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'The L Word: Generation Q' boss reflects on Season 1's lesbian drama

Marja-Lewis Ryan, executive producer and showrunner of the Showtime LGBTQ series, reflects on Season 1’s drama-filled storylines and what’s ahead for Season 2.
Image: Stephanie Allynne as Natalie Baker and Leisha Hailey as Alice Pieszeckie in season 1, episode 8 of \"The L Word: Generation Q\" on Showtime.
Stephanie Allynne as Natalie Baker and Leisha Hailey as Alice Pieszeckie in season 1, episode 8 of "The L Word: Generation Q" on Showtime.Erica Parise / SHOWTIME

SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched “Lapse in Judgement,” the first season finale of “The L Word: Generation Q.”

Sometimes a title says it all.

In the first season finale of “The L Word: Generation Q,” many of the characters take big — potentially controversial, depending on your perspective — leaps. Dani (Arienne Mandi) tries to convince Sophie (Rosanny Zayas) to elope in Hawaii, while Sophie follows up her kiss with Finley (Jacqueline Toboni) by fully sleeping with her. Nat (Stephanie Allynne) crashes a make-or-break episode of Alice’s (Leisha Hailey) talk show to declare her love for her; Shane (Katherine Moennig) expresses hesitation when Quiara (Lex Scott Davis) says she’s going to try again for a baby after experiencing a miscarriage; and Micah (Leo Sheng) learns his boyfriend Jose (Freddy Miyares) has been hiding a husband from him.

The title of the episode is “Lapse in Judgement,” which set up all of that and then some.

“It’s not just about this one episode: it’s also about the mistakes in the past and how we rectify and how we move forward,” showrunner and episode director Marja-Lewis Ryan tells Variety. “There was a lot I wanted to keep from the original ‘L Word’ and one [thing] was 'The L-Word' titles. It’s very fun to try to figure out what they haven’t used and how we can apply them.”

But, Ryan admits, while “the episode is meant to feel like a true ensemble,” there is one character who stands out above the rest in terms of actions fitting such a title: Sophie.

Sophie doesn’t just sleep with Finley in the finale episode, she also races to the airport where her fiancé Dani is waiting so they can elope — and where Finley is also boarding a plane home to attend her sister’s wedding. Sophie races through the airport, and Ryan cuts between both of the other characters going through their travel motions. The episode — and therefore the season — ends on Sophie’s face, slightly breathless and having reached her destination. The audience is left hanging as to who she chose — but Ryan says the writers’ room knows the answer and is prepared to provide it soon.

“It gives us a great place to start in Season 2. I’m just so happy that we have a Season 2 because if we didn’t, I’d probably be stoned by lesbians for the rest of my life,” Ryan says with a laugh.

Here, Ryan talks with Variety about writing and directing the first season finale, including bookending it with the first frames of the series premiere, what will become of characters who weren’t in the episode, and why the results of Bette’s (Jennifer Beals) mayoral campaign mimicked the results of the 2016 presidential election.

The finale episode is titled “Lapse of Judgement,” but looking at Sophie’s actions, one could argue she’s just following her heart.

The Sophie-Finley stuff came from them — from watching the actors move together in the space. The more that we started to see them together onscreen, the more interesting it was to imagine a world in which they choose each other, or that they find something in one another. One of the things I’m really excited about is the way in which she processes her own choices. And I think that coming right out of those decisions, she can move between feeling like it was a lapse in judgement and feeling like it was the right thing to do, but we need to get her there — I think there’s not enough time in that episode to come full circle and make all of those decisions.

One of the best parts about being able to direct this episode is I always knew that was the last frame. You never know if you’re going to get a next season, and I was really drawn to the bookends of starting on her face in Episode 1 and ending on her face in Episode 8. This is the person who I am always rooting for. She is the person who feels the most like me, so she was always my natural storytelling space, and I was really looking forward to having that journey come full circle.

Sophie’s story is so front-and-center, in large part because she does make such a major decision. But there are equally important big moments happening with Bette’s loss, Quiara’s miscarriage and Alice standing up for the show she wants to make, even if it means losing it. What went into balancing all of these elements?

The tricky part about writing the show generally is we do have a massive cast. The way that we balance it, really, is we step inside their experiences and we try to pull out, “Who do we really need to see right now?” There’s some people who are noticeably missing from the finale who will be notably in the first episode of Season 2. Gigi’s [Sepideh Moafi] not in that episode, Tess [Jamie Clayton] is not in that episode, and that’s not because they’re not coming back. It’s just a function of where these characters were and how we wanted to wrap them up for the season — also how we wanted to move them ahead when we do come back. We talked about decision-making and turning points, and in the Alice-Nat-Gigi story, it’s Nat who’s making the big move, so I don’t need to see Gigi in that moment; I need to see Nat make the big move. The same thing with Tess: it feels like we understand where her character is right now, and she’s not making a big move. The big move is among Dani, Finley and Sophie. We think about things like that. We wanted to keep them moving forward.

How did you approach where you wanted to leave relationships at the end of this season?

We’re looking for couples to root for, we’re looking for couples to fight for, and we are looking for tippy, tippy new beginnings — like the idea of Bette going on a date. We haven’t seen her do that all season, and she’s going to start something, even if it’s not with this woman because that’s not really the point; the point is she’s taking this step, she’s putting on this dress, she’s going to walk into this restaurant, and she’s going to move on in some way. Alice and Nat was a way to honor the idea of polyamory and exploring, “What does it mean? Is sex the ultimate betrayal, or can is there an existence of a couple that can move beyond this thing?” I really want to honor that kind of relationship — a non-monogamous relationship that works is very interesting to me. We’re looking for something to hope for, we’re looking for something to be mad at. I’m mad at Quiara and Shane; I thought they were doing something kind of cool in Episode 7. And with Jose, I want people to be pissed.

At what point did you decide Jose was going to be married and Micah was going to be crushed?

We absolutely knew this whole time. We wanted to create a balance of relationships that feel stable and feel like they could break. We wanted to make this relationship feel stable so that we could really go and have fun from it from a dramatic storytelling point. A lot of us has had this experience in the writers’ room — it came up a lot — that we were dating somebody and it turned out they were married or in a long-term relationship, just these shocking things that are embarrassing but way more common than we think. The ability to use this as a jumping point to really explore, “What is their situation? Who is this guy?” When Jose says, “It’s not what you think,” what is it, then? We have answers for all of those things. We walked through the other side. Like in that episode when they’re supposed to go out and Jose canceled, one dream of mine is to go into Jose’s perspective in a flashback and see why he canceled and what was really going on with him because there are two sides to every story and that was something that we were really drawn to: seeing the insides of both of their minds during that moment. Or when he shows up to Shane’s birthday party and he’s like, “What do you really want?” Where was he before and why did he decide to come? All of those things we have broken already, and it would be fun to explore them in future episodes.

Let’s go back to the results of Bette’s election for a second. Many finales might end on that as a cliffhanger or dropping the loss at the end for an emotional act-out.

The reason why it comes so early is because a lot of the conversations we have in the room, we are not making “Scandal”; we are not a politically-driven television show. I love “Scandal,” I think it’s a flawless television show, but it’s its own thing. What makes us “The L Word” is that airport scene, what makes us “The L Word” is Shane and Quiara, and what makes us “The L Word” are the scenes after the election. The election was a great character arc, but the scene after the election with Angie [Jordan Hull] and her mom, that’s what makes us “The L Word.”

The parallels with her being ahead and then losing were intentionally pulling from the emotional roller coaster of the 2016 election, right?

It was all based on the 2016 election — and the fact that she runs into somebody while she’s in the woods. We pulled from it in every possible way and we’ll continue to pull from it because none of us are politicians but a lot of us are very politically active, and a lot of what happened in 2016 happens a lot, where a candidate does not campaign in a certain spot, thinks he or she can win and doesn’t go, and that is something we really thought a lot about. I remember the 2016 election so vividly and just realizing there’s no path forward, and that was key: we were so certain we were going one way and then it took this turn. We definitely used that as information and a launching point for what it looked like.

There were a lot of really large visual elements in this episode, from the election to the airport. How do those compare to more intimate moments where everything lives or dies with just two characters when it comes to the challenges of directing them?

Shooting the election was so fun. I love Bette Porter as a candidate, I love shooting her from behind as she was walking into flashing cameras, I love all of those hero shots, I love shooting on big cranes and getting these sweeping shots of crowds admiring her. For the way that our crew works and our show works, we are not used to shooting with 300 extras in an airport with a big crane, so for us that stuff is challenging. I had an incredible AD team. That’s all us. We’re not shooting in an airport that’s active; all of those people are our people, and it’s just absolutely enormous but so satisfying to be a queer show that takes up that amount of space, that hires that number of people. I know we’re breathing rare air. It was very exciting to have a female queer A-camera op on that giant crane; none of that stuff is lost on me. We have a young queer DP having the most fun with the most toys, and that gives me joy. All of the stuff in Griffith Park, with the crane whooshing over their heads, we got to flex muscle in this episode in a way that is so satisfying to me, and we don’t get to see that a lot in queer content. Even the best queer content feels like an independent filmmaker made it, and this show does not feel that way to me, which is so joyful. But yeah, the crowd shots are really challenging. It took us three days to shoot that scene where every major character is in the bar — they walk past each other, they say hi to each other — all of that stuff requires a lot of work and patience from a lot of people, but it’s also that satisfying to have that many characters share a space.

What was the biggest change or curveball that came after you had written the episode and were focusing on directing?

We wrote this particular episode on the fly, which means that I had gotten to know everybody as I was writing it. The first four episodes were written before we had even cast, so by the time we were on Episode 8, now I was really writing for the cast that I have. And someone who was unpredictable was Angie. Finding a 16-year-old kid who can act that well opposite Jennifer Beals was not what we were imagining; we were not imagining this kid would be able to carry the weight that she’s able to carry. So she’s somebody who we really got to write for, and her primary scenes — when she finds her mom on the couch, when she’s talking to Alice in the bar and when she’s out on that walk — she’s just so special. We didn’t count on finding somebody who was that good.

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