The Fosters Showrunner Peter Paige on the Summer Finale, DACA, and Callie’s Future

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Photo: Eric McCandless/Freeform

Spoilers ahead for the midseason finale of The Fosters.

Tuesday’s midseason finale of The Fosters ended with a familiar sight — Callie (Maia Mitchell) sacrificing herself for a friend — but this time, the circumstances couldn’t have been more topical or resonant. In the closing moments of “Prom,” ICE agents chase Callie and Ximena (Lisseth Chavez), a DACA recipient, as they run into the sanctuary of a church.

It’s been a profound first half of the fifth season for Callie, who found herself on a journey of self-reflection and in an intimate relationship with Aaron (Elliot Fletcher), a transgender boy. The rest of the family didn’t skimp on the drama either: Brandon (David Lambert) has a new girlfriend with leukemia; Mariana (Cierra Ramirez) became even more of an activist and roller-derby player; Jude (Hayden Byerly) became a social-media influencer and deepened his relationship with Noah (Kalama Epstein); Jesus (Noah Centineo) struggled with his brain injury and the news that his girlfriend, Emma (Amanda Leighton), got an abortion; and the Adams Foster moms dealt with aging parents, ex-crushes, and career issues.

Ahead of the midseason finale, Fosters co-creator and co-showrunner Peter Paige spoke to Vulture about the many issues tackled in the fifth season’s first half and what viewers can expect when the Freeform drama returns.

In an interview earlier this year, you described season five as focusing more closely on the Adams Foster family and that brighter, happier times were ahead. You delivered on the family relationships, but do you think it was brighter and happier?
We probably didn’t get all the way to brighter and happier. Really, what I meant was there won’t be any pimps. That’s what I meant! [Laughs.] We all knew we had pushed the envelope as far as you could possibly go in terms of “Callie in peril” stories. We felt like we really needed to shift the focus and bring it back to smaller questions — more relatable things that people maybe aren’t going through, but that they have gone through or they know someone who has gone through, as opposed to the extraordinary circumstances that occasionally our characters find their way into. And I do think we succeeded at that.

The Callie arc went in an interesting direction. Why is it so easy for her to be kind and generous and caring with people who are in trouble, but she is not that way with herself?
I think that is a question a lot of people can relate to. Why are you capable of showing such kindness to other people and you are so hard on yourself? Why are you capable of advocating for these other people when you can’t apply the same critical thinking to yourself? Callie is still young. She still has a chance to get herself on a path that yields both, that yields a healthy self and a healthy ability to interact with the rest of the world. That’s what the moms are so desperate to teach this girl because the world has given her some really screwed-up messages. When she’s young, her mother suddenly dies and in the same instant her father is sent to jail. What a damaging message about love and what happens when you love people and trust people. I think everyone in The Fosters is working really hard to help Callie heal that subliminal messaging.

Even if she’s involved in these bigger causes, it’s still a very adolescent question. Who am I?
And I’ll tell you this: Most of us have not gotten in cars with pimps, but every teenager I grew up with — and I think this generation of teens especially — we were all incredibly engaged. I worked on congressional campaigns when I was a teenager. I did United Way fundraisers when I was a teen. We advocated, we spoke out. I protested the first Iraq War in college. I was an engaged teen and I think there’s a lot of them out there.

It was very compelling to see Callie’s inner turmoil come out with her college application and not knowing herself well enough to feel like she could do a self-portrait.
Thank you. I’ll tell you, it’s a lot harder to write that kind of a story than a story with a big bad, where she’s in life-or-death danger. It’s a lot harder to write a story that’s compelling about identity and sense of self without some villain in the room. So it was a challenging season, for sure, but I’m super proud of where we landed.

The finale brings us face-to-face with an issue we are dealing with as Americans this week: Ximena has to take sanctuary inside of a church to avoid being detained by ICE and possibly deported. Callie goes with her. Is that a step backward in her journey? She’s sacrificing again for someone else.
She is. But again, I think it’s different. Yes, it’s big. Yes, she’s made a quick decision to help someone in need. You could argue that it was impulsive, but it’s so much healthier than the kinds of decisions she was making before — and it is such an important thing that it feels different to me. It feels a little bit like a quarter-step back, but it doesn’t feel like she slid all the way back. It’s a much healthier thing. Her friend is claiming sanctuary. That, to me, is a beautiful fight that she is engaged in.

Why were you interested in exploring the DACA issue? It started with the immigration protest at the college.
One of the things we try to do on The Fosters is shine a light on the problems and the people that get pushed to the periphery. From the very beginning of the show, when we told people we were putting foster care at the center of a TV show, even the people who work in the system were afraid. They thought, “Oh, God, it’s gonna be a bad-seed story. It’s gonna be the way that foster care has traditionally been portrayed in television — not positive.” While our kids certainly have challenges and certainly make poor decisions, they are fundamentally good people and these are fundamentally good people trying to raise them. So from the very beginning, that’s the germ of the show: Take people who don’t have a voice and give them one. That’s what Girls United was all about. That’s certainly what these stories are about. These are human beings, these are children who have grown up in this country, who are dehumanized by the way that we talk about them. Giving them the prestige of being at the center of a story matters. It changes how people talk about it.

We as a culture use television as at least one of the great arbiters of truth. Even though we know it’s fiction, when we see it portrayed, we believe it. We recognize it as part of our culture. In this era when undocumented immigrants are being so vilified and trans people are being vilified, it was important to us that we honor them and the truth of their stories and their humanity.

You weave in all these important social issues, from DACA to education to abortion to Callie’s romance with a transgender boy. Where do you begin in the writing process?
We are very careful not to come at it from the issues side. We come at it from the character side. We peopled this chessboard with really interesting, specific, complex characters who have social challenges based on who they are and where they’ve come from. And so we go through the eyes of the character. We very rarely go, “Oh, here’s an issue that we want to explore.” It’s much more like, “We’ve got this amazing young Latina woman who is trying to make something out of her life. What are the challenges that she might be facing?”

Was there one issue that you really wanted to incorporate?
We really wanted to do the transgender story. I think the Aaron story was hugely important to all of us in the room. We were talking about who Callie’s new love interest might be and we all got excited about the notion that we could have a teen heroine fall in love with a trans man and it not be an “other” story; it would just be a love story. We thought that that was really important. But I will say I’m really proud of all of the stuff that we weave into the show and all of the things that we tackle.

That story was handled so gently. I know you have a young audience and it’s a family show, but you did explore the idea that they didn’t know how to approach sex. Callie admits she doesn’t know what to expect and Aaron admits his vulnerability. What did you discuss in the writers room about that?
Well, it’s The Fosters. We’re gonna go headfirst into an issue and we’re gonna try to explore it from both sides, or from multiple sides if there are multiple sides. We don’t want to shy away from something just because it makes us uncomfortable. In fact, the more heated or intense things get in the writers room, the more we know there’s a lot to work with. There are feelings and opinions and ideas and preconceptions and all of that and we, as a group, get off on challenging those.

The Callie-Aaron burgeoning relationship story was no different. We knew that it was time that we pursued romance with them and we knew that Callie as a character would have questions. We all have questions. How would it be different? Is it different? Does it matter? And I think we were all a little bit like, “Oh, this is gonna be a tough one, this is gonna be tricky.” But once we got inside it, the truth is it wasn’t.

It was fresh because it was about a cisgender girl and a young trans man but it wasn’t salacious. It wasn’t sensational. It was simply, “I am nervous, I’m not communicating with you well, I am gonna ask my other trans male friend what he likes in an effort to not have an uncomfortable conversation with you. But that’s gonna backfire because I didn’t have that conversation with you. Then you and I are gonna have to work our way through it and we’ll be stronger because of it.” That story is not unique to a trans relationship. That story happens in almost every relationship I’ve ever witnessed. It’s a version of “Why are you talking to your friends about that?”

And it’s teenagers having sex. There are always insecurities.
Teenagers having sex? That’s adults having sex. [Laughs.] That’s anyone having sex.

By the end of the season, there’s a distance between them again.
Right, but every relationship hits bumps and challenges. Do not mourn for what is not yet lost.

Come on, this was special!
I know, I know. I think you’ll be happy with where it goes.

We haven’t talked about Jesus and Emma. There’s so much to unpack there.
His beautiful struggle with traumatic brain injury? I think that has been a fascinating world for us to step into. And I think we in the writers room have learned a lot. There’s been some response from people in the disabled community about how we have talked about Jesus and that has really informed how we’re talking about him in the next season, how we have structured his story in the next season.

Jesus is going through a lot, then you throw Emma’s abortion at him. It was a refreshing approach to an age-old story: Emma knows she doesn’t want to keep the baby, never second-guesses herself or wavers. It’s empowering and not the typical route.
There’s a lot of shame around it. And that wasn’t the story we wanted to tell. It wasn’t easy at all for her. It never is. That’s not it. But she knew what was right for her and it’s her body. The conflict in that story comes out of the father, Jesus, the man who got her pregnant, is facing huge challenges of his own and so she doesn’t feel like she can add to his burdens. That creates this secret and secrets are bad. She was in an impossible position and other people were trying to help her and it just creates an inevitable conflict.

It’s so rarely told from that perspective. Emma is being raised by progressive parents and she has progressive role models and a really healthy sense of self and ambitions. She was on the pill, but she was taking an herb that actually really does interact with the pill and diminishes its efficacy. We always try to do a story differently than you’ve seen it before. The other motto in The Fosters writers room is: How do we make that a Fosters story? How do we change a story that we’ve seen before and make it specific to our characters and to our world and to our point of view? And that felt so right. Abortion is under attack all over this country. We wanted to model a young woman who understood its value and its place in her life. Not that it was easy or a get-out-of-jail-free card, but it was the right and responsible thing to do for her and her body at this point in her life.

What can you tease about the rest of the season?
We’re picking up where we left off, but there’s really wonderful, beautiful stuff. There’s amazing things coming for Brandon and Grace. There’s beautiful, complicated, inspiring stuff for Lena. We’re gonna learn more about Steph and Brandon and their relationship and their history.
Callie’s got a lot on her plate in terms of being this ally to her friend, but also advocating for herself and making the choices that are gonna put her life on the right path. She and Aaron are at odds, so what does the future hold for them? Jesus goes back to school with the really clear goal that he doesn’t want to have to repeat his junior year. Jude is getting a little juice. Jude is becoming a little bit of a social-media star. We’re exploring what it is like when you’re 14 or 15 years old and suddenly you’re making money and people are sending you things and all of that kind of stuff. So we’ve got a lot of really interesting stories on the board.

And a wedding, right?
I refuse to answer that question. I take the Fifth.

The Fosters Showrunner on DACA and the Summer Finale