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Warning! Major spoilers below for the penultimate Season 4 episode of Animal Kingdom, so read at your own risk.
With the dysfunctionally family-driven crime drama Animal Kingdom on its way to a fifth season at TNT, the impending Season 4 finale seemed like a big time opportunity to deliver a game-changing moment. Little did fans realize that the show's creative team was going to drop is big bomb in the second-to-last episode, which (somewhat) shockingly killed off Ellen Barkin's matriarch Smurf Cody. And not in the slow, drawn-out-by-cancer way, either.
Smurf's diagnosis already did not bode well for Ellen Barkin's chances of sticking around for another few years. And even though that angle could have been reversed through the magic of storytelling, Smurf made it clear she wanted to end things on her terms, which were essentially "soon" and "by someone else's gun." J ended up being the one to take Smurf's life when all was said and done, seemingly tying their relationship up with a twisted little bow that matched the one Pope was hanging onto.
Executive producer John Wells, who wrote and directed the episode, explained why Animal Kingdom killed off its family matriarch, bringing Ellen Barkin's primetime TV streak to a halt (at least in the current timeline). First mentioning the challenge of keeping audiences interested by shaking things up in certain ways, Wells told this to EW:
We ended up spending a lot of time talking about: What do we do this year to keep shuffling the deck and mixing things up? It’s the animal kingdom, not everybody’s going to survive. We were feeling that we were repeating a little bit the Smurf stories. We had told the Smurf stories in the present that we wanted to tell but what we were really interested in is how did she get to be Smurf? And that led to where we ended up. We came to the realization that the thing that would shake the family up most is if Smurf wasn’t there to hold them together anymore.
Definitely a salient point. Similar to the constantly in-turmoil family at the heart of another John Wells-produced drama, Shameless, the Cody clan was so accustomed to the pecking order that arguably the most interesting move to make at this point was to cut off the chaotic head of the family tree. That's a metaphor, obviously, since bullets were used to do it.
As it sometimes goes with crime stories of this sort, Smurf's story came full-circle in a way with the episode "Ghosts." Viewers watched a flashback showing Colin's brother Jed getting rapey with Smurf and tackling her, causing her to go into premature labor with Pope and Julia. In the present, the Cody crew hit Jed's compound, where Smurf put an end to the douchebag portrayed by The Originals' Joseph Morgan. But it wasn't solely about revenge or anything. Smurf's ulterior motive was actually to die in the gunfight that ensued.
John Wells, who was also an executive producer on ER (and doesn't want a reboot), talks about arriving at that decision for the proper way to take Smurf out of the story.
We realized the worst thing for someone like Smurf — who somehow, even though she knows it’s not real, believes that she’s immortal, and that these kids can’t live without her —would be to discover that she’s dying. She doesn’t ever want to be perceived as weak. She doesn’t want pity. What would really terrify her would be losing control of herself and her body. Then there were endless conversations about who would actually shoot her. The cast was very interested in that. We really didn’t let anybody know until when we gave them the script for the read-through.
When driven back to her most primal instincts, Smurf admitted she wanted to die on the same ground where Colin died. Naturally, her primal instincts also had her choosing that situation to tell Pope who his father was, and also to try and provoke Pope into shooting her. He somehow didn't, despite her screaming insults and actually taking a shot at him. J was the one who made the call to do her bidding.
Now what? For one, Pope's truck was left on the compound property, so Jed's underlings are going to put 2 and 2 together. Plus, the boys are scheming to get Smurf's body through the system without the cops being alerted to exactly how she died. Not to mention whatever new problems are going to crop up to set Season 5 up.
For those wondering how Ellen Barkin felt about getting the bad Smurf news, John Wells stated that being from the film world, she was still surprised at how long it lasted in the first place. What's more, he claims she loved the story and was full of excitement when her final scene came together.
How shocked were you guys to see Smurf get killed like that? Did you think she would beat cancer, or maybe find out it was somehow a false diagnosis? Will we get more flashbacks with other big recurring stars in the future?
It'll be a long week, but the Animal Kingdom Season 4 finale will air next Tuesday on TNT at 9:00 p.m. ET.