[WARNING: The following contains MAJOR spoilers for Animal Kingdom Season 4 Episode 12, "Ghosts." Read on at your own risk.]
Well, the Animal Kingdom just got a little quieter.
In its penultimate episode of the fourth season of the TNT series (don't worry, the drama, based on the 2010 movie of the same name, has already been renewed for a fifth season), we lost one of the most vicious, complicated, loving and fiercely protective matriarchs in television drama history with the death of Janine "Smurf" Cody (Ellen Barkin).
Smurf's health has been in jeopardy all season as she's been dealing (or not dealing, as the case may be) with cancer but who knew she'd go out at the hands of one of her own instead of the dreaded disease. Maybe it's not that big of a surprise considering what she's put sons Pope (Shawn Hatosy), Craig (Ben Robson) and Deran (Jake Weary) through as well as grandson J (Finn Cole) but, regardless, the episode leaves big questions not only about next week's season finale but also what the intense series will look like next year.
Who better to hop on the phone with than executive producer John Wells, who talked in detail about the decision to end Smurf's life on the series as well as what it means moving forward. Here's our post-mortem chat with the show's showrunner:
John, I'm quite exhausted from watching that episode, it was quite heavy.
John Wells: But did it surprise you?
It really did. So, let's start there, when did you and your writers decide that this would be the end of Smurf's journey?
Really at the beginning of this season. You know, the most difficult thing on shows in which you have kind of an insular family group and they're doing something, in this case, robbing people or committing crimes, is how do you keep it from feeling like you're just repeating the same thing that you're doing? What are the internal dynamics in any kind of a crime family? What are the inter-dynamics that change, that throw things off, that mess things up?
We just started throwing around ideas and one of them was how did Smurf get to be Smurf, and what if Smurf were gone. [Leila George has been playing Smurf in the 1970s timeline this season to show an earlier side to the character.] Those two things over a few weeks coalesced into maybe Smurf should die and that'll throw the boys into a completely different place trying to figure out that loss and how she was the glue that held them together.
It was quite poetic the way we're seeing Pope and Julia be born [in the '70s timeline] and then cutting back to Smurf dying. I thought that was really beautiful the way you did that.
Thank you. I think in all of our hopes to the end of life, we're thinking back to the things in our lives that were most powerful. Look, we're living in a universe now where there are 500 plus shows being made, so you want people to feel there's a reason to show up and watch because you don't know what's going to happen next. And also have that not just be arbitrary but be something that gives you more to write about and gives you more excitement about people returning to the show. And it's real. It's the animal kingdom. People are going to die.
What did Ellen Barkin have to say when you talked about this with her?
We had lots of conversations about it in advance. I have great respect for Ellen and I think she was surprised that that the show was continuing as long as it did. We presented it and talked about it as a really strong story. I can't speak for Ellen, but as an actor, she's used to doing movies where she does something for like three months and then off you go. So, I think, again, I can't speak for her, but I think she was surprised she stayed alive as long as she did!
You know, there's that great story that Peter Dinklage tells about doing Game of Thrones, which is, you know, they got all of the scripts at the same time for every season and everybody, the first thing they did was go to the last script and read the last couple of pages to see if they were still alive. [laughs] So we live in a storytelling world now where it allows you to tell different stories when characters leave. And you shake up the dynamics and we were very interested in this idea of what will it be like for these men when Smurf is gone? Can they actually survive, what happens to them? And we didn't want to miss the opportunity to be able to tell those stories.
And now we'll continue to play the young Smurf, and we'll actually get to see what made these men who they are. We're going to jump ahead a few years [in season five] in the past story and see that whole thing of how they all came to be who they are. Which again, I think is something that we were all really interested in being able to tell those stories.
It was a very fitting decision that it would be J to off Smurf, because of just the journey he's been on the last four seasons, but was that a big talking point?
I always figured it would be J that pulled the trigger but it was a big talking point. And it was a big talking point with the other cast members, who all knew that whoever pulled that trigger was going to impact a lot of storytelling going forward. We didn't tell the cast who was actually going to do it so they found out when they got the script. And now everybody's like, ‘okay, now that changes everything about what I have to do as my character.’ That's how you keep shows going, by shaking things up.
Pope has been on the edge all season, more than we've ever seen him. Is this going to push him over the edge or could it somehow center him?
I don't think we know yet. We're going to have to sit down and kind of figure it out as a group. So, but I don't think he's going to react well. [Laughs]
The Pope and J conflict has also been brewing since he knows what J did to get Angela to fall off the wagon. Is there going to be some fallout of that in the finale?
Oh, yeah. It's in the finale but it'll also be a big part of the series going forward.
I honestly thought that Angela (Emily Deschanel) was also going to die as Smurf’s last act of vengeance towards her but she didn’t OD and is still around going into the finale. What can you say to what we’ll see with her?
Angela certainly wants to find a way to fit in because she's knows these boys are a little broken, and if she could find a way to get Pope to keep her around that could be a great big deal for her. The question will be is everybody going to let that happen? Does anybody want her around other than Pope and what kind of power does Pope have? You're picking up on exactly what the tension is there.
How would you describe the season finale given what's happened in this episode?
We hope that it's powerful and emotional and feels real. It's remarkable, even when you hate someone or have wished them dead many times, when they actually do pass, you feel like maybe that happened too soon. ‘I didn't get to say the things I wanted to say. I don't know how I feel about this.’ It's complicated. So that's what we're hoping comes across when you watch this last episode is that there's a lot more story to tell.
Season five will be very interesting, to say the least!
We're looking forward to writing it!
Animal Kingdom, Tuesdays, 9/8c, TNT