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Deciding how a long-running series should sign off can be tricky. For every M*A*S*H (with its moving moment when the departing Hawkeye sees rocks spelling out the word “Goodbye”) that leaves fans satisfied, there’s a Sopranos (with its abrupt cut to black) that leaves viewers arguing about what just happened.
And while final episodes may begin in the writers room, it’s often during the so-called “final rewrite” in the editing room that the delicate storytelling decisions are completed — amid the knowledge that every choice will be thoroughly scrutinized by both critics and fans. Is it best to tie everything up neatly or leave a few threads hanging? These were the questions faced by the departing series Downton Abbey and The Good Wife — and each show opted for a different answer.
Over the course of six seasons on PBS’ Downton, the Crawley family faced both changing times and their share of tragedy. But for the show’s ultimate episode, tragedy was set aside. “You couldn’t have all the characters with a bad ending; that wasn’t really the type of show that Downton was,” says editor Al Morrow. Series creator Julian Fellowes summed up his own perspective on the sendoff by giving Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess the chance to offer her take on Lady Edith’s (Laura Carmichael) marriage to Bertie Pelham (Harry Hadden-Paton): “With any luck, they’ll be happy enough, which is the English version of a happy ending.”
Elizabeth McGovern’s Lady Crawley bids goodbye to the staff of the local hospital.
But getting to that “happy” ending involved key decisions that had to be made at the very beginning of the episode, says Morrow. “We worked on the opening quite a bit to make sure it wasn’t too downbeat. It was Edith talking about being single, and Mary (Michelle Dockery) and Henry (Matthew Goode) still a bit down about the aftermath of the accident [and death] of Henry’s friend. We stripped that back a bit. I didn’t want to start on a big downer. Director Michael Engler shot a nice moment of the kids with their grandfather [the Earl of Grantham, played by Hugh Bonneville] to get a nice feeling for the start of the episode.”
As Morrow describes it, “The challenge for the rest of the episode was to touch on each character so that it left the audience with the feeling that things are going to be OK without wrapping everything up beautifully so that everyone was absolutely 100 percent happy. I think Carson’s story really helped with that, in that he was struggling with his health and [that] his career as Downton’s butler was essentially over. That helped give it a bit more realism. But even within that story, there’s a moment between Carson (Jim Carter) and [his wife] Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan) where Carson says to her, ‘I think everything’s going to be OK.’ Because they had each other, you felt like it was going to be OK.”
Dockery’s Lady Mary and Goode’s Henry also found themselves together as the series ended.
Finally, with Lady Edith’s nuptials, the episode starts to wrap up the various characters’ stories. “During the wedding, we shot lots of moments within the crowd, but we edited those back so it wasn’t too much of everyone smiling at each other and too unrealistic,” says Morrow. “You don’t want everyone walking off into the sunset at once, so we tried to spread it out and make it more subtle.”
In the case of the legal and marital drama The Good Wife, creators Robert and Michelle King wanted a more unsettled ending — with a final scene that intentionally recalls the opening of season one: Julianna Margulies‘ Alicia Florrick once again at a press conference, standing by the side of her disgraced husband, Peter, played by Chris Noth. The final scene likewise would conclude with a slap. But this time, instead of Alicia showing disgust for her husband’s behavior, as she did in the series opener, she’s the recipient of the slap, which comes from her colleague Diane Lockhart, played by Christine Baranski, who feels she’s just been betrayed.
In a scene harking back to the series opener, Margulies’ Alicia once again finds herself standing by Noth’s Peter in the finale.
For David Dworetzky, who edited the finale, the most challenging scene was the final courtroom exchange earlier in the episode, when, during Peter’s trial, Diane’s husband Kurt (Gary Cole) is called to the stand. “Courtroom scenes are tricky,” says Dworetzky. “They usually use three cameras so you can get a lot of material, and the dialogue is filled with legal jargon and it’s fairly dry. But in this scene, Alicia has asked Lucca [Cush Jumbo] to question Kurt about an affair — and it’s tricky because Alicia is asking Lucca to throw Diane’s husband under the bus.”
It’s a familiar scene: a lawyer questioning a witness. “But it’s really about Diane and Kurt. Even though we occasionally cut to all the characters, it really does focus on Diane and Kurt. It was about the power of the material and Christine Baranski’s performance. Much of the dialogue is happening off-camera, because it wasn’t about the words. It was about the impact on Diane when she realizes she’s being betrayed by Alicia. It was her colleague making her sit and listen to it in open court.”
In court, the Florricks’ daughter, Grace (Makenzie Vega), is comforted by her mother.
Scott Vickrey, an editor on The Good Wife for all seven of its seasons, explains that when the team learned that this would be the final season, they all asked Robert King about the ending: “We asked if Alicia was ever going to be happy, and he said, ‘No, not really.’ A lot of us felt that there was no way Alicia could end up with Peter; he did too many things that were hurtful. The big surprise was she would betray her relationship with Diane.”
Adds Vickrey: “All open-ended finales leave some people disappointed. They like having everything wrapped up in a neat bow. But Robert was going to do what he thought was best for the character.” Adds Dworetzky, “The creators of any series want to leave something that resonates. It’s hard. Do you try to tie it up or leave it more unsettled? Ours went for unsettled. I thought it was a fitting finale.”
3 CUTTING ROOM STANDOUTS
“We wanted to tell the Nixon/ Watergate story in a unique way and avoided threads like Woodward and Bernstein.” — Chris A. Peterson, Editor
“The final mix for the [CW pilot] happened exactly a year after it was first shot [for Showtime].” — Kabir Akhtar, Editor
“We have the largest editorial setup on the Universal lot with 20 editors.” — Robert M. Malachowski, Editor
This story first appeared in a special Emmy issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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