Spoiler alert: This post contains plot from the Kingdom series finale.
On Wednesday, Alvey Kulina walked out of the cage for the last time, and right along with him, Kingdom ended its fight with a series finale that was the show’s strongest hour to date, despite the fact that it wasn’t originally intended to be the series finale. (The show was canceled after filming had ended on the third season.)
To honor the underappreciated AT&T series, EW spoke with the cast and creator to say goodbye to three seasons of fights, family drama, and, of course, Jay’s sunglasses.
Jonas had the most permanent goodbye of the series when Nate was shot and killed in the show’s penultimate episode, leaving the finale to serve as an opportunity for the other characters to, fittingly, say goodbye. “The beautiful thing about my departure from the show was that everyone was on board to make it the best story and the best execution of that story possible,” Jonas says. “It was all hands on deck in that way, and I think when you feel that freedom to dive into something like that, it makes the end feel like it was totally worth it and that it was the right thing.”
“This has been the ride of a lifetime,” Jonas continues. “I’m just really thankful to have been given the chance to go on that journey with everyone, and more than anything, Byron — thanks for writing great stuff.”
Nate’s loss hit Jay (Jonathan Tucker) the hardest. From the pilot, the show told the story of two very different brothers leaning on each other to get through life. “The potency of great relationships in real life or any form of art is always predicated on the fact that you know you’re going to lose somebody,” Tucker says. “Nothing is permanent. Real life is finite and fragile, and so much of our show really digs into those two ideas.”
For Tucker, stories like Nate dying are one of the things that Kingdom did best: “Life is real and it’s hard and it’s complicated and it’s beautiful and many times, it’s all those things at the same time, which is what I think Kingdom does well — it honors the complexities of life.”
In terms of the series finale, one of Jay’s final scenes — and the last in which he has dialogue — is when he eulogizes his brother in front of tens of thousands of people before his father’s fight. In that moment, Jay is balancing being a protective big brother and being a shell of a man as he both pays his respects to his brother and calls out everyone in the room who didn’t accept his brother when they found out he was gay. Let’s just say that Jay is probably the only person who could work the phrase “chicken s–t motherf–ker” into a eulogy. As Tucker says, “It’s one of the great things about Jay: Even in a moment like this, he’s willing to stand up for what he believes in and defend those that he loves.”
As for the moment after Alvey’s fight — which spoiler: Alvey wins — Jay and his father embrace in a way fans of the show have never seen. “I whispered ‘great fight,'” Tucker says, remembering the notes from the script that said to grab Alvey with softness and speak to him like a child. “It is a step in the right direction,” Tucker explains of the hug. “We’re the only two people who really know what it’s like to lose Nate. He doesn’t know it the same way that I do in any respect, but there’s that comity of brotherhood. There’s so many relationships that I’ve witnessed in my journey where the bonds of loss reveal themselves amongst unlikely characters. Even if I acknowledge he was a part of Nate’s death, there’s still the gray of life that brings us together.”
When it comes to saying goodbye to Jay, Tucker admits he’s struggled with leaving the character behind. “I love acting and I’ve read so much about it from so many different teachers in their books, online, in their classes. And yet, having pursued it as much as I have, I have never found a book that’s been like, well, this is how you let go of a character, this is the process of saying goodbye to a character,” Tucker says. “Saying goodbye is a wholly unique process and it’s one afforded to the luckiest amongst us because it means you’ve had the chance to create an authentic character, a character that people have responded to, a character that’s been on the air now for 40 episodes. It’s this really beautiful and painful process to acknowledge what we’ve done but also the pain that comes with it. It’s saying goodbye. It’s very challenging.”
A defeated Alvey will forever serve as the final shot of the series, and though Grillo admits he’d hoped for another season in Alvey’s shoes, it is one helluva ending. “Selfishly, I would’ve loved to come back, but I think as far as the crescendo, the last scene with Alvey just sitting against a wall, if you were going to write an ending to a show, that’s kind of a cool ending,” he says.
Of course, that last shot is the culmination of everything that’s happened to Alvey since the moment his son told him he was gay. “It’s interesting because Frank the actor has known the character’s been gay the whole time, so I couldn’t wait for the audience to see him find out,” Grillo says. “I’m glad that we got a chance at least to let the audience know that Alvey now knows that he’s gay.”
As for what happened next and Nate’s death, Grillo admits the finale was not hard to film in terms of finding the emotion. “Joanna [Going] and I are both parents,” Grillo says specifically of the scene where Alvey breaks down in his kitchen, “I think we were both kind of imagining the show without Nick. It was a bunch of different emotions. It was not a hard place to get to, believe me. We were sobbing like little kids.”
And then there’s the Jay-Alvey hug. “These are two men who are searching for something in their lives,” Grillo says. “Jonathan’s such a great actor; he’s so amazing. It would’ve been cool to explore not the fight world but the family world.” However, as much as he would’ve liked to continue telling this story, Grillo believes this is “actually the perfect finale for a TV show.”
And for him, he calls Kingdom “one of the greatest, if not the greatest, experiences of my career. Hands down.”
For Going, her greatest challenge in filming the series finale was not crying too much. “The episode was effortless. I was holding it back,” she says of the fact that Christina ended up having to be strong so that both Alvey and Jay could crumble. “I’ve always felt she’s strong,” she says. “It ultimately made sense because she’s lost Nate, but Jay is falling apart in front of her eyes and she’s got to take care of him and take care of Alvey. I think that’s all she’s ever wanted is to be taking care of someone, so she comes through.”
Going mirrors her castmates’ sentiments when it comes to the heartbreak surrounding the show ending before they were ready. “There’s so much more I wanted to know about her,” she says of her character. “It was really hard. I loved playing her, it was the stretch of my career, it really challenged me and I loved playing with the people in that sandbox — all of those actors and our crew too. This was a different level of love and commitment for a project and we felt that from day one. It never got old. And we were always excited about these people and the story we were telling. I’ll really miss Byron’s words. I’ll really miss his writing. I’m going to miss being on this journey with him.”
If any character ended on a good note — at least professionally — it was Lisa, who took over Garo’s job as the president of King Beast Promotions. “It was really wonderful to show a woman in a male-dominated world be the boss. I think it’s important in this day and age especially, like, right now,” Sanchez says with a laugh. “It is slightly satisfying for me that Lisa, in the end, pulled away from this idea of family. It’s something that has been the hole in her heart since her mom died when she was young and she found it in this world and with the Kulinas specifically, and even with the other fighters in the gym. At a certain point she looked around and saw that she was fighting for a family that gave her nothing, but that they had a history together. So for her own survival, she took the job at King Beast and made this huge jump forward as far as her career, as far as her own evolution as a person and in the end, I thought it was fitting that she was coronated as this queen of King Beast Promotions. It’s called King Beast and there’s a woman running it.”
Sanchez admits that Nate’s death was a catalyst for Lisa making that decision. But his death — and the death of the show — is a big reason she hasn’t yet watched the final season. “I’m still shedding her,” she says of letting go of Lisa. “I said this to Byron: I watched the finale of Girls this season, I watched the finale of The Leftovers this season, and they were shows that knew that they were ending, and I feel like they ended in a way that felt incredibly satisfying. It also had to be satisfying for the creators and the actors to be like, all right, this is how this chapter of these people’s lives ends. I’m sad and angry that we didn’t get that, especially for Byron. It just all feels so cut short.”
That being said, Sanchez looks back on her experience fondly, with her biggest takeaway being “the connections I had with these people. I was honored to be a part of the stellar work all around me. There wasn’t a weak link. Every single person was completely dedicated and passionate about what we were doing and it was really a joy to work with these people. They’re all incredible people.”
“In essence, this season is about family,” Lauria says, reflecting on Ryan’s season 3 arc and his struggle in deciphering, “Am I family or am I a commodity?” And despite some of his lapses, in the end, Ryan sided with his Navy Street family, with Nate’s death serving as the final thing that made him realize that he belonged.
“When push comes to shove and Dom comes in and starts talking trash on Lisa and Alvey in the bar, I say, ‘They’ve been with me through a lot,’ and that’s my way of saying they’re my family and you don’t f–k with the family,” Lauria says. “And at the end of it, I choose them over him because they’re family. And then at the end of the season, it’s a redemption story. When the pressure is off me and I can’t fight, it all becomes about: What does Alvey need, how can I help him, how can I be his brother?”
(Speaking of brothers, Lauria says there’s “no doubt” in his mind that Ryan will continue to visit Keith in jail for as long as he’s there.)
But when it comes to leaving Ryan behind, Lauria says: “It was hard to shake off because I’m so different than the version of myself that is Ryan. It takes me a while to shake it off and stop caring about the things that matter to Ryan as much. I spent a lot of time with this character and a lot of time in the world of the character.”
Byron Balasco (creator)
Ending the show one episode after killing a main character, Balasco took a risk, which ultimately paid off. “Everybody stepped up,” he says. “These are really hard episodes to do because you can get into a feeling of aftermath, which can be a little bit boring, but I like the way that we did it. I’m really impressed by the way the cast stepped up and took what could be a little bit melodramatic and really grounded it. It made the whole thing more visceral and more impactful.”
Speaking to the fans, Balasco says, “For those that watched, I’m very grateful. Thank you. We will miss making the show, but I’m very gratified with the 40 episodes we made and that it’s out there in the world.”