Exclusive: “Into the Badlands” showrunner Al Gough on Veil’s death and fan reaction

Daniel Wu as Sunny, Madeleine Mantock as Veil – Into the Badlands _ Season 2, Episode 10 – Photo Credit: Antony Platt/AMC

Last Sunday was the season finale of Into the Badlands, and many fans came away less than impressed because of what happened at the very end of the episode–the love of Sunny’s life, Veil, killing herself to take Quinn with her. It was the ultimate sacrifice in order for Veil to save her family, but it was also a sacrifice that many fans felt was a bridge too far, especially in light of other shows that have done the same to black female characters, including the often-talked-about (and now cancelled) Sleepy Hollow.

After mulling it over, I also felt a little disturbed by Veil’s death, leading me to write my review of the final episode for Black Girl Nerds. In my review, I go over why Veil’s death rubbed many fans the wrong way. An excerpt:

[I]t isn’t right that Veil, like too many Black women characters before her in other shows, was once again the sacrifice for the better good. It’s doubly painful in a show like Into the Badlands, which has been praised for its focus on diversity and inclusive writing. Adding insult to injury is part of the origin of Sunny and Veil’s relationship itself—Daniel Wu’s urge to rewrite Romeo Must Die into something that respected both Black women and Asian men as desirable romantic leads. To be fair, it wasn’t as if Wu wrote this episode—it was writer Matt Lambert and showrunners Al Gough and Miles Millar who did—but still, doesn’t an ending like this undercut that original intent behind the characters? Doesn’t it still paint the picture that 1) POC interracial relationships can’t work out because they aren’t seen as “normal” and 2) Black women can’t be the damsel in their narrative? I mean, Wu might not be a writer, but he’s still an executive producer. I’m sure there’s something he could have said, right? I mean, Wu’s my dude, but I’ve got to be real and called stuff how I see it.

At the end of the day, I don’t see why it was Veil’s duty to be the one to take Quinn out. Sunny’s the master marksman; couldn’t have lobbed off Quinn’s head while holding Henry? Or better yet, couldn’t he have beheaded Quinn when he was laid out on the floor? Such a rookie mistake for someone with 444 or so kills on his back. But somehow, fans were treated to shades of Abbie Mills when Veil sacrificed herself to save her family. Does this always have to be the narrative for Black women on television? Haven’t Black characters suffered enough? Didn’t Veil suffer enough from Season 1, after Quinn killed her parents? Of all of the characters, she deserved her happiness with her man and her son. But it seems like out of all of the women who have suffered hardship on this show; Veil is the only one that has to die to find some relief. Meanwhile, Jade, Tilda, and Lydia are out in the wilderness somewhere finding themselves and living life. Not fair.

It seemed like my review reached all the corners of the internet, so much so that one of the people I called out in the above excerpt, showrunner Al Gough, reached out to me to ask if we could talk.

During our interview later that week, Gough jumped right into how he felt about what I’ll call throughout the rest of this article “Veil-gate.” In short, it seems like he knows how to take his lumps and learn from them.

“I will start by saying the job of a storyteller is never to start a story where at the end of it, people are like, ‘I’m out, I’m never watching it again!'” he said. “I knew…there would be some backlash and there would be some Twitter hate; frankly, I was surprised by how much. But delving into it, I understand. …[W]e did Smallville at the very beginning of the internet with television, and it was…message boards and things like that. You’d get feedback and you’d look, but it wasn’t Twitter. This is, frankly, the first show we’ve done in the Twitter era, which is both fascinating and scary and obviously it’s been very positive and people have really embraced the show and it’s a fan show.”

“That’s one of the reasons I wanted to reach out to you because I read the review, and I thought…you made all the points, you know what I mean?” he said. “…And obviously, people can watch the show and feel how they want to feel, that’s what we do, so I don’t begrudge anybody their feelings, but it certainly wasn’t our intention to piss off a large swath of our audience with our finale.”

Gough admitted that the television trope of killing black women characters was one that had escaped him.

“I think as TV tropes go, I was very keenly aware of the “killing the lesbian” trope because [writer] Justine Gilmer, who worked on the first season of Badlands and [writer] Javier Grillo-Marxuach, who’s actually a friend of mine, were both on The 100,” he said. “What’s interesting is that–and this is probably just me being naive–I don’t think I was as aware of a pattern that had been going with killing African American women on shows. I actually don’t watch Sleepy Hollow, I don’t watch Person of Interest…I think people thought that Flash had killed [Iris] on that show. I don’t watch The Flash…and [the audience found out] she wasn’t dead. I don’t think I was aware that this was a pattern in shows because the shows that it’s happened on I don’t watch, so that was one [trope] I was probably less aware of.”

“…What’s interesting about our show is that…there’s diversity in the show because it’s the future because your race and gender and sexual orientation, in some senses in this world, those are not the things people judge you for…It’s either you can fight or you can’t. Martial arts, as I’ve said before, is the great equalizer in terms of an art form because men and women can do it with equal skill and deadly aim,” he said. “Also, I think too, it’s not like Veil is going to be the last African American woman you’re ever going to see on this show. We’ve lost a lot of characters this year with Quinn and Ryder and Jade’s no longer there and obviously Veil. So there will be new characters that are being introduced and…we plan to introduce new African American female characters too. It’s not like Veil will be the only one. I said to somebody, “I feel like Veil died and all of a sudden we have only white people on our show!” I was like, “Uh oh!”

“It’s a show that we continue to make where diversity, frankly, is a priority with the show and in the world, but I also understand the optics of you’re watching a show and you’ve fallen in love with a character and a couple and that person is snatched away and then the optics [of] she’s the only lead,” he said. “Obviously we have other African American cast members, but she’s the lead. So part of that I do understand and that’s when I saw [the backlash], I reached out to Keith Chow [of Nerds of Color]…who I know and who I’ve talked with over the course of the show, and when I saw your review, which I thought was good and I know that you guys have been big supporters, I wanted to reach out to you as well.”

I brought up how the consternation and hurt fans have been feeling came from the fact that, as he said, how committed the show has been to diversity and steering clear of many other tropes on television.

“I certainly noticed that from some of the Twitter response and other things. I think that people felt a betrayal, and I was like, ‘Uh oh, that’s not the goal!'” said Gough. “I thought [in] your review…you’d clearly thought about it and thought about all of the permutations and, frankly, you covered a lot of the thinking and arguments that went on in the writers’ room because when you’re killing off a character or make that decision, you never do it lightly and you never do it without debate. There’s good reasons on both sides and you have to ultimately do what you think is best on the show and move the story forward…[Veil’s death] was not done callously, it was not done as an afterthought, it was done with a lot of discussion and weighing the pluses and minuses in the writers’ room and that was something we debated until very late in the season.”

“I will say the Quinn death was something that was always going to happen,” he said. “That we kind of knew before we started the season, and Marton [Csokas] came to us separately and said, ‘I sort of feel like Quinn’s got one more season in him and that’s probably it for the character’…That was something we thought about, but certainly with Veil and some of these other characters, you think long and hard about it and that’s where we came out in terms of where we wanted to go in the longer story.”

Marton Csokas as Quinn – Into the Badlands _ Season 2, Episode 10 – Photo Credit: Antony Platt/AMC

The major thing Gough wanted to stress was that he realizes how important it is to stay connected to Into the Badlands‘ fanbase and understand how the fandom reacts to decisions, both good and bad.

“It’s hard to make a television show, and then it’s hard to make a television show that then gets a fanbase. The reason the show’s renewed is because people watched. I don’t think you can ever take that out of the equation,” he said. “…When you’re doing a television show, you are engaging in a conversation with the audience. Because they go on for weeks and months and you hope, God willing, years, you want to keep your finger on that pulse and really see what’s working and what’s not working. But [a show] is a conversation with an audience, and I think that’s what distinguishes them from movies.”

“Movies, to me, are like loud statements that come and go really quickly nowadays…they don’t have a lot of cultural gravitas anymore. Rarely are the movies the things we are all talking about,” he said. “I’m looking at the old reviews for Star Wars which [turned] 40 [Thursday] and I was nine when that movie came out. I remember it and I remember it resonating through the culture for years. Nowadays, it’s only television shows that do those kinds of things, like The Walking Dead or Game of Thrones or Breaking Bad, the big hits. I think…that social media does give you that feedback and that platform to interact with fans and when the show’s on, I look at the Twitter feed and sometimes if I’m not in front of the TV, I can tell where we are in the show by looking at the Twitter feed, which I always find fascinating.”

“I think that’s something that, in a world where there’s 500 television shows, you have a fanbase [and] you want to be respectful of that fanbase and even if you make decisions they don’t like, you want them to at least know that you’re listening, this is why you made it, you hope they come back,” he said laughing. “I’ve seen a lot those ‘I’m out!’ [messages]. We used to get that on Smallville, but this one felt a little more [like] “Uh oh!” …It’s so hard to get people to watch a television show; there’s so many options and people’s time is valuable that you always want them to know that you’re making the best show you can make to be entertaining because the last thing you want to do is waste somebody’s time.”

“…I think this is a show that people have really championed and gotten behind and you can feel the groundswell from the fans Miles and I feel it, Daniel [Wu] feels it, the cast feels it, the writers feel it,” he said. “I think that’s something too–when you have that kind of relationship with the fanbase, you want to honor it as well.”

Because Veil is dead, with the assumption that she’ll not be back in any form, I asked how Veil’s death will affect Sunny going forward, particularly Sunny’s journey towards redemption.

 

“Ironically, even though the show is about ‘Into the Badlands,’ it’s about a man going on this spiritual and emotional journey to be good. So I think that at a point, Sunny will find his redemption,” said Gough. “Obviously, in Season 3, Sunny is a single father dealing with a baby and obviously people [are] still coming after him. In a way, his world has gotten a lot harder, but you’ll also start to see doors and paths to that redemptive journey. He’s a guy who wants to change.”

“The first season was kind of like Sunny waking up. He’s been a product of this environment and a product of the Barony and of Quinn’s teachings. It’s combination of Veil and M.K. waking up a guy. He was a pretty big part of a system; when you’re the Regent, you’re pretty high up. Then everything’s stripped away from him in Season 2 and it’s his journey back to Veil,” he said. “He was warned all season that the price will come. Moon and his fever dreams and other things and obviously, he did pay that terrible price. But I also think that this is a journey to redemption…it’s not about Sunny always losing or never getting a win or things like that.”

“It’s definitely a journey of redemption, and it’s definitely a journey of redemption for the Badlands, too, because if you look at it when it started, it was a brutal system. We called it a ‘brutal order.’ You have these five barons in a world that’s hard to live in but, obviously, when you go to the outlying territories, it’s better than that,” he said. “It’s like you have freedom, but you have marauders, you’re completely on your own. So, there’s a brutal order to the Barony which now The Widow has destabilized and is now in the midst of a war with Chau. Where does Sunny fit into this bigger world? What [are the] questions about his past [such as] where did he get that compass? Waldo gave him an Azra pendant at the end of Season 1 and said that he found this on him, but we’ve never seen Sunny display the Gift. So what is Sunny’s connection to that bigger, mythological journey as well? Especially with 16 episodes, we’ll start to get more of those answers in the coming season.”

Daniel Wu as Sunny – Into the Badlands _ Season 2, Episode 10 – Photo Credit: Antony Platt/AMC

I also asked how Veil’s death will reverberate throughout the upcoming season.

“I think for Sunny, he was left with her last words, which were [to] teach Henry to be good. I think that goes to his larger journey of how is he going to engage in the world? How is he going to make the world around him better and better for his son,” he said. “He does have something to live for; it is his connection to her. He was part of the problem in this world, and how is this going to propel him to be part of the solution? He had that connection, he had love, they had a baby. He’s taken life and now he’s created life and what [is he] going to do now as a parent in a very dangerous world?”

“It is that kind of thing [where] killing and fighting are things that come easy to him, but now you have this child and what is the world you want to bring him up in?” he said. Those are some of the ways that Veil’s death and the effect she had on him will push him forward.”

I also asked if Veil-gate will have an effect on the writers’ room conversations going forward.

“I think we’ll continue to have the same discussions [we have had] in the writers’ room. It’s not like we ever take these situations, whether it’s taking a character off the board or killing them, lightly,” said Gough. “Like I said, we’ve always had a commitment to having a diverse world in the show, a diverse cast, and that will continue, even in the light of the Veil death, which, like I said, we didn’t take lightly to begin with. …The discussions about characters and diversity are always something that we talk about in the writers room and we’ll continue to do that.”

“Frankly, going forward, it’s to be more mindful of these tropes that get played with on these shows, it’s about looking at how this show fits in the greater pantheon of trends on television as well,” said Gough. “Like I said…we were much more keenly aware of sci-fi shows killing lesbian characters than I was to the trend of these shows are killing off African American female characters. I’m not using that as an excuse–I didn’t [know]. Once it was pointed out, I was like, “Okay.” I can also see why, in the greater optics of the television landscape why people would react to this show negatively, the fans that did. ”

I made sure to ask one question that had been on my mind since Veil-gate popped off–what did Madeleine Mantock, the actress playing Veil, think about Veil’s death? Gough said Mantock was in on the discussions about Veil’s death.

“…[W]hen we started having these discussions, she understood. She thought it was the right emotional conclusion to her character, but we wanted to make sure Veil went out [well], that’s why she ultimately made the sacrifice. We wanted her to go out in a strong way so it was something that we definitely wanted to do and at the time that we were starting to seriously consider this idea, we brought her into that conversation,” he said. “It’s not something like I called her two days before the script came out and said, ‘This is what’s happening.’ We had the discussion and we talked about it. I think she…knew that it was coming and she was aware of it and we made her a part of that discussion in terms of how Veil would end on the show and should we do it [so] that it would be her sacrifice? Because…you want her to get the final death blow on Quinn, even in this case, if it meant taking herself out as well. She was aware of it and we didn’t just drop it on her like a bomb with the script.”

So now that the dust is settling on Veil-gate, what message does Gough have for the fans, particularly those fans who have sworn not to come back for Season 3?

“I would say that we appreciate your fandom. Certainly, people are allowed to feel however they want to feel about the season finale, so that’s certainly fair. Our commitment to a diverse cast and creating a diverse world on our show continues, and that includes adding new, strong African American female characters,” said Gough. “I would say that this commitment hasn’t changed. For those who have said that they’ve checked out, [I ask] that they give the third season a look before they make that final decision.”♦