’12 Monkeys’ Showrunner Terry Matalas Talks Fate and Ratings

Viewers are closing in on the identity of the Witness, and Syfy’s ’12 Monkeys’ is ramping up just in time for the finale.

Syfy Channel

We’re six episodes into the second season of Syfy’s fascinating time-hopping drama 12 Monkeys, and the show’s diehard fan base couldn’t be more excited about how things are developing under the guidance of co-creator/showrunner Terry Matalas. The twisting, turning narrative remains as critically praised as it was in season one, while fans are going to new extremes to share their love of the show.

Take, for instance, the recent fan practice of tagging Hollywood walls with the show’s logo. (It’s confirmed that it’s not someone on the show, by the way).

Yet, for all that unbridled enthusiasm, the show still isn’t bringing in the ratings. The comfortable [800,000 per-episode viewership from season one] has dropped to around 400,000. And while that doesn’t take into account the show’s streaming ratings, the live numbers may prove damaging in the short run.

I had the opportunity to chat with Matalas about the ins and outs of writing the most critically lauded, beloved, and yet somehow most underrated sci-fi show on television.

In the original film, we learn that fate is kind of inescapable. Does the show have some kind of similar grand plan like that in mind?

We definitely know where we’d like the show to end, and all the big moves in the series. It’s not the movie, though. We’ve already gone pretty far away from the source. But, we have some surprises in store, we have everything mapped out.

Do you think fate exists in the world of 12 Monkeys?

Some things are changeable, some aren’t. The characters are on this perpetual loop and the series’ question is: can they break that loop? There is fate, but the characters are struggling to outmaneuver it in order to get the fate they want.

Have the writers developed a specific method or a set of tricks for keeping all the loops straight?

Are you picturing a big room covered in Post-Its?

I’m picturing the Word of the Witness.

A lot of people do, but it’s really something we have in our heads. It takes a lot of planning, for sure, but we don’t keep any specific time maps or anything like that. We’re all carefully monitoring the timeline to make sure that we’re doing the right set-ups and payoffs.

How many seasons are you hoping to get out of the show?

We need four seasons to tell the whole story. It gets more emotional as we go along; each season is more emotional than the last. There’s some pretty amazing stuff lined up for season three that I hope we get to do.

Over the course of season one, every character changed drastically, a process that’s continued in season 2. Are you aiming for such drastic arcs?

We already know every character’s big arcs. If you’re going to write for several characters, and you’re going to be shifting alliances, you have to plan that out so it’s believable. It has to be earned.

Are we going to see some of the characters come full circle this season? Cassie, for example, seems to be re-thinking her recent choices.

She’s definitely going through a lot. If you’re suggesting that she’s going to be finding her humanity again, or she’s going to become a doctor again, I guess I’d say, ‘Keep watching.’”

I don’t think the characters really stray very far from who they are, though. We try to write the most realistic versions of these characters, people who have gone through constant trauma and death. The heart of these people is still the same. The Cassie [from the pilot] isn’t gone; shes very much in there. I think that really shines through in Amanda’s performance, and you’ll get to see more of it as the season goes on.

Going into season two, a lot of interviews made mention of Deacon’s expanded role. Do your writers have fun writing for him?

Deacon has a unique voice. But he’s not the only one; we have a lot of fun writing for Jennifer and Cole as well. They all have a very definitive point of view. A lot of the characterization comes through in the actors’ individual performance. You know, Amanda’s great with sarcasm, so we’ve worked more of that into Cassie’s personality. Todd has that kind of Bill Murray thing that informs his performance. Sometimes the actors have great ideas of their own, so we lean into that.

Has an individual actor’s decision substantially changed how you write a character’s arc?

The arc has to fit into the larger narrative, so there’s no one who’s arc has changed because of their performance. When you see an actor who is strong with this kind of comedy or that kind of drama, then you kind of rely on that more, you give them more of that. So, it absolutely plays a part.

You want to give viewers clues about the identity of the Witness?

You will definitely know who the Witness is by the end of season two. There have definitely been clues. It’ll be one of those things where you could go back and watch the entire series and think, “Oh, of course.”

But, the show isn’t just about who the Witness is. Who the Witness is and what they’re doing is its own story. You may look at the Witness’ point of view after season three and be like, “You know this guy’s got a good point.” It’s all in this kind of moral gray zone.

Is it important for your audience to understand the perspective of everyone on the screen?

Eventually, yes. Right now, we know the [Army of the 12 Monkeys] is obsessed with destroying Time, but we don’t know why. In the next few episodes, you’ll be getting more about what the Witness’ point of view is. Then, in a third season, you’d get a lot of opportunity to expand that point of view. At least I’m hoping so.

Certainly, though, the Witness becomes a major part of the show moving forward.

And studious fans should already have a good indication of who that is.

It’s complicated. There’s a lot of arrows pointing in a lot of different directions, so there’s no definitive combination of quotes and actions that will reveal the story’s end. There’s no way to do that. You just kind of have to devour it as a whole and then reflect.

Fans shouldn’t be looking at the show as all these little clues. They should ride the mystery out as best they can. There are many answers coming by the end.

Is it important to you that every episode have a payoff or some self-contained story?

You definitely want to keep that train going. You want to develop strong characters and an interesting mythology so you can deliver satisfying doses of each in every episode. In some cases you get more than others, but the goal is to keep viewers hungry. And we still have a lot of stuff to get through, especially by the last three episodes of season 2. I’m really excited for people to see it.

What are your opinions on social media and the opportunities for fan interaction there?

It’s really important. The great thing about the cast is that they’re so passionate about telling the story and exploring where were going, and they want to connect with that fanbase. I think they’re also trying to appeal to the people who are waiting to binge or who have yet to jump in.

Waiting to binge could actually hurt a show. Live ratings are really important. If we were strictly on Hulu or Netflix, sure, you could just binge at will, but Syfy does depend on live ratings in order to make money, and if they don’t get live viewers then they’re not going to make the show.

Do streamed ratings factor in at all?

It’s a tricky bit of business that I think everyone’s trying to figure out right now. Streamed ratings factor in if people wait, but by the time an entire season is ready to stream, a network or a studio may have already made the call to cancel a show because they didn’t see viewers. Live ratings do matter; they keep the lights on at the networks.

This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.

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