Crafting a perfect season finale is next to impossible. Try as showrunners might to piece together what they believe to be the best, most honest end to their season, there will always be some complaint from a fan (or two…million) in the aftermath—which is a shame considering most TV bosses have been working toward these moments all season long.
Ahead of finale season, Entertainment Weekly caught up with a number of showrunners to get their take on how to craft a season-ender—a story that’s in the issue on stands this week. Below, The Vampire Diaries and Originals boss Julie Plec takes us inside the method to her madness, especially in a year where she (and longtime viewers) will be saying goodbye to leading lady Nina Dobrev:
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When you sit down to craft a season finale, what’s the first thing you do? Do you figure out the cliffhanger first and write backwards?
JULIE PLEC: We feel like if we haven’t figured out what our finale is by the time we start shooting the season, we’re in trouble. The season becomes less about crafting the ideal finale and more about crafting the episodes that precede it perfectly so what you’re left with is all that you need to finish the season. It’s is a really delicate juggling act because you can get to the penultimate episode and realize, “Oh my god, we have so much that we have to do to clear the way for these things that we’ve known we wanted to do for the last eight months in the finale.” Or you can get to episode 19 and realize, “Oh god, we have three episodes before the finale, but really only two episodes worth of story.” So, it’s that do-or-die zone of episodes 17 to 21 that’s the hardest balancing act to strike more so than the finale. We always make the joke that the finale writes itself—which is, by the way, not true—but it’s less daunting to break a finale story than it is to break the episodes to run up right to it.
What have you learned in ensuing years of writing season finales that you wish you knew back when you first started?
The first couple years of any show, certainly the first season of any show, more often than not, anything that you thought you were going to do and save for episode 22 gets used up by episode 4 1/2. I’m being slightly hyperbolic, but you don’t know what the show is yet and you don’t know how the show is going to break and how the stories are going to break and how it’s going to work. If you try to save something, you’re creating a stall. If you try to bring up something too soon, then you’re blowing through too much story. It’s about learning your own rhythms in the first season.
For us, in season 2 of The Vampire Diaries, we really struggled with the finale because about halfway through the year the network ordered an extra episode. We went from 22 to 23, so everything that we were planning suddenly we now had to fill out an additional episode’s worth of space. It just became a struggle. What we ended up doing is making our penultimate episode feel very season finale-esque and then our finale kind of an emotional resolution to everything that had happened and a little bit of a tease of what would happen next year. You have to roll with situations like that.
For example, this year, when we started the season, we weren’t 100 percent sure if Nina was done or not. There was still a spiritual conversation being had, so we had two pitches. We had one for our cliffhanger ending that leaves everybody’s life in the balance and then we spend the first part of next season saying goodbye to our character, or we have the, “Well, she’s leaving, so therefore the entire thing we were going to do for half of next season, we now have to do in one episode and our cliffhanger can no longer be a cliffhanger, which means it has to be the penultimate episode.” You’re constantly rolling with stuff like that.
I tend to like the finales because they are, by and large, rooted in very emotional and nostalgic pieces, and those are my favorite things to write more so than the big plot-twisty, wham-bam-thank-you ma’am, run and gun kind of storytelling. I like exploring the character relationships, giving finality or making a new turn into the next phase of people’s life or ending one story and beginning another. It’s actually a very clean and fun way to write. The finales and premieres are always the two favorite episodes.
How do you find the balance of giving fans answers while also leaving some stuff open ended?
Thankfully, we’ve never been a show that’s rooted in a lot of unsolvable mysteries or unanswerable mysteries. Our entire series premise is not built around a singular question—unless you count the people who build it around a singular relationship survival question. We tend to try to clean up as much as we can by the end, if not everything, and then only let the remnants of what existed to tee up the next season last.
We had one season that was really hard. It was the season where Silas appears and we realize it’s Stefan and he throws Stefan over the edge. We had to start the next season almost as if we had no break, almost as if there was no season break. By the time we got six or seven episodes into season 5, we were almost exhausted by the weight of all the stories we were carrying because we carried them over with us from season 4. So we made a really concerted effort at the end of season 5 to broom out everything and to start season 6 with sort of a clean slate and a singular mystery of what happened to Damon. It’s a choice you make every year.
There’s a list of choices you make: Do I want to leave everything as a cliffhanger and then do a direct pickup and carry that baggage with me into the next season? Or do I want to clean everything up and just tease a tone for the next season so that I have the freedom to begin the next season as a true beginning and not as a serialized ending to the previous season? Any good network executive worth their salt will tell you, “Start clean!” but they’ll also be the same ones that will tell you, “Where are all the cliffhangers?” It’s a slippery slope.
Do you feel like you always have to include a cliffhanger because you’re serialized?
We look at it less like, “Oh, we must have cliffhangers,” and more like, “We’ve got to give everybody a reason to come back.” There’s a season finale and a series finale. Nobody ever wants their finale to feel like the show could be over, because that totally takes away from the hopefully awesome moment when you finally do get to do your series finale, which should be everything you ever wanted it to be and more. It’s the whole reason act-out breaks exist, because you’re trying to tell people to come back from commercial. There’s definitely that pressure to give them a little flavor of what’s to come.
With the first season finale of The Originals, you built toward a big villain who you basically killed off immediately in season 2. Was it always the plan to kill off the Guerrera wolves or did you just want to buck expectations?
I feel like we knew that the family and the fable aspect of the show was going to be our season 2 drive once we started breaking season 2. The Guerrera werewolves didn’t really fit into that. The Guerreras were a reminant of the mafia theme of the first season, so it felt like being able to clean up. As Hayley said in the finale, “We have to stay here and clean up the mess that we created.” So being able to clean up that mess in the first episode, where our heroes actually believe they’ve been victorious and done exactly what they set out to do after months of playing this ruse, only to then let the audience discover the biggest mess was yet to come, that was the goal of doing that. It was almost to trick our characters into thinking they had resolved the conflict that had been plaguing them from finale to premiere.
How does the process of writing a season finale change when you’re writing someone out?
This year was different for us because, theoretically, 80 percent of our actors had a six year agreement to be with the show. So we were entering our sixth season and we knew that over the course of the first part of the season that everybody would be making their decisions about whether they want to stay or go. But we liked the idea of having a little bit of fun with teeing up a scenario that put everybody’s fate in question. The idea being, as writers, we needed to protect ourselves that at any point somebody could say, “We’re not coming back.” We got to have a lot of fun with creating a singular scenario that would put everyone’s life in jeopardy. There’s nothing more fun than building to that kind of event because all you’re doing is just planting the seeds all along.
You can call it whatever you want, but it goes back to the Moldavian Massacre of Dynasty back in the ’80s when you just end your season with everyone’s life completely in the balance. One hundred ways to die on The Vampire Diaries. This year, that was the plan, was to end with such a ridiculous and horrific cliffhanger and really not tell the audience who would return and who wouldn’t until the very end. But when Nina decided to depart, we were like, “Well, we can’t do that. That’s absolutely horrible. You can’t just spring that on an audience and then leave them to sit in that all summer,” so we moved up that story a full episode so that the finale could actually be a celebration of and in honor of her character and all that the exit of her character would mean to the story and the other characters and ultimately to us as writers being able to write some goodbye pieces that are very personal and emotional.
Does it bum you out creatively when news leaks about actor exits?
We knew that there was no way we could control Alaric’s secret because [Matt Davis] got the starring role on a show that got picked up to series. Unfortunately for the audience, they got privy to information that we wouldn’t necessarily have liked them to know, but there was no control. With [Michael] Trevino, we actually went out of our way to try to prevent any information about him doing the pilot [ABC’s Kingmakers] from being included in the information about the pilot, figuring if it doesn’t get picked up, no one will know. As we make decisions about his character, and we decide this will be the end of it for him, we will decide whether we want it to be a surprise or announced. But, you know, best laid plans. Those things tend to get out. We figured why not include him? He deserves as much of an exit and as much of a celebration as Nina does.
With Nina, she and I had a talk pretty much when she made up her mind, which was, “However we do this, we have to make sure that we do this in a way that is respectful and not for shock value.” I—as a fan, trying to read myself, what I would think watching a show—said there was no way this can be a surprise. It would be unforgivable for us to play this out and then at the end of the episode as we go into summer, then announce, “Oh, and by the way, this was her last episode, she’s never coming back.” That would be absolutely, completely unforgivable. I, as a fan, would never forgive my favorite show for doing that.
We came up with the idea of announcing it prior to the last run of episodes so the last run of episodes felt like it was a countdown to and a celebration and heartbreak leading to the departure of this character. We were literally planning which day to announce it and something leaked out of our crew BBQ and all of a sudden Twitter was like, “Wait a second, is Nina Dobrev leaving The Vampire Diaries?” And we’re like, “Welp, I guess we’re announcing it today.” But in terms of the strategy of how to announce it, that was something we’d been talking about for months and the timeline was something I believed with utmost passion had to happen well in advance of the finale so that the fans had time to register the news and to watch how we worked our way towards her departure.
There are good twists and turns and good surprises and then there are just cruel and terrible, terrible secrets. Like Ned Stark? Awesome. Nobody could’ve ever seen it coming, so therefore the shock value was so extreme that you just were so blown away by it and it got you talking about the show all year. But that was year one of the show. If Ned Stark was six years deep and just died in the finale and they’re like, “Okay, that’s it,” I’d be so pissed.
How does the process change when you’re writing towards a spinoff, as you did with The Originals?
That was a tough one. We had pretty good confidence that the spinoff would move forward. I would say the odds were 90/10 as opposed to 50/50, but we knew we had to say goodbye to these characters from Mystic Falls potentially forever without making the entire finale about their departure because technically the spinoff episode had been about their departure, so it would’ve been wildly redundant to have the spinoff episode and then two episodes later have them leave all over again. It was tricky, but we had the beauty of graduation, so when you talk about knowing where you need to end the whole year before, we always knew that graduation was the end of our four. We always knew it was who takes the cure and it’s graduation. We had so much good human and emotional story to work with that it didn’t need to be about the goodbye to the originals.
Ultimately, what would you say is the most challenging thing about crafting a finale and what’s the easiest?
The most challenging thing is trying to top yourself every year without losing complete control of yourself. And the easiest thing is if you’ve planned your season right, the finale should be the easiest episode of the entire season to do.
The season finale of The Originals airs Monday, May 11 at 8 p.m. ET, followed by the season finale of The Vampire Diaries on Thursday, May 14 at 8 p.m. ET on The CW.