'You could not have had this story unless Sharon had passed on, and was not around anymore,' James Duff tells EW
Major Crimes has closed its final case.
The TNT procedural, after a run that exceeded more than 100 episodes, capped its sixth and final season by bringing series villain Phillip Stroh back for one last time, and by forcing those left in the department’s Major Crimes Division to move on without their Commander, Sharon Raydor (Mary McDonnell), who shockingly died four episodes earlier.
Raydor’s death casts a long shadow over the events of Major Crimes‘ climax, a feeling which was very much by design. As creator James Duff explains, the arc of the show was such that its captain needed to die after leading our heroes into the final battle, without being there to see it through herself. It’s only fitting that Stroh (Billy Burke), whose existence dates back to the earlier days of The Closer, was the final adversary.
For Duff, the end of Major Crimes, a spin-off of the Emmy-winning (and also long-running) The Closer, marks the end of a 14-year-ride. The creator broke down the final season of the TNT drama with EW: Why he killed off Raydor and when he decided to do so, what it meant for the rest of the show, and how he feels about exactly where the series landed before cutting to black for the last time. Read on below for our full interview.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Since we last spoke, quite a bit has happened!
JAMES DUFF: Yeah. [Laughs]
Let’s start with the big question: Why did you decide to kill off your protagonist several episodes before finishing your show?
There were a ton of reasons. Let me start with the creative reasons: I have an actor in a leading role who has been nominated for two Academy Awards, and I wanted to give her something extraordinary to play. She did an amazing job. She knocked it out of the stratosphere. Also, we knew we were not going to be back because of the way the network had treated us. Well, we had no idea they were going to cancel us before we even aired; that was a huge surprise. Not because we didn’t know that they were going to do it — it’s just that we didn’t know they were going to do it then. There was a chance, actually, that they could’ve ordered more episodes after we finished the run, and we didn’t want that to happen either. We knew the show was finished even though that has not been announced. This is what would have happened: Mary would have been trapped inside our show after it had literally died, and she would not be offered work. She’s a mature artist. I wasn’t going to put her on the shelf and hold her there just to see if something would happen on some wild hope. We accepted our fate.
What was that conversation with Mary like?
Mary and I looked at each other and said, “This is obviously dead. How do we want to manage that?” And we also wanted to give viewers a chance to mourn with us as we fade to black — a chance to grieve the show and to accept that the show is over, that the show has ceased. This was the way we thought we could accomplish a lot of different goals, with this one action. And we did. I feel like we made the right choice. Also I would point out that the character archetype who leads their heroes to the final battle, but does not get to participate in that final battle, is as old as Western thought. We wanted to give the show a mythic structure for its last four episodes, five episodes, and that’s what we did. I feel like I did the right thing — not just for now. I didn’t do the right thing just for the people who are watching now. Series don’t go away anymore. They run and they run and they run; people come to them and they arrive at them. This is how the story ends. This is how we put a period on it. I’ve felt an obligation to write from my soul to my heart this ending. And as we got to the very end, you saw, it could not have ended this way if Sharon had been around.
Were you at all worried about audience response? It’s a risky choice — something that audiences aren’t always so used to, saying goodbye to their hero before the story is over.
I knew it was going to be a controversial decision, and I knew also that a lot of people would be upset. But the vast majority of people are not upset, and our ratings have gone up! So much for the “We’re never watching!” crowd. I fully expected a great deal of controversy and I also fully expected that controversy to lift our ratings, and that’s exactly what happened. Even if it weren’t going to lift our ratings, I had an obligation to my friend that transcended ratings and that transcended how any group of audience is going to feel right now. My obligation to Mary was far greater than my obligation who feel like they’d been shortchanged.
You mentioned that there was some uncertainty as to just how definitive the cancellation would be when you made this decision to kill off Sharon. Was there any plan for extending the show, should TNT have gone that route?
We gave the network a chance to say “Don’t do this.” It’s not like the network did not approve it. I had, before, put Mary in difficult situations just to force the network’s hand in terms of picking up the show or not picking up the show — twice before, I’ve done that, and they ended up picking up the show and told me not to do that. “Don’t do that, and we’ll pick up the show.” That’s not what happened this time. We knew where we stood. The original idea was, I’ll start this heart issue of Sharon’s and I’ll play this heart issue over two years. We felt like we had a good shot at coming back. But in the event, I played it over nine episodes. I could have ignored the writing on the wall and just let the show peter out. But that didn’t seem fair, either; it didn’t seem like a great way to treat the people who had watched it all this time. It felt like they deserved a period at the end of the sentence.
What was the feeling as you wrote toward that finish?
It was very upsetting. Ages before other people, we were watching the show. It was like watching your home disappear. This was our professional life. When you think about it, a lot of the people who were here, we were together for more than 13 years; we went through kindergarten and graduated high school together, and started off college. There was no reason other than the change in direction from our network why we should go, because the audience wasn’t asking us to go. The audience wanted us to stay. It was very difficult. It was a very, very difficult parting, and lots of people were hurt, angry, and upset. But it also helped people accept it, like, “Okay, this is what we’re doing.” It really helped us appreciate the last few episodes we had together as a working family. Mary called in on our last day of shooting and talked to everybody on speakerphone. She’d never had off, believe it or not! She and her husband had never had off in the fall, ever, in their whole lives. So suddenly she had some time off in September; her kids were out of school, and she and her husband went on a fall road trip and had a blast. She called from the road and shared our final day with us.
How did you map out the rest of the season, beyond Sharon’s death?
We always knew that we were going to finish with Phillip Stroh this year. We hired him early on. We knew we were going to do it. TNT had ordered us to do these longer-form stories — five-parters and four-parters. So we took on the assignment of, why would Phillip Stroh come back, and how can we tell his whole story? Who would his accomplice be — because he always has one. And what would the challenge be for the squad? We could not have told this story this way with Sharon in place. That was also something that we demanded of ourselves: This story had to be what they were prepared to do without Sharon. It’s impossible to think of Sharon saying “by any means.” Although that is a legal term and it is a term that you sometimes hear, it is impossible to imagine Sharon saying those words. And impossible to imagine some of the stuff that has happened, under her watch. And the end is impossible: You could not have had this story unless Sharon had passed on, and was not around anymore. It’s just impossible to imagine it. That’s what we wanted to do: a story that demanded everybody take on some responsibility for what was about to happen, and to see how well they would do without her. They learned what they hoped to accomplish in her absence.
What kind of note did you want to end on? How do you feel about the execution?
I feel very good about the finale. People may come away from the finale feeling different things; right now, I don’t know how people will immediately feel, but we all felt like we did the right thing. The very end, the very last scene, is slightly defiant. I feel like we set the stage to allow these characters to possibly fly into legendary status, and we’ll see what happens as the years unfold. Like I said earlier, I’m not just writing a series for today because this series is already in syndication. It’s probably going to run several times over the course of the next 10 years in different venues and on different platforms. This story is going to go on for a while. I feel like we now have the right ending for it.
You’ve been in this world for more than a decade, and TV has changed quite a bit. What’s next?
I’m thinking about that right now. We’ll see where the industry takes me. I’m going to spend a few minutes looking around and seeing what the business is like because, yes, it’s changed a lot in the last 14 years. It’s changed a great deal. I need to see where I fit in, in the new world, and if I fit in. I’m hopeful that I can find a way to do another show.