In several ways, the third season finale of Showtime’s “The Chi” ended on a hopeful note. Sure, the crooked Otis “Douda” Perry (Curtiss Cook) won the mayoral election and strongarmed Trig (Luke James) in running his mob operations. And yes, Ronnie (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine) was shot in belated retaliation for Coogie’s (Jahking Guillory) murder. But there were so many forward-facing happy moments too, from Trig and Imani (Jasmine Davis) stepping up for Jake (Michael Epps), Emmett (Jacob Latimore) and Tiff (Hannaha Hall) getting married, and even Kiesha (Birgundi Baker) beginning to run again — a notable step in her healing after being kidnapped, imprisoned and impregnated via rape in earlier episodes.
Kicking things off with a montage set one month in the future from the rest of the events of the premiere, Kiesha was screaming in labor pains during in a water birth; Emmett was hiding out from some unseen person banging on his bathroom door; Jake betrayed his close friend Kevin (Alex R. Hibbert) and Otis got shot.
With just a glimpse of what was to come, “The Chi” then snapped its characters back to begin to show how they got to those points, including showcasing Kiesha meeting the prospective adoptive parents of her unborn baby; Emmett sweating with fear that his father (Rolando Boyce) might spill the beans to his new wife that he cheated on her; Jake and Kevin being stopped by cops on their way home from school, resulting in Jake being thrown to the ground, beaten and handcuffed in a hospital bed, and Otis making a number of threats, including against the police who harmed Jake.
To break it all down, “The Chi” showrunner Justin Hillian talks with Variety about the decision to jump forward in time and when the events of Season 4 will catch up to the sneak peek thus far seen, as well as what to expect from Otis as mayor and Jake and Kevin’s friendship after going through such a traumatic event together.
What made you want to start this season slightly in the future and then flash back, and at what point will the show catch up to the events of the premiere opening?
Everything that happened in that initial sequence happens in Episode 5. This show always has an element of mystery to it and we just felt like with the characters that we had and the places they were in, what was the most interesting thing that could happen? This is the most powerful man in the city politically and also on the streets and if someone were to do something to that person, what would be the result of that? We want to show how these political policies affect all of our characters and there are also a lot of people who have a reason to do this to him so we want people to be on that journey to wonder who potentially did this and then, we wanted it to catch up in Episode 5, so after this happens it’s the B-side.
For the audience that now can’t stop looking for clues as to who shot Otis and why, how specifically seeded are the answers in the episodes leading up to the fifth one?
We deliberately want the audience to engage and to speculate. That’s how I like to watch TV, so you can assume and you can be right or you can be wrong. Just like last season, there was that assumption of, “Oh I think this person has Kiesha” or “I think that person as Kiesha” and you see how it plays out from there. He rubs a lot of people the wrong way and a lot of people have reason to do this, and so that’s also what got us excited about the idea. He’s just pissing so many people off.
It is also a huge power move to try to take somebody like that down.
Absolutely. There’s definitely also that side of it too because there’s a lot of political jockeying that’s happening.
You already touched on what Kiesha went through last season, and so far in this season she seems to just be powering through the pregnancy and being pretty frank with Kevin about her mental state when she first came home. How much healing will she actually continue to do this season?
She’s definitely still got a lot of work to do, but she’s wanting people to think she’s OK because what really gets to her is the sympathy. It doesn’t feel genuine to her; it makes her feel like a victim. Even though she is a victim, she’s trying to find strength and showcase strength so that people will think she’s OK but she’s not. She’s got a long, long way to go. And a lot of this season is about trying to get to a place of acceptance where she isn’t going to be the same but the new version of her can be amazing.
How active are her attempts to get to that place, though?
Not active in the sense of therapy, but definitely in the sense of being put in situations where she has to work through things and realize that, “Oh OK, if I am ever going to get to a place of being as whole I can be, I need to work on this or I need to think about this or accept this.” We just wanted to play it as honest and as real as possible.
I know you just said she’s not going to therapy this season, but what she’s going through — and what Kevin and Jake went through in the premiere episode — seems almost insurmountable to tackle on their own, especially since they’re so young.
Yeah, Kevin may find himself back in therapy [and] other people may find themselves in therapy. We believe in therapy in the show; we believe in the good that therapy does and many of our characters, therapy would help them greatly. But it’s about wherever we can find an organic moment for people to go to therapy and learn something about themselves. And also, Dre is a therapist and we’ll see her do some of her work too.
That’s an interesting dynamic because she’s a professional but also their stepmother, and how much do you really tell your parental figures?
And it’s also that line of, “I’m a new stepparent and me and my wife aren’t on the same page as far as how to parent.” There’s friction there, so it gets complicated.
Let’s back up to what Jake went through when the cop threw him on the ground and what Kevin went through witnessing it after just wanting Jake to comply with the officer’s request. What inspired doing that story now?
Of course everything that’s happening in the world. Many of the writers — myself included — have stories of interactions with police. But the why now of it was, we always think about what is unique about this show that is unique to the conversation that we can offer. And what is unique is we have this mayor who still is somewhat a gangster. And that’s why we wanted it to be Jake: [Otis] has done all of this stuff to be in a position to make change and now here’s this kid that he cares about that this bad thing happened to, but are you going to do the right thing? Are you just going to try to advance your personal agenda? Are you actually going to try to be for the people? It’s putting the ball in his court as to what kind of man he wants to be. A lot of people have done a lot of great work exploring police brutality [on television], but we felt like we had a character who could approach [the topic] differently. Is he going to try to expend the political capital to try to right this wrong?
Otis has his way but we also saw Trig take action right away to get a sense of justice. Going forward, how much farther do you lean into that side of things?
We explore both sides and really the question that we got to, it was, “So you’re seeking justice but at a certain point, what can we do with what we have?” Trig taking matters into his own hands, what’s the most introspective version of that? We really wanted to explore that. And then to see if there’s a way the political side can meet that in the middle and potentially have an opportunity for real change.
How did you approach the different ways subsequent anger and/or PTSD would show up in Jake and Kevin? How much of the aftermath for Jake is in reaction to feeling like Kevin didn’t have his back?
We had discourse in the room and there’s generational things, but there’s also just several schools of thought [about this] and we like to keep things in the gray. Jake isn’t wrong, in my opinion, with the way he handled it and neither is Kevin, but I know people who feel like Kevin did: “You should just comply, do what they say, go home,” and I know people like Jake who are like, “I shouldn’t have to do that.” That conversation, we wanted to play that out. And then about handling it differently, we just really wanted to show that these characters are different. For Jake, the way he came up, there was an expectation about things like this and it came out of incidents writers in the room have had. Just personally speaking, with an incident that I went through, I just wanted to move on; I didn’t want to talk about it. My thing was, “I got away, it’s fine.” It isn’t healthy, but it is something that happens and we try to be as honest as possible. And what’s so great about having these young men is that we get to explore these different avenues and see the consequences of each choice because it’s complicated and there is no right or wrong answer.
So far it seems like this experience fractures their relationship, but is that fair to say? Or are there things to come that widen the rift?
There’s things to come, for sure, because really what we wanted to explore with Kevin and Jake this season is, there’s always this notion of good and bad kids and we don’t believe in that; we believe in circumstances. And seeing someone like Jake’s circumstances change, you see his outlook change, you see his choices change. And then Kevin, same thing. It’s just having it play out in ways you may not have expected when you watched the pilot.
And when it comes to Emmett, is he ever going to get out of his own way?
Emmett’s got his shit together! He’s always been this hustler, this scrambler, and now we’ve removed that element and he’s become a successful businessman.
But he still has that family drama that he created and based on that flash-forward, something seems to go really wrong.
For sure, but that’s the thing when you’re in a position where you think money will solve all your problems and then you get the money and then it’s like, “Oh, I still have these problems, now I have to look at myself. Maybe I’m the problem. Maybe I need to change. Maybe there’s some personal work that I need to do.” And then you start doing that work and you want a pat on the back, but there’s been much more time of you not being great than you being great, so forgive me if I’m not jumping for joy right now.