SPOILER ALERT: This post contains details from Season 5, Episode 11 of The CW’s All American.
The CW’s All American ended with an emotional twist Monday as the series said goodbye to one of its most beloved characters. While audiences might not have been prepared, it was a moment the writers had been working toward all season.
Head coach Billy Baker (played by Taye Diggs) died saving a student after a bus carrying him and the South Crenshaw High School football team crashed on its way back from a scouting combine.
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In the final moments of the episode, his son Jordan (Michael Evans Behling), who was at the scene of the crash, tells his family that Billy didn’t survive.
Billy’s death will likely come as a shock for viewers, since the series has so far spared its main cast even though many of them have previously been at death’s door. But showrunner Nkechi Okoro Carroll told Deadline that the decision for Diggs to exit the show came about organically before plans for Season 5 were made.
“At the beginning and end of every season, I have a conversation with the cast about the journey of their character, and it was in those conversations for Taye that we started talking about, ‘Is Billy’s journey on the show over? And if so, what would an exit look like?’ To me, there was only ever one exit for Billy if he was leaving, because the character would never leave after fighting so hard for his family,” she said.
Carroll spoke with Deadline about building Season 5 around Diggs’ exit and gave insight into how the remaining episodes will dive deeper into the shared grief of those mourning the loss, especially his family (both biological and chosen).
DEADLINE: I was pretty shocked to learn that this death was coming. Is this something you’d planned when you opened the writers room for Season 5?
NKECHI OKORO CARROLL: When I took over as showrunner early in Season 1, because I hadn’t been involved with the pilot, I sat down with every actor to talk to them about the show and why they wanted to do in the show, how they felt about their role, and how I envisioned the long-term journey of the show. We were so lucky to have Taye Diggs for any amount of time. One of the things we’d always talked about [in those conversations] was not knowing how long his run would be, but whenever it was time for it to come to an end, it would be a mutual decision. It would have to be something that felt right for both of us for the creative direction of the show and for him as an actor. It’s funny, because even when we had those conversations, I would think in my head, ‘How are we going to go organically do this? What if we don’t agree?’ At the beginning and end of every season, I have a conversation with the cast about the journey of their character, and it was in those conversations for Taye that we started talking about, ‘Is Billy’s journey on the show over? And if so, what would an exit look like?’ To me, there was only ever one exit for Billy if he was leaving, because the character would never leave after fighting so hard for his family. He’s not going to leave his wife and kids to go take a job in Florida. So I sort of set the tone of, if we feel like this is the right time, this is how it would happen. He was so stunned by the beauty of the exit and the heroism of the exit and what it meant for Billy’s legacy. He was silent for a moment, and I was like, ‘Oh my god, did I just lose him with this pitch?’ Then I realized he was silent because he was emotional about it. He got so excited and we started talking about when would be the right time to implement something like that. I knew going into Season 5 that was what we were going to do. Everything that we lined up for Season 5 was knowing that in the middle of the season, they would lose Billy. It was very thought out in terms of what storyline we’d be building up to, so that him leaving at that moment would really impact our cast and allow us to really explore a new chapter of their lives in a different way with that loss so that it didn’t just feel arbitrary.
DEADLINE: After you had this conversation with Taye, how did you inform the cast of what was coming and what were their reactions?
CARROLL: All of the cast members, God bless them, because I swear they couldn’t keep a secret to save their lives. As soon as Taye and I had figured out that this was right and this is when we wanted it to happen — and after I pitched it to the network and studio and they signed off on it — I sat down with each cast member and as I walked them through their journey of what Season 5 was gonna be, I told them. I told it to them like I was pitching them the episode and how it happened, and without fail, every single one of them cried. The first time it happened I was like ‘Whoa, I thought I was the only one that was gonna cry doing this.’ Every single cast member, when they realized how it was going to happen and when it was gonna happen, it was such an organic, visceral experience of almost early grief and anticipation of what was happening. So they all really dug in with each episode knowing this was coming and it brought an extra layer to their work in those scenes with Billy, knowing what would be coming 11 episodes later. They’ve all done truly their best work, and they did it all while keeping this secret which is not easy to do in this town.
DEADLINE: I want to talk more about the specifics of how he died. How did you decide he would be going back onto the bus to save Jabari, of all people?
CARROLL: A lot of thought went into that over the summer before we even started the season. I felt strongly that if it was any of our main cast, or if it were his kids — Jordan, Olivia, or Spencer — of course, he’s gonna go back on the bus for them, and I don’t think anyone would question that. But I wanted to go deeper than that. This is a man whose players really are his second set of kids. Does it become more complicated if he goes back for one of those kids? Laura can’t get mad if he goes back for one of their children. But in her grief, she could get mad if he goes back for what feels to her like just another player. Was it worth the sacrifice? That’s something she’s gonna have to wrestle with. Remembering who Billy was and what he stood for and how he loved, of course that makes sense. He would have gone back for anyone. So that was the reason we settled on it being Jabari that Billy would go back for. It’s a character that our audience knows and loves and has rooted for, and he’s on the cusp of changing in his life and doing something great. How is it fair for it to be that his life would be cut short so quickly? It felt right.
DEADLINE: It really did hurt to watch Spencer listen to that voicemail from Billy just moments before finding out he was dead, especially knowing they hadn’t fully mended their relationship. How is Spencer going to handle his grief, which would have been overwhelming even if he had been on good terms with Billy?
CARROLL: What we perceive as Spencer’s grief is only going to be the tip of the iceberg. It’s going to turn out that losing Billy the way he lost him and their relationship being in the state it was when he lost him, and the fact that he declined that call as opposed to missing the call, is going to end up being a gateway to a much, much deeper storyline with Spencer. It’ll take a little while for him to really unpack what is going on with him and what losing Billy really represents for him and what Billy’s legacy means from Spencer’s perspective as he tries to rise from the ashes and pick himself back up again.
DEADLINE: We know the Vortex is always there for each other through hard times, but now that they’re all going through this collective, shared grieving process, how are they going to lift each other up?
CARROLL: Obviously Olivia and Jordan are his children and Laura is his wife, and everyone I think is united that they come first. They lost their dad, she lost her husband. No matter what Billy meant to us, they come first. We’re definitely gonna see that attitude from the friend group. But that is a lot easier said than done when you’re going home at night and either trying to bury your grief, or cry over your grief or drink your way through your grief. However it is that various people are handling their grief, it becomes a real struggle of trying to put that aside while you’re helping other people through theirs. I actually think it’s the beauty of this group. I always say there’s your family you’re born into and you’re really blessed with that, and then there’s the family you choose and that’s the double blessing. These kids are the chosen family. So I think we’ll see the real strength of the Vortex and how solid those bonds are, no matter what pressure and weight gets put on them as we go through these next few episodes of how everyone is dealing with losing Billy. Grief isn’t linear, and it’s so different for so many people. We’re gonna give everyone their moment with their way of processing, and that becomes a story for an episode so that we really get to test the boundaries of that friend group and how they each help each other through it.
DEADLINE: When you were writing your way through each character’s grief, how did you decide what would be a realistic way for them to handle something like this?
CARROLL: Truthfully, the characters decided. We all know Spencer so well. We’ve lived with him for five seasons. Of all the options of how different people can process grief, what Spencer has been through dictated what was the most realistic authentic version for him. Same went for Olivia and Jordan. The journey they’ve been on and how much they’ve grown over the five seasons [helped determine] what looks realistic. It’s all grounded in honesty and truth from all of our grief experiences, but in terms of which grief experience makes sense for which character, we let the characters and the storyline we told over the seasons dictate that for us. It was discussed ad nauseam in the writers room as we were venturing into each person’s story, and we let the history and the authenticity of the character dictate what grief looked like for them.
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