Search Party bosses break down Dory's finale fate: 'There's still story to tell'
Warning: This article contains spoilers from the season 4 finale of Search Party, which went live Thursday on HBO Max.
Where does Dory go from here? That's the question viewers are left with after the season 4 finale of Search Party.
After being found by her friends and overcoming Chip's brainwashing, Dory (Alia Shawkat) returned to Chip (Difficult People's Cole Escola) in episode 9, the penultimate episode, and begged him to reprogram her once again because she didn't want to be herself anymore. Alas, Chip declined, and his recklessly wealthy mom-aunt, Lylah (Susan Sarandon), trapped Dory in her mansion and set it on fire to cover up everything her son-nephew did. As Dory lay in the smoke-filled room with no hope of escape, she recalled how she had an opportunity to get away from Chip way back in the premiere but decided not to for reasons, right before seemingly taking her final breath and dying.
The bulk of the season finale followed a ghostly Dory as she observed friends at her funeral and confronted different parts of herself — but the final moments revealed that it was all in Dory's head, and the fire department showed up in time to save her. "I saw everything!" Dory said when she dramatically woke up from her near-death experience, coughing and eyes wide open, as paramedics tended to her.
Over the summer, EW observed showrunners Sarah-Violet Bliss and Charles Rogers and editor Jon Philpot as they edited episode 9 via Zoom, and we recently caught up with them again to talk about working during a pandemic, the season 4 finale, Dory's fate, and more.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When I sat in on the episode 9 editing session, you were concerned because it was three seconds too long and you hoped HBO Max wouldn't mind. Did they let you keep the episode at that length?
SARAH-VIOLET BLISS: I recall we had to cut the three seconds out. That's what I recall.
CHARLES ROGERS: Yes, I remember there was actually a back-and-forth about that because HBO Max is like, "Oh yeah, you gotta cut the three seconds," and then we had some error in calculation in the edit where for a second we were like, "Wait, you don't have to cut it. Actually, it's perfect." But then [we realized] there were three seconds we needed to cut out. I remember there was like a mini-drama about it.
I feel like a lot of us assume that streamers give creators a lot of freedom, especially when it comes to episode runtimes. With Search Party, were you given runtime limits?
BLISS: Yeah, that was also part of what we were wondering, if there was going to be leniency because of streaming, and the network was also figuring out if they were going to have leniency with streaming. So they were figuring it out as they went. So part of that back-and-forth, I remember also that being like, "Yes, that's fine," and then being like, "Oh, you know what? No, it's actually not. We're keeping it at a certain time," which I don't even remember now.
ROGERS: It's like 30 minutes.
BLISS: I don't know if it's different across different platforms, but for HBO Max, they decided at least Search Party needs to be 30 minutes.
During the editing session, you mentioned how you used to make two versions of the episode when you were on TBS and would tell people to watch the longer version online. Are you feeling grateful you don't have to do that anymore and there's just one version?
BLISS: It's so much better.
ROGERS: Definitely. I feel like we are spoiled with it though because even now that we have nine more minutes, we still found a way to be like, "We need more time!"
BLISS: We need those three seconds!
You shot season 4 before everything shut down due to COVID-19 but were editing virtually during the pandemic. What was it was like having to edit remotely?
BLISS: It was not as bad as you'd think it might be. The weirdest part was sound, because sound does not translate very well over Zoom, especially like intricacies. So part of me is like, "I'm gonna hear for the first time if it came out exactly like I wanted it to when it airs." But you do get the QuickTime [file], so I'm pretty sure it came out the way we wanted it to. But as you're editing, that can be the trickier part because usually when you're at the station, you can hear the sound stuff. But for the edit, it wasn't so bad. There were some technical difficulties, but there always are.
Did knowing season 4 was going to air on HBO Max from the beginning change how you approached writing the season?
ROGERS: It really only changed one thing, which was that [on TBS] we were always structuring act breaks around commercial breaks and having that sort of cliffhanger [to] commercial break scene energy. But now that there aren't breaks, it's a different structure. In a way, I kind of miss that commercial break energy. It was always fun to leave a scene off a spooky or a thrilling moment. But now the cliffhangers really come at the end of the episode. That's really the one big cliffhanger you get when you don't have commercial breaks.
A co-worker and I had different interpretations of episode 9's ending, specifically the flashback to Dory deciding to get back in Chip's trunk after escaping it in the season premiere. I thought she was recalling an unset moment from the premiere that actually happened, but my co-worker thought Dory was imagining that and realizing she still would've chosen to get back in trunk after everything that happened. Can you shed some light on what viewers should take away from that moment?
ROGERS: We really liked the idea that Dory was withholding some aspect that she knew about herself from herself all this time. We wanted it to be some kind of action that she could take that wasn't necessarily totally out of left field, but could speak to this impulse in her that's always wanting to, for lack of a better way of putting it, keep the story going. So there was an element of her throughout the series that was always making a reckless choice in search of some greater experience. We liked the idea that in [the fire] she's no longer denying all of the things about herself that scare her, and that was a culminating memory that she didn't want to acknowledge.
BLISS: But yes, that is what she actually did.
I'm glad I was right. Did this idea of her acknowledging these sides of herself lead into the finale — just in terms of coming face to face with these shadow versions of herself?
ROGERS: Yeah, very much so. We wanted there be some idea of white light or epiphany in season 4. We had talked about a lot of different ways that she could experience self-actualization. When we thought of this funeral idea, we thought it could be something neat about the idea of self-actualization after you die [laughs], and that Dory does integrate all of these different sides of herself that you've seen throughout the season and finally comes to some conclusive rest, but it is also in death, which is a weird idea that we thought could be interesting.
Did you seriously consider killing Dory off, or was that never on the table?
ROGERS: You would be amazed how many things were on the table for season 4. We did consider killing Dory off. So when we decided to make it be that she had a [near-death] experience that she came back from, it felt like we had done the work to really live in the reality of her death and what it would be like to attend her funeral. I think because we spent so long seriously thinking about killing Dory off, when we did come to the idea of her waking up from it, it kind of made the writing of that funeral more impactful because it felt like we had really taken it there.
Dory isn't the only character who experienced a profound self-realization this season. In episode 9, Drew, Elliott, and Portia each broke down while sitting on the curb of the road. After three seasons, why did it feel right to bring the group to this brink of acknowledging their problems?
BLISS: I mean, I think that's just where the story started and unfolded at this moment. It just came to its head naturally within this literal fever pitch within the fire. And it was where they were pushed to their limits and come to this moment where they all just have this catharsis of needing to admit they don't know who they are and it's kind of eating them up inside.
The Chantal-centric episode definitely surprised me. Why did it feel important to check back in and giver he an entire episode in the home stretch of the season?
ROGERS: We had a lot of different ideas. We wanted to keep following Chantal's story line, especially because she gets arrested at the end of season 3. So it just felt like we needed to follow up on her throughout the season, and she's kind of like fun candy for the audience. When we get to a point where we thought it would be really fun to have a full bottle episode that felt kind of like an epic movie, and we wanted it to circle back in some way where everything you've watched in the Chantal episode ends up directly affecting Dory's journey all over again, and there are little Easter eggs that have been planted throughout the season that come together when you finally watch that episode. We liked the idea that the minute you take the break in this whole narrative is when it's all coming to a fever pitch, and Chantal is the one who ends up unlocking Dory and deprogramming her, whereas the friends couldn't do it. So it all just ended up working out that way. The unfortunate thing is that Clare McNulty doesn't get paid as much because she's only in one episode.
After bringing these characters to the point where they realize they don't know themselves, did you write the finale as a series finale, or are you hoping to do a season 5 and explore the aftermath of this?
BLISS: You know, we'll see.
ROGERS: We wanted this season to have a culminating energy to it, especially because it's about giving in and finally admitting things about yourself. There's something about that that has a conclusive nature to it, where if it were the last season, you could be satisfied with the characters all having a sense of catharsis. But also every season has a cliffhanger that sets up something that would be interesting to unpack. So in that regard, we wanted there to be….There's still story to tell on the other side of having a [near]-death experience, if there was to be another season.
Finally, did Griffin Dunne and Susan Sarandon know they were going to play an incestuous brother-sister duo when they signed on? How did you pitch the roles to them?
BLISS: We had a conversation with Griffin Dunne over the phone about the character. I remember being like having to pitch him the whole character idea and being like, "I know it sounds crazy, but here's what it is and here's what we're thinking. I think you'd be great," and talking about the whole idea. But he seemed really excited and into it. And then with Susan, we're friends with her son and he's a big fan of the show and I think he was like, "This is something you should do." I do remember when she [realized what was going on], she was like, "Wait, I seduced him? Okay, okay." It's just funny things that we make our actors approach.