SPOILER WARNING: This article contains major plot details about the Season 4 finale of Animal Kingdom.
The creative team of TNT’s Animal Kingdom was ready to shuffle the deck in a big way as the show’s fourth season drew to a close and so, in last week’s penultimate episode, the Cody family matriarch, Janine ‘Smurf’ Cody (portrayed by series mainstay Ellen Barkin), was gunned down in shocking fashion.
In tonight’s just-aired finale, that discarded queen’s spot in the Animal Kingdom was filled by a wild-card presence that (if he sticks around) would absolutely shake up the dynamics and destiny of the Cody family odyssey. That wild card is a familiar face from Season 3: Billy Cody, portrayed with badass aplomb by former Rescue Me star Denis Leary, who is pretty much a walking joker card if you think about it.
For Deran Cody (Jake Weary), the seismic shift of the past two episodes means he’s lost his in-your-face mother and reunited with his in-the-wind father. For Animal Kingdom, the absence of Smurf already rewires the circuitry of the show so dramatically that it’s no overstatement to frame these Season 4 concluding episodes as a make-or-break bid for reinvention. Deadline spoke with executive producerJohn Wells about the new world order of Animal Kingdom.
DEADLINE: Ellen Barkin’s departure was a major jolt and a pivot point. Can you talk a bit about the way Smurf’s death fit into the season arc and a bit about how her exit will change the dynamics of the central relationships?
WELLS: A big part of the Animal Kingdom world is the danger our characters face every day in this life they’ve chosen. We want to keep the audience guessing in a way that still feels real to our characters’ world. It’s called the Animal Kingdom for a reason! No one can live forever, and I think an interesting conversation the writers had was about the power dynamics of this family. What happens when the power shifts? How did Baz’s death change the family? How would the Cody boys survive without their mother? It will be fascinating to see our characters’ growth or reversion in the face of that loss.
DEADLINE: With all of that, when you think about the show moving forward from here, what would you say is the biggest challenge ahead? And what is the most intriguing opportunity?
WELLS: I think the biggest opportunity and challenge rolled into one is finding a way to showcase the depth and importance of Smurf’s role in the Cody family psychologically. Next season, the writers will get a chance to explore how our characters were formed by Smurf and how those twisted connections continue to affect them after she’s gone. There is a lot to unpack there.
DEADLINE: Knowing what we know now, can you go back to a scene or situation from this season that connected forward either to Smurf’s demise or the Cody family upheaval?
WELLS: In SHTF (Episode 409), nobody in the family knows where Smurf is. Her absence forces each of our characters to think about a future without Smurf, at the same time that the audience sees Smurf planning her grand finale. Pope, thinking Smurf left for good, reveals her illness to the rest of the family. Smurf’s reappearance at the end of the episode feels like a surprise, and is the jumping off point for Smurf to set her last job into motion, with all of the boys heading into the job already feeling the weight of Smurf’s potential demise, even if they don’t know that it is coming so soon.