By MIA FREEDMAN
Debra Oswald is the creator and head writer for Offspring.
Throughout her career she’s also worked on shows like The Secret Life of Us, Police Rescue, Bananas in Pyjamas and Wildside. And she’s also written plays for teenagers and children’s books.
This week, I talked to her about the show, about Patrick and about why they made the decision to let him go…
What she had to say was fascinating.
MF: Let’s cut to the chase – why did Patrick have to die?
DO: Making long-form television, especially in Australia, writers and producers have to deal with certain realities. When actor availability becomes complicated – whether it’s connected to pregnancy, other work, where they live – we have to work around that and find ways to create satisfying story out of it.
We love Matt le Nevez. We created the Patrick character for him and we’re thrilled we’ve had him (being wonderful) in the show all this time. Knowing we would need to write him out at a certain point, our job was to find the most appropriate way to do that. We agonised about this but in the end didn’t believe Patrick would ever leave Nina and their baby. Could we believe he would leave them for a job elsewhere, for another woman, through a break-up? No. Patrick and Nina have had a grand love story so it required something very big to end it.
Again with the timing of the events, we talked and talked and agonised about it. We felt it was better for him to die very near the end of a series so that Nina and the audience could have the break and perhaps a narrative time jump to catch our breath. Then we could use the remaining time Matt could give us to have Patrick in the series 5 as a figure in Nina’s imagination. I’m not exactly sure how that is going to work yet but I think it is an exciting prospect. The imaginative landscape we’ve establish in Offspring over four series means we can have Patrick appear without it being a sudden added-on gimmick. Those fantasy devices have always been part of our toolkit. And, most importantly, I think it would express a real and fascinating part of what a person experiences after a loss like that. I, for example, often imagine conversations with my beloved late father. And good god, if I lost a partner as Nina has, that person would not leave my mind in a hurry.
We also agonised about whether Patrick should die before or after his baby is born. After much thought, we felt it was better to have the birth as a consoling thing and small upswing at the end of the series. His death would feel like a tragedy however it happened.
I realise many people think the death of a main character is breaking some contract we have with the audience about the kind of show it is. But Offspring has always had comic and serious stories intertwined. One of the things I’m proudest of with the show is that, at our best, we find a balance between moving people and making them laugh. The show is often ABOUT the fact that so many elements exist in our lives at the same time, confusing but full of the juice of life.
Yes, this is a darker story than we’ve done up until now but the show has always pushed Nina up against new challenges.
After travelling with them for four series, I think it’s compelling to see how Nina and the Proudmans will handle the death. Death is not a narrative gimmick (writers don’t have any say over the network promos). Death is a legitimate part of drama and it would be reductive to suggest it was off the table for a show like Offspring.
MF: As scriptwriters, how much consideration goes into killing off a character?
DO: As I hope is clear in my previous answer, a LOT of consideration went into it.The producers and my two core co-writers (Michael Lucas and Jonathan Gavin) and I spent many hours discussing this. We feel enormous responsibility to the characters and the audience. That doesn’t mean never upsetting the audience but it means handling the story with care and emotional authenticity.
We cried a lot in the story room. The three of us wept as we worked on those final scripts. There were more tears in the editing suite.
There was never any discussion in the story room about ‘who should we kill?’ with shortlists of potential characters. The scripts are written many months before the network decides how they want to promote the episodes once they’re about to go to air. The writers have nothing to do with that.
MF: The way people have reacted on social media is a real sign of how powerful the show is and how well you’re connecting with the audience. Were you surprised by the reaction after Patrick’s death? We’ve heard people actually called in sick to work on Thursday because they were so devastated…
DO: We expected a reaction. (We thought we might need to live in a safe house for a while!) But we didn’t expect the scale of the reaction. I love that people care so much about these characters because I do too. I think a tragic event in drama can bring up a lot of memories for people of losses in their own lives. It’s not a terrible thing to have a cry sometimes and remember how precious our loved ones are.
MF: In the heat of the moment last week, some people claimed they could no longer watch the show because they were so angry that Patrick had been killed. What do you say to these people?
DO: I found some of the comments on social media unnerving and had to stop looking. There seem to be a lot of conspiracy theorists out there imagining that the makers of the show are lying. There is no trickery or duplicity going on. The situation is complex for Australian producers working with actors who are wanting, quite reasonably I think, to work in the US as well as here. For an actor to go for certain kinds of work in the US, they cannot be contracted to a long-form series back in Australia. I wish people would let the show be the best it can be and let Matt le Nevez have a wonderful career. But of course, I can’t control how people choose to interpret things.
In terms of the way we handled the Offspring story, people are entitled to their opinion. Fans can feel heartbroken for Nina and angry at a universe in which random awful things can happen but hopefully they’ll want to stick with the show and see how she copes. If some people don’t feel that way, that’s a shame. We just do our best.
MF: How do you handle telling the actors when something this dramatic happens? Can you share how you told actor Matthew Le Nevez that he was going to die?
DO: Matt was part of the discussion from very early on.
In the Offspring writers’ office, the script producers/writers (Michael Lucas, Jonathan Gavin), our script coordinator Li-Kim Chua and I have desks. We also have an area with whiteboards, sofas, piles of dead coffee cups, dark chocolate wrappers, etc, where we plot and hold script meetings. This office is in the same building as the show’s production office, wardrobe department, editing suites and the huge fabulous set where we film the hospital interior scenes. So writers, cast and crew run into each other all the time.
Matt le Nevez was one of the most frequent visitors to our writers’ cubby. He could stroll in and stretch out handsomely on one of the sofas to chat about the scripts, tease us, ask questions. You’d have to ask him, but I think Matt was excited to see how the Patrick story would play out. He was very involved in discussions about things we were keen to do with his character before the end of series 4 – for example, the sequence in episode 10 when Patrick spends half the night wrangling members of the Proudman family.
Matt was very focused on doing justice to Patrick’s death and I hope people agree with me that his performance is wonderful.
MF: How did you go about crafting the final episode?
DO: Right from the start, Imogen Banks (one of the show’s two producers) gave me ‘permission’ to write a script that might not necessarily have any humour in it. This was a relief because I wasn’t sure I could manage that. In the end, I hope people do find some comic moments to enjoy in it.
The main task for all us (me, the director Emma Freeman and cast and crew) was to honour Patrick and allow audience members a chance to grieve in an almost formal sense. We wanted to show the family rallying round Nina and in particular Billie rising to the occasion in a splendid way. The dramatic question for the episode was the one Nina states early on – how do you grieve for a man and prepare for a baby at the same time?
I found several wonderful blogs by women who had faced a very similar situation and I could use those to help me imagine my way into Nina’s head.
I cried a lot writing it. I had help from my writing colleagues and Emma to fine tune the script. It also helped that I knew the cast – especially Asher and Kat – would nail it.
Is it difficult to balance those heart-wrenching moments with the comedic ones?
Most people have experienced moments of strange hilarity in the midst of grief. Black humour, attacks of the giggles while choosing coffin linings and so on. It’s a pretty human reaction. In the show, we have always put farce (such as the way Nina’s labour plays out) alongside soulful scenes and I hope the audience will go with us on that in this episode. We need a laugh after all that pain.
I think Offspring has taught me to trust that you can ask an audience to laugh one minute and then swing around to see the pain in a subsequent moment, or vice versa. I think that is one of the strengths of the series.
MF: My favourite line from the entire final episode was at the pool when Billie says to Nina “I’ll cover you. If you can’t love this baby, I’ll love it until you’re ready.” That was genius and to me, that relationship is the actual heart of the entire show. Men come and go but the central gravitational force of Offspring is the sister relationship between Billie and Nina. Is that how you see it?
DO: Ah, I’m so glad you picked out that bit. Maybe my favourite moment. Every time I would get to that bit in the script, I would choke up. Every time! Often for me it’s a moment of beauty and generosity in the middle of tragedy that makes me go to pieces.
Yes, Billie and Nina are the core of the show. Romance has always been a big part of Offspring but the show is not only about romance. It’s about the way Nina navigates her life, her family, her lovelife and her work.
MF: What can we expect next for Nina? How does she go on without the father of her child?
DO: Well, I think I have to say ‘wait and see’. She’s a strong, loving and imaginative woman, even if she struggles with anxiety. She’s going to be carrying the weight of her grief but she’s also going to throw herself into motherhood, her job and engaging with life again. As I said in a newspaper article, it is possible for joy and playfulness to exist alongside sadness. That’s always been the underpinning of Offspring and that won’t change, even if the circumstances of our characters have taken this deeper turn.
MF: Thank you for writing such complex, authentic characters. Thank you for Nina and Billie and Geraldine in particular. Thank you for giving them such interesting lives and throwing the same kinds of curve balls in them on screen as the rest of us experience in life. Thank you for dealing in a real and genuine way with issues like infertility and stillbirth and premature birth and loss and sex and not tying them up in a simplistic cheesy bow.
What did you think of tonight’s episode? Will you keep watching next season?