[Warning: The following contains spoilers for Atypical Season 4. Read at your own risk!]
Atypical is one of Netflix's most heartwarming family dramas and it said goodbye after four seasons by allowing each member of the Gardner family to reach their potential in the show's final season. Sam (Keir Gilchrist) spent the previous three seasons trying to prove his independence from his overbearing mother Elsa (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and in Season 4 realized it was time to make one of his ultimate dreams come true: to go to Antarctica.
The final season ends with an emotional and surreal shot of Sam stepping out of his house into the snow of the frozen tundra of the South Pole. It took all season, and in reality the entire series, for this to feel like the logical next step, but the same can be said for the journeys the rest of his family went on. Doug (Michael Rapaport) joined his son on the adventure, not because he felt like Sam needed a guardian, but just to spend time with his son, time he missed out on when Sam was younger due to his discomfort with Sam's autism. Rather than sit on the sidelines, Doug actively stepped up not only to be there for Sam but to be his dad in the same emotional ways he found easy to be there for Casey (Brigette Lundy-Paine).
The big Antarctica trip meant that Elsa also had to learn to let go of a lot of things, primarily Sam, but also the need to control everyone in the family. Her getting on board with the trip showed just how far she had come since her meddling ways in Season 1, and even at the beginning of Season 4. She had to do the same for Casey, who went through a breakdown over the pressure of being a star athlete at an elite private school. When Casey finally gathered the courage to be honest about who she was and what she wanted, she found herself physically back in the same place as she was when Atypical began, but in a much better mindset to take on the rest of the world.
Atypical showrunner Robia Rashad talked to TV Guide about the series' emotional ending and what it meant to bring the Gardner family story to a close.
How long did you know that sending Sam to Antarctica was going to be the end of the series?
Robia Rashad: Someone in the writers' room pitched that Sam walks out of the house and he's in Antarctica in Season 2 and I was like, "Oh my God, I love that so much," but many of the other writers pointed out that it feels like a series finale…so we had that in our back pocket for a couple of years. I will say that the story itself felt right immediately. It felt like a big swing for me because it was really important for it to be grounded and relatable. You don't want people to watch this show that feels so real and then at the very end have some magical crazy thing happen.
So I talked to Keir and we wrote it. I give Keir so much credit because I think his performance helps round out the whole thing so much. We really built it slowly, just like we've done with a lot of things in this show. We just took our time with this Antarctica journey and in every episode, somebody new gets on board. Elsa thought it was funny at the beginning, like "Let's just let it go away. Big things like this just go away." Then when it starts to feel super real, she has to through the process to kind of get on board, and she does, but it's slow. It feels earned. Doug gets on board after Chuck dies and Casey gets on board when Paige says she's not on board. You understand everybody's process. When Sam steps out of the house, I've watched that so many times in editing, I cry every time because it is just so beautiful and ambitious. It's exciting to see anyone, but especially somebody on the spectrum, have this huge dream and accomplish it.
You broke up Sam and Paige before he leaves. Why did it feel right not to give them a fairy tale ending?
Rashad: That story idea was really intuitive for me, but It was awful when I realized we needed to do that. I had this whole whiteboard behind me and I had the whole season marked out. The 10th episode from the beginning was called "Dessert at the Olive Garden." I knew what was going to happen in that episode. I didn't quite understand why, but I knew it in my guts. Then when we got there, all of us were on set just bawling. It was so hard and sad and it was also scheduled so it was Gemma's last scene. It was just heartbreaking, but what I've come to realize is that Sam starts out the series thinking he could never have a girlfriend. Then he gets a girlfriend and by the end of the series, he's so confident that he can find love, and that he deserves relationships, that he's willing to give it up because it feels like the right thing to do for her and for him.
Well speaking of growth, Casey ends up kind of where she started at the beginning of the series, at her old school and on her old track team, but in a healthier place.
Rashad: It's really fun to talk about her specifically because she is the character that probably took me by surprise. If you had asked me before, I would have said that Season 4 was going to be about her identity, and it ended up being that but in a completely different way. It was about her identity as a strong, capable person. She has always been the source of strength and consistency and humor in her family, in her life, and with her friends. This season she had major anxiety and major depression. It's heartbreaking to watch this character who is so strong going through this, but it's also so relatable…She ends up in a much more grown-up place. Her relationship with Izzie is kind of a port in the storm where she feels safe and loved, no matter who she is. The fact that ended up being this really strong, stable thing, feels good and it's a very huge relief to the viewers and her, I imagine. She was just really shaken this season, but she came out stronger on the other side.
Have you thought about a potential Casey spin-off, maybe her at UCLA?
Rashad: Yeah, I could definitely do more. I would be open to it for sure.
I love Casey and Izzie together, but I was really bummed to see that Casey and Evan didn't talk at all this season. Is there hope they will stay true to the promise they made at the end of Season 3 to be friends?
Rashad: I'm going to give you the most boring, practical answer to that question. There were literally Casey and Evan scenes that got cut and a huge part of that is that we were sanitizing two hours a day because we shot this season during the pandemic. All of our scripts were 10 pages shorter than they were. Any sort of us non-essential scene fell away. So that relationship existed in my mind and existed in the first version of the season. Yes, they are friends. I think they will continue to be friends. I had a couple of lovely scenes where he gives her some advice. She gives him some advice, but the pandemic meant those were the little things that got sacrificed. It breaks my heart but hopefully it doesn't hurt the show.
What are you hoping fans take away from the final season of this show?
Rashad: I hope fans feel happy, and loving, and loved. I hope [the ending] feels earned. I hope it feels like the right ending. I think it will. It does to me. It's a happy ending but it doesn't feel saccharine. Everyone got to know themselves a little better this season, and I mean that about us as well as the characters, but I hope everyone takes away the feeling of being satisfied.
Atypical Season 4 is now streaming on Netflix.