'Nurse Jackie' Series Finale: Clyde Phillips Shares the Story Behind Jackie's Ultimate Fate

Nurse Jackie Still - H 2015
David M. Russell/SHOWTIME

Nurse Jackie Still - H 2015

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from the series finale of Showtime's Nurse Jackie.]

Showtime bid farewell to one of its most beloved anti-heroes Sunday when Nurse Jackie — and its All Saints Hospital — closed its doors for good after seven seasons.

The final episode, as showrunner Clyde Phillips previously noted, came full circle with the original pilot and opened with Jackie (Edie Falco) in church asking for God to "make me good." Those words would come back in the final moments of the series when Zoey (Merritt Wever) would mutter them back to Jackie, who had passed out at the hospital's closing party after snorting three lines of heroin. The words would elicit an eye flutter and brief lip quiver from a stoned Jackie and ultimately leave the iconic and award-winning character's ultimate fate up to the audience to decipher.

See more Saying Goodbye: TV Shows Signing Off in 2014-15

"That rarely happens on television," Falco told THR when asked ahead of the final season if she thought Jackie should die. "I don't know. In my mind, there have been periods where all the people in my life I love who are addicts as far as I concerned, I wanted that. Because I'd had it. And I also thought I can't watch them go through any more pain and stuff like that. But this is ultimately television." Falco said she hopes that Jackie's finale would spread the message that "anybody who is going through it, as an addict or someone surrounded by them, you're not by yourself. And no, it's not pretty. Don't be surprised that your life doesn't look pretty even when television reflects something else. I'd only hope for people to say, 'Yes, I recognize that.'"

Here, Phillips talks with The Hollywood Reporter about the decision to leave Jackie's fate up to viewers, what he hopes the show's legacy will be and if he'd revisit beloved Zoey with a Doctors Without Borders spinoff.

The ending was left pretty unclear: So did Jackie die?

It is left to the viewers to figure out. One of the reasons why there's a question is because Edie Falco is so brilliant. Imagine lying on the floor in the middle of 60 people with a camera in your face and giving just enough of an eye flutter and just enough of a move of her lips that you think, "Maybe!" But you don't know. I personally think she's alive. Others don't. We had a long conversation with the network about it, and one of the things we wanted to do was to keep the conversation going after the show ends with a good and healthy debate because this is really a show about the effects of a ferocious disease — drug addiction — on an otherwise healthy person.

Given your strong opinions about how Dexter should have ended — echoing fans who thought the character perhaps should have died — why go this way with Jackie? Why not make the end more definitive?

Viewers have such an intimate relationship with this sociopathic drug addict who lied, stole, cheated and was devious and morally messed up yet they kept welcoming her into their homes. They did so because of Edie Falco. The viewer has the privilege to make up their own minds about what happened. They can think, "She got exactly what she deserved," or, "Thank God she made it." In an odd way, it's interactive television.

It's an interesting approach given the number of recent series finales that have been much more definitive.

I had a long conversation with [Showtime CEO] David Nevins about this. We had many choices in the editing room. We wanted the conversation to continue a bit longer and to have viewers be part of it. I believe that we are not pissing off any viewers; I think they'll appreciate what they see and whatever they conclude.

What were some of the other choices you had in editing?

It was always going to end like that; Jackie was a bit more animated and her face was a little less animated. It would have been more definitive one way or the other.

What did Zoey mean when she was telling Jackie, "You're good?"

It goes back to the pilot where at the end of the pilot, we learn that Jackie has a family and she steps into the shadows and says, "Make me good Lord — but not yet" in voiceover. At the beginning of the series finale, she's in church by herself waiting for her family to arrive for her daughter's confirmation and she says, "Make me good." Zoey, in saying that at the end, she's echoing that, but she's really being clinical and hopeful. She's saying, "You're good, Jackie, you're good." She's consoling her. Those are the words that Jackie wanted to hear — and she's not in a clear state of mind when she hears that. She hears the words, "You're good," and her eyes flutter open and her lips crease just that two millimeters because she's heard those words. Jackie has basically been an anvil and everyone in her life has been a hammer — and finally someone is telling her she's good — regardless of the context — and Jackie is completely stoned and wherever she is in her lifecycle, the words are getting through to her.

What prompted Jackie to do the three lines of heroin in the first place?

In the filming of it, there were many more lines and we took them out. The hospital is closing, O'Hara (Eve Best) has just busted her, Zoey has just told her, "You need to let me go and to make my own mistakes, mom," she's just talked to Bernie Prince (Tony Shalhoub), who is dying and she's watching this camaraderie that she's not part of in this hospital, and what always makes her use when you don't expect it is the fact that she's a drug addict. She's in the grips of a ferocious disease.

When we spoke in April ahead of the season, you said the "finale needed to feel complete. The ending needed to be shocking and surprising, yet if you play it backwards, it all makes sense." And the finale opens with a call-back to the pilot when Jackie says, "Make me good" — though in the pilot she says "not yet." Is this her way of saying she's ready to die? How does this ending make sense if you play it backwards?

That was in all of our collective consciousness. We planted a lot of stuff in the last episode, in that scene where Jackie steps out of the bathroom and takes off her stethoscope and puts it on the counter with her watch and ID card and she steps outside and is walking down the street, she's anonymous among all these other people. And we go a little tighter, and you may not notice but a boy with green hair runs by. That's Charlie (Jake Cannavale). And bike messenger goes by very quietly — that's the messenger who didn't survive the first episode when Coop killed him. Then she's walking by and a few nuns smile at her. It's this religious undertone of the final episode that starts at the church and when she's washing the feet of Vinny Raven [the drug addict Jackie treated in the finale] because all souls deserve to be treated at All Saints.

Eddie (Paul Schulze) winds up covering for Jackie and is going to jail. What's the takeaway from that? The price of loving an addict?

Yes it is the price of loving an addict too much. It's also when Eddie is telling Jackie this — and they're in the chapel, another religious nod — you see Edie Falco's eyes flicker a bit as Jackie is realizing a couple things: a) this is part of the shrapnel of the hand grenade that I am; and b) this guy loves me so much that if we stay together, I will be enabled forever and I don't know if that's healthy. It's so complicated. We tried to be authentic and original all the time, and it's a brutal disease. It never lets you go; it's Jackie's dark passenger.

When Jackie and Kevin are talking about the rough patch they had before their wedding, is that meant to foreshadow the kind of marriage Jackie and Eddie would have?

That wasn't intentional. What we were showing was Kevin (Dominic Fumusa) is at ease with Jackie for the first time in years. It was a relief from the hammering she's been taking. It's a disease, but one that people don't have enough compassion about. One of the things we strove for was to get people to be compassionate about this, and we couldn't have done it with anybody else in the world other than Edie Falco.

How much involvement did Edie Falco have in how Jackie's journey ultimately ended?

We'd done so much research and had so much respect for wanting to do it right, and for Edie, by the time we got to the place of running it by her, we knew what we were doing and she was good with it. She said, "This feels right." She didn't have a problem with where we were going and enthusiastically jumped in. The final table read for the final season, everybody — and I read the narration — wept our way through 30 minutes of reading. And we had the network listing on the phone in the center of the table, and usually they say, "Let's do notes," and they were silent. Everybody was so moved. We were so destroyed by it — and then we had to go shoot it.

What was the last day on set like?

As we say goodbye to each character, we stop shooting and say goodbye and sing a series wrap song to them and hug everyone. Just before we moved to the sequence of the final party and Jackie going into bathroom, we shot Tony's final scene and everybody was destroyed. It was such an emotional scene — his mind isn't working and he mistakes Jackie for one of his wives and opts to sit in waiting room. There's a little hidden thing in there when he's smoking a cigarette and says, "Why are things that are so bad for you taste so good?" which is an allusion to drugs. Then we shot the final sequence in the ER and people would say bittersweet, but we were sad. We knew we were doing something really special and there were a lot of tears all through that. That was supposed to be our last day of shooting, but weather in New York forced us to switch days so the yoga scene outdoors in Times Square was the last day of shooting. Edie was our only actor the last day and that was the actual final shot. But all the emotion was the previous day.

Now that you can speak about the series as a whole, what kind of message about addiction do you hope the series sends?

I'm not an expert by any means but I'd say do the work because Jackie didn't do the work. She skirted the responsibility of it. In season four when she checked into rehab, she didn't finish it or go to meetings; she got a sponsor (played by Julie White) just so it would look good. And have compassion if someone near to you has this disease, think of it as a disease. If it were cancer, you'd think of it as a disease and you'd be compassionate. Addiction is a mental health problem and my heart breaks when I think about what happens across this country. There's a heroin epidemic going on now. The governor of Vermont, when he gave his State of the State speech two years ago, gave a whole speech, not about politics or bridges and roads and tourism, but it was all about heroin.

Looking at the future, would you ever consider following Zoey in Haiti working for Doctors Without Borders?

No, we're done. We think the show ended at the right time and in the right way. We've said all that we wanted and could say, and hopefully we've said it well.  

Do you think Jackie lived or died? Share your thoughts on the Nurse Jackie series finale in the comments section below.

Email: Lesley.Goldberg@THR.com
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