X Company 304: Writer Nicolas Billon on the heartbreak of “Promises”

Spoiler warning: Do not read this article until you have seen X Company Episode 304, “Promises.”

In our Season 3 premiere preview, X Company co-creator Mark Ellis emphasized that Second World War spies didn’t survive for long in the field.

You’re not supposed to live a lot of weeks, if you do live,” he said. “We wanted to be truthful to that history.”

This week’s episode, “Promises,” written by Nicolas Billon, reiterated that point in heartbreaking fashion when Harry (Connor Price), the team’s youngest member, was killed while trying to escape a train headed for a Nazi concentration camp. Since this is the final season of the series, a major death or two was expected. However, the suddenness of Harry’s death at a relatively early point in the season was shocking.

That was part of the point, according to Billon.

“I think that’s how his death is emotionally received by the other team members,” he says. “It’s such a shock, and it’s just so hard.”

Billon built a career as a successful playwright–penning the plays The Elephant Song, Iceland and Butcher–before making the switch to television. “Promises” is his first television credit. He joins us by phone to tell us more about his choice to become a TV writer, Harry’s death and what’s coming up for the remaining team members.

You had a lot of success as a playwright before taking part in the Canadian Film Centre’s television lab. What made you want to move into television?
Nicolas Billon: I think the decision was based essentially on the fact that most, or at least a lot, of the best writing that I was seeing was on television, and this was very exciting. And there are some stories that I want to tell that are clearly suited for the stage, and then there were a lot of stories that I wanted to tell that were not suited for the stage and better for film or television. In a lot of ways, I was much more interested in the long-form narrative that television provides.

Did you go straight from the CFC to X Company?
I did. One of the great things about the CFC program is that you get to meet everyone in the industry while you’re there, and one of the people that I met was Lesley Grant, who is the supervising producer on X Company. She liked the pilot that I wrote while I was at the CFC, and I believe she is the one who gave it to Mark [Ellis] and Steph [Morgenstern].

How did your experience in the writers’ room differ from your experiences writing plays? 
One of the major advantages of writing for television is that you get to break the story as a group and then go off and write individually. In some ways, it’s kind of the best of both worlds, because you have all this brain power available to break your episode and get all the beats out as best as possible, and then you get to take that, go away and write an outline and script by yourself. To me, it’s really the marriage of two really efficient ways of writing.

Now let’s get into some plot points. You killed Harry! Why was that decision made?
Well, needless to say, the room was quite torn about the decision to kill Harry. I think in a lot of ways because we knew that Season 3 was the final season, we knew that it had to be the highest in terms of cost to the team. There’s the increasing danger of getting further into enemy territory, and Harry is one of the major repercussions of Sinclair’s mistake of confessing in Episode 303 that Klaus had died. And ultimately, we also wanted to acknowledge the fact that the reality of being a spy in World War II was that you had a life expectancy of six weeks in the field, and those who were least likely to survive were the radio operators. So in some ways, we had to acknowledge that reality, and as heartbreaking as the decision was, it felt like the right time and it felt like the right story for Harry to lose his life.

With Harry gone, what’s going to happen to Neil and Alfred as they head into Poland? Will they stick together or work separately?
That’s a hard one to answer without giving too much away! But it’s not something that we’ve seen much of in X Company, to have the team separated. I think it’s a really interesting obstacle to see how they’re going to surmount it and deal with it.

Faber was taken hostage by the Polish resistance. Can you hint what will happen with him in the next few episodes? 
I think what’s so great about where we leave Faber off at the end of 304 is that it’s really a low point. It’s one of the first times we’re seeing him not in uniform, and I think it’s going to be a real test for Faber not only as a double agent but as a human being the next couple of episodes.

Heidi offered Aurora a job in the very ominous sounding Race and Resettlement department. What will her new employment entail? 
Just from a narrative point of view, what’s great about having our teams in different places is that we’re going to be able to see two different sides of the war in that Aurora is in deep cover embedded in the heart of the war machine, while Alfred and Neil are going to be with the Polish resistance. We’re going to get to see two sides of the struggle in a way I don’t think we’ve ever seen on X Company. That’s very exciting. And generally in terms of Aurora, what she’s going to discover while working at Race and Resettlement is just how deep the horror of the Nazi war machine runs.

Sinclair finally told Krystina he will send her out in the field. Will she be seeing major action this season? 
Well, in the writing room, we’re such big fans of Krystina, and so this is going to be a very big season for her. But that doesn’t mean that it’s going to be a season where all her wishes are granted or at least granted when and where that she hopes they will be. That’s not to say that she won’t go into the field, but there’s certainly some bumps in the road ahead.

This was a dark episode. What was the most difficult scene for you to write? 
Oh, boy, there are so many to choose from. This is definitely a dark episode. Obviously, Harry’s death was probably one of the hardest, but I would say the death of the little boy and his father was also really tough to work with. Generally speaking, when you’re dealing with trains filled with Jewish prisoners on their way to a concentration camp, the entire thing seems totally surreal. It’s hard to fathom the human cruelty and depravity that that requires. And yet it happened. It’s very hard even to speak about it.

What scene are you most proud of?
I think a lot of the scenes with the little boy inside of the train I really found quite moving. I think perhaps my favourite scene is when the cappo is going around and talking about where they’re headed, and he can’t quite bring himself to say that they’re going there to be killed, and it’s the little boy who says it, I thought that was a really lovely moment.

What can viewers expect next?
It’s such a roller coaster ride. All the things that are going to happen in Poland are going to be very exciting, and once they move on to Berlin, when they’re in the literal heart of the monster, those are going to be some pretty amazing episodes.

X Company airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. on CBC.

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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