Denis Leary, Rescue Me

WARNING: The following story contains information regarding the Season 5 finale of Rescue Me.

Rescue Me wrapped up its superb fifth season by leaving one major character in dire need of rescue.

Of course, the "will they live or die?" cliff-hanger is a go-to for many showrunners when it comes to season finales, but few threaten to kill off a lead character.

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Rescue Me
's creators, Denis Leary and Peter Tolan weren't afraid to risk it. In the waning moments of the finale, Tommy Gavin (Leary) takes two bullets to the chest, courtesy of his grieving Uncle Teddy (Lenny Clarke), who seeks revenge for the recent alcohol-fueled death of his wife. Tolan says it was a natural progression of this season's story arc, which saw Tommy fall off the wagon and drag the entire Gavin clan with him.

"We just really got into the whole idea of Tommy starting to drink again and being the merry piper leading everybody down that road. And what the consequences would be," Tolan tells TVGuide.com. "We've already established over the seasons that Tommy's curse — which is a direct reflection of 9/11 — is that he survives. When he should be dead, he survives, and there's death all around him, which is what he is left to deal with."

Leary says Teddy, who murdered the drunk driver who killed Tommy's young son in an earlier season, was the obvious choice to shoot Tommy.

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"It was natural for us to decide that Teddy was the person seeking revenge, because he's already been down that road. So, morally, he wouldn't feel held up by it," Leary says. "And also, he's in a great position having done something almost at the behest of Tommy, in terms of murder. It would fall back on Tommy really cleanly."

So will Tommy be among the living when the show returns? Tolan says the writers have a few options.

"Well there's one that he dies, obviously," Tolan says. "Then it becomes a much different show. So, that doesn't seem like a real option. And then there's one that he lives and somehow takes a different path based on that event. And then there's probably a third option, which is the one we're doing: Some weird combination of the two."

Leary has pitched the idea of killing off Tommy on several occasions, so why not make this his final exit? "I think the main thing for us is that, alive or dead, Tommy Gavin's struggle with life has always been attached to death," Leary says. "That's where his grief is, and that's where his fear is, but he goes to work every day with that hanging over his head. So the idea of Tommy facing an early death that has nothing to do with a fire was a really interesting place to write to."

Tolan has a much simpler reason not to kill Tommy: Fans wouldn't stand for it. "I don't think that would be satisfying to an audience," Tolan says. "You don't want to see a guy who survived 9/11 and everything else kill himself or die. It just doesn't send a life-affirming message. It sends a dark, unpleasant message, which is not what you want. So, we've figured out a much more humane way to end this that offers some more hope and sends Tommy in a different direction.

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Tolan says the new direction offers an opportunity for Tommy to be introspective, a rarity for the character. He also may kick booze once and for all. "I think it's the right choice to sober him up," Tolan says. "He's trying to be sober on his terms, which, of course, means drinking, and that hasn't worked out. So there may be some more struggle, but I think eventually he's going to kick the bottle."

Leary says the show's success at depicting alcoholism comes from a mixture of personal experience and letting the disease speak for itself. "Our investigation of [alcoholism] comes from a real place," Leary says. "I know firefighters who have drank, quit, started up again, quit, and finally said, "I can't work unless I have alcohol. I need to have some fun." So I think we're portraying every part of it, and I don't think we're preachy about it. If Tommy keeps on drinking, I don't think we will judge him. And if he quits drinking, I don't know think we'll judge the characters that continue to drink."

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Leary confirms that the 19 episodes the team is about to begin shooting will be the show's last, split into two seasons of 10 and nine episodes. "I think it's the right time, and it feels right to us," Leary says. "We're not sick of doing it, and it's still very juicy and fun to perform and write. I think it's better to always leave them wanting more.

"It's going to be a roller coaster ride for the final 19," Leary continues. "We can feel it in the writing process. We're into the first two episodes, and already it feels like every step that you take, you're taking five steps because you know the ending is almost upon us. I think it's going to be very entertaining."

How entertaining? "I know there will be a wedding at some point," Tolan says. "It will be a big wedding, and there'll be a massive brawl that will lead to it. We know where the series ends now. And because it's really two seasons, we know what happens at the end of the 10th episode, which is somewhat of a life-changer."

If they want to top this year's finale, they have their work cut out for them.