[Warning: The following contains spoilers for Search Party's series finale, "Revelation." Read at your own risk!]
Way back in 2016, Search Party's first season ended on a murder. In 2022, the fifth and final season of the HBO Max dramedy ended on a wedding. It's a wedding that comes in the aftermath of untold death and destruction, of course, following the zombie outbreak Dory (Alia Shawkat) unwittingly causes in her quest to "enlighten" the world with a single pill.
In its delirious, sprawling series finale, Search Party goes balls to the wall, putting the main four — Dory, Drew (John Reynolds), Elliott (John Early), and Portia (Meredith Hagner) — in the middle of an apocalyptic scene. They run for their lives through the streets of Brooklyn, watching in terror as their neighbors are mauled by zombies before their eyes, only to eventually be rescued by Chantal (Clare McNulty), who brings them to an underground bunker where she's helping survivors hide out — a perfect full-circle moment, considering this all began with Dory trying to rescue a "missing" Chantal.
Then, in its last moments, the episode jumps ahead to give us a glimpse at the near future: Dory and Drew are married, with Portia and Elliott still at their sides. New York's population has been whittled down to 13,000. The city now has a zombie tip line, and regular check points where people are body scanned to detect infection. Appropriately, Dory and her friends, who always seem to escape their wrongdoings without real consequence, walk freely. Before the show fades to black, the last thing we see is Dory, staring contemplatively at a wall of missing people posters in a direct callback to the pilot's opening shot.
Season 5's swift pivot to zombie horror feels right for a show that boldly switched its genre every season. Search Party's co-creators, Charles Rogers and Sarah-Violet Bliss, who both wrote and directed the finale, spoke to TV Guide about developing the zombie apocalypse plot, why Chantal is the the show's most Shakespearean element, and the moment they can't believe ever made it to air.
I want to start by talking about your initial conversations when coming up with the overall arc of the season. How did you land on the idea to have this journey to enlightenment escalate to zombie apocalypse?
Charles Rogers: The premise of Season 5 is really a reaction to Season 4 and [Dory] dying at the end of Season 4. At the end of Season 4, she has this huge catharsis right before she dies, where she realizes how broken she is, and she's never admitted that before. She is reflective on a higher level than she's ever been. We liked the idea that death is a turning point, and that on the other side of it, she feels that she's completely wiped the slate clean, and that she's able to forgive herself and start anew. So then, of course, we had to set up all of these conundrums around how altruistic is she, really? Is she still the same person? Is she a new person? And also balance a lot of difficult-to-balance storylines around bringing about an apocalypse through enlightenment.
Sarah-Violet Bliss: The metaphor there sort of crystallized when she's in the bunker, and she's like, "How does anyone know anything? I just wanted, I just wanted," and what it means to want something greater for the world and for yourself, and the destruction that can potentially cause if you take it too far. The human condition of wanting things ultimately motivates you to dig into life but then also is your own torture. When Tunnel [Jeff Goldblum] says, I'm forgetting the exact line, but the pursuit of enlightenment is—
Rogers: Living well.
Bliss: Yeah, the pursuit of living well is enlightenment.
I convinced myself Dory would die this season, but instead she pretty much ends up exactly where she started, staring at the missing people wall. Was it always the plan to have it end like that for her?
Rogers: In the middle of shooting Season 4, we started having a lot of ideas about Season 5, and we liked the idea that the friends caused the end of the world, and that Dory's pursuit of self-actualization caused mass death. If anything, I think that her looking at that wall at the end of the series speaks to the treachery of self-discovery. We use the word self-actualization now in this really simplistic way, but it's actually extremely impossible to think about, and it involves so many different angles of perspectives about what it means to do things for yourself. Hopefully, that very final end kind of acknowledges the soup of life in that way.
It was very Shakespearean to end on a wedding, but it also doesn't feel good to see Dory and Drew end up together, just because of how awful they both are, separately and for each other. Was that always the plan for those two?
Bliss: I don't know that it was the plan all along, but we did like how it just feels really kind of pathetic and sad that they have gotten here. Like you said, usually that's the way Shakespeare or regular TV shows end, just like, "They got through it! They made it work!" In this, it kind of is a depressing note to end on.
Was there ever a version where Dory, or any of the main four, died in the zombie outbreak?
Bliss: I know that we did talk about the potential of having one of them become a zombie and it didn't just didn't feel… maybe that could have been a good direction, you don't know. We didn't do it, and thought it was good to just have them all sort of reckoning with what they have caused at the end. What's worse?
Rogers: Also, anytime we had discussed versions where Dory would die, we were like, "Well, she already died. I don't think we need to see her die again."
What was the thinking behind having Chantal be the one who does, in a way, achieve goodness in the end?
Rogers: In a sense, I think the most Shakespearean element of Search Party is Chantal. She's [been] this cosmic foil to Dory since day one. It's the greatest insult you could give to Dory, the fact that her cosmic foil is this extremely bratty pathetic loser, and the tedium of her storylines throughout the seasons somehow did amount to her saving the world. I don't think that we necessarily thought, "We want Chantal to be good." The irony of it was that there is a part of both of them that is narcissistic about having caused the end the world, and that it bruises both of their pride to hear that the other person thinks that they caused the end of the world. It's fun to imagine that that's the end point for both of them, is that they'll just agree to disagree about everything.
Bliss: I think Chantal is the least in denial about her own selfish needs, and then to have her be the one that is actually finding a place for people to hide and survive is just funny and ironic.
Drew, Elliott, and Portia all go along with Dory in various ways, but they also have their own ways of undermining her. How did you approach their stories this season in relation to Dory's?
Rogers: This season defines the point that they've always been reacting to her. This is the season where they, at the beginning, are really trying to start anew without her, and for the first time, they're adults in their own way, even though they don't want to admit they're not feeling satisfaction in that. This season was particularly hard to write, because after everything they've been through, she has to earn them back again. We knew that had to be really believable and satisfying to watch. We really took the lifestyle of people in cults as a template, because that also is just very parallel to all of the themes of their friendship since the beginning. Who would have thought that by the end of the series, all three of them would have had sex with Dory? But it also just kind of makes sense. If you're going to keep heightening this messy dynamic, it probably would end up there eventually.
I read that you were initially planning to film one more scene, but couldn't because of flooding. Can you tell me about what that scene was supposed to be like?
Bliss: The scene was that they all gather into a car that has been abandoned, and they're going to try to escape the island, and then, you see, in the reflection, the Williamsburg Bridge crumble, and so there's no path off where they are anyway. And obviously, they could go, I guess, to Long Island, but Brooklyn's being quarantined. Where it all started is destroyed.
Looking back on the series as a whole, is there a moment you reflect on now and think, "I can't believe we got that on TV"?
Rogers: I think about those scenes with Cole [Escola, in Season 4] and Alia in costumes walking down the street together, and how that even became a little bit of a meme. Just that tone. You know, whenever people talk about, "This season's so crazy!" In my mind, that was crazier. If anything, as we were shooting it, I was like, "Gosh, I hope people go with this." It just got so camp and extreme, but also horrific. In a weird way, I find Season 4 a harder sell for the world.
Bliss: I agree. My thought was, "I can't believe people went along with the brainwashing."
All five seasons of Search Party are available to stream on HBO Max.