Spoilers below for Cloak & Dagger’s season-one finale.
It’s been a rough few weeks for Tandy Bowen and Tyrone Johnson. The lead characters of Marvel’s Freeform series Cloak & Dagger — played by Olivia Holt and Aubrey Joseph, respectively — had to escape police brutality, bloodthirsty corporate rapaciousness, and their own never-ending teen angst to reach the finish line of their first season. Reach it they have, but not without dire costs for some of the supporting characters — especially officer Brigid O’Reilly (Emma Lahana), who was left for dead, gained superpowers, and now looks to be out for revenge. In other words, season two is shaping up to be as threatening as the first. We caught up with showrunner Joe Pokaski to talk about season two, working with Gina Prince-Bythewood, and crafting a perfect Stan Lee cameo without the actual Stan Lee.
Mayhem has arrived! Was it always the plan to turn Brigid into a supervillain?
Yeah, we were always very excited about that. The Cloak and Dagger lore is kind of scattershot, but one of the most interesting things is the idea of a friend and confidante that turns evil-ish. So the writers and I were very excited about having season one be a down-low origin story of a villain. When [Brigid actor] Emma Lahana came on board and we saw that she could do anything, it was more exciting to write to her skills, and to create this three-dimensional character that we could take everything away from and see what we ended up with.
Let’s jump in the time machine. How did you initially get involved with the show?
It was funny. I think it was five or six years ago. I had worked with Jeph Loeb on Heroes, and he had just become the president of Marvel Television — I’m not sure if that’s the right title, but the God of Marvel Television, I will call him. He was at a meeting at what was called ABC Family [now known as Freeform], and they had just picked up a script of mine that I had written. They were just like, “Have you ever heard of this writer named Joe Pokaski?” So Jeph called me and he was like, “Are you interested in any Marvel characters for television?” I said, “Tandy and Tyrone.” There’s something that felt so right about them for the television format. So I wrote the script. It sat in a drawer for five years, and then, in my head, it’s like an Indiana Jones scene where someone opened it up, blew dust off it, and turned the pages. Karey Burke, who had recently taken over Freeform, took a chance on it and said, “Why haven’t we made this?”
I take it you’re a big fan of the original Bill Mantlo and Ed Hannigan comics material?
I was a Spider-Man guy growing up, and I remember I was definitely single digits in age when I was opening up Spectacular Spider-Man and seeing these two. It was so interesting because nobody else looked like them. I was just obsessed with the fact that they were equal partners. You always see sidekicks and different kinds of relationships, but those two seemed like they needed each other. You couldn’t have one without the other. It felt like a relationship is such a beautiful thing to build a television show around, that you could go hundreds of episodes just exploring the dynamics of it.
What are some of the unique challenges and opportunities of building a Marvel show?
Let me start with the opportunities, so I don’t sound grumpy. They were really down with setting a look and feel for their shows. Jeph was fantastic and we both decided to move the show to New Orleans. So, they were far more flexible than I thought.
I think some of the challenge is how fractured the ownership is, still. I would love for Peter Parker to walk by, but Sony owns them. You’d like someone from the films to be there, but everything is a little bit segmented. Marvel, to their credit, has let us make some vague references to other television shows and there’s hopefully some crossover potential. But the issue is being like, “Can we use this character?” and for some reason 20 years ago in the negotiations of the Spider-Man, X-Men; that character belongs over there. So I think the segmentation is a problem. Hopefully, that will get better. I mean, the fact that Spider-Man was in the last Avengers movie still doesn’t feel real, but it seems like it’s a glimmer of hope that particularly Tandy and Tyrone can play with all the superheroes at some point.
Would that be the number-one crossover you want to see? Spider-Man?
Yeah. I mean, they came from Spider-Man. There’s definitely a sense of teen angst and great power and great responsibility that they all share. But the thing I love about Tandy and Tyrone is, in the comic-book world, they show up everywhere. Someone smarter than me once called them the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of the Marvel universe. They just drop in. They can show up in an X-Men book. They can show up in the big crossover event. They show up on the Runaways. They show up in the Ultimate universe. And you’re always happy to see them. That’s how I feel. I’d like to see them in the cinematic universe being the same way.
You mentioned New Orleans. Why set the show in New Orleans? And when did that come up as an idea?
It came up pretty early. When Jeph and I were first talking about it, he was thinking of The Defenders and that was something he was developing. I had said, “Doesn’t New York have enough superheroes? Is there any other place we can put it?” I think it started with us looking at places with tax breaks, because that’s something that is a reality. When I fell upon New Orleans, it felt so right for Tandy and Tyrone. It felt gothic, it felt a little bit dark, it felt like a place of light and shadow. The more we learned about the city and about its history and about voudon or the Mardi Gras Indians, it felt like it was the only place for Tandy and Tyrone to start.
How did you learn about New Orleans and those specific elements of the city’s culture? Books? Meeting people?
A little of both. We tried to really put together a writers room that not only had unique perspectives, but [where] some of that perspective was living in New Orleans. So, [show writer] Marcus Guillory was a fount of information, as to not only the music and the food, but the voudon and the Indians. Nicole Levy grew up with a lot of family down there, so she had been down there a lot. A thousand years ago, I dated a girl down there, so I had been to New Orleans three or four times. And then, as you start talking to consultants about voudon and understand its roots as a combination of Christianity and old Afro-Caribbean religions, everything you learn starts becoming fodder for story.
What was the racial makeup of the writers room?
I tried and kind of failed to be the only white male in the room, but that was my goal. We made sure we were at least half women and at least half African-American. I think that allowed us to speak truths and not guess. The important thing we had all talked about from the beginning was, we didn’t want to tell white male stories that were being acted out by women and acted by black men. We took it very seriously that this was the first young black lead in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, that this was the first young female lead in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And I think there’s a really good group of people who can talk freely and start to translate certain problems in ways that other people can understand.
How did Gina Prince-Bythewood get involved?
God, well, when we started talking about the look and feel of the show, I definitely wanted something that felt intimate and uncertain, like what growing up felt like to me. As we were talking about look and feel and putting together the wish list for directors, Gina was high up, if not at the top of the list. I’d seen Beyond the Lights recently, and I was like, “This is it. We should see if she could do it.” A lot of my friends were like, “She doesn’t direct anything that she doesn’t write. You’ll never be able to get her.” As the timing worked out, she had just come off of another project. She has two awesome kids, and they had asked her, “Why don’t we see more superheroes that look like us?” So she decided to read the script. She expected to hate it, as she told me, and was pleasantly surprised to not hate it.
The famous line that I’ll always love Gina for was, she’s like, “This is a story about two messed-up individuals finding each other. That’s my jam.” She came on board and a lot of our look and feel, a lot of our performances — even just making Aubrey and Olivia comfortable and act in a way that feels real and raw — came from Gina.
You mentioned crossover potential. There was a crypto-crossover with Luke Cage insofar as Brigid is said to have formerly worked with Misty Knight. How did that bit come up? Was it your idea or Marvel’s?
It came from someone at Marvel. I love [Luke Cage showrunner] Cheo [Hodari Coker], and I’m a big fan of [Misty Knight actor] Simone [Missick], so I’ve always been like, “What can we do? How can we get Misty Knight? She’s the coolest.” Somebody had come up with the facts, like, since the Brigid character was from New York, we should reference it. Perhaps she has been friends or ridden with Misty at some point. And all parties seemed cool with it. It was one of those little things where if you don’t know what they are talking about, it doesn’t really affect your experience.
Were there any Easter eggs that nobody caught?
Not many. I’m kind of amazed. There’s a few that I thought I was hiding well and, of course, people pick up on it. Our fans are ridiculously perceptive.
Brigid’s boyfriend, Fuchs, gets killed and stuffed in a refrigerator. That was a deliberate reference to the trope of Women in Refrigerators and fridging, right?
Oh, absolutely. That was something me and particularly the women in the writers room talked about early. I had heard about it four or five years earlier. A little late to the game, but it fascinated me as I started going back to everything that I thought was good storytelling and understanding sometimes it was taking a character — particularly a female one — and using her death to forward a man’s story. So, we thought it would be interesting to reverse that role with Brigid and Fuchs.
My favorite episode of the season is the time-loop one, “Lotus Eaters.” What were the origins of that?
We wanted to do a special departure — a lot of us are fans of those departure episodes that sit with you forever. On Buffy, it felt like there was that one every year, whether it was “The Wish,” or “Hush,” or “Tabula Rasa.” So we talked about, in episode seven, the idea of Tandy going somewhere where we can get our full Cloak & Dagger on without necessarily pushing the story too far. And we love the idea of them visiting the oil rig that gave them their powers. So Peter Calloway, who’s one of my fantastic writers, we started just riffing on an idea of Groundhog Day meets Deepwater Horizon, and the idea of a man trapped in his own brain.
We’d already set the lexicon of Tandy and Tyrone stepping into people’s minds, but the two things that made it a Cloak & Dagger story were when someone had the idea of Tandy hearing the phone and talking to her dad. For Tandy, it allowed her to expose how lonely she was and how much she missed her father. And then, for Tyrone, it was about embracing her and being positive to her and helping her out of the situation. Tandy answering the call was the big thing that made it different, and then, really, the phone call at the end. [Tyrone and Tandy] had been hanging out together. They had been using each other to some degree, but this is where they become friends. This is where they become the teenagers that talk late on the phone. That felt like it was why we were telling the episode. So, it was great [instance of] writers taking a good story, making it better, and then finding these moments to make it unique.
I have to confess that I’ve never been a huge fan of Cloak & Dagger in the context of comics, but you clearly have a passion for them. What sets them apart as an archetype?
When you look at the shows I grew up on, the coming-of-age teenage shows, they’re like Buffy or Smallville, even Roswell to some degree. They were based on the simple statement of, “Nobody understands me.” Cloak & Dagger, as I saw it, particularly as we brought it to TV, became about the next question there, which is, “What if there were one person who understood me?” Tandy and Tyrone, they feel like they’re the only people who understand each other’s situations, whether it’s in the comics or on the screen.
That’s so interesting. You have loners and teams of outsiders in superhero fiction, but rarely do you have an equal duo who only have each other.
That’s exactly it. You can kind of squint and maybe say [DC Comics characters] Hawk and Dove, but it’s really hard to find other people like that.
The church that Ty and Tandy hang out in — was that a real church or a soundstage?
It started off as a real church. We shot at this church that was being redone when we shot the pilot. It was fantastic, it was beautiful, the owners were great. By the time we got up to series, the church had been starting to convert to a music venue. Our production designer Meghan Rogers had the dimensions and had pictures, and she pretty much rebuilt inside a soundstage.
That’s remarkable. It looks so church-y in the soundstage version.
Right? They did a great job and it’s great because it allows you to control the light a little better — and obviously, the sound. It’s such a beautiful space. I’ve basically grown up in television, where you quickly get sick of sets, but this church is still doing it for us.
When it was announced that Cloak & Dagger got a series order way back in spring of 2016, I wrote a column about how it was an opportunity to try something new because there’s so little that’s canonical about them in the minds of the average superhero fan. I was wondering if —
Wait, you wrote that article?
I did. You remember that?
I remember sending it to Karey Burke and I said, “See?” [Laughs.] I remember sending it to my bosses. It was all very encouraging because it was very prescient. It was what we were saying, and we sounded like we were blowing smoke. And then this article came out, and I was like, “Here, see? This is exactly our intent.” It was very encouraging, so, thank you.
Oh, well, you are quite welcome. It turned out you all really did depart from the source material in key ways. What was your philosophy as to honoring the comics but also wanting to throw a lot of it out the window?
I was pleasantly surprised how Marvel was always cool with it and always encouraging. It’s that whole Marshall McLuhan idea: “The medium is the message.” Jeph Loeb understands that really well. Part of the reason I was attracted to Tandy and Tyrone is that they didn’t necessarily have a set mythology that people would get angry [about] if you diverted from. I was able to start with, This is a story about finding your best friend. This is a story about finding the one person who understands you. And then, we were able to make adjustments accordingly to make sure we were telling the right story for now. The ’80s books are a little dated, but there is a nobility to the fact that they wrote them to show there were homeless children and people doing drugs and things like that. There are some different things that we’re trying to shine a light on with our show, but we’re in the same spirit hopefully.
Along those lines, have you been in touch with Bill Mantlo, the comics writer who first came up with the idea for the characters?
I donated some money a while ago. I know Bill Mantlo, he had a bit of an accident, so he needs some help. I had heard somewhere that he was very excited about how Olivia was handling Tandy. We were just talking about reaching out between seasons one and two to make sure we pay our dues to the man who started it.
You probaly can’t tell me details, but for season two, what are some of the outlines of what you want to do?
You know what I think? If season one was about thrusting Tandy and Tyrone into the role of heroes, season two is about them making the choice to become heroes themselves. Not only understanding how you could be a vigilante, but what kind of vigilantes they want to be.
Whose idea was the Stan Lee “cameo” in the form of the fake Warhol portrait?
[Laughs.] That was one of our writers. We came up with a bunch of cameo ideas. I forget which one of us came up with that, but we were talking and we had been given the opportunity when we were late in the season. We were like, “Where can we do it?” You’ve seen it with Marilyn Monroe, and it felt like Stan Lee and Andy Warhol would’ve crossed paths in an alternate universe. We loved the idea that at one point he’s like, “Stan, let me paint you!”
What were some of the rejected cameo ideas?
You’ve seen the finale now, right?
Yes, I did.
So, we shot that confrontation in the Mardi Gras warehouse and we played with the idea of a gigantic Mardi Gras Stan Lee head. I think that was the runner-up.
That would’ve been good.
Right, but you could do it wrong if you get the papier-mâché guy and it doesn’t look like him. We would’ve done fine with that, but we quickly mocked up the Stan Lee painting and everyone was like, “That’s the winner, right there.” I hope to see T-shirts at Comic-Con soon.