[This story contains spoilers from the season 11 premiere of Chicago P.D., “Unpacking.”]
It’s six months later in the season 11 premiere of Chicago P.D. — the episode titled “Unpacked” — and viewers of Dick Wolf’s hit NBC police procedural are instantly thrown into a continuing traumatic storyline from last season’s cliffhanger.
As Sgt. Hank Voight (Jason Beghe) pulls into the precinct station that houses his Intelligence Unit in the Chicago Police Department’s fictional 21st District, he sees the parking lot full due to a “Pilot Day: New Possibilities in Policing” program, which includes his unit shadowing crisis intervention teams. Voight is under pressure to fill a vacant slot on his team after his detective, Adam Ruzek (Patrick Flueger), barely survived a severe gunshot wound in last season’s finale. The premiere sees Ruzek now trying to rehabilitate himself to get back with his group.
Then there’s Officer Hailey Upton (Tracy Spiridakos), who is hesitating signing her divorce papers from a former Intelligent Unit member (Jay Halstead, played by Jesse Lee Soffer, who has departed the series), and trying to fight off the demons from being brutally beaten last season and covering up some unethical methods she witnessed Voight commit in his crimefighting activities (which may have been one of the triggers to end her marriage).
Simply put, Upton seems mentally drained. And when she’s called into a blood-soaked case with the crisis prevention team, Upton also reveals that she’s quite angry. And maybe that rage is blocking her normal investigative instincts, which impacts the lives of some innocent people (even resulting in bystanders’ deaths).
How does all of this set up the new episodes, particularly with Spiridakos exiting the series after this season? The Hollywood Reporter spoke with Chicago P.D. showrunner Gwen Sigan about her vision for the long-running police drama since taking over the helm more than two years ago, and unpacks for viewers what’s in store.
What has changed for you in the little over two years as showrunner, compared to being a writer and executive producer?
It’s so different! It’s widely different! There’s so much more that goes into it. I mean the management, the day-to-day. I think the wonderful thing as a writer is that you get a lot more control, which is amazing, and you can really dive into the things that you think are the most interesting and steer people that way. So, that part is amazing! But it’s still a challenge. It still feels very new. I still feel like I’m a baby doing it.
Do you feel like you’ve changed the arc in the storytelling any since taking over?
I don’t really think I have. I think that the show was wonderful. Ricky (previous showrunner Rick Eid) did a lot with it. Matt Olmstead created it. I think all of the bones were there, and then I think Rick found this way to dial in each week to a character, and find this really clean muscle to each story. I’ve tried to, as best I can, continue with everything that was working. I know my voice is slightly different, so I’m sure in ways it’s altered and it’s changed. But we try to really focus on making it as character heavy as we possibly can.
So, let’s talk about the premiere episode season 11, titled “Unpacking.” Is this just coincidence, coming off of the long writers and actors strikes? Or, is this episode making a statement that the team is finally back home?
We knew when we started back in the writing room that since we have been off the air for so long, and since it had felt to us like we were gone for so long, that we could embrace this idea that it was six months later and do a time jump, which storytelling-wise offers you so many opportunities to put your characters in a new place. And a lot of that title comes from this idea that there have been events that have happened off-screen, and our characters find themselves in this place where it feels like things are new and that you know change is coming. But yet, change is really hard and no one really wants it to happen in this universe. And, like there is a lot of emotion that’s happening.
And in a nice way, we tried to arc it so that it’s really not until the end that you get this feeling that we’re unpacking something — not everything, but we’re unpacking a little bit emotionally of where our characters have been.
In the first episode, why did you decide to tackle the issues of mental health and regaining stability after one’s core has been ripped away? Viewers see this through the storylines of Officer Hailey Upton’s (Tracy Spiridakos) impending divorce and Officer Adam Ruzek (Patrick Flueger) trying to recover from a traumatic gunshot wound from last season’s cliffhanger.
We knew there was so much mentally that was going on. You can’t really go through something like being shot on the job, and being off the job for as long as he’s been off, and not have it affect you mentally. And the same thing with Upton. So much of her mental journey that is so interesting is that she’s someone who I think denies a lot of her emotion and doesn’t want to feel certain things. And I think it’s a defense mechanism. I think it’s how she was raised, what got her by for a long time, but it’s also something that’s not sustainable. So, when you’re rocked again, as she has been with this relationship with Jay and with the divorce, you realize that it’s almost like it cracks the dam and all the other stuff starts coming out. So, we knew that was going to be a part of her journey of her growth this year and getting to a better place this year.
And as soon as we knew that, it felt like the Mental Health Unit that we explore in this episode was the perfect pairing. And it’s really interesting because it’s real and these crisis intervention teams are all over the U.S. being tested out. And they’re really interesting in what they could be for police and what might be able to come out of them. We wanted to try and get it on the show and try to explore it, because it’s a whole new dilemma for our characters as officers and something that they’re kind of fish out of water in.
When you spoke to actual Chicago P.D. officers who are advisors for the show, what were their thoughts about the crisis intervention teams?
It’s very mixed! A lot of times cops are expected to be social workers in a lot of ways, and so they look at it as a great resource to have. But also, it’s so new that anything new is kind of shaky and, how do you know who is in charge and who’s the lead? We try to address that a little bit on the show. As people, we want it to be very clean and clear that there are answers. And then the reality is that a lot of times these things are pretty messy to figure out. Do they work? Do they not work? How well do they work? I’ve heard a lot of mixed reactions across the board.
Was this episode bloodier than some of the other Chicago P.D. episodes we’ve seen in prior seasons? if so, is this symbolic to any theme for the rest of the season?
The violence in this one is very visceral, very much that sort of violence where it’s going to knock you back when you walk in that room. It’s going to be one of those cases that Upton wouldn’t forget. You talk to cops and always there are certain ones that [stick with you]. Her going in there and seeing blood on the ceiling and blood everywhere; we wanted that to be something that would hit her in the face, which can also help us earn a lot of the investment as to why she emotionally like this woman on fire to get the person that did it.
And because of that, and because of the anger that was already boiling in her personally, I think going into a scene like that and seeing that violence causes this instinctual anger that someone could be capable of this. And it helped earn why she missed certain things in this episode that usually she wouldn’t have missed.
At the end of the episode, Upton does tell her superior officer, Sgt. Hank Voight (Jason Beghe), that she is very angry, and she realizes she can’t be an effective cop with that rage inside of her. How much of it is personal and how much of it is the job?
From a writer’s perspective, a lot of that is anger turned inward. It’s anger at yourself, which a lot of times we see sort of come out as depression. And I think that is what is going on with her. But the interesting thing is that she doesn’t know that. She’s confused by it and trying to piece it out, but doesn’t understand it. So that’s part of her journey this year: finding the ability and the toolkit and sort of understanding what’s going on with her, and why, and how do you get through it.
What are some more tidbits of what we can expect to see this season? Will we there be new regular cast members? (Tracy Spiridakos is leaving the show after this season.) What are some of the upcoming storylines?
We have a lot of new fun people coming in as guest stars. Case-wise, we have a really dark, big bad that Voight is going to face off with — it becomes almost this white whale for him; this obsession, this thing that he can’t get to and we’ll find how that affects him. So that’s going to be a fun one.
We’ve got a really fun Torres (Benjamin Levy Aguilar) undercover world that he’s going into with some great guest stars that again will shake him up. He’s going into this undercover narcotics world that is very unpredictable, very wild, very high stakes for him.
And then, we also have a lot of new cops who are going to come and help us out with those cases. We have a new cop coming into episode three who we’ll get to meet. He’s coming from a neighboring district and Burgess (Marina Squerciati) is playing alongside him.
And then we have have a cop who is coming in to help us with our Voight long-form case, and she’s really exciting. And she’s going to be playing up against Upton and bringing out a lot of what we’ve been talking about. Like, how do you deal with some things when mentally your life doesn’t look how you thought it was ,and you need something new to sort of invigorate you again? This new female cop is going to help Upton see that.
Will we see some crossover episodes with Chicago Fire or Chicago Med this season?
We don’t have any on the docket right now, but never say never. I’m sure something could get cooking!
What qualities have made Chicago P.D. so enduring to its core massive audience over 11 seasons? Why has the show sustained such longevity?
It’s the character! I think it’s the cast and it’s the characters. I think that is why people watch. I think people watch for what these actors have managed to do with these characters and that there are still stories and relationships to explore. And I hope they also watch because we tell a compelling police show with police dramas, fun cases and action. But I think it’s a character, at the end of the day.
Chicago P.D. releases new episodes for season 11 weekly, Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on NBC.