medical issue and she had to deal with it, and we fully understood. But we really didn't get to close the loop with her, so to speak. About halfway through the season, we were beginning to think about the season finale and Amy Holden Jones, the creator of the show, had this idea, "What if we could get Emily back and close up the relationship between her and Conrad?" Because so much of the season thematically had been about grief and loss and coming to terms with mortality and how Conrad is moving on from his relationship with her and the whole time jump and being a single dad with Gigi. It felt like the right thing to do. We reached out to her and she was super excited to come back. She had not had a chance to say goodbye to everybody on the show, the crew, all the other actors. So she felt she needed closure as well. And we loved that idea.
So we began to plan a really thematic, emotional closing of the relationship episode. We thought, as both writers but also as fans of the show, that that's what we wanted to see. We wanted to see them work it out. We wanted to see Conrad finally put that relationship in its proper perspective. Honor the relationship and also set it aside so he can move on with his life. And Matt Czuchry, the actor who plays Conrad, was adamant as were we that he could move on with his life at the end of the season, but he wasn't going to make a choice about who he might move on with. We agreed with that. So we're going to hold that off till the beginning of next season. But it allowed us to make this really moving season finale, which we hope that the audience will love because we love it.
Revisiting the Nic-Conrad relationship through flashbacks turned out to be a very simple story. What was it like forming those scenes and what do you think those flashbacks cemented about that relationship that you didn't get to say before she left?
We worked really hard on figuring out those flashbacks. We wanted them to be very grounded, to be very real, not to be outrageous. We didn't want to have a brand new secret that was revealed between the characters. We wanted it to feel like the kind of memories that you have about somebody in your life. They're just these ordinary, prosaic moments, but they have intense meaning. What we realized was we wanted to embed a mystery into the flashbacks, something that Conrad is searching for that he can't figure out. Why is he having these memories? Why is he having these memories of this specific night? We realized that the thing that he's searching for is that moment he gets at the very end where he realizes he told Nic, "If I die, I want you to move on. I want you to find somebody else." It was his idea. He pushed his partner for that. When he realizes that he was the one who said it, and that Nic agreed, then he has this incredible revelation. It all becomes clear that he could move on. That's what he was looking for. When we understood that we could embed a meaning and a mystery within the flashbacks and work towards that revelation was going to be, "Now I understand how to move on. Now I understand why I can move on because I told her to move on," it all made sense. It all came together from there.
That scene alone was heartbreaking, but also touching. Can you speak to the performances?
I think it was really moving for everybody. It was moving for the crew, it was moving for the director, it was moving for the actors. Because like I said, Emily never had a chance to say goodbye to all the people that she'd worked with for all these years. She was torn away from the show in an untimely way. And indeed, this was her chance to say goodbye and it was powerful. I think the power comes across in the scene. You feel it.
All season long, there have been a few women orbiting Conrad with Billie and Cade, and then at the end, as you mentioned earlier, we don't find out his decision. What was the thinking behind leaving that door open?
We wanted this season to be about learning to move on, respecting the relationship and understanding grief and the process of understanding your own mortality and understanding how, when you lose people, you still have to get on with your life and move forward. We didn't want -- and Matt Czuchry very specifically didn't want -- for Conrad to make a decision onscreen that was moving on and making a choice. He just wanted to play that at the end of the season, he understands how to move on. He understands that he has to move on. He understands that he has to do it for himself. He has to do it for Gigi, his kid. He has to do it to honor the relationship that he had with Nic. That was really important to us and it was important to him, and we agreed to not show the decision. He's made a decision in his head and we know what that decision is as writers. We have a really fun way to play that at the beginning of season 6, but we wanted to keep it till season 6 so that in season 6 thematically, it can be about new relationships, new horizons. We can give that season a thematic feeling of its own.
So you already know who Conrad will be exploring more of a romance with?
Absolutely, but I'm not telling you that.
Devon is presumably no longer moving to Baltimore and no longer taking that job, and giving his relationship with Leela another chance. What are you looking to explore now that they've come to a mutual understanding?
One of the things that we really wanted to play was how hard it is for women to be surgeons, to commit to 60, 70 hours a week in a hospital and still have relationships and still have a family. It is something that women doctors across the country grapple with and we wanted to respect that. So we showed that in Leela. Then we wanted to also show how in Devon, you can become a rock star doctor, a superstar researcher, save lives, find cures and that can disrupt your relationships as well. And that can impact how you move forward at a hospital. Those two things are really important and those two things are not going to go away. We love the Leela-Devon relationship. We think it's interesting and fun to have this really strong, loving relationship at the heart of our show. We had it in Conrad and Nic, but then we lost it. So in a way, they're grabbing the mantle of that and running with it. We want them to stay together, but we don't want to have them have the perfect relationship. They'll still have all those stresses of being doctors, and the idea of family and children is not going to go away.
What is Devon's standing at the hospital? Leela seems to be following in Bell's footsteps as well?
We want Devon to really be a scientist/doctor. We love the idea that he's a real rock star and a superstar and involved in clinical trials and involved with experimentation and new answers to old diseases. We're definitely going to play that. All of the complications of that, of being a rock star and people wanting you and your time and your energy, we're going to play that for sure. We also love the idea that Dr. Bell struggling with MS, struggling with being older, struggling with wanting to have a semi-retirement in the hospital and redeeming himself from the slightly villainous guy that he was at the beginning of the season, and now has become this great mentor and teacher and sympathetic doctor. That he's going to pass the torch to Leela, and that Leela will step into his shoes and become the wise, central, lifesaving, heroic surgeon that he was. We want to push her to stepping into his shoes. A certain amount of season 6 will be her taking the mantle of a general surgeon that was Bell -- the guy who was on the poster at the side of the hospital and the name who drew people to the hospital. Now it becomes Leela. What we want are these two young, super high-power doctors to be in a relationship, but to be the superstars of our hospital.
Leela's sister is pregnant with twins with A.J., which creates so many possibilities for story. What was interesting to you about digging into their unconventional situation?
Unconventional is definitely the word, right? We love the idea that A.J. is a dad to children, but he's not like the everyday father to these kids. We love the idea that he's raising children without having a lover's relationship with the mother. They've been lovers in the past, but they're not now and they're not particularly interested in being lovers now. That's really cool and fun and weird. We just think that there's a lot of soap to be played, a lot of learning to be had. Mostly, we want to play it on A.J. because it's about our doctors, and Padma's not a doctor. About his relationships with children and family, and now he's lost both his parents, and that's really meaningful to him.
You're not looking to head down that path of rekindling anything with those two?
It's definitely possible, but it's not going to be the primary focus.
The finale left on a very intriguing note in terms of where all the characters are going. Do you have a broad plan for season 6 and what are you comfortable teasing?
Losing Nic really overshadowed season 5 amid its unexpected quickness. Now that we've put that to bed, we want to really dig into Conrad's new relationships, who he will have a love relationship with and what that will mean to the show. In terms of [broader themes] we usually do a big, what we call uncountable issue with American medicine -- it can be medical devices, it can be a bad doctor, it can be money in healthcare. What we've come to learn is that we don't want to put that big idea as the overarching theme of an entire season and what we did this past season works better for us where we take it and we break it down into and run of a bunch of episodes. We did Medicare fraud for four or five episodes. We did Bell and the medical board for three or four episodes. That works better for us. It allows the stories to feel more lively and timely and it allows us to adjust as we make the season go along. I wouldn't say that we have a big overarching theme yet, but we have a bunch of smaller ideas that we're playing with.
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