This Life Season 2 finale: Showrunner Joseph Kay on Natalie’s decision to “Choose Life”

Spoiler warning: Do not read this article until you have seen This Life Episode 210, “Choose Life.”

Natalie Lawson (Torri Higginson) has been on an emotional roller coaster throughout the second season of CBC’s This Life. She gutted her way through the side effects of her cancer drug trial, learned she was in partial remission, dealt with the return of her ex-husband, David (Louis Ferreira), suddenly lost her mother, Janine (Janet-Laine Green), and nearly died in emergency surgery. All the while, she tried to plan for what will happen to her children if she succumbs to her disease. But in Sunday’s season finale, “Choose Life,” written by showrunner Joseph Kay, Natalie discovers she’s out of treatment options—and has little choice but to finally relinquish control and come to peace with her situation.

“So much of the show has been about Natalie preparing for [her kids] and trying to control them,” explains Kay. “We just wanted to put her in this position where all she could do was accept it and live in the moment.”

Natalie wasn’t the only one to have a moment of clarity in the episode. Caleb (James Wotherspoon), Emma (Stephanie Janusauskas) and Romy (Julia Scarlett Dan) also came to new understandings about who they are and what they want out of life. Meanwhile, Matthew (Rick Roberts) and Nicole (Marianne Farley) found themselves at an interesting crossroads in their marriage, Oliver (Kristopher Turner) reconciled with Gerald (Peter MacNeill), and Maggie (Lauren Lee Smith) showed off her new-found maturity.

Kay joins us by phone to break down “Choose Life” and tease what may be coming up next for the Lawson family, should CBC greenlight a third season.

Janine’s funeral brings everyone together in the finale and moves several storylines along. Was that one of the motivations you had for writing her death?
Joseph Kay: The major reason that we felt her death was necessary—and it was something that we thought about for a very long time—was that in a show about this woman who is, from the very first scene of the show, preparing to die and trying to sort of get power over it because she knows it’s coming, it was important that someone needed to die. Just to tell her that this is what it is, and you can’t get ready for this. It had to be someone close to her, and, obviously, it was never going to be one of the kids, and who is closer than your mother? I don’t mean to say that we did it only for Natalie, but that was the line of thinking. So much of what goes through Natalie’s head is, ‘How can I prepare for this? How can I make sure my children are ready? How can I control this? How can it happen in a way that it’s going to be OK, and I know it’s going to be OK?’ And that’s just not the way it works, you know?

So that was the motivation, and then when we decided to really get behind it and do it, then we realized that it was the perfect crisis point for numerous threads that we had been dangling to come together. Family comes together in crisis, and it crystallizes things or it diffuses things or it has a way of cutting through distance, reminding you who has got your back in life. So it just felt natural, and we knew that we had to do it in the second-to-last episode. We just knew that structurally that’s where it had to go.

Caleb shows up for the funeral with a new girlfriend and her daughter. At first, that was surprising, but upon reflection it makes perfect sense.
For us, he kind of goes back and forth between not wanting to be his dad and hoping he doesn’t turn out like his dad, and then being the guy who filled in for his dad. So wanting to save a single mother and her child was very Caleb, we thought, but it also had some David in it. So, for us, it’s about Caleb becoming his own man. He’s doing it for himself, but he’s kind of motivated by who he is, and he’s just kind of caught between his two parents.

Over the last two episodes, Romy has finally been given the freedom to make her own choices, including to live with David if Natalie dies. Is that exactly what she needed?
Yeah, I think it was. I don’t think she knew exactly how it would come. I mean, Romy was the one who brought David back, and she was the one who at that end of Episode 209 put her faith in him, [believing] he’s going to come back. And she wants a dad. For her to breakthrough with him on some level, she put her trust in him, and it seems to have paid off for her—at least for now. She’s trying to make herself seen, you know, ‘I’m here,’ and doing that in the way Romy does it.

Natalie is a great mother. Nobody would doubt that. But that it would take her this long, and for Romy to have to go through that much for Natalie just to suggest, ‘How about we send you to school for more artistic kids?’ There was probably a shorter route for Romy to get there, but she had to live through all that in her own way to get there. For us, it was just, is she going to go live with her dad right now? Is she going to leave? What’s she going to do? And I guess sometimes you get what you want, and it’s scary.

True. In the scene in the park with David, Romy looked a bit overwhelmed by her choices. Julia Scarlett Dan’s expression was perfect.
Right! She’s so expressive. I mean, God, that girl . . . In that scene, we wanted to end it on that look, but there were so many options because she’s so expressive in the moment and vulnerable. She’s just lovely.

Emma decided she was done with Miranda’s antics and quit her job, but I hope the storyline about her sexual identity won’t get dropped.
We felt that her affection for Miranda was real. So even though Miranda revealed herself as maybe not the greatest person in the world and Emma made a decision, we’d like to see where that goes, too.

It absolutely will not [get dropped] because we felt that we came to that with Emma in a way that’s really organic to who she is. And also Emma, she doesn’t have to take shit from people. She’s developing the confidence. We believe in what’s happening to her and very much want to see where it goes.

Matthew and Nicole discussed their future, and Nicole has a much more open-ended view of their relationship than Matthew expected, which I love. Why did you decide that felt right for her?
We, the writers, just loved that development as well. [Laughs.] We are super excited to hopefully get to explore it. She’s been going through this growth, and we only see sparsely what’s happening on her side of all that. You know, she got married young, she lived a fairly sheltered life, and she didn’t want to go back to square one. So it felt important for her not to just revert to a housewife—not that there’s anything wrong with being a housewife, there absolutely isn’t. But, for Nicole, she just wasn’t going to be happy going back to the way things were. She’s changed, and she still loves him, but she wants to know what’s out there. And she’s had experiences offscreen that she liked, so she wants to know what’s going to happen. And conversely for Matthew, he needs to control his existence in a big way, and this would be difficult for him, so that excites the writers.

Oliver agreed to work for Gerald at the garage to help pay back the loan for his studio. Was having him fully reconcile with his dad the goal of the season for him?
Yes. Because when he first comes back in Season 1, he comes back with tension with his parents, but we always felt it was more squarely with his dad. He had a hard time connecting with his dad, and we wanted to bring those two together in the absence of Janine.

I have to say that I really like Oliver and JD together.
With the JD thing, we liked the idea that—at his most vulnerable, with his mother just passed and with his own mental health—that [Oliver] has a strong connection with someone at the least likely time, and that the relationship starts on Level 20 instead of on Level 1. Oliver has had kind of a rough ride as far as his relationships have gone on the show, and we felt he deserved something . . . And with Shannon Kook, who plays JD, we took that seriously because we knew we wanted to explore it, so we had chemistry casting with the few actors we were looking at, and those two seemed to connect.

So much happened with Natalie this season, but at the end, she seemed to accept that she had to let it all go and live in the moment. Did you know that’s where you wanted her to end up when you began writing Season 2?
It was always present, because I think if you were in her position, starting from the very beginning of the series, you’d think, ‘OK, I’ve got to get things ready for the kids,’ but also, ‘I’m alive now, what do I do?’ So that idea is present, but I think to get there is not a linear path, and it’s a messy path where it may feel like you’re moving backwards all the time. We were trying to complicate things and complicate things and have her challenge her own life and her own happiness and all her own decisions and the way she saw herself, to have her get to this point where she just has to let go. She has no choice because she’s told, ‘You don’t have any options.’ And they’re not kidding when they say that to her.

 

Did you always envision the season ending with the fireworks? The Leonard Cohen song was a nice touch.
Yeah. We had the idea for a really long time. We had the idea for the Leonard Cohen song a long time ago as well. We didn’t do it because he passed away. The visuals are beatific and beautiful, and the song is ‘Bird On A Wire,’ so it’s a sad song. So I think she’s sitting there at peace and looking at the fireworks, and her kids are wherever they are, and the song is sad. Everything is going to be OK because it has to be. Because [she’s] alive now and then also there is the great unknown before her. It will be a different stage in Natalie’s story. Obviously, she is still going to worry about her kids and engage with her kids, but she has to get past worrying about the minutiae of it.

What are you most proud of regarding Season 2?
I’m really proud of the way it came together. I know that’s such a general answer, but it’s a very hard show to write and make. I think that on the level of the scripts, we took something and deepened it and made it more complex and dug into the characters in interesting ways. I’m really proud of the writers and all the work that got made and of the filmmaking overall. People were always happy with the scripts, but there’s a big difference between liking the scripts and then a show coming together. I feel like on every level our directors and our editors are so good, making these moments that are often very sparse in the script. They really are. And, obviously, the actors are amazing, and they are so expressive. But I’m just proud of the team and how much everybody is able to do with a limited budget. There’s always not enough time and not enough resources, but the show looks good and it feels good, and that’s thanks to the great team that we have on every level.

We hope that This Life is renewed for Season 3. What would you like to explore next season?
I think we want to dig into all the questions that we ask in the last episode. Is it endgame for Natalie? That’s a big question for us. Is it over, and what does that look like? And we wouldn’t shy away from any of the questions we ask in the last episode, like what would Matthew and Nicole having an open marriage look like? We’d like to dig into that and follow that. Romy says that she’s going to go live with her dad, so do we also go there? We do a lot of work to make sure everybody’s journeys are grounded and real and feel honest, and we don’t want to pull the rug out anywhere. That means sometimes that there aren’t huge twists on this show, but hopefully you believe it when you see it. I feel like all the questions we ask, we really want to answer them.

Images courtesy of CBC.

A.R. Wilson

A.R. Wilson

A.R. Wilson has been interviewing actors, writers and musicians for over 20 years. In addition to TV-Eh, her work has appeared in Curve, ROCKRGRL, Sound On Sight and Digital Journal. A native of Detroit, she grew up watching Mr. Dressup and The Friendly Giant on CBC, which led to a lifelong love of Canadian television. Her perpetual New Year's resolution is to become fluent in French.
A.R. Wilson
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