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How to Make a Series Finale, According to John Wilson

'I wanted to give you the tools you needed to deal with the ending of the show,' the How to With John Wilson creator says

Allison Picurro
How to With John Wilson

How to With John Wilson

Thomas Wilson/HBO

[The following contains spoilers for the series finale of How to With John Wilson, "How to Track Your Package."]

Fittingly, my interview with John Wilson was plagued with difficulties. The inside of the Brooklyn coffee shop we planned to meet at to discuss the series finale of his eponymous How to With John Wilson was too quiet, the outdoor seating area too noisy, and the park we eventually settled in full of distractions, from the constant parade of passing dogs to the confusion brought on by a lone man on all fours in the grass a few feet away. (We eventually deduced that he seemed to be doing yoga.) It only struck me after we had gone our separate ways that I couldn't think of a more appropriate way to send off Wilson's series, which is, above all, a loving, complicated portrait of New York, in all of its many idiosyncrasies.

"How To Track Your Package" begins the same way every episode of How to does — with the benign introduction of some issue New Yorkers are facing; in this case, the thousands of packages that go missing across the city every day — before quickly morphing into something else entirely, a bait and switch the HBO docuseries has perfected over three seasons. Here, the "something else" leads Wilson to a neighborhood pizza place, then to an organ supplier (as in the instrument), then to Arizona to attend a convention hosted by Alcor, a cryonics company that freezes human corpses after death with the intention of reanimating them to full health at some unclear point in the future. Wilson drifts through the event, speaking to various Alcor members about their reasons for desiring life extension and pondering existential musings along the way.

"If you honestly believed cryopreservation was going to work, then it might genuinely make you a happier person while you're alive," he says. "But if science never really gets to that point, all your expectations will just disappear, and you'll have spent your whole life just preparing for another one."

The finale is packed with the show's trademark visual-based humor and staggering honesty. An interview with Mike, the proud cryonicist who introduced Wilson to the world of Alcor, leads to the shocking revelation that the man performed self-mutilation on his genitals in his youth. It's the kind of moment that reminds you of what a singular work How to is, the rare TV show that can pull off a highly specific mix of the bizarre (the Season 2 visit to the home of an energy drink CEO comes to mind) and the profoundly heartwarming (like Season 1's "How To Cook the Perfect Risotto").

It all concludes on one last voiceover from Wilson about his beloved New York: "At the end of the day, the city is a reflection of who we are, and it'll always be both our healer and oppressor." Speaking to TV Guide, the man behind the camera was equally reflective as he looked back not just on the season, but the series as a whole.

How to With John Wilson

How to With John Wilson

Thomas Wilson/HBO

You've been asked a lot about how personal you got this season, but I'm wondering how it's felt to relive the more personal things you talked about as people have watched the episodes and as you've talked about it while doing press?
John Wilson:
I try not to think too much about it, because I still just try to treat the work like it's just for me, in a way. Even though people are referencing very personal things that I reveal in the show, I just try to still convince myself that not that many people have seen it as a way to keep myself comfortable. It's kind of nice when you just put something on TV, and then you don't have to be in the room with everybody when they're watching it. But people have been pretty respectful about the questions that they ask, and haven't pried too much. Because, you know, I say most of what I feel comfortable saying in the show, anyway.

The project of the tutorials has from the beginning been about using the words in a therapeutic way. I initially made a movie about having bedbugs when I first moved to New York, because I didn't know what to do with this very upsetting thing. Some things are born out of circumstance, just because I need a container [for] certain things. But, yeah, then there's other stuff that I probably never would have revealed to other people. There's a lot of layers to it. I think what you're seeing in the show and hearing me talk about is one layer of the idea behind it, but then there's an even deeper layer to each episode, and the reasoning behind that is something I will probably never reveal to anybody. I was going through a lot of really weird, f---ed up personal stuff during the writing process of Season 3. There is some stuff at the core of each episode that I'll never, I don't think, fully articulate.

I read another interview you did where you said you weren't sure people would want more after the finale. I'm curious what made you say that.
It was a very heavy interview, and I feel like that's the kind of confession that would stick with you for a while. There is a reason why I wanted to end with something like that when I was putting everything together. I wanted to give you the tools you needed to deal with the ending of the show. So much of the show deals with the denial of pleasure, and having to find circuitous ways to deal with not being able to satisfy yourself in the city. There are a few different ways to interpret that interview. Also, the very first shot [of the season] is an erection, with the Empire State Building, and I kind of wanted to end with the inverse, somehow.

The masculinity theme prevails throughout.
Exactly. The middle two episodes this season very much deal with masculinity. I like to go to the logical extreme with stuff in the show, and this felt like a natural [end].

When you went back to his house for that interview, was it a situation where you just knew he had more to say? I caught the earlier moment at the convention when he mentions something about resurrecting people who didn't have any children.
Yeah, he mentioned in that one moment that he was especially sympathetic to people who didn't want to procreate, and I figured there was something else going on there. And then one or two people at the convention kind of hinted at something like this, the fact that he'd had a semi-tragic adolescence somehow, or that he had modified himself. So I just wanted to spend a little more time with him to see if we could pry that open, and he was, thankfully, an extremely open person that really didn't have any problem talking about something like that. I find that, how candid he was about everything, shocking. You see him kind of thinking about some parts of it, almost for the first time, just by openly discussing it — about his ancestors, and just the entire idea of genealogy. But that's the thing, he might still outlive us all. We don't know.

You've been to a lot of eccentric conventions while doing the show. What was different about this one? Aside from the obvious.
This one, I just felt like it dealt with some of the deepest existential themes that I have. It incorporates so many levels of anxiety, and ideas of fate and planning, and all of these things that I've been struggling with. They seem to have such a clear answer for all of them. I don't know, I mean, I'm not too much of a religious person, but this was just one of the most practical ideas for the idea of an afterlife than I've really heard before. But at the same time, what is the value of an afterlife? What does that look like? Is it materially the same as what we experience here, or is it something more blissful? Everyone there had a different idea of what that was. I feel like, even though the company that does it has a lot of problems, it's still a thought experiment.

It got me thinking about the whole thing of this show, and the reason it's great that it takes place in New York, is the transience of everything. With infinite time, what is there? But they don't seem to think of it like that.
Yeah, and it gives them this weird peace in a way that I feel like people who are just dealing with this lifetime don't always have.

Do you have any feelings on cryogenics? Did they change at all?
I mean, I'm not signed up. I still don't really think that I can fully grasp the idea of eternity. I still don't feel like I would have enough to do with all that extra time, and I don't know if I fully like the idea of my body being frozen in Scottsdale.

While I watched, I was thinking about the way the episode deals with these very classic TV finale concepts of death and mortality, but with the addition of this whole other, weirder element. Was that on your mind at all?
I think when I was writing it, I was stressing about making a very deliberate finale, and it was for a totally different episode idea. This episode was originally the, maybe, fourth one in the [season]. I think the last one we wrote was "How To Watch the Game." That was, like, Episode 6, or whatever. The original order was a lot different. So I never really know, each season, which one is going to be the last one. During Seasons 1 and 2, the risotto and the spontaneous one were both earlier episodes originally.

That was one of the easiest things to begin to shoot, was people that had packages that were stolen. We start with the stuff that we know is really easily achievable, and then we just listen to people, and if there's any unique part of their story outside of the obvious reason, I just try to lean towards that. The Whole Foods woman who got the Keto cereal had packages stolen by her super, she was early, but then she started talking about freezing her eggs, and that started the hamster wheel turning. Like, "OK, organic material, but also preserving yourself in some way for the future." Then you meet these other people, and they all fit into each episode somehow. There's some theme that you can extract from each interview that takes it in a new direction. You're constantly choosing which is good for each episode, and it changes even up until the very end.

There's a divide between the intimacy of the interviews and your voiceover, and the grand exposure that comes along with filming people in public. What's been the key to striking that balance over the years?
I just like shooting people in public because it's really rich imagery that I feel like excites people. It's always on the razor's edge of whether or not it's OK, which is what I think makes a lot of good comedy in documentary. You always have to find where the tipping point is, just go right next to it, or right before it tips over into something that people are uncomfortable with. All of these people are revealing these extremely personal things to me and I just naturally felt the impulse to meet them on their level, somehow. It goes back to the very first episode of the series, where I'm talking to this guy on a beach, and I talk to him about my friend who passed away, but that motivated him to kind of meet me at the same level. A lot of the conversations that I have with people are a lot longer, and we shave away some of the stuff that I say, just for the narrative. But I usually am saying how I relate to what they're saying, or giving my own personal stories, and they respond with their own.

You have a line in Episode 4 about not knowing how to say goodbye. Is that true of the show too?
I didn't think that people would be upset that it was ending. When I was talking about not being sure how to say goodbye, I think I meant it literally about my grandmother, but I also meant it in a bit more abstract way, like when I'm leaving a party, or ending a production where we've all become so close with one another. But sometimes I end up just coming back to the party later after I say goodbye.

The door isn't fully closed.
The door's never fully closed.

What have you learned about New York in doing the show? 
Oh, New York. I learned that New York is never fully dead. You know? Even during the most destabilizing period during the pandemic, it still was able to act as a homebase for the show in a way I thought was maybe going to be impossible. 

Is there anything left to learn about New York?
Yeah, of course. Always. I want to continue making work that highlights certain issues that we all deal with here, and cities in general. Living in cities is something that I'll be doing for the rest of my life, I think, and I want to keep making work that allows us to have this larger conversation about stuff that we just assume will never change. There's a lot, still, to talk about, but I have to figure out how to do it.

How to With John Wilson Season 3 is now streaming on Max.