Did ‘Nurse Jackie’ end at the right time, and in the right way?

Senior Television Writer
06.28.15 44 Comments

Showtime

“Nurse Jackie” has concluded its seven-season run on Showtime. I have a few thoughts on the finale, followed by a long conversation with showrunner Clyde Phillips, coming up just as soon as this door gets locked for the first time in centuries…

“Nurse Jackie” is a show that, by the nature of its lying drug addict protagonist and the world she lived in – and the fact that it was an ongoing series that brought Showtime several awards along the way – was always going to be repetitive on some level: Jackie does something stupid, gets caught, finds a way out of it, and on and on. The series' better periods – including much of this final season – involved Jackie being forced to deal with the consequences of her actions, even if the promise of renewal brought with it the promise of another escape and another backslide. (Phillips talks about this early in the interview.)

The finale had several powerful moments in that vein, particularly Zoe confessing to O'Hara how difficult it is to be Jackie's keeper, and O'Hara in turn calling out Jackie for once again being high on the job. It was good to have O'Hara back, and to have “God” return in better shape than when the series began, which was one of several full circle moments for the finale. Jackie's collapse at the end – regardless of whether she dies or Zoe succeeds in saving her – felt abrupt, even though I understand Phillips' desire to go with an ambiguous ending for a show with a morally ambiguous heroine. Having her collapse, say, an episode earlier, and having the finale be about the ramifications of that would only do so much if she lived, given that we've seen – including through much of this season – Jackie find a way out of the most insurmountable odds.

But there was enough strong material in this final season, including everything Tony Shalhoub did as the dying Dr. Prince, that I was glad to make it to the end, even if that end arguably should have come a couple of years ago.

Anyway, here's me and Phillips:

Let's start with the series' final moments. Is Jackie dead? Alive? What are you even comfortable saying?

Clyde Phillips: What I want – which is evident in the fact that you're even asking the question – I want a question mark there. I want the show to live on in conversation. I want it to live on in conversation in the audience's mind, because Jackie lived such a morally ambiguous life, that I think that the show and the audience deserves to be able to ask questions and make up their own minds. It's interesting you even ask that question, because what it brings me to is the talent of Edie Falco. Imagine, you've got a crew of 60 people standing around, you've got a camera in your face, and you can move your lips a millimeter to form a question mark that then goes through the camera and into the audience's mind. I personally think she's alive – alive and in a lot of trouble. However, I can see how any viewer could think that she didn't make it.

When you came into the show midway through the run, I don't know what kind of communication you had with (co-creators) Liz (Brixius) and Linda (Wallem), but did they convey to you any idea of how they wanted the show to end?

Clyde Phillips: I had no communication with them at all. I just took over the show.

Because you've been on the other side of this with “Dexter,” where you had other people ending a show that you had been running for so long.

Clyde Phillips:That's true, although I left the show voluntarily, to come back and be on the East Coast with my wife and daughter. Then watched “Dexter” go in a direction I never would have taken it. The finale came under a lot of criticism. I feel some criticism about it as well.

But having been on the other side of that, was there any part of you that wondered, “What would they have wanted the ending to be?” Or can you not think like that when you're running a show?

Clyde Phillips: You can't think like that when you're running a show. No part of me thought about, “What would Liz and Linda think about the show?” 

You came onto the show at a time when Jackie had just experienced some of the consequences of her drug-seeking behavior. One of the running themes of the show is that Jackie gets into trouble and then gets herself out of it. As the man in charge of the show in its later years, how did you approach that so that it wouldn't feel repetitive or like she was getting off too cleanly for the various things she had done?

Clyde Phillips: One of the things was, we wanted more consequences. We wanted the consequences to run deeper and to affect her – it had affected her home life, but it wasn't affecting her that much at work. The most important relationship she has in the show, even more important, or equally as important as the one with her daughters, is the one she has with Zoe. We wanted to play that to the fullest extent we could. Buried in your question is another question, which is, did we end the show at the right time? And I think we did. It was a constant struggle to keep going up and back with her. To have her be sober, and have her not be sober, have the audience thinks she's sober and find out that she isn't. I think had we gone any further with the show, we would be doing a disservice to the loyal viewers. Because after a while, they would lose trust in us as storytellers in the same way Zoe lost trust in Jackie.

This final year was one where the consequences really hit her at work, to the point where Zoe feels she has to move on, and Akalitus doesn't want anything to do with her. I take it that was a conscious part of this year's design.

Clyde Phillips: It was a conscious design.  Akalitus is the one who is the healthiest for Jackie, who won't let go of how dangerous Jackie is for herself and potentially to other people. Zoe in the road trip episode, where they take Grace to college, let Jackie back a little bit. She worked out her anger – she actually laid into Grace with a speech that was meant for Jackie – and by the end, they're dancing on the sidewalk. Which led to her being able to have the conversation (in the finale) on a friendly basis, not an accusatory basis. And then, of course, Jackie lets her down.

Jackie has only screwed up at work a couple of times. Usually, she's able to do the job while high, and at times it seems like she's actually better at it while high. When did you feel like you had to go to that place where she's endangering people, and how often?

Clyde Phillips: I think we needed to go to that place because she's not Superwoman. She's in the grips of a ferocious disease. In deepening the consequences, we had to start taking away from her one thing that she could rely on the most, which is her skill as a nurse. She started making mistakes.

Sometimes, shows end with the sense that life goes on, if not for the main character, then for the world they occupied. In this case, not only does Jackie collapse at the end, but All Saints closes. Why did you decide to do that?

Clyde Phillips: All Saints is representative of a hospital, like St. Vincent's, that's been there forever, that defined healthcare in the communities and offered healthcare to the indigent. As the life of our lead character was declining, I think the symbol of her strength was the hospital, and that was leaving her as well. I don't want to get too into the weeds of symbolism, but we think that if the audience wants to see that, it's there for them.

The finale brings back both Dr. O'Hara and “God.” Why those two, and were there any other characters from the show's past you wanted to bring back but couldn't?

Clyde Phillips: To the second part of your question, no. Although Peter Facinelli did visit the set on the last day of shooting. He was in town shooting something else and came by dressed as a doctor. It was a wonderful surprise. We brought back God because there's a little bit of this religious undertone to that last episode. They work in a hospital called All Saints, many scenes take place in the chapel, the opening scene is at a church to discuss confirmation. And Eve Best was such an audience favorite, and it was such a beautiful way to wrap it up. We also wanted somebody to bust Jackie in a way we hadn't seen before, because we've seen Zoe and Akalitus and everyone else come down on Jackie. And now we get to see her best friend realize how messed up Jackie is, and she has to stop it. And they have that great confrontation in the trauma room.

In the last couple of episodes – first with Vigilante Jones possibly flying off the roof of the hospital, then with Jackie imagining herself in the middle of Times Square – you dabble in magical realism, which isn't something the show had done an awful lot of previously. Why at the end?

Clyde Phillips: First of all, I personally love magical realism. The show had gone there before I was on it. The opening shot of the pilot is her in her dress whites, passed out on the floor. And there would be times when she'd be swimming in a sea of pills. We ended the show with that sequence of her walking out of the hospital, and we stuck a few scenes in there, like a kid with green hair running through, that hearkens back to Charlie, a bicycle messenger who hearkens back to the bicycle messenger who died in the pilot. That sort of thing is there if you want to notice it. And then she steps into this yoga scene, which was an amazing thing to shoot in the middle of Times Square in the middle of the Christmas tourist rush. And these people are beckoning her, and that's what she wants. She's a drug addict, she has secrets, and here are these people she's looking at, and they all simultaneously beckon her, and she walks into the middle of that, and it's a place of safety, and her eyes pop open, and she's in the hospital – it happened only in her mind. In the pilot, there was a voiceover of her saying, “Make me good, Lord, but not yet.” And in the beginning of the final episode, when she's in the Church by herself, before the family shows up, she says, “Make me good,” meaning she's ready. And then at the very end of the show, when Zoe's working on her on the floor, Zoe says, “Jackie, Jackie, you're good,” and that's when Jackie's eyes flutter open for a moment. It's storytelling by design.

You mentioned Peter Facinelli before, and when you lost him early in the season, you needed another doctor for the ER. But you made Bernie Prince into a doctor who was hiding a terminal illness, and who eventually became a danger to patients. Was that something that you wanted to parallel what Jackie was going through, or was it simply something you thought Tony Shalhoub would be good at playing?

Clyde Phillips: Tony was the only person we went to, and thank God he said yes. Two things we wanted, and got, from him. One is that, to him, Jackie is a blank slate. He didn't care about her baggage. That refreshes the storytelling, where it's always that Jackie's an anvil and everyone else is a hammer. Also, we wanted somebody with a secret, because Jackie has a big secret. In these parallel secrets, we found that we hit a strong emotional chord, like a tuning fork, when she found out he was ill and everything fell into place. Why is he this crazy, fun-loving, live in the moment guy? It's because he doesn't have a lot of moments left. His last scene in the waiting room – I wrote that scene – is just wrenching. You can imagine the table read for that last episode, we put water bottles down, and food down for everybody, and put Kleenex down for everybody. We cried through that table read.

Speaking of table reads, that this would be the final season was announced via a picture of the actors at the first table read. At what point did you know this would be the end? What kind of conversations were you having with (Showtime boss) David Nevins about it?

Clyde Phillips: Near the end of season 6, David called me and asked me to write an episode that could be a series finale. I basically said to him, in a gentlemanly conversation, “No, I'm not going to cancel my own show.” Tom Straw and I wrote an episode in which there were several cliffhangers. Jackie gets in a car accident, and we end on her mug shot. You can't end a show like that. So we were about two or three episodes into the seventh year, we knew that it was in the network groundwater, but it hadn't been made official. Then they called one day and said, “This is it. Write accordingly, plan accordingly. Let's do this as a beautiful and authentic ending.” Not a lot of shows know they're going to end. And they don't get to write to it. We were lucky that we did.

Just in the way that you break stories for a season, were you at a point before you got that call where you were already thinking about how this season might lead into an eighth or ninth season?

Clyde Phillips: We had a couple of small ideas that were either good or terrible, about if the show would continue, what we would do. We had a whole other ending planned for season 7. And about halfway through the year, we realized that wasn't the right ending.

What was that other ending going to be?

Clyde Phillips: We were going to have Dr. Prince plug his e-cigarette charger into this defunct hospital that's being taken apart, and the hospital catches on fire. And the heroin addict Raven is handcuffed to a bed, and he can't get out, and Jackie runs back in to save him, because all souls deserve to be saved. So for her to run back into the hospital to try to save this hopeless character is very moving, and the hospital is falling around her, and she can't get out either now. Earlier in the season that we had the basement room with the high window. We were going to use that room for this, and we were going to cut to that window and Jackie, for a moment, we don't know what happened to her, and see Jackie pushing herself out of that window like a birth, almost. Now she's in an alley, and all the other characters are looking in another direction, thinking she's not going to make it out of there. And she stops and turns around in the other direction and gets onto an uptown street, and the long-lens “Tootsie” shot, as we call it, and just disappears into the crowd. The reason we didn't do that is that it was about too many other things, and not enough about the character. It didn't feel honest enough to what Jackie had done and what the audience was tuning in for. We wanted to make the ending more authentic to what having this disease is all about. Look at it: we're doing a show about a sociopath drug addict. I've got four words for you about why the audience comes back every week: Edie Falco Edie Falco. We wanted to end with something that's authentic to someone who has that disease.

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What did everybody else think? If you stuck around til the end, were you satisfied with how Jackie's story concluded? If you came back after being away a while, did this feel like the same show to you?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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