As the last episodes of the final "One Tree Hill" season currently air, viewers will undoubtedly be waiting to see what happens when Brooke (Sophia Bush), Nathan (James Lafferty), Haley (Bethany Joy Galeotti), Dan (Paul Johansson), Clay (Robert Buckley) and Mouth (Lee Norris) reach the end of the road after nine soap-filled seasons. Along some welcome returns of former cast members like Chad Michael Murray there have also been promised the return of a villain or two from years past to stir things up one last time. For creator Mark Schwahn, however, this final season has been exciting and, as he told our Jim Halterman last week, he's tackled these last episodes with a vigor that will keep our favorite characters both honoring the past nine seasons as well as moving them forward.
Jim Halterman: You said recently that you thought season nine was your favorite season. Can you tell me why, out of all the seasons, this is your favorite?
Mark Schwahn: I think it was combination of things. I think creatively going in, every one knew that it was our final season and I think it allowed us all to not only be appreciative for what we had as we did our work but also to try to do great work. We also feel fortunate for the opportunity to have one more season of 'One Tree Hill' and we knew that there was a finish line that we could work toward. And we knew that these would be our last scenes and our last episodes with these characters so I think because of that we were mindful of the history of the show and where we wanted to take it and we also could take a few more risks, I think. It was creatively liberating.
JH: Were there some challenges you weren't expecting knowing that you would be wrapping things up to a degree?
MS: Not really. Because we had done cliffhangers and we've done resolutions. You know, some of our best seasons we did a resolution, we thought. Season four when we did the high school graduation and then before the jump ahead and, you know, season eight was Jamie jumping over the bridge, so... I think we had done both and we'd done them well. And I always said, "You know, wherever we were in our serialized arc is where we would end up and so this season, I think, the only pressure I felt was you want everyone to like the end of the final episode and the final moments. You want everyone to feel satisfied and fulfilled after 9 seasons and 187 episodes. Now, everyone's not going to like it and everyone's not going to be satisfied because that's impossible, but that's your wish and that's where you set the bar, so there's a little pressure there, I think. And I feel like the staff, the cast, the crew, the writers, the producers... I think everybody felt really satisfied and invigorated by where the show ended up and the kind of season we had this year, so that has to be enough at a certain point and then you hope that the fans agree.
JH: In the season premiere we see Brooke driving the kids around town and talk about growing up there. So, in this last season, how do you find that balance between doing a little nostalgia here and there but also looking forward to where these characters could be going? Has that been a challenge at all?
MS: Yeah. That's a great question, and that's exactly what the challenge is [and] that's exactly what I would say to the writing staff, "Let's look back, it's important to look back and I think to reward the fans that have been here for so long, and there's certainly this nostalgia that we can play off of, but let's look back to look forward." So in that case, it was great to see Brooke and to remind the audience how far she's come but the story over that is about who she is now as a mom and how she's getting through this new time of her life. And I think that's what we did throughout the season. So it was a nice balance and we talked about it a lot, talked about wouldn't it be great to see this character or, you know, if a writer said that in the room, I would say, "It would be great, but why? Why are we seeing them?' I don't want to just see them so we can all pat ourselves on the back and say it's been a long run. The challenge was exactly what you said, it was look back to look forward.
JH: And speaking of Brooke, in my eyes, she seems to be the one that's really evolved the most over the run of the series. Do you agree?
MS: As a character, you see the evolution but I think you see it with a lot of characters. You see it with Nathan, certainly, where he started. Haley was always stable and she was always somewhat the moral center, but Joy and I were talking recently about how far that character came. Certainly someone like Lee Norris's Mouth character was not a series regular and then became an important one to the show. That's the fun thing about having nine seasons of television for a storyteller is that you can play off of a history of how far the character could come and you can do it with an audience that has come that far as well... and your actors get it, too, because their entire 20s were spent on the same show with the same talent. So longer than high school and college put together and that's such a significant time in your life. So they understand when you're telling the story that you're telling something like, 'Look how far Brooke's come,' you know Sophia's come the same.
JH: I want to ask about Dan, who has been such a great villain for the show. How are you going to wrap up a character like him? Because you kind of want to see him get punished really bad for everything he's done all these nine years.
MS: Yeah. Dan is such a compelling character. I think it's pretty fascinating how relevant that character still is and what a villain he's been to our world. And yet my mom every week says how sorry she feels for him. I have to remind her all of the horrible things this character has done. So you know, Paul has embraced those challenges and I think has made that character so interesting because he allowed us to continue to play with the colors of that character. Pretty much Dan was a straight villain for a long time and then did a couple of heroic things but you still can't forgive him for his terrible sins. Then went off to prison and we're allowed to play with the idea of, 'is there rehabilitation? Is there redemption? Is there genuine remorse?'
And even in the face of those things, can you ever really forgive someone for the things they've done to you or your family especially? Now the death of Keith is always there, and it's always going to be there. And that's what's really great about, not only this season, but about writing that character, is how much is enough in terms of paying for your sins? Is it ever enough? And you're right, there's comeuppance and then there are sort of these quiet moments of understanding. Whether or not it's ever forgiveness, I don't know. But that's really interesting for me as a viewer, and it's also really fun to write and to play because we end up having our most passionate conversations, the writers have talked about those very things.
JH: No offense to your mother, but I want to see him punished.
MS: [Laughs.] She'll love that. I think there's something for everyone what Dan's got this season. I've said this before, having antagonism back in Tree Hill was the energy it brought with it.
JH: So you're already done shooting the finale so was there a part of you that still wanted a little cliffhanger in there? That's kind of the nature of a soap - you always leave something hanging a little bit. Is that something you had to wrestle with or really decide about?
MS: First of all, I feel like this show... its resolution was never the end. It was always simply an emotional resolution, if that makes sense. I think that that's the energy that I wanted for the last few episodes. I don't want it to feel like, 'Okay and that's it. You're all done.' Because our show lived in a reality plus ten sort of environment... that's what I always call it, you know it's very heightened but the emotions that we were dealing with, people can relate to in their regular lives, even though the situations were very heightened. We want those emotions to play out at the end of the series. So a few surprises... like it's not boring. It's not like, 'Let's all hug and say good-bye to each other.' There's a lot of emotion to it and there was shooting in and writing it. But I think there are surprises and there are great moments down the stretch that... I wouldn't call them cliffhangers but I'd call them surprises.
JH: What's next for you?
MS: I'm working on a project with J.J. Abrams that if it finds its way it'll find its way at the CW. So the script is just now being finished and submitted and they'll decide whether they want to shoot the pilot and pick up the pilot, but if they do, I would expect it to be on the air in the fall. It's ensemble and it's twenty-something. And it was a nice idea that J.J. brought to me that I really sparked to and we've been thrilled with the guys at Bad Robot and I respect him immensely. For a long time, you know, I've had this quiet voice asking me, 'What comes next?' And I figured I'd know it when it presented itself, and it did and I'm really excited.
JH: That's funny because people forget that J.J. did 'Felicity' years ago. They think of him now from 'Lost' and 'Star Trek,' but he once did these nice, ensemble, character-driven shows.
MS: You know, interesting you bring that up because most people come to me when they hear that it's with J.J. and they ask me what's the sci-fi hook or what's the monster and I remind them about 'Felicity,' and to this day, you know he has such a vast resume, he does such great work, but the people who stop him in the airport, that are most passionate about something is 'Felicity.' And I think that's really interesting and I think that this show is much closer to 'Felicity' than the bigger, louder things that he's done.
"One Tree Hill" airs Wednesdays at 8:00/7:00c on the CW.