[This story contains major spoilers from season five, parts one and two, of Virgin River.]
Virgin River showrunner Patrick Sean Smith wanted the newly released holiday episodes of the Netflix series to feel lighter, given the weight of season five.
Following the part one release of 10 intense and emotional episodes (on Sept. 7) — which saw a wildfire hit Virgin River, an illegal drug business showdown, a sexual assault court trial and a difficult miscarriage — Smith knew he wanted the two holiday episodes that are now streaming to have a “feeling of family and warmth.”
Still, the beloved small town couldn’t escape at least some drama this holiday season, including Mel (Alexandra Breckenridge) tracking down her biological father, who also lives in Virgin River. And of course, there’s no Virgin River seasonal event — this time, the Christmas tree decorating contest — without some challenges.
But as Smith looks ahead to the already renewed next season, he admits that his “intention was never to have subsequent seasons match the intensity of season five.” Below, Smith also talks The Hollywood Reporter about the importance of displaying real struggles — including Mel’s miscarriage and Jack’s PTSD — accurately; balancing romance and crime; his favorite couple and what fans can expect from season six.
Audiences finally got to see Christmas in Virgin River. What was it like bringing that to life?
It was so much fun. You know, it’s such a natural extension of the show already, with it being cozy and a feeling of family and warmth. It was just fun to first imagine what it would look like visually, and not going so big that it feels over the top, but still be aspirational enough that you see a place and you’re just like, “I would like to sit on that couch next to that fire with that cup of cocoa, or that cup of mulled wine, and just be around all this drama.”
A major storyline of the holiday episodes (the final two episodes of season five) was Mel finding her birth father. What was the thought process behind doing a merry scavenger hunt around Virgin River to find him?
When we were exploring the storyline, it felt like a bit of a soap trope. And I think that’s something the show does incredibly well, which has been to embrace the soapiness to keep the show interesting and twisty and high stakes, but then have the characters feel grounded and emotional in what they’re going through. So I knew that I totally wanted the holiday episodes to feel particularly lighter, given the weight of the events of season five. Erin Cardillo and Richard Keith, my number twos, wrote both episodes and it was just a fun wish fulfillment kind of way of living in a small town and going on the scavenger hunt of digging into some of the history of Virgin River, and understanding it a little bit better while learning more about this mystery man.
Of all places, why did you decide to have Mel’s father, Everett Reid (played by John Allen Nelson), also reside in Virgin River?
It felt like a great reveal to know that he was still a part of this world that she, despite it being the fifth season, is still relatively new to. She’s more acclimated than being the fish out of water who she was in the beginning. But I think it also speaks to the region. You’ll notice in Virgin River, we don’t have a main street, we don’t have a Stars Hollow square; there are people who can live off the grid. We’ve seen it through the pot camps and just how disparate everything can be. So it felt reasonable that he could still be in town, and that it was just a nice reveal at the end of the first episode to know that he was actually right in our backyard.
Mel’s miscarriage was another big storyline in season five part one. Knowing what she has been through, why did you decide to go that route rather than her having a successful pregnancy?
I talked with the network before I came on to the show about the storyline. First, it felt like I was trying to find a way to kind of deepen Mel and Jack’s (Martin Henderson) relationship, and to have them go through something pretty profound together. The first couple of seasons had been about the romance and then both with their respective traumas. This felt like a pretty organic way, given her medical history and given how quickly and easily she became pregnant with Jack’s baby in season four, that we could ground it a little bit, bring it down to reality and have them go through something challenging together as a couple in a way that we had seen previously with Mark, that their relationship didn’t survive. He literally did not survive them going through that. And to see that Jack is a different man. That Jack can stand by her and that they could work through it together. So that’s what I loved about the penultimate episode of part one, which is seeing them hiking through the forest, which is starting its own rebirth and the way that Mel is doing it, as Jack is helping facilitate Mel getting to that place as well.
What conversations did you have with Breckenridge regarding her character’s fertility journey and miscarriage?
She’s an incredible partner and she was wonderfully collaborative. Also, I think we did a lot of research to make sure it felt as authentic as possible. But I think she drew from some personal experiences herself, but also knew women who’d gone through miscarriages. So it was all just looking at that and then also talking to Martin (Henderson). A lot of season five was working with both of them as we were finding the depth of these storylines that felt true to their characters. And I was proud of the result.
Viewers also saw Jack finally getting help for his past trauma that he has been struggling with since season one. How important was it for you to display those real struggles accurately?
Incredibly important, because it’s not a storyline that’s done much on television these days. Looking at veterans struggling with PTSD is something that they do their entire life. And the idea of kind of just resolving it in an episode feels disingenuous to the experience. So authenticity for that experience, anything medically, we all take very seriously. I especially always kind of hold the bar; I want doctors to watch our show and not be embarrassed. So we work extra hard to really make sure that it feels real and that it feels unique and specific to this character’s experience.
It hasn’t even been one year since Mel arrived in Virgin River, and so much has happened. What goes into making sure the storylines and seasons flow well?
Yeah, it’s challenging. You want it to be exciting, but you also don’t want it to be insane. So it’s definitely a balance, and that’s a lot with Virgin River. It’s a balance of romance, drama procedural; how soapy you want it to be, how emotionally grounded you want it to be. It is a bit of a mixture and a recipe where you start to just use your instinct to be like, “Can we have an earthquake now? No, I think we just had a wildfire. I think we’re going to take a break on natural disasters for a little while.” So it becomes like a judgment call at the end of the day.
How much were you trying to follow Robyn Carr’s book series this season?
I think we try to stay aware of it, but when I first was introduced to Miss Carr and we spoke on the phone, she was incredibly respectful and deferential and said, “You write TV, I write books, you do what you want.” And didn’t really presume that we would be faithful with storyline by storyline adaptation. But there’s so much in the 20-plus book series that we’re always looking to see if there’s something that we can bring into the storyline that feels organic and that feels true to what we’ve been doing as well.
Was there an episode or scene that was the most difficult to shoot?
There were a tremendous amount of challenges this season on the crew, and to see their enthusiasm to kind of take the show to the next level encouraged me to want to continue to take the show to the next level. I’ll never forget, we were looking at two episodes of wildfires after most of the effects; like the practical effects that have been done on set were what they called “breeze on trees,” so it would be the gentleman who would stand outside the sets on stage and put an E fan on the trees so they moved a little. I met him when we were scouting and he had heard about the wildfire, and he came up to me and he was like, “So I hear there’s going to be fires,” and I was like, “You’re an effects guy, aren’t you?” He’s like, “I’m very excited!” So I can’t saw anything in particular felt insurmountable, but there were a lot of challenges, and I was really proud of the cast and the crew to step up and knock it out of the park.
Fans got to see a little more of Charmaine (Lauren Hammersley) and Calvin (David Cubitt) interacting in the holiday episodes, but I think that was still a shock. Will there be more details surrounding their relationship in season six?
For sure, for sure. A lot of it is based off the promise that Mel gives to Charmaine, that she’s going to help her and stand by her side. We’ve seen how she’s been a character who has made some very questionable choices in her life. In season five, my intention was to kind of get her out of crazy town and have her stand on her own two feet, and I think that endeared her a little bit more to the audience. But then to see that Calvin is a threat to that, and see that Mel and Jack — being the good people that they are — would want to support her to live her best life. It’s something that we’ll explore in season six.
Since the series has Hallmark-esque vibes as well as some crime-drama mixed in, how do you navigate blending those genres?
It’s a challenge. You know, it’s a huge blend. Like I was saying, it’s a romance series, it’s a family drama, it’s a character drama, it’s a medical procedural, it became like a drug procedural. But I will say, I think probably moving forward, the drug story engines will kind of fall to the wayside a little bit, which always did feel more extreme. I appreciate it, especially in the first season, just knowing, especially the area of Humboldt County and how it felt authentic and real to that. But it did feel like it was starting to overtake the show a little bit, and when you’re dealing with bigger physical stakes like that, it’s hard to have like a gun to Brady’s head but instead go out on, “Is this couple gonna fight or not?” It does take a lot of balance and calibrating which stories feel like the stories that the fans want to see. It’s a trick and it’s a blend, but I think probably moving forward, once we’ve done Fentanyl, where do you go from Fentanyl? We wanted a big blow out at the end of part one, and we can kind of move past that now.
Unfortunately, Jack never seems to be able to finish his side projects, including the glamping business. Is there hope for the glamping site and could we possibly see it up and running next season?
I mean, I don’t know if he ever aspired to be a glamping mogul. It seemed to come out of necessity when he was anticipating having to financially support the twins and Mel. And so, I think now that those aren’t such pressing demands on him, I do think there’s opportunity with the land they bought with the farm that I think will find other dream projects for Jack. But I think the glamping might have gone with Melissa Montgomery (Barbara Pollard) in season five (laughs).
Viewers saw Brady (Benjamin Hollingsworth) in a better place at the beginning of the holiday episodes. But at the end, we realize the relationship is not what we think it is. Is there a light at the end of the tunnel for Brady?
That’s what I was excited about with season five — getting to tell Brady’s redemption story after so many seasons of just making a lot of bad choices. And I think Ben has played him and continues to play him so well. Especially in season five, to see that he’s a guy who’s trying to finally make the right choices and then to have the universe say, “not so fast Shady Brady, I’m about to throw a curveball into your life and to see how he’s gonna react to that.” That’s what’s exciting about this character; that he is flawed and he is struggling, and I think I wanted to make him somebody that you could eventually root for because he’s doing the right things, but then really throw some complications his way. And that will present in his relationship with Lark and this kind of archnemesis in Jimmy who has been around for seasons.
Another big season five cliffhanger was the police identifying Wes’ (Steve Bacic) body. What is Preacher (Colin Lawrence) in for next season?
I can’t say specifically what happens in season six, but with that cliffhanger at the end of season five, it definitely is a bombshell for Preacher, and also for Preacher and Kaia (Kandyse McClure) and their relationship, which we definitely hit the ground running with in season six.
Out of all the couples this season, new and old, who was your favorite storyline?
I think Mel and Jack. I know that the fans were split on it, but they’re such a unique couple. They’re such an epic couple in what they’ve gone through and what they’ll continue to go through, and it’s just always inspiring to not only write that but to go along on that journey with them long term. So I’m definitely all Mel and Jack.
Following an intense and dramatic season five, what can fans expect in season six?
I think my intention was never to have subsequent seasons match the intensity of season five. I would say that going into season six, my intention is to have it feel lighter, but that doesn’t mean it’s not going to be complicated with the signature Virgin River twists and turns. And I think leaning more into the romance of the series is something that we’re excited to do as well, and just keep giving the fans what they want.
Virgin River‘s fifth season and holiday episodes are now streaming on Netflix.