How to Write a Series Finale

Courtesy of Networks
'The Good Place,' 'Modern Family,' 'Empire,' 'Fresh Off the Boat'

Showrunners on 'Empire,' 'The Good Place,' 'Modern Family' and more reveal the excitement — and demands — of creating the perfect end to a series.

Ending a show is not for the faint of heart. A final chapter of a beloved series involves sleepless nights, endless second-guessing and last-minute Hail Marys. "The thing that incites panic in writers and producers is this feeling that it's not just about sticking the landing, it's about having the finale be the best episode you ever did," says The Good Place creator Mike Schur. "It's very unlikely that that's going to be the case because finales have to do other things besides just satisfy you on a plot or character level. They have to be the epilogue of the entire series."

Deviating from his signature cliffhangers, Peter Nowalk spent the last episodes of ABC's How to Get Away With Murder finally getting to the answers. "I wanted to really understand the pathology of why Annalise [Viola Davis] has always chosen to protect these people and turn her life into hell versus just turning them in," says Nowalk. While the twist ending came to him quickly, his bigger concern was making sure Davis, who made history as the first woman of color to win an Emmy for lead actress, had a moment to really sink her teeth into. "I wanted her to be able to give her all in the final episode," he says of the dramatic closing argument that gets to the core of Annalise Keating. "That was the pressure, and I feel like we pulled it off."

To create the right bookend to their decadelong journey, the writers of Modern Family engaged in months of trial and error. "We tried and failed a bunch of times," says co-creator Christopher Lloyd. "Our first day convening as a writing staff for season 11, we gave some thought to how we wanted to end it, but we didn't figure it out. So we said, 'Well, let's just get going here on some stories.' Then we'd sit down a month or two later and say, 'Well, what about the ending?' But it didn't coalesce until we got down to the end." As the grand finale neared, Lloyd and five other writers gave themselves twice as long as they normally would to write the last script, coming up with at least four versions that ultimately didn't feel quite right. "There was a little bit of panic that we were going to run out of time," says Lloyd. "We finally came up with something that I'm sure didn't satisfy everyone but felt like it gave people a nice remembrance of what the show was, in terms of its mix of humor and pathos, and gave them a cathartic moment in their own ability to say goodbye to this family."

Modern Family ended its run on an even 250 episodes, a decision that ended up being one of the ABC show's luckiest, as the novel coronavirus pandemic would have ruined any plans for more. "Had we done our normal order of 22 episodes, instead of 18, we would have been in the very weird situation of ramping up through a finale and then not shooting it," says Lloyd. "It's like having the last chapter in a book just missing."

While the end date of a series often is out of the hands of its creative team, there is lack of creative control — and then there's COVID-19. On March 13, production shut down on Fox's Empire, an episode and a half before its intended completion. "I thought, if we could eke out five more days of shooting, I can pull elements of the series finale into episode 19 and make that work," says showrunner Brett Mahoney. "But there was no way we were going to be able to continue filming." What had already been painstakingly established had to be discarded and pieces of an existing puzzle reworked into a series finale. "I thought about it and realized, in terms of the elements that we had shot, that the movie premiere [planned for episode 19] had the family coming together and family being more important than Empire," says Mahoney. "It was sort of there, the spirit that we wanted to end the season on." There were elements Mahoney attempted to include, like addressing who shot Lucious (Terrence Howard) and blew up Cookie's (Taraji P. Henson) car, but after feeling like the plot points were shoehorned into the episode, Mahoney thought it better to go with what he could do well. "It felt good that we were able to see Cookie and Lucious express their love for one another," he says. "But I did really like what we were doing in our actual series finale."

Mahoney doesn't rule out one last Empire episode once life returns to normal. "Of course there are real-life hurdles to it, but Empire has been groundbreaking in so many ways that you want to really honor it with a strong ending," he says. "When I talk to the cast and crew, it's something that they're committed to. Hopefully we'll be able to shoot it."

Even without an unforeseen global crisis, industry curveballs have been known to derail a perfect landing. For Fresh Off the Boat showrunners Keith Heisler and Matt Kuhn, the crafting of a series finale was already familiar ground after the show's renewal remained uncertain last year. "That was harder, trying to thread the needle in terms of feeling like we possibly ended a story but left ourselves a little bit of room to tell more," says Kuhn. Even as the ABC show returned for a sixth season, much of the practical decision-making remained out of the writers' hands. "We weren't sure if it was the final season; we thought it might be. There was also a chance that they would add more episodes to the season," says Kuhn, adding that you never want to end a show until you need to. But what the writers could do was remain true to the show's essence until the end. "We tried to run it as we did every season: Let's do what we do well and stay in that lane," says Heisler. For their touching finale, Heisler and Kuhn knew the show had to feature that one special moment between Huang matriarch Jessica (Constance Wu) and her eldest son, Eddie (Hudson Yang). "They've been the dynamic force throughout the seasons," says Kuhn. "Once we knew that, the rest is just the 'details' of it."

On the other end of the spectrum, Alex Gansa and his writers had three years to prepare for the last chapter of Homeland. By the time they reached the eighth and final season, they knew they wanted to hark back to the beginning of the Showtime series. "The idea was Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) in Nicholas Brody's (Damian Lewis) shoes," says Gansa. "Our second idea was to posit how a second 9/11 might be influenced by how America responded the first time around. The series was about how America responded to 9/11 and how that changed our society."

But even as the broad strokes became clear to them, some of the details remained elusive until the last minute. Opening the finale on Brody's martyr's tape was an idea that came in postproduction, where they spent two and a half months fine-tuning the last episode. But what truly stumped Gansa was Carrie's goings-on in Moscow at the end of the series. "The fact that she'd been writing a book critical of the Central Intelligence Agency, that idea did not come to me until 24 hours before we shot those scenes," he says. While this seems stressful, Gansa says that in television, you eventually learn to submit to the process. "The idea is going to come when it does or not, and then you're going to invent something else," he says. "Mandy [Patinkin] showed up one day on the set, and he gave me a T-shirt that said, 'It takes the time it takes.' It's something that he and Stephen Sondheim would talk about. It didn't make me feel great because for Sondheim, it takes the time it takes. But for Gansa, maybe not."

The Good Place creator Mike Schur always knew his NBC comedy about the afterlife would not be a decadelong endeavor, but when he started to envision the endgame for his main characters early on in the show's four-season run, even he didn't want to believe it. "I was acutely aware of how lucky we were to have the group of people we had. It seemed, at times, insane to voluntarily cut yourself off when you have one of those situations," he says. "But the fun and the novelty of this new world that we're in, which is a world where you don't have to drag a show out for as long as you possibly can to maximize the profit, means that you get to decide when to end something based on when you think the idea merits an ending."

Even after Schur's revelation, which was for the four main characters to conclude that their time in the universe had passed, the last episode gave him pause. "I was incredibly nervous," he says. "The finale itself is deeply sad and everybody dies. The whole thing felt very risky, and I really didn't know how it was going to be received. The challenge was having the courage of my own conviction, which was that that's how it should end."

Though the pressure of creating a bookend to a series is ingrained in every showrunner, the one thing Schur knew not to attempt was to make it the best episode of the entire series. "If you try to make it the most everything — the funniest, most romantic, most dramatic, most exciting episode — then you're going to fail because it has to leave the audience with the feeling that they're satisfied with the journey they've been on for years," he says. "If you do that, you've done your job, and everything else is gravy."

This story first appeared in a July stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.