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In 2009, Vampire Diaries showrunner Julie Plec welcomed viewers to Mystic Falls for what would become eight seasons of epic love and epic twists. The following year, Pretty Little Liars showrunner I. Marlene King kicked off the seven-season story of Rosewood, a town filled with high-stakes friendship and mystery. Both shows would attract rabid fanbases that would sustain them until they aired their final episodes in 2017.
EW asked King and Plec to talk about their experiences saying goodbye.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When it came to ending your shows, what were you most nervous about?
I. MARLENE KING: At the time, I was the most nervous about keeping it together at certain moments on set, for example the scene in the finale where the girls say goodbye. We knew that would be really really difficult and I was sort of punching myself for writing it, but I knew that it would be worth it. Then as we got closer to airing the episode, we all started to get a little bit nervous about how it was going to be received because people are really harsh on finales.
JULIE PLEC: I felt that heavy pressure as a fan of television to make sure we stuck the landing because I get so crushed when I see what I perceive to be a mediocre series finale. I wanted people to talk about the finale of The Vampire Diaries as one of their favorites, which is a lofty ambition, but it certainly drove me hard creatively to make sure that we had put as much thought and love into it as we possibly could.
Once the finale aired, was there anything that surprised you about the fan reaction?
KING: I was very floored by the Spoby fans. It never occurred to any single one of us that those fans would be unhappy with the ending because I feel like there’s this remarkable, wonderful moment between Spencer and Toby where he realizes she is the real Spencer. He was her knight in shining armor, but the fans were still upset that he had sex with Alex Drake. So that really surprised me. I felt like they got their happy ending, but the true Spoby fans were very upset and I feel bad about that to this day.
PLEC: For me there’s always that faction of shippers who can’t look at an episode in a global way and enjoy the experience of the entire story, who can only really count minutes of screen time for their ship, and I figured, when all was said and done, that there would be some cranky people. But I also decided I didn’t care. I decided I wasn’t making the finale for anybody who still had anything invested in the love triangle. I was making it for people who were invested in the relationship between the brothers. That freed up Kevin [Williamson] and me from any pressure we felt about what the fandom might think.
What were the biggest debates when crafting your endings?
KING: We had so many different endings. At one point in time, I was going to end with the girls saying goodbye, and then we were going to end with the Mona reveal, and then we were going to end with a little reboot, not to set up a spin-off, but with the new girls saying, “The mythology of this town continues.”
PLEC: I wanted flash-forwards. Ever since we decided to put Elena in a sleeping beauty spell that couldn’t be broken until Bonnie died, I wanted to see the scene with 85-year-old Bonnie and Damon by her side, and they’re the best of friends. And then she dies of natural causes because I just thought that Bonnie deserved a rich and full life. I had this scene in my head for so long and then Kevin [felt] that stories are more impactful when you play them in the here and now. So we compromised by showing everybody just slightly ahead in their life and having those characters observing from peace, which in my opinion worked like a charm and I’m so happy we did it that way. The other big debate we had was: Which Salvatore brother is going to take the bullet for the other? We debated that so much because we could make a really strong case for either. And we finally settled on Damon was going to die. And then Kevin walked into the room and he’s like, “What’s Stefan’s life going to be like?” I said, “He’s going to be happy with Caroline and uh uh… uh, I don’t know.” [Laughs] I’m like, “You’re right, it needs to go the other way.” It was so funny because we had thought about it in the room so much that we had talked ourselves into one path, but all we needed was him to walk in and be like, “But… isn’t it cooler the other way?” And so we switched it. He gets all the credit for that.
Marlene, did you ever consider killing a main character like Julie did?
KING: No. I’m a total happy-ever-after person. I felt like the fans deserved to see the girls happy and the characters deserved to be happy. They’re going to be scarred from this existence for the rest of their lives, but I wanted to give them hope.
PLEC: I look at Friday Night Lights as one of my all-time favorite series finales and that is what you want. After all the roads you’ve traveled with these people, you just want to know that they’re going to be happy. I’m a big believer in shows that make that choice.
KING: I still want Walter White to be alive. [Plec laughs]
You both directed your series finales — why was that important to you?
KING: I love directing because first and foremost you get to be with your on-set family. But also, as the creator, there’s nobody who knows how to put it on the screen more than you. I might not be the best director in the world but my team around me, we all work together to make it the best episode. There are more experienced people than me at directing, but I always feel like my heart and soul is up on that screen. I think Julie probably would feel the same way but you can tell me if I’m wrong.
PLEC: Everything you just said is exactly how I would sum that up. The only thing I would add is that often the relationship between a showrunner and an episodic director can be fraught with tension, and I wouldn’t want to have that tension around for the last episode, which is such a celebration. And secondly, what I was able to do because I was there deciding if we could run over was then very fluidly honor the set we were leaving behind for the last time, or say a big group farewell to Damon’s car when we wrapped it for the last time, and then not to mention, honor each actor individually as they shot their last scene. So it turned into one big celebration, which somebody else wouldn’t have been able to do that without worrying about the time they were wasting.
KING: I’m sure you found this experience too where it was such a group effort. There were recurring actors on our show who weren’t even in the finale who came to say goodbye to certain characters. It was such a family affair.
PLEC: Yeah, the overall experience was so profoundly beautiful. Watching these actors get hit with that realization that they’re done and this family they’ve built is gathered around them to say goodbye, watching them all completely fall apart was so great. It felt like we were graduating high school.
KING: That was our wrap gift was high school yearbooks that we put together over the course of the whole season to give to people.
PLEC: That’s such a great gift.
I know both your fandoms loved to talk about certain couples being “endgame.” What do you feel are the biggest myths out there about ending shows?
PLEC: When fans would say, “Oh you’re teeing up endgame,” I would say, “I am teeing up nothing because I am letting these characters tell me how they want their story to end.” And within that, you’re working off of actor chemistry, and you’re working off of your lead actress leaving the series after six years, which shuts the door to explore a return to the other corner of the love triangle. I would’ve happily worked my way back around to Stefan and Elena at some point in the series if Nina Dobrev hadn’t left, if the story led me that way. There is no definitive end to anybody’s story when you’re dealing with the fluidity of chemistry because when it gets stale, you want out. It doesn’t matter if these characters are supposed to be together forever, if their chemistry gets stale, you want somebody to die, you want to put somebody in a coma, you want to write them off the show, anything to save you.
KING: I would say that too. I totally agree with that, 100 percent. But for us, what I didn’t understand because I had never gone through a series finale before was the absolute yin and yang of it. In one respect, you have so much relief and it’s like the weight of the world is off your shoulders and, at the same time, you’re experiencing a death. I never expected to have such extreme feelings at the same time. It was exhausting.
Looking back now, is there anything you’d do differently?
KING: Yes, I would have Spencer and Toby kiss! I wouldn’t change anything plot-wise — we always knew Alex Drake was going to be our Uber A — but I do feel like I would’ve loved to have given Spoby the extra bonus happy ending, but you’d have to have another hour for that.
[Plec admits she has one regret that she won’t discuss, but she will say it involves kissing.]
What was the most difficult scene of the finale
PLEC: All year long, I cried to the point where it got embarrassing. So I thought when I finally wrote the script that I would just be sobbing, and I didn’t. I thought, “Oh god, I’ve lost my ability to be in touch with my soul.” [Laughs] But then I made up for it by crying the last 10 days that we shot the series.
KING: I finished the script, except for that scene where the girls say goodbye. I didn’t write that until the day before the table read. I just couldn’t get it out.
PLEC: Marlene, do you think you’ll ever feel this way again when you bring something to a close?
KING: I might change my mind but I want to say no. This was so special that if I ever get it again, I’ll be shocked.
PLEC: Yeah, me too. I’m incredibly grateful to have gotten to feel as much as I felt.