From Netflix, the streamer behind Virgin River and Sweet Magnolias, comes Partner Track, a new contemporary comedic drama series that combines the romance of Virgin River, the friendship of Sweet Magnolias with the corporate intrigue of HBO’s Succession.
Based on Helen Wan’s book, Partner Track follows Ingrid Yun (Arden Cho), an idealistic young M&A attorney, daughter of Korean immigrants, who struggles with her moral compass as she fights to climb the partner track at white male-dominated top New York City law firm Parsons Valentine. The first season finds Ingrid in a love triangle with Nick, a handsome, rich, nice guy, and Jeff Murphy, a new transfer from the London office, with whom she once shared a one-night stand and clearly still has attraction to. She tries to do the sensible thing and commits to Nick by accepting his proposal, but the pull of Murphy, regardless of his checkered past, proves too strong, and, during a marathon Thanksgiving case prep session in the office, the inevitable happens, leaving Nick devastated as he shows up unannounced to drop off a cake for his fiancée. Ingrid and Murphy have a few blissful weeks until he commits the ultimate betrayal, as revealed in the final seconds of the finale, which came as a shock to those who had not read the book. (More on that later)
Career-wise, Ingrid is forced to make bigger and bigger moral compromises as she battles to land one of the new partner spots, a goal she shares with her best friends — at work and off –Tyler and Rachel. That includes her manipulating the charismatic and idealistic Z whose family’s Min Enterprises is an acquisition target of Parsons Valentine client Sun Corp. Things come to a head when, at a company retreat, Ingrid’s top rival for an M&A partner spot, an entitled guy from a rich family, performs an appallingly racist standup routine indirectly targeting Tyler. After an HR investigation, Dan only gets a slap on the wrist, and Tyler quits the firm. Ingrid, who is sent to offer Tyler hush money, is also used by her bosses to tout the firm’s D&I efforts at an awards gala. In the end, it comes down to Ingrid and Murphy for the last M&A partner spot and, despite being considered a lock, she doesn’t get it. Ingrid quits but remains close with Murphy. She then sets out to right the wrong she did by helping the Mins take control of Sun Corp, and Z becomes the merged company’s CEO, with Ingrid as its Parsons Valentine liaison. All ends well until Ingrid’s old boss Marty Adler tells her that it was Murphy who sabotaged her ascend to partner by reporting her arrest and brief jail stay. (A misunderstanding after Ingrid’s sister Lina steals earnings from Nick’s place and pawns them using Ingrid’s identity.) The finale ends with shellshocked Ingrid staring at Murphy who glances casually at her from across the room.
As Deadline reported earlier this week, Netflix executives are high on Partner Track, and the series is looking good for a Season 2 renewal. Series developer/executive producer Lee and her writers are already working on ideas for a potential second season. In an interview with Deadline, Lee spoke about Murphy’s betrayal and its aftermath, what made him do it, will we see Nick again and is there an Ingrid-Z romance in the cards. She also discussed what Ingrid’s next career goal might be and the season’s diversity storyline and addressed the future of Ingrid’s friendship with Tyler and Rachel, Tyler’s breakup and revealed Lina’s full name.
DEADLINE: What can you tell us about where things stand with a potential second season?
LEE: We don’t have an official pickup yet. I think everyone’s feeling very excited about it. We just started early chatting about season two but yeah, we’re very, very hopeful that we will get to continue to tell the story.
DEADLINE: Let’s talk about the finale cliffhanger. Is the relationship between Ingrid and Murphy over after this off-the-charts betrayal?
LEE: Yes, we all were like, this is off the charts betrayal, so how can one possibly come back from something like that? We often get notes from our lovely network execs who tell us to make the characters more likable, and I always say that our job as writers is not to make a character more likable, our job is to make a character more understandable. Because if you understand where a person is coming from, then you understand why they make the choices they make. And they might not always be the right choices but at least we create that level of empathy and compassion for the character, which I think is much more real to life. So I think what we will learn in Season 2 is a little bit more, why would a person like Murphy do that? What in his history has made him like that?
DEADLINE: What about Nick, is he out of the picture completely or is there a chance to see him back after what happened between Ingrid and Murphy?
LEE: He’s such a good guy. And I think part of the story is, Ingrid, you always want to start your characters not in a place where they’re fully aware and rationalized people. She doesn’t choose the good guy. We really love Nick, we love [actor] Rob Heaps. I think we definitely want to continue to find ways to keep the characters that we love around.
DEADLINE: We have a saying in Bulgarian that translates as “when two are fighting, the third person wins.” While Nick and Murphy were vying for Ingrid’s affection, Z, another handsome bachelor, spent the season largely as a footnote to the story. He is now front and center. Could something happen between Ingrid and Z romantically?
LEE: We were obviously very aware of where we want to end Season one. We love the character of Z, he represents, if Murphy’s pure opportunistic, pragmatic cynicism in a way, Z is idealism. And I personally feel like that is deep down the struggle of every artistic piece, the struggle between cynicism and idealism and romanticism. So I would love to see Ingrid move, in a way she’s trying to figure out which one she is and what makes her who she is. I think seeing her maybe embrace idealism, but from a less naive point of view, would be interesting. And then I always say ultimately, I don’t think women need to be defined by their romantic relationship, so I always say I feel like the theme of the story is real power comes from being true to yourself. So ultimately, I would like to say that Ingrid chooses not Team Murphy or Team Nick or Team Z, she chooses herself. That’s her ultimate journey.
DEADLINE: Let’s talk about that. A lot of the decisions Ingrid made stemmed from her determination to get that coveted partner spot, which she didn’t get. What is her journey now, does she start from scratch, does she set a new goal? The show is called Partner Track. Is she still on that track or does she now have a different perspective on what is important for her to be fulfilled in her career?
LEE: Marty Adler at the end of Season one is very upset with her. So I would say in Season two, we’ll see — we just started chatting about it — but I’d say we’ll see some of the fallout; he is not a man who can take that lightly.
DEADLINE: But in terms of her career, what does that look like now? She is still working with her old company but is not in that corporate rat race of going through the steps to become a partner. Her old career plan collapsed, and she probably has a new perspective on what she wants to do to be successful.
LEE: You’re asking all the great, deep, thematic questions, it is literally what we’re talking about right now. Without giving away too much, I think what we’re circling right is exactly what you’re saying, which is that, for me, I like to think about, what are the themes like. The theme for Season one was very much discovering that real power comes from being true to yourself through Faustian bargains, I see a series of Faustian bargains that a lot of the characters go through. The theme for Season two that I personally find really interesting is exactly what you’re saying — that is a question that a lot of us start to face because it’s really about identity too — which is, Who am I now? Who am I with this? Who am I without that? We have an idea to move Ingrid to a place where she has to start to question that.
DEADLINE: In the book, after Ingrid gets passed over, she leaves the firm for good to start her own firm. Will you follow that blueprint on the show?
LEE: I think the idea of Yun & Associates is maybe something that we could explore in future seasons if Netflix wants to give us many many many seasons.
DEADLINE: What about Rachel and Tyler? The three of them with Ingrid were inseparable. Their friendship went through some bumps, and the finale found them scattered, not working together anymore, with all, especially Tyler and Ingrid, going through big seismic change in both their professional and personal lives. Will they be able to remain close and what is next for Tyler?
LEE: These are literally exactly the questions we are playing with right now. And absolutely, the Rachel-Tyler-Ingrid trio. We always felt like the friendship is magic moments because when they’re together, it’s so fun, it’s what we all want our friendships to be like. So that is definitely the trio that we want to keep and focus on. Tyler has now become the chief counsel for Valdo’s new fashion collective. He may be on the other side of the table in a lot of Parsons Valentine situations. Rachel hasn’t left the firm, so how she’s going to juggle all of that is something that we’ll definitely support. But definitely want to keep the trio together because they are literally magic together on screen.
DEADLINE: Let’s talk about the diversity and inclusion storyline that centered on Tyler. How did it came about?
LEE: This topic is, for me, the most important and actually the episodes in the season I’m most proud of. We want it to be a fun, romantic comedic show but for me, episodes five and six, which are the retreat and the fallout of the retreat, the internal HR investigation, is what makes me excited about making television.
In the book, actually, there is a racist incident that happens. But Helen wrote the book in 2013, so almost 10 years ago. The incident, I don’t remember exactly, I think it was some white guys doing blackface or they’re doing gangster; the racism is much more overt whereas 10 years later, you wouldn’t see that. But what was really fascinating was, we want to show that racism still exists but in a different form because it’s hard to go more subtle, but it’s still there. And how would a smart person still do a performance like that but in 2023, and that’s where Dan Fallon’s comedy routine came about.
It took the writers have a long time to land on the discussion of white fragility. And it was part of the storyline that we all felt such a responsibility to get it right and to be as nuanced about it as possible. Because there’s a lot of lip service to diversity, equity, inclusion at a lot of these corporate places but what is the reality? I used to work at a company like that too, and the reality is like, yes, the freshman year, the junior people, you have like 50% women, 50% men or you know, you’d have diversity, but as you go up the power structure, the number of women partners falls off. And so, how do you really talk about real change? We wanted to scratch at that a little bit. And then also, the HR investigation that follows kind of gets to the heart of the matter, which Marty Adler was like, the bottom line is that Dan Fallon is good for the bottom line. That’s all they care about.
I’m very proud of the HR investigation montage in episode six, I’m happy that we were allowed to let it play in full because it’s quite a section, where Karen from HR is interviewing everybody. That might be my favorite sequence.
DEADLINE: There were two very emotional scenes in the fallout of the incident, one of Ingrid’s heartbreaking conversations with Tyler when she offers him a bribe on behalf of their bosses, and one when she is consoled by her mom in the restroom at the bogus awards show and feels dejected and disillusioned. Tell me about writing those scenes.
LEE: Those two scenes that you point out are actually… When we structure out, how we start is, we start with emotional journey, what is the emotional journey of the main character and how do you weave her up and down through it right. That’s actually how how I like to break story, that’s the spine. You actually hit the two scenes in episodes six and seven. Because in six is when, after the HR investigation, she has to go offer her best friend hush money. That scene, every time I see it and, Arden and Bradley [Gibson] who play Ingrid and Tyler do such an amazing job. She’s like, slowly gradually things will change when we get to the top, he’s like, but I will not measure progress in inches; they do it much better than I do.
But she’s literally selling out her best friend, it is horrible. This is the bottom of her Faustian bargain. And then the next day, in the next episode, she has to go be the show pony. It couldn’t get much worse. She knows exactly what this company is, and now she has to smile for the cameras and pretend like everything’s okay. You hit the exact two scenes where she has to get to a point where she’s like, Oh my God, who am I? What have I become? Obviously the Faustian theme, she has sold her soul, literally sold her soul.
DEADLINE: And then Thanksgiving comes around when Ingrid cheats on Nick with Murphy and get caught. Talk about that scene and Ingrid getting redemption, eventually.
LEE: It’s such a sad Thanksgiving. Episode eight. We wanted to bring poor Ingrid all the way down to where she’s done the horrible thing to her best friend, she’s been showponied around as the poster child of diversity at Parsons Valentine, which she knows is a total lie. And she’s now cheated on her boyfriend with the guy she shouldn’t have. So she’s gone all the way down.
Episode nine is very much like, she thinks she’s going to get all the things she sold her soul for, all that glitters is now gold, she thinks she’s going get the gold now. And then when she doesn’t is when the real reckoning occurs. And episode 10 is about her redemption.
DEADLINE: The character of Ingrid’s younger sister, Lina, was not developed, pretty much all we know about her is that she’s a thief, somehow cannot work a dishwasher, and she’s pretty good at Christmas decorating. Will we get to learn more about her and her story in Season 2 and maybe see her finally succeed at something because she doesn’t seem to be able to catch a break?
LEE: The way you described her character is perfect. We actually named her Lina before the role was cast with an actress whose name also is Lena [Ahn], spelled differently. The character Lina did not exist in the books but I have two sisters, and I’m very interested in sister dynamics. What would her parents name the younger sister? if they named Ingrid after Ingrid Bergman, maybe they named the younger one Marlena after Marlene Dietrich. And so Lina is her nickname. That was never in the show but that’s we came up with it in the writers room.
DEADLINE: Going back to Tyler, why did he break up with his boyfriend? They’d been together for eight years, a strong relationship like that should be able to withstand a one-time slip, and Anthony appeared ready to forgive him. It seemed a little abrupt and harsh for Tyler to give up on them.
LEE: I actually do wish we had a little bit more time. It’s so funny, everything that you’re asking, more with Lina, more with Tyler, I wish we had more time in episode six to actually get into it because we, as a room, talk about it all, and whether it has a chance to make it onto the screen, it’s always a matter of real estate. But yeah, what we had intended is that Tyler is really struggling with his identity, who is he, because he always thought that he was going to be a Parsons Valentine partner, he always thought he was going to marry Anthony, they were going be this gay Black power couple. And then suddenly he’s forced to contend with, Is this really what I want? Is who I am and what do I want? So Anthony is part of that.
DEADLINE: One final question about the physics-themed opening you use in each episode, which is a little unexpected for a legal show but people like me — I have a Master’s Degree in Theoretical Physics– appreciate. How did it come about?
LEE: You actually have a degree, I’m just an armchair, reading Roger Penrose and Brian Greene. I literally listen to Brian Greene going to bed, The Fabric of the Cosmos, I love that stuff, too. The whole thing is, Ingrid’s a bit of a nerd, and so this is a part of what makes her different and unique and interesting. So I’d love to let that physics freak fly high.
DEADLINE: Now we know where that habit Ingrid has to listen to those deep-dive legal podcasts going to bed comes from.
LEE: There is a lot of me in Ingrid, yes.
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