SPOILER ALERT: This article contains spoilers for the season finale of “Percy Jackson and the Olympians.”
The first season of the long-awaited “Percy Jackson and the Olympians” series on Disney+ has come to a close, and it ended the same way Rick Riordan’s first book did: Percy (Walker Scobell), Annabeth (Leah Sava Jeffries) and Grover (Aryan Simhadri) part ways before the school year, knowing that they’ll reunite in the not-so-distant future with a bit more world-saving to do. But the journey to get there was often unpredictable, even for fans of the novel.
Most notably, Percy fails his quest. He and his friends miss the summer solstice deadline to find and return Zeus’ (the late Lance Reddick) stolen master lightning bolt, kicking off a war between Zeus and Poseidon (Toby Stephens) — and marking the series’ biggest departure from the book. Still, the kids plunge into the Underworld to confront Hades (Jay Duplass), then reemerge after realizing Ares (Adam Copeland), the god of war, has conspired with the titan lord Kronos (Nick Boraine) to end the rule of the Olympians. Percy defeats Ares in an epic battle, winning both Hades’ stolen helm and Zeus’ stolen bolt, giving the helm to Hades’ henchwoman, Alecto (Megan Mullaly), so that Hades will release Percy’s mother, Sally (Virginia Kull), from the Underworld. Then, despite Annabeth’s warnings that Zeus will kill him, Percy sets off to Olympus to return the master bolt and, more importantly, stop the war between the gods and warn Zeus about Kronos’ plan.
On the decision to send Percy to Olympus past his deadline, series co-creator and co-showrunner Jon Steinberg says: “I thought there was something interesting about removing all of Percy’s obligation to do the right thing and seeing him confront that. Even absent this sacred responsibility to move forward, there’s a different kind of responsibility.”
Zeus does almost end up killing Percy for showing up after failing the quest and daring to suggest that anyone could threaten his leadership, but Poseidon steps in to save his son — and to meet him for the first time. Poseidon surrenders to Zeus, ending the war, then praises Percy’s bravery and shares a short moment alone with him before sending him back to Camp Half Blood. Amid the celebration waiting for him, Percy realizes that Luke (Charlie Bushnell), the son of Hermes (Lin-Manual Miranda) who was Percy’s first new friend at camp, was the thief of Hades’ helm and Zeus’ bolt. Luke invites Percy to join him and Kronos to overthrow the gods, and though Percy shares Luke’s frustration about the gods’ neglect of their children, he turns him down. After a brief battle, Luke uses the mythical sword Backbiter to disappear, but Percy knows they’ll meet again.
Though Disney has yet to greenlight a second season of “Percy Jackson,” the studio has at least opened a writers’ room, which Steinberg and co-showrunner Dan Shotz say is making great progress. “There is an awareness on everyone’s part that the demand for the show seems to suggest we should probably not stop making it,” Steinberg says with a laugh.
Steinberg and Shotz spoke with Variety about working with Reddick just weeks before he died, how they approach the pacing of Percy and Annabeth’s relationship, and whether all of Oracle of Delphi’s prophecy has come true.
Since Percy shows up at Olympus of his own accord instead of out of obligation to his quest, he also shows less deference to Zeus than he does in the book, calling Zeus out for poor leadership. Why write it as an argument?
Jon Steinberg: It’s the closing argument for the story. He’s now met all of these different people within this family and understands what their family culture is. And not only that, but he sees something in that family that they don’t even see for themselves — a brokenness that you would have to have your humanity intact in order to see. It felt right that the end of the story is him having the courage to say it. And it isn’t courage if it doesn’t come with risk: the danger of your audience being somebody who could evaporate you. It’s Percy saying, “I was paying attention on this journey. I think you could all be better, and I’m gonna say it right to your face, consequences be damned.”
Dan Shotz: And Poseidon hearing it and finally showing up in that moment shows how we’ve always thought about this: This is the most messed up family story there is. They have respect for each other, but they also are so threatening to each other. For him to see that hero moment from Percy was needed. I don’t think the conversation between Percy and Poseidon would have worked without first having the moment where Percy stands up to the most powerful being.
It was heartbreaking to see Lance Reddick play Zeus so powerfully knowing that he passed away so soon after shooting those scenes. How has it felt for you to watch his performance now?
Steinberg: We wanted Zeus to be someone who needs to be constantly convincing himself that everything is fine and under control. That felt like it came with a little bit of theater, a little bit of projection of his own authority, but also a sense of real presence. When you take all of those ideas and start looking for a person who embodies them, they just start to look like Lance. He is so — was so regal, and able to convey so many different things at the same time. To stand on stage and do a very theatrical monologue, but feel so grounded. The population of actors who can do those things, and then also just be the sweetest person and great with the kids he’s acting with — heartbreaking is the right word. It was a perfect fit in a very hard-to-fit role, and he went way too soon.
Shotz: As we were prepping, he just kept saying, “This book, it’s Shakespearean!” He kept using the word “Shakespearean,” and feeling that pressure of, “I’m in this high-end play — I need to deliver gravitas.” He put a lot of pressure on himself even in the short time we had with him. He understood what he was a part of, and the importance of it. It says everything about him as an actor. He just brought it.
And he was very kind to Walker in those scenes. And to Toby. They really connected. We like to think that when you join one of our shows, you very quickly become family. Even though he was only there for two or three days, he immediately was swept up in it.
It was pretty crushing. I really connected with him personally. We continued to talk for — I think it was only four to six weeks after we wrapped [that he died]. We were talking regularly. I’m just super grateful that I got that time with him. We have to look at it and say, “Oh my God, he got to be Zeus as one of his last roles.” It’s so perfect. I’ve spoken to his wife, and she’s so happy about this role, and him being a part of this. She reached out directly with a beautiful note about how excited she is to see him in this role. So I’m hurting, we’re all hurting. But at the same time, I cannot wait for people to see his performance.
Assuming Season 2 is greenlit, what are your instincts about the Zeus character moving forward? Is it just a matter of recasting, or do you think Reddick’s absence and the presence of a new actor may affect the plot at all?
Steinberg: Unfortunately, this is not the first time we’ve had to deal with something like this. The way we tried to approach it in the past is that you are both trying to honor his performance and the character that he helped define and create, and also to make space for someone new to do the same thing, and to have some room for their voice to come through as well. It’s difficult to have two different human beings inhabit the same character. But life happens, and sometimes that’s where you are.
Fortunately, we have a little bit of time. Even once the process gets started, we don’t see Zeus again for a little bit, so we’ll have a minute to try to find the right fit. It’s not ideal, but certainly, I think his mark on that role will be felt with whoever steps into his shoes. It’s a tall order for anybody to try to live up to the performance of somebody else and, like Dan said, step into a family and not be so haunted by the shadow of this person you’re replacing. It’s a weird vibe. I don’t think anybody’s looking forward to that, to be honest, but we’ll do the best we can to make sure that you feel him in whatever that character is moving forward.
Shotz: What’s nice about what’s gonna happen this week is that Lance Reddick will be immortalized as Zeus. Whatever takes place down the road, we can deal with.
After Episode 7’s flashback conversation between Poseidon and Sally, Poseidon meets his son for the first time in the finale. What is on his mind as he neglects to answer Percy’s question about whether he dreams about Sally?
Steinberg: Poseidon is clearly not a warm man. There’s a real distance between him and the people around him, who want to be closer. But there’s something that Percy glimpses between his mom and his dad that makes him feel what that family unit could have been like. And I like that we saw it. We saw what Sally and Poseidon are to each other just for a moment. Percy doesn’t get to see that, and it’s not fair. But there’s a moment where he can tell that the answer to, “Do you dream about Mom?” isn’t, “Of course not.”
That sense of mystery and hint of warmth from his dad felt like the emotionally correct way to land this story. “I don’t have this family intact, but it isn’t all coldness and remoteness and distance. There’s something else happening here.”
Do you think there will be more of those moments between Sally and Poseidon moving forward?
Steinberg: Yes. It’s an interesting position to be in as an audience — as a reader who has experienced a slightly different version of the first chapter, then looking ahead to the next four chapters and wondering how this filter will affect them. But this ill-fated and tragic situation between Sally and Poseidon feels near the heart of the show, and certainly, that’s not the last time you’ll experience it.
Percy is haunted throughout the season by the last two lines of the prophecy given to him by the Oracle of Delphi. First, “You shall be betrayed by one who calls you a friend,” which turns out to be Luke. How much do you think Percy considers his offer to defect from the gods?
Steinberg: You get the sense that Luke isn’t saying anything that we haven’t heard Percy say some version of, all the way back to the early parts of the season. He’s just spent more time stewing about it, and his damage is a little more severe, so it’s driven him to a more extreme conclusion. But the idea that the gods don’t care or aren’t paying enough attention or maybe have put us in a position where we need to fight back is so clear all throughout Percy’s journey. We wanted to feel that that Percy isn’t really thinking about doing it, but he hears him. The appeal is made to at least vaguely sympathetic ears.
Shotz: It was a challenge all throughout the season, because Luke isn’t in it very much, so we found ways to bring to bring Luke in. The call in Episode 6 and the flashbacks in the finale were pretty crucial to make sure that when the moment did happen, you bought it. Even after the fight, Chiron still says to Percy, “There was something convincing about what he said, right?” It’s not going to go away. Percy thinks about it differently — he’s got the humanity of his mother in him — but still, a lot of what Luke is saying sits there going forward. And we have to give credit to Charlie. You feel the heartbreak he’s struggling with. People can connect to a kid like that, who is struggling with people telling him how to be and all the trauma that he’s dealt with, and how people took advantage of that. That has a lot to do with what Charlie inherently brings to it.
Then there’s the next piece of the prophecy: “You will to save what matters most in the end.” Rick once wrote that in the book, Percy fails to save his mother but instead allows her to save herself, using Medusa’s (Jessica Parker Kennedy) severed head to petrify Gabe (Timm Sharp), her awful husband. But in the finale mid-credits scene, Gabe ends up petrifying himself when he opens up the box containing the head. So where does that leave the prophecy?
Steinberg: We were having a bit of fun with it. Like, if Gabe answers Sally’s phone, he also opens her mail — that was baked in from the pilot script. And I like the idea that this prophecy is still ongoing. There’s this piece of it that still needs to be resolved. I like feeling that there aren’t clean interpretations of everything. There’s still question marks that make you feel like the story isn’t isn’t finished.
So Percy may still fail to save something that matters?
Steinberg: I think so. The story hasn’t ended.
Lastly, I want to ask about the brewing romance between Percy and Annabeth. I don’t think they even hug each other until the second book, but that happens two times in the series —
Shotz: Three! Three hugs!
Excuse me — three hugs, and a bit more flirting. Do you think you’ll continue speed things up for them, or do you plan to follow the original story, when they don’t start dating until the fifth and final book?
Steinberg: With the first season, the idea is that these two kids are finding a friend for the first time. Because they’re 12. There’s a sense that they’re still really kids. It’s always a little bit weird to think about the romance between these two characters when you think about the children playing them. So will the pace slow down a bit when we get into the next book or two? Probably. But starting in a place of genuine connection and warmth between them felt right.
Shotz: We just wanted to be honest about it. At that age, you hug someone because they’re alive and they’re safe and there’s a connection. You put a necklace around someone because it’s a beautiful gesture of how you feel about them. I think we’ll keep true to the books. I don’t think we need to overly advance it much more than that.
This interview has been edited and condensed.