“MANIFEST” interview with creator Jeff Rake and actress Parveen Kaur
By Abbie Bernstein
MANIFEST has its third-season finale on NBC on Thursday, June 10. The series, created by Jeff Rake, deals with what happens when Flight 818 from Jamaica to New York vanishes from radar, only to reappear five years later. For the passengers and crew, only normal flying time has elapsed; not so for their loved ones, friends and colleagues.
One of the passengers is Dr. Saanvi Beni, a scientist played by Parveen Kaur. Saanvi devotes herself to studying what has happened. Saanvi finds that some of her fellow passengers, including NYPD detective Michaela Stone (Melissa Roxburgh) and Michaela’s professor brother Ben (Josh Dallas), share her experience of “Callings,” hearing voices and seeing visions that propel them to help others.
Ben’s young son Cal (Jack Messina), also a passenger on Flight 818, has visions that lead to the knowledge that the passengers have a “death date” – when they have been back for as long as they were gone, they will die. This makes Saanvi’s research even more crucial, as she seeks a way to save everyone.
At the end of Season 2, it looked as though there might be a way to circumvent the death date. Michaela’s new husband Zeke (Matt Long) – who also disappeared from the timeline and reappeared but was not a passenger on 818 – performed a selfless act and thereby recovered from what looked like his demise.
Saanvi, meanwhile, had tried to force answers out of the enigmatic, manipulative, murderous Major (Elizabeth Marvel). This led to Saanvi accidentally killing the Major, and Saanvi spends Season 3 consumed by guilt.
In a Zoom interview with three journalists conducted while MANIFEST Season 3 was still in production, creator Rake and performer Kaur discuss the series, its mythology and its characters.
Kaur says that the Major’s death affects every decision Saanvi makes going forward. “I feel like she is in this perpetual state of looking over her shoulder. So, she has that going on, just in terms of, everything that she does, every advancement that she makes now, there is this looming threat of, at some point, someone is going to find out, and take me away, and I’m going to go to prison. How am I going to even be able to be of any use once that happens? So, I think it’s also putting an urgency to her having to figure this out. But she’s terrified. I think that’s a big secret, and a big weight to carry, and also, we pick up three months later, which also isn’t really that much time – she’s still in the middle of processing all of it. She’s very tired.
Rake elaborates, “There’s no greater albatross to be hung around your neck than knowing that you’re responsible for taking a life. And then, to make a bad situation even worse, to not be able to talk about it with anybody – she has literally got one person [who knows what she’s done], Vance [played by Daryl Edwards], who is her inadvertent co-conspirator, but every day, she’s dealing with Ben and Michaela, the Stone family. It’s such an oppressive burden that it makes the stakes raise right off the top.
“Halfway through the season,” Rake continues, “we come to have an even clearer understanding of why the passengers are back, and whether or not they will be able to survive the death date that we’ve been following since the end of Season 1. What Saanvi comes to deduce, when this greater clarity comes out, is that the fact that she has been guilty of this terrible act could have implications not only on her own destiny, but on the destiny of others around her. And so, a bad situation becomes even worse when this comes to fruition at the hallway point in Season 3, and that ends up driving Saanvi’s agenda for the back half of the season.”
The mythology surrounding the death date is extremely complex. Rake explains, “At end of Season 2, Zeke, who had just gotten married to Michaela, surprised Michaela and the audience by surviving his death date. He had his own death date. He, like the passengers, had disappeared and come back, and we came to discover in Season 2 that you’re back for as long as you were gone. So, Zeke was gone for a year. After a year that he was back, he survived his death date. So, now that we’re on the B side of that, the passengers are trying to understand, ‘Well, can we learn from the lesson of Zeke? It seems like he followed his Callings, and therefore lived.’
“And so, when we come into Season 3,” Rake continues, “we find Ben and Michaela in a somewhat optimistic place, because they’re just a few months in the aftermath of Zeke’s survival, and they’re working theory is, ‘Okay, Zeke followed the Callings, and he lived. If we all follow the Callings, then perhaps that means we can live, too.’ So, for Ben and Michaela, it becomes about trying to spread the word to a hundred and eighty-some passengers – ‘Hey, folks, here’s what we have to do if we want to survive.’ They’re going to discover halfway through the season that it’s more complicated than that, but they think they have the tools for survival when they come into this season. Saanvi, on the other hand, burdened by so much crap that’s going on in her world, I’m not sure if she shares that optimism, but I’ll let Parveen speak to that.
“I don’t think that she does,” Kaur laughs. “She’s also not getting the Callings anymore.”
“But that’s a great point,” Rake observes. “If you need to follow the Callings to survive, and Saanvi got rid of her Callings through science, and now she’s kind of stuck, and desperately in search of her path to redemption, if there is one.”
So, does Saanvi think she’s ruined things for all of the passengers, or just for herself? “Well,” says Kaur, “she has one theory starting off, and that theory is proven to be incorrect, which is, yes, we thought it was just going to be me, and then we find out the consequences that I thought only Saanvi was going to experience, and there might be repercussions and consequences for all of us.”
Season 3 of MANIFEST is airing during the COVID-19 epidemic. Do Rake and Kaur think that this may have given viewers greater respect for real-world science?
“Obviously,” Kaur replies, “we [involved with making MANIFEST] can all say that we have a lot of respect for all the frontline workers, and all the people that are in the thick of all of this, and really feeling it, [metaphorically] being closest to the sun and feeling the heat with all of this. With the science aspect, how do you answer that question in terms of, will people have more respect for science because of a pandemic? I hope so. These are the people that we rely on in terms of our safety, and our health, and making sure that we are a thriving, functioning society. Science and scientists are an integral part of our society. So, yeah, I would hope so, that people can watch a show like ours, and have respect for people like Saanvi, because they put themselves through a lot, and we’ve seen also that certain scientists are dealing with a lot of repercussions, in terms of trying to spread information, and trying to get information out, and it’s not always a safe type of job. We’ve seen people have to deal with real consequences.”
How did COVID protection protocols affect production on MANIFEST Season 3?
“We have very strict protocols on our show,” Kaur relates, “in terms of testing, in terms of social distancing, and we are very diligent. It definitely took us a minute to get our footing in this new world, but knock on wood, we’ve been really good.”
Rake adds, “When you watch MANIFEST in Season 3, you’re not going to see actors wearing masks, [but] I wouldn’t want anybody out there who watches the show to think that we were loosey-goosey with COVID protocol. All we do around here is wear masks, and goggles and shields, and the only people who take their masks off are the actors, and they do it only when the camera rolls, and through a combination of rapid tests, and PCR tests, and social distance. We’ve gotten to a point where the actors feel comfortable with that limited exposure, but it’s a highly regulated environment, and it’s been a huge priority for all of us.
“When you watch Season 3,” Rake continues, “you’ll see, when the credits roll at the end, the first line of the credits is going to mention that, ‘This episode was filmed safely, in adherence to COVID protocols,’ because we just wanted to make everybody aware that the actors, the producers, the entire crew, studio, network – everybody’s greatest concern was about the safety and well-being for everybody involved in the show, and everybody out in the world.”
MANIFEST is a show with a large ensemble cast. Have Rake and his fellow producers gotten any sense from fan feedback as to which characters are the most popular?
Rake says that everyone is grateful for the fan response. “Honestly, I don’t think it’s a question of who’s most popular. I feel like there are a lot of fan rivalries. So, for instance, in the romantic triangle that exists between Michaela, Zeke, and Jared [Michaela’s former NYPD partner/fiancé, played by J.R. Ramirez], if you’re a Zeke fan, you’re not a Jared fan; if you’re a Jared fan, you’re not a Zeke fan,” Rake laughs.
“And then,” Rake observes, “there are a lot of fans who, even though Saanvi is a strong, compelling character on her own, and she’s a scientist, and a driver of mythology, there are a lot of fans who see romantic chemistry between Saanvi and Ben. And then if you’re a Saanvi fan, you’re not a Grace [Ben’s wife, played by Athena Karkanis] fan; if you’re a Grace fan, you’re not a Saanvi fan. I think it’s interesting that there are a lot of factions in that regard. And then there are a lot of young people who watch the show, and they’re all about Cal and Olive [Cal’s sister, played by Luna Blaise]. So, I think that a lot of people have their favorites, and they like to argue with each other on Twitter or on Reddit or Facebook pages about the characters. That’s great. I love that. And if you love a character, great; if you hate a character, that’s fine with me. I’m just glad that you’re invested.”
At the end of Season 2, Olive’s boyfriend TJ Morrison, played by Garrett Wareing, went off to Egypt to do research on the pyramids, because of clues that suggested they were tied to the Flight 818 phenomenon. Was this because the actor was doing another job, or because a character had to go to Egypt?
Rake and Kaur both laugh at the question. Rake allows that the building of the pyramids isn’t going to factor into the mythology “this season, but you never know on MANIFEST. I don’t really have a straight-ahead answer for you in that regard. In absentia, TJ does play an important role in at least one mythological story turn in the season. So, he will absolutely be invoked, even if we’re not going to see him onscreen. His character served a great and important role in Season 2. We love the actor so much, he’s a great friend to the production, and there’s a very good chance we’ll see him again. Serializes stories like this are like a sine curve. They have ups and downs. Different characters are vital to our storytelling in Season 3. That wasn’t the case for TJ and Olive’s continuing mythological journey and relationship journey goes in a different direction in Season 3. I’m excited for people to see where that leads, and who that leads to.”
Previous episodes of MANIFEST are available on the free Peacock streaming service, and on NBC on Demand.