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Interview: James Duff

***SPOILER ALERT*** If you haven't seen the most recent episodes of Major Crimes, do not read any further!

As a showrunner for a television series, sometimes you have to make decisions that will not be popular with the fans of the show, but will help fulfill your vision for the series.

That decision becomes much more difficult when it involves killing off an extremely popular character.

Major Crimes showrunner James Duff found himself in that exact position. When the word came down from TNT that the series would not be renewed for a seventh season, James had to make a decision on how to close out the story of the show’s lead character, Sharon Raydor.

We talked with James after the airing of the Major Crimes episode where Sharon Raydor does in fact die. We talked with him about the decision to kill off that character, what involvement actress Mary McDonnell had in the decision and his thoughts about the fan’s reactions to her death.

Pop Culture Principle – When did you start to plan out the ending for Sharon Raydor’s character?

James Duff – Mary and I played this scenario out together. From the moment I first conceived of this possibility until the moment we finished it, Mary and I were doing this together. She never told me once not to do it.

I told her we might do this and I would set it up in case we wanted to. I found a very flexible disease and as her character said in the show, most people die with this disease and not from it. That is the truth, but that disease can also be deadly. We really did struggle to see that the series was pretty much done, but this gave us some room to maneuver in case the network changed their mind.

Mary and I had done this before where we had taken a situation and sort of pushed the network into making a decision and picking up the show. We were sort of in that zone again, but it was clear to us by the time we got to that position again that it wasn’t going to happen. So, we prepared for the eventuality that TNT was going to let us go and that we needed to put an end to Sharon’s story so that Major Crimes could go off the air and have closure and also that people could mourn with us as we departed.

The decision was right for a multitude of reasons. I think it’s important to factor in that there were also professional considerations to take into account. We didn’t know that TNT was going to cancel the show before we aired. We thought they could wait until as long as January. Mary McDonnell could have been stuck inside a dead show with nobody knowing and us not being able to say anything. The pilot season could come and go or other opportunities could come up for her. Mary McDonnell is not a nobody in the business.

So, how am I honoring the actor that I’m working with by locking them down in a dead show where they can’t get another job or talk about it? It was too much responsibility for me to lock her down that way. It’s also very important to note that TNT had not come back to anyone to renew their contracts, including me. At a certain point, that becomes determinative and we were closing in on that point where there were no options. Also, there were people who were leaving the show and this season was going to be their last season no matter what. I had a lot of different juggling assignments during all this and I feel like I did the right thing.

We also wanted people to know that the show is over. As much as we would like it to, the show can’t go on and I think this does that. That’s why everybody was there when we filmed Sharon’s final collapse in her office. The producers, writers, people from post and the entire Major Crimes family was there for that scene. Mary was just wonderful in that entire episode, especially the scene in the church with the priest.

Pop Culture Principle – There was a lot of foreshadowing leading up to Sharon’s death. Did you do that intentionally to try and help soften the blow of her upcoming death?

James Duff – Yes. A lot of people thought that she would retire due to health reasons, but if she had done that, the idea that the show was over would not happen. People would think that it still could come back and that is exactly what we were trying to avoid. We wanted it to be entertaining, surprising and interesting all the way to the very end and I think we are very close to doing that.

Someone asked me if this would be Sharon’s last episode and I said to them, what makes you think this is her last episode? It’s not her last episode. Mary and I have been working together for eight seasons which is a lifetime in this business. It’s impossible to think that I could have done any of this without not only her consent but also her willingness and participation. We’ve worked very hard to be a very collaborative team and I think we did a fairly good job of that. I am very proud of what we accomplished together and I know Mary feels very much the same way.

It was a remarkable experience for her to see this character in which she invested so much time and heart come to a conclusion. A conclusion that we both had designed. Now, Rusty is left to struggle with this on his own and the squad is left to sort themselves out and they have to look to the future and see what that is going to be like.

It is sort of the classic departure of the mentor figure before the end of the story. We wanted to do that, we wanted a classic departure and I feel like we got it.

Pop Culture Principle – Why did you choose this particular episode to kill of Sharon Raydor and not the final episode of the season?

James Duff – Well, because I was going to need an entire episode after to deal with the ramifications of her death. If we were dealing with the ramifications in episode thirteen which would be our series finale, I didn’t want to do that. The first story is the biggest one that I have to conclude. Everyone else’s story can be ended briefly. I wanted to be sure that we told her complete story.

Pop Culture Principle – We also finally see the return of Phillip Stroh in a scene with Gus. What can fans expect from his return?

James Duff – I don’t think I’d be giving away anything by saying murderous. I will say, whatever reason you think Phillip Stroh is back, you probably have it wrong. He is a really tricky character and he has a dangerously amoral assistant accompanying him. The hunt for Stroh is going to be the centerpiece of the next four episodes and there will be another shocking murder right after the funeral, so don’t go anywhere.

Pop Culture Principle – What do you say to the fans who feel let down or betrayed by Sharon Raydor’s death?

James Duff – I would say to them that there were good reasons both creatively and professionally for what we did. I am not the one who took the show off the air. If they want to be angry at someone, I am not sure that I’m the right person. I can only react to events and to make the best stories out of events that I could. If she had exited any other way, there would have been so many rumors that the show was coming back and I think that it might have impacted her career and I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t do that to the actor who has been my partner for all this time. We can’t live on fumes and dreams here and the practical realities are that she shouldn’t have to take a year off and figure out whether we are coming back. We are not coming back.

Look, I totally understand why the fans are mad. I am mad that we aren’t coming back as well. I would love to come back. We could have cried the entire time or we could have accepted our fate, taken that fate in our own hands and driven the narrative and that’s what we decided to do. I don’t have any regrets about it at all. I did the right thing and I did it for the right reasons. If people want to dislike me for it, I can’t stop them, but I feel like their anger is misdirected. I have before in my life been the subject of unidentified and misdirected anger and this could be another one of those times and I am fully prepared for the rage. I hope people tune in to see her funeral because it’s an amazing experience and she still has another appearance to make. It’s not all gone in one go.

Pop Culture Principle – What would you say to the loyal fans behind the #SaveMajorCrimes fan campaign and online petitions?

James Duff – I’ve said from the very beginning, it’s just not a possibility. We explored all those possibilities last year at the end of Season 5 when it looked like they were going to cancel us. We really did try to find another platform that would distribute the show domestically. It doesn’t seem like the streaming services are interested in doing that, nor the networks. There are a couple of reasons for that. Number one, Major Crimes, for whatever else it is, it is not new. It’s not something that anybody at any other platform can take credit for. Also, a lot of these platforms have sent out messages that they don’t want to be the place where other shows go to finish out their runs.

The second big reason is ownership. All the various platforms out there want to own their own programming and this is a continuing problem for us at Warner Brothers because we don’t yet have a platform of our own in which we can create and release programming. I think that is part of what the AT&T merger is designed to correct, but that’s being held up by the current administration. If the merger had happened sooner, I think we might have had a reprieve, but unfortunately, we are where we are.

Pop Culture Principle – As the creator of this character, do you feel you truly completed Sharon Raydor’s journey?

James Duff – Yes. If I had known in advance that this was going to be our last season and I was certain of that, I would have done more last season to prepare for this ending. We’ve been cancelled twice before and then the network changed their mind and I thought that they might do the same thing again, which is why I gave her the flexible illness. I had made a habit of putting Sharon in crazy positions to force the network’s hand into renewing the series and this time, they said go ahead and finish it. They were very clear about us not coming back. If I had really accepted that at the end of Season 5, I think I could have added a little bit more, but not a lot more. I got most of what I wanted to.

A big thank you to James Duff for taking the time to talk with us! The next two episodes of Major Crimes will air back to back on Tuesday, December 26th starting at 9/8c only on TNT!

**All photos provided courtesty of TNT**

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