‘Girls on the Bus’: Melissa Benoist and EP Rina Mimoun on Crafting the Abortion Storyline — and the One Element That Divided the Writers’ Room (EXCLUSIVE)

SPOILER ALERT: This post contains spoilers for “Life Is a Highway,” the eighth episode of “The Girls on the Bus” Season 1, now streaming on Max.

When Rina Mimoun first produced an episode of television about abortion, she had no idea she’d be doing the same thing more than two decades later. “The Girls on the Bus” showrunner, who worked with Greg Berlanti on the “very special episode” of “Everwood” about women’s rights in 2001, did just that with the eighth episode of the Max series, which debuted on Thursday.

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The episode picked up right where they last left off: Sadie (Melissa Benoist) ordered abortion pills to be delivered to her California hotel while on the campaign trail; when they didn’t arrive in time, she was stuck, as the next state on the trip was Missouri — where abortion is illegal. After telling the other women about her dilemma in the beginning of Thursday’s episode, she also shared that the doctor could send the pills to a P.O. box in Illinois, four hours away. Kimberlyn (Christina Elmore), the conservative reporter in the group, was the only one with a valid drivers license and offered to drive her, much to the group’s surprise.

“I might not agree with the choice but it doesn’t mean that I can’t be there for my friend,” she told her.

In an exclusive interview, Mimoun and Benoist open up about the pivotal storyline, how it was different from telling the story in 2001 and the importance of normalizing the situation.

Rina, at what part in your process did this storyline become part of Sadie’s arc?

Rina Mimoun: I think whenever you have a show that features four women, the subject of your healthcare, your reproductive rights, is going to come up. It’s almost impossible that it wouldn’t, quite frankly. [Creator] Amy [Chozick] was very kind about it because it wasn’t necessarily on her radar. There are so many things that we’re balancing in this show, but I did raise my hand early and say, I really think, given the state of the world right now, if someone got pregnant while they were on that bus and did not want to have it, how would that work? What would happen? A lot of what I was learning about through Amy is they have no autonomy over their lives. To get out of the path is a really big struggle. If it’s a struggle just to get to a CVS to get a pregnancy test in the first place, how much of a struggle would it be now, considering how difficult it is to get an abortion if you want one? How impossible would that be as you’re traveling across the country? We talked about it with every single one of the characters. Which character makes the most sense? We ultimately landed on Sadie, but I don’t even know that Sadie was our first choice.

Melissa Benoist: I thought it made a lot of sense for Sadie. As Rina was saying, the situation and the circumstances these women are in lend themselves so well to the storytelling that makes this particular way that we’re doing so powerful and realistic and in a post-Dobbs world, that much more pivotal and frightening. But I just was so struck by how real this felt. We get to see Sadie in real time deal with our current situation, state by state as they’re traveling.

Obviously having Kimberlyn be the one to drive her was an important part of the story. Was that always going to be the point with Kimberlyn saying, I don’t agree with your choice, but I’ll help my friend?

RM: I’ve had one point of view on this particular subject for a very long time. We read this article that was between a mother and a daughter; the daughter was pro-choice and her mother was not. The article was this touching, civilized discourse between these two women who weren’t going to let this particular issue divide them. I was really struck by it, because I fully admit, I often let it divide me. And when I read that, I thought, well, that’s really something and really beautiful. Kimberlyn is conservative. She absolutely would not make the choice to have an abortion, which I think is embedded in the term “pro-choice.” It was Sadie’s choice and she sees the value in being her friend. We thought that was the way to show that politics and partisanship don’t have to rip us apart and even an issue as divisive and personal as this, if you have love for each other and value each other, you can get through pretty much anything together. That’s what the show is really about.

Sadie’s been through a lot. Melissa, how did you emotionally tap into this storyline?

MB: I really appreciated a conversation Rina and I while we were shooting this episode about the agony. Sadie’s agony is not that “I have to do this.” It’s the, “How am I supposed to do it?” So that was my way in emotionally. Sadie was not emotionally distraught by the fact that she had made this choice and she knew it was right for her and her body. She was very certain and had a lot of clarity in that regard. But it was the fact that the circumstances were so out of her control and the rage was more what she was feeling she couldn’t easily find care for herself. It was kind of meta on set. We had Kyra Sedgwick directing this, who’s also a massive activist for women’s rights. All of us were just angry because I think in real time, as we were shooting this episode, laws were changing and things were going haywire. So it was easy to find that way in because all of us were living it in real time.

Rina, you produced “Everwood” when they had an abortion storyline. In it, Treat Williams’ doctor stated, “Whatever choice you make is right, as long as it’s yours.” How was the experience different now — not only being 21 years later but also producing for The WB versus Max?

RM: It was an incredibly different conversation. That storyline I remember so clearly because that was another where we ultimately had to flip the decision. Initially, Dr. Brown (Williams) was going to be the one performing the abortion. And the network said, “Absolutely not. We will not let you do that.” So we twisted our way around and we thought, wouldn’t it be interesting if the person who fundamentally, from their own conservative place of religious upbringing, Dr. Abbott (Tom Amandes), doesn’t believe in abortion, but feels like he has to do it for the health care of women to honor his father. So we’re like, oh, this is an even better story, we’ve solved it. That was when we realized they didn’t want us to solve it. They were like, “You can write it, but we don’t know if we’re gonna shoot it.” And Greg Berlanti, thank goodness, was like, “We’re gonna write it.” And it was brilliant. Then they said, “Well, you can shoot it, but we don’t know if we’re going to air it.” Greg just kept saying, “Fine, do what you want. We’re making the episode.” And I actually do think there were one or two affiliates that did not air the episode.

So I have to guess that this process was very different from that.

RM: Well, it was incredibly powerful and it was so meaningful. I think because it was network, because “Everwood” was a very specific type of show, it did feel like — I hate to use the term — but a very special episode. We sort of treated it with kid gloves. We had to. We had to approach it from the agony of the decision-making itself. The show had a slightly more earnest bent to it. I like to say hopeful, because I feel like “earnest” somehow gets a bad rap. What we were so anxious to do here — and we were just so lucky to have Max as our partner and they had no problem with it — and the joy was to be able to write it as a normal story. This is what happens. It was not very special. There were a million other things happening in Sadie’s life and as she was saying, the anger, the rage and the feelings were about the helplessness that she felt, but it wasn’t about the decision. To me, beyond even just talking about abortion, it’s normalizing women’s bodies. It’s demystifying women’s bodies. Even the way this whole storyline starts is by Lola coming in saying, “I need a tampon.” I remember being Lola’s age, you used to have to smuggle your tampons like it was heroin, and God forbid anyone saw you carrying a tampon around. You feel so ashamed. I love everything about this show saying, everything we do with our bodies is normal. It’s our bodies. It’s our healthcare, and it doesn’t have to be this catastrophic, shame-driven unspeakable thing. It was a real shift. And by the time we were writing it, Roe was gone. So we knew you couldn’t just do a simple walk-in to a clinic. The whole world has shifted since “Everwood.”

Another big difference here was having abortion pills, not having Sadie go into a clinic. Was that a discussion you had?

RM: I’m a little older so when my friends were tragically in this situation, the medical abortion wasn’t something that was around. That’s slightly more recent. All of the writers in the room said, “This is what she would naturally do. She wouldn’t need to go in.” So it does seem like that is the wave of the future for more women, to have access to these pills, which of course is now being taken away as well.

MB: I think it’s great that we were able to show the pill as an option, in a narrative way. Because I think historically, we’ve seen these stories told and it’s these traumatic, horrific experiences most of the time in a clinic setting. So I thought it was really refreshing how pedestrian the procedure and what she goes through is. So that was something that I was really proud of that we were able to do.

RM: I remember when “Six Feet Under” did it a long time ago. Then they took another route and decided to have the angel baby haunt them! (Laughs) That was later, but their initial take was great, because Lauren Ambrose just walked into a clinic. And back then that was shocking. We did talk about normalizing it as part of our health care and what it needs to be.

How do you think viewers will feel about the storyline or have reacted thus far to the series?

RM: The internet is such a crazy place and people voice some really crazy things and some of the stuff that’s been said about the show… I’ve been more upset when people call these women silly. There is nothing silly about them. You can not like the show, you can wish that we made “All the President’s Men” and that’s an excellent film that we didn’t set out to do. But I find there’s like an ingrained sexism in a lot of the ways that people react, so I’m sure people are gonna have feelings. I’m sure they’re gonna be mad at the choice. I read one thing someone wrote about how Sadie’s going to be really struggling with the choice because Loafers loves her and so why wouldn’t they start a family?

MB: Whoa!

RM: I was like, they’re not even remotely together!

I mean, going off of that, did you discuss Sadie’s decision to tell Malcolm (Brandon Scott) about the abortion?

RM: That was big argument in the room, because the room was really split down the middle in terms of does she owe him the truth? And then it becomes more about, take this particular situation out of it. Who are these characters to each other outside of this situation? We were genuinely split. I noticed it was a lot of the younger people in the room said, “She shouldn’t tell him. It’s not his business. It’s sending the wrong message to tell him.” I heard that argument but I also just felt Sadie’s journey in this story is sort of coming to the realization of how much she cares for this person, how much she trusts and actually does love him. I’m like, if he was a one night stand, if this was an accident, I get it. I said, but this is someone she really cares about. For me, I didn’t feel like Sadie would do that. I think her growth is trying to connect with people she actually cares about.

MB: I agree with you. I think it I think it just serves even more as a normalizing of sorts. It’s a part of her arc of becoming a more mature, honest person who holds herself accountable. I think telling him, the audience getting to see him be a pillar of support without questioning what she knows is right for herself when they’re not married — their relationship status is up in the air, at best — and their situation is so such an outlier to what like what what we can say as normal, it’s another opportunity that we took to normalize what a relationship can look like. [It shows] that timing is everything for a woman and the fact that we have the ability to make the choice. Relationships can survive this situation. So I thought it served us even more in that regard. We’re just in the business of trying to normalize. And also, his reaction will define their relationship and either strengthen or crumble it. I think that he shows his true colors in the way that he reacts.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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