It’s the end of the road for “Grace and Frankie.” The longest-running Netflix original series dropped its final 12 hours on Friday, bringing the total count to 94 episodes. The comedy, created by Marta Kauffman, followed Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda’s Grace Hanson and Frankie Bergstein who became friends after their husbands revealed they were in love with each other.
During the last episode, Sol (Sam Waterston) helped Robert (Martin Sheen) through his memory loss, bringing him back to the hotel where they shared their first kiss in the elevator. Meanwhile, after getting electrocuted during a hug, Grace and Frankie landed in heaven; while Frankie is OK with that, Grace is not. So, who better to talk to than an angel in heaven, Agnes, played by Dolly Parton herself. At first, Agnes agreed to send Grace back down to Earth, as Frankie was the only one meant to die from the electrocution.
Both women try to explain that they can’t — and don’t want to — exist without the other, but Agnes wasn’t convinced until witnessing their emotional goodbye. With that, she let them know that she’ll be turning around and leaving the “Return” stamp on her desk, right where Frankie can use it. So, they both are able to head back to the beach and walk together into the sunset.
Here, Kauffman speaks to Variety about how difficult it was to wrap up the beloved show after seven seasons, creating a “9 to 5” reunion with Dolly Parton and the tough process of crafting the perfect ending.
Why was now the right time to end the show?
It was a combination of things. When you do a show, the show begins to tell you when it’s over. We felt like we told the stories we wanted to tell and we didn’t have a lot that we needed to expand upon. I think Netflix was ready, too, so it sort of worked out perfectly. You don’t want to overstay your welcome.
How early on did you have this ending, the heaven aspect, mapped out in your mind?
I’ll be 100% honest: Not early enough. It was really hard. We knew one or two things that we wanted to do, but we really didn’t understand how we were going to make it work, and it wasn’t until after we went back — when we finished shooting mid-COVID-19 crazy stuff — that we really had to face that we didn’t have an ending yet. Endings are harder than pilots. They’re so much harder. You want people to feel satisfied by things, you want them to feel unexpected. They’re really hard.
Were there many different options in your mind, different directions you spoke about going in?
We knew where Robert and Sol were going to end up. That much we knew. We didn’t know exactly how that was going to work, but we knew where we wanted them to end up and what we wanted that last episode to be about for them. In terms of the Grace and Frankie story, we had a few iterations of it. Who was going to heaven? We didn’t know. That was a big thing to try to figure out, and COVID made things more difficult in terms of needing to do rewrites. You can’t have that many people in a scene, and you can’t have that many extras, so we were constantly adjusting. We didn’t have the luxury of months.
It was very hard to write during COVID. It was very hard to imagine into the future when we couldn’t imagine what the future was going to look like. And then, once we got back, we did not realize how much we were going to have to do and adjust for the protocols.
Of course, we have to talk about the one and only Dolly Parton and getting the “9 to 5” group back together. Did you come up with the scene first and then say, “We need the perfect person?” or were you saying, “We need Dolly,” and then found the role.
We have always said, “We need Dolly.” Who doesn’t? We knew we wanted something for Dolly, and once we knew about heaven, it clicked. It was ideal.
Working with Dolly was incredible. She is such a pro. She wears four-inch heels all the time, going up and down these steps to the stage. She knows what she does well, and then she does it really well. My favorite moment came when we were going to take a picture at the very end and she looked at me. She said, “Come here, you old hippie.” That made my entire career.
I’d imagine emotions were running high on those final days on set. How tough was it to say goodbye?
Honestly, I think I was kind of in a state of shock. I was directing, so I was kept really busy, and couldn’t focus too much on the “this is the last lollipop I’ll have on the set” kind of things. But as we said goodbye to each set and then walked off the stage, a second later the set was gone. The last scene we shot was with Jane and Lily in Frankie’s studio, which was perfect, to end with the two of them. Then we had a big very emotional goodbye with a crew. We gave gifts to Jane and Lily and people made speeches. It was just heart-wrenching and incredibly bittersweet. But we’re really proud of what we did and we’re really proud of 94 episodes. We’re especially proud of what a wonderful group was formed through the course of these years. We’re a happy family, the crew, the writers, the actors and production and post. It was so nice to see people in the morning. That, to me, was the saddest part of it.
Once you decided on heaven, was there ever a conversation of not having one of them return back?
No, you can’t. The show’s called “Grace and Frankie.” I think the fans might have revolted had we done that? That’s a tragedy, not a comedy!
I have a fascination with the final words of a long series. This ended with, “Now what?” How’d you land on that?
That was the last line of the pilot as well. So, that we knew early.
Before we go, I need to ask about “The Dreamers” adaptation, and whether there’s any update there? The book is so great.
So great, right? No, no update right now. It’s on the back burner. We just went through a pandemic.
Do you want to take a little break before you dive into something else?
No! I feel like I’ve had enough of a break. I’m ready to keep going, and we’re starting to churn out new things. It just feels really good to be back in it, and I can’t wait to be back in production.
What do you want to take from this show and your experience of doing “Grace and Frankie”?
It’s more what I learned from the characters. We always said the show was about, you can start your life over at any moment. But what I learned is you can change at any age. And just because you were whatever you thought you were, whatever box you put yourself in, doesn’t mean you have to be that for the rest of your life. And that’s what I took away.
This interview has been edited and condensed.