'Nurse Jackie' Showrunner on Crafting a "Shocking and Surprising" Ending

Clyde Phillips talks with THR about lessons from 'Dexter' and Jackie's ultimate fate.
David M. Russell/SHOWTIME

Who is Nurse Jackie, really?

That's the central theme that the final season of Showtime's Edie Falco starrer Nurse Jackie will explore when it kicks off its seventh and final season Sunday.

One of the premium cable network's signature hits, the dramedy returns right back to where the season-six finale left off: following Jackie's arrest with a car full of drugs, struggling to regain her job at All Saints and repair her relationships with family, friends and colleagues — all while continuing to battle addiction.

Showrunner Clyde Phillips — whose credits include overseeing the first four seasons of Showtime's Dexter — has said that the final season would be "authentic" but stopped short of revealing whether or not his pill-popping protagonist would be able to overcome her addiction and survive.

Read More 'Nurse Jackie' Final Season Will Have 'Authentic' Ending — Plus Watch the Trailer

Here, Phillips talks with The Hollywood Reporter about what kind of legacy he hopes Nurse Jackie will leave behind, what he learned from how Dexter ultimately ended and the critical backlash it faced, as well as Jackie's ultimate fate.

What kind of legacy do you think Nurse Jackie will leave behind?

That you can love a flawed person — because we are all flawed. Beyond that, an understanding of what it's like to be an addict, to be in love with an addict, and to be friends with and trust an addict. Addiction is cruel, difficult, shaming, desperate and must be listened to.

Is there a theme to the season or is it really about tying up Jackie's journey?

If we were exploring a theme, it's about identity. Who is Nurse Jackie? Is she a nurse? Because she's always saying, "I'm a nurse first." But she's also a human being and a mother and a wife and an ex-wife and a friend and a colleague. And it's the struggle to find what that identity is.

This season, Jackie is on the cusp of losing everything — her job, her children and her freedom. How much lower can she go?

A lot lower. We went really deep with this character, and I'm proud of how far we got with it.

What's always been interesting about this series is that despite the horrible things Jackie does, you're always still rooting for her. Why do you think that is? Is that an eternal sense of optimism that people think she can be saved at play?

I think it's partly optimism. I think it's wanting to save somebody. But I think most importantly it's Edie Falco. Look at that face. You trust that face. We would write scripts that would call for Edie to say something, and she'd say, "Do I really need to say this? I can just act it." And she would, and we'd take the words away and we would get Jackie's response, shame, pain and happiness without them.

Read More 'Nurse Jackie' Books Tony Shalhoub for Season 7

You had a very different ending for Showtime's Dexter series finale. What kind of creative liberties did you have with wrapping up Jackie's story?

It was always a conversation. I love working with Showtime; they don't give mandates, they open a dialogue. We would talk things through and try things and agree on things. We had a whole other ending; we were going to burn the hospital down, and that was going to work. But then we realized there was a better way to go that was more in tune with character, and that's where we ended up going.

You had already left Dexter well before its series finale. What did you take away from that final season and the fan response to it?

To follow my heart, which sounds like a cliché, but to make the show that I want to make or not make the show. I would rather go down in flames than just bask in the glory.

How far along were you when that changed?

We were halfway through the season. Edie's a dream; she will step back, and she trusts us. Sometimes she would know more about addiction than I do, and she would tell me, and I would change it. I would listen to it.

When did you realize the ending you had wasn't going to work?

As we were talking about it in the room, it started to get too big. It started to feel unwieldy and it wasn't about the character. It was about the hospital, and the hospital is a character in the show. But the hospital is not Nurse Jackie, and it needs to be about Nurse Jackie.

Jackie is going head-to-head with Akalitus (Anna Deavere Smith) this season. What will that look like?

In the first episode, it's dealt with anger. Later, it's dealt with harsh discipline. As Nurse Jackie tries to win back each of the people in the hospital, Akalitus is the most difficult of all to win back.

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You've also enlisted some great recurring players this season — Tony Shalhoub and Mark Feuerstein among them. What do those additions mean?

With Mark, we were able to bring in this mother — er, lawyer who doesn't lose. So we needed to get Jackie back on the floor of the hospital. That's his purpose. With Tony — because Peter Facinelli is leaving the show — we needed another doctor, otherwise we have just one doctor, [Betty Gilpin's] Carrie Roman, who is brand new.

And Roman is ridiculous.

She's ridiculous, and we love her. We brought in Tony, who's the only person we went to with the role. We were able to bring in a character who didn't know Jackie's background; she was a blank slate for him.

Does Jackie have to die in order to have some comeuppance here?

She does not have to die — I'm not telling you whether or not she does. But plenty of addicts live — look at Edie, she's quite open about her sobriety. The finale needed to feel complete. The ending needed to be shocking and surprising, yet if you play it backwards it all makes sense.

Heading into this season, does anybody in Jackie's life have the ability to save her from herself? Can she even be saved?

Saving her from herself is interesting in that we've dealt ourselves a rather complex hand with this story because we've shown that she can't handle joy. Can she be saved from herself? I don't know. Jackie is an addict, but she's not all addicts, and some addicts cannot be saved from themselves, from what it is they are addicted to. Some addicts, with love and support and rehabilitation, can certainly be saved. It's that ambiguity that makes this show so delicious.

You have an overall deal with Lionsgate Television. What are you looking to do next? You've been pretty dark with Dexter and Jackie for a long time.

I don't mind being dark. And by the way, I created Suddenly Susan and Parker Lewis Can't Lose. I'm developing comedies and dramas. I also write mystery novels. One of them is being taught at my daughter's school next year, which is pretty exciting. I've got a lot of stuff in my quiver, and I'm actually anxious to go out there. I'm not the kind of guy that sits back. I'm not the kind of guy who takes vacations. I want to get out there. I love working with Showtime. They are friends of mine; I've grown up with them in the business. We've all matriculated together.

Nurse Jackie returns Sunday at 9 p.m. on Showtime. What are you looking forward to seeing? Sound off in the comments below.