SPOILER ALERT: This story contains details of tonight’s Kingdom series finale.
After three seasons of fights inside and outside the cage, blood and brokenness in all aspects, Kingdom came to an end tonight with the death of one character and the near fatal isolation of another despite his victory.
“We could’ve kept going, and there was still more story to tell, but I think it ended at a natural place, and you know, we walk away with our heads held up,” Kingdom creator/executive producer Byron Balasco says of the end of the mixed martial arts-themed Audience series, which was canceled on a not very funny April 1.
Picking up soon after the penultimate episode’s fatal street brawl between Nate Kulina (Nick Jonas) and his MMA father Alvey (Frank Grillo) that was the immediate fallout from the fighter son admitting he is gay, the finale was all about consequences in may ways. Those consequences started with an ashes-spreading memorial on the beach in Venice, CA for Nate, and built to a rage as Alvey got in the cage with real-life UFC Hall of Famer Matt Hughes for a big-bucks Legends match – a match Alvey wins but leaves him even more broken as he knows what he’s really lost.
Having spent three seasons playing the crazed but soulful Jay, the other fighting Kulina brother, the Westworld-bound Jonathan Tucker chatted with Balasco and I about the end of Kingdom. Looking back over the run of the show starring Grillo, Jonas, Kiele Sanchez, Matt Lauria and Joanna Going, the duo discussed how and why it ended, being canceled after getting a fourth season, and whether there is more Kingdom to tell. The pair also touched on the health of Hughes, UFC’s surge in recent years and building a family on and off screen.
DEADLINE: You ended last week’s penultimate episode with Nick Jonas’ Nate down and bleeding in the street after being shot by a bouncer during a fight with his father after telling him he’s gay. The finale revealed from the beginning on the beach that Nate was killed, Why the reveal up front?
BALASCO: It’s that feeling that, in life, you always think you’re going to have an extra moment to get it right and to say the things that everybody you love is going to know … because you’re just going to be able to fix it all at some point. But I wanted to leave that sort of feeling of more emotional confusion, you know, in the face of loss and sudden violence. Rather than is he alive or is he dead, I just wanted to go out on that feeling of, again, the kind of shock and pain of loss.
So, to answer your question about the sort of cliffhanger aspect of it, you know, really the reason that we chose to shoot it that way, and stage it that way, and build that sequence, is that I really wanted to capture the messy momentum that life can take on you all of a sudden. Also, the sort of fog of loss that occurs when it’s sudden, when, in a split second, you think everything is reprioritized, you know? I mean, the news of Nate coming out to his father felt earth-shattering, but it’s nothing compared to the loss of him. You know what I mean?
— Kingdom on Audience (@KingdomAudience) August 3, 2017
DEADLINE: Jonathan, I know that as well as playing brothers on the show, you and Nick are very tight. So what was this character’s death like for you?
TUCKER: We were losing, you know, a cast mate, but we were losing part of the fabric that had become so important to all of our experience over the past three and a half years. You know, that last scene of the show, it’s brutal too, but the whole last three weeks of shooting was terribly painful, and it costs you. It costs the actors and this is what made our show so special, the sense of pride and ownership that our crew and we had in telling the story.
DEADLINE: With that Byron, and the sudden cancellation announced in the spring, was this the finale you wanted Kingdom to have?
BALASCO: I believe it was sort of the inevitable finale because I think thematically of where the show was always going to go. Also because I think a major sort of thread through this show was this idea that, in life, you fight so hard, and you get tunnel vision on certain things in your life, oftentimes as a way to hide from yourself, hide from your loved ones, and avoid really confronting who you are as a person. While that can lead to excellence in certain ways, it does tend to leave you isolated, and if you’re not careful with that, you can lose the things that are truly important to you. So that is always a strand that’s been going through the show, and it just so happened that this kind of coalesced kind of perfectly into that one finale image that you see.
DEADLINE: With Alvey alone and bleeding after winning the fight and the money?
BALASCO: Yes, because you know, the whole point of the finale is that I wanted it to be so quiet in the beginning leading up to the fight. It’s a very quiet episode all the way through until, of course, you get to the fight, and then it ends in a moment of silence and isolation, which I just think is where Alvey was.
DEADLINE: Jonathan, from your perspective, was this the way you saw it ending? With Nate dead, Alvey alone in victory, and everyone shattered in their own way?
TUCKER: No and yes, because for me it’s all about the unexpected. What I’ve come to learn about the opportunity of shooting television and particularly with somebody like Byron and the team that we had that cared so much about the story, about the quality of telling that story, about the character arcs, the opportunity of shooting in television, is that you have this unquantifiable ingredient of time, which you can’t get in shooting the film.
DEADLINE: But that comes with its own consequences too…
TUCKER: Absolutely, and even as I’m even talking to you now, I get a little choked up, because, you know, we as actors and artists, you rarely get the opportunity to work on something for three and a half years, and when you come to a final season like this, the work is done. The characters are built. The groundwork is solid.
DEADLINE: Byron, you didn’t put Season 3 together thinking Kingdom was done, so how much of an end is this finale, really?
BALASCO: Well, look, yeah, we were actually picked up for a while.
DEADLINE: Yeah, I know.
BALASCO: So we fully intended on coming back. However, I’ve been around long enough, Tucker’s been around long enough, that until the cameras are rolling, you ain’t picked up. So I always try to make sure that if this show were to end, every season has its close to it. You know what I mean? So that you don’t go out…like, I don’t want to leave the audience with mechanical questions about what happens next. Now, I hope that they’re imagining what’s happening with our guys and girls out there in the world, but emotionally, I want a resolution to the stories that we were telling, and I think that we got that.
So, from that standpoint, you know, I almost don’t know how else we could’ve ended the show, and I remember having a feeling when we shot that final scene that…I feel like, wow, I think I might’ve ended the series, but there was always more story to tell with these guys. You know, the whole show was constructed to be a chapter in these characters’ lives, so you can really come in at any point and check in on them and see what their lives are, you know? We’re just telling the story of these characters’ lives. So, in that sense, we could’ve kept going, and there was still more story to tell, but I think it ended at a natural place, and you know, we walk away with our heads held up.
DEADLINE: So, is there any chance we could see more Kingdom?
BALASCO: I don’t think so. I mean, look, creatively, there’s always more to tell, but I just think the business of it, I’m not quite sure how that would unravel. But I guess you never know?
DEADLINE: Speaking of unknowns, real-life two-time UFC welterweight champ Matt Hughes plays a big role in the finale as the other legend in the cage with Frank’s Alvey. Obviously you guys shot everything a while ago, but with his accident, the coma and now the beginning stages of his recovery, did you consider scaling back his on-screen time or somehow changing things in the finale, especially the bloody aspect of it, because of what he’s going through?
BALASCO: No, because, I mean, truthfully, the show had been shot and done for a long time. Since then we’d been going around doing press with Matt and spending time with him long after the show was wrapped shooting. So there was really no going back.
You know, he’s an unbelievable guy just to know him personally, an icon and a sport, and it’s just a shocking, unbelievable tragedy. I know he’s fighting hard and fighting through, but it kind of rocked all of us. He was a warrior, and he is a warrior, and he fights for a living. So the thought of trying to go back and like, soften that somehow, it just didn’t seem to make much sense, you know?
DEADLINE: Jonathan, we see you in the cage with some very loving but harsh words as Jay remembers his brother and lashes out at the homophobes in the sport. But your character is in a very different place in all aspects by the end from where he started, and even the beginning of this season when he was trying to make it in the straight world. Now with Kingdom truly over it seems, you on American Gods a bit and now joining Westworld, what has that process been like for you?
TUCKER: I think maybe there’s two points, essentially. One is that, as an actor, you are always looking, you’re searching for that extraordinary arc. You’re looking for the challenges that Jay goes through in a season like this, it’s actor catnip. But it’s also that people do live hard, challenging lives where you don’t know where your journey is going to take you.
On the other point, it’s like we’ve spent so much time building this car, don’t you want to drive it? And that’s, again, this thing that television’s offering right now, is the chance to open up the terrain for the vehicle that you’re building. So, it’s also how fast you can open up on a straightaway, and that’s what Byron offered in the scripts, and the crew and our team supported. It also speaks to the beauty of the character himself, because Jay is such a dynamic man of contradictions.
DEADLINE: I get that, but how do you mean?
TUCKER: What’s so fabulous about Jay is that you get to play with this idea of his extraordinary potential and his inability to get out of his own way. Also that he recognizes that, and it continually cycles over, and over, and over again. It’s a real tragedy to see somebody who knows that they are their own worst enemy, who could do such great things if they only chose to allow themselves to do it, and that’s really that final season, which was just a gift for me as an actor.
DEADLINE: During the run of Kingdom, we’ve seen mixed martial arts surge in popularity and in the culture, with the Conor McGregor-Floyd Mayweather fight later this month likely a windfall of a gimmick. Dana White’s UFC was purchased by a group led by WME-IMG for $4 billion last year, which sort of played into the show. So what’s your take?
BALASCO: I think for the fighters and for everybody involved in the sport, by and large, it’s a good thing. I mean, the sport’s growing. It’s becoming more mainstream. You know, a lot of these guys and girls are not looked at out of the corner of their eye as some kind of sideshow anymore. It’s a legitimate sport. So, in that sense, I think it’s great. You know, there’s growing pains, and you hope everybody’s getting treated fairly.
And then as the creators and cast of the show, we had a great relationship with UFC. They really embraced us. Dana really embraced us and all the fighters, as well. So, I mean, we treasured that and valued that. I almost wish our timing was like a two-year difference or something just to see where the sport’s going to be in two or three years from now in terms of into the mainstream. But you know, if we could help make it more relatable to a wider audience, then we feel good about that.
TUCKER: An element of that is that’s there’s so many misunderstood people in the world, and the show featured that and them and that theme, and everybody’s fighting for something. Everybody’s fighting against something, and when you think about the fact that we just used that sport as just a catalyst for storytelling and to really focus on that, then it’s personal for everybody.
DEADLINE: It always felt that while Kingdom was about the Kulinas and their extended family, making the show made you guys a family too…
BALASCO: The show is very personal to all of us who are making it. You know, we didn’t have a lot of money to make this, and we were really left on our own to make it. So we could do anything, and I think everybody brought a lot of their own lives into this show and put it out there to be explored. I know I did. I know Tucker did, and I know a lot of the other cast did. So, in that sense, it just felt personal to all of us, and you know, we’re grateful that we had the chance.