The following contains .50 cal spoilers from the series finale of TNT’s The Last Ship.
After five intense, dangerous and world-saving adventures, The Last Ship is no more. And in more ways than one. The TNT action-drama wrapped its five-season mission on Sunday night, and when all was said and done, the Nathan James was down for the count — though she had jusssst enough fight left in her to save the day.
On land, the Navy and Marine forces stormed a Colombian beach, where heavy battle ensued. With an assist from the James, the heroes squelched the enemy and forged ahead to Tavo’s compound, ultimately getting the drop on (and putting down) the revolutionary.
At sea, however, the war was uglier. In the course of outwitting one of Tavo’s corvettes, the James was sneaked up on by the near-mythical battleship that Chandler (played by Eric Dane) had been sensing all season long. Perforated by missiles and rendered defenseless, the Nathan James crew heard Kara say the two words they had in myriad skirmishes before eluded: “Abandon ship!”
Abandon they did, though Chandler secretly stayed behind, determined to go down with the ship and all that. But first he saw to it that the James got in one final, fatal blow, by turning the weapons hot and steering the ship right into the belly of the battleship beast. It seemed a purposeful suicide for Chandler, but in a surreal sequence that followed, we saw him — alive and well, clad in his dress blues and touring a healthy James.
There, he was teased by the hint of dearly departed Dr. Rachel Scott, while reuniting with other heroes lost along the way — Tex included. It was a conversation with the latter, coupled with the voice of Chandler’s daughter Ashley, that nudged Tom to halt his underwater free-fall and swim up to the surface, much to the delight of Slattery, Kara and Jeter in a nearby RHIB.
In this in-depth post mortem Q&A, TVLine spoke with Last Ship showrunner Steve Kane about finally dry-docking the TNT drama, Chandler’s fate, that brutal Wolf fight and the assorted cameos — including the one that wasn’t.
TVLINE | You wrapped filming well over a year ago. How does it feel to finally have the series finale on air?
Well, I’ve been saying goodbye to the show slowly for a year now, you know. When we wrapped, that was pretty emotional. We actually wrapped on the beach after we finished shooting the D-Day sequence, which was a great way to go out. It was really special with lots of hugs and tears and toasts and speeches. And then I had several months of post[-production], where I was still kind of busy with the show and I wasn’t thinking of it in terms of it being over.
Then we had the final mix of the finale in February, and that became sort of a final ending. For the last 10 months, I’ve been sort of adjusting to life post-Last Ship, and then to watch it come on the air and talk about it has been fun.
TVLINE | That D-Day sequence, by the way… wow. This finale looked expensive.
It was, but it wasn’t crazy. We had to make a lot of compromises to be able to make it work, but we ended up under budget or on budget again this season.
TVLINE | When I see the half-dozen amphibious things that clamber onto the beach, I’m thinking that’s not easy.
Oh, the AAV — the amphibious assault vehicle. And then we have hovercrafts later. Well, that didn’t cost us anything. What happened was the Marines wanted to play with us in Season 5 — they had been watching the show from a slight distance and eventually were like, “OK, we want in.” So I said to them, “We’d love to have you guys.” Sometimes you get all these offers for really cool things and it’s great, but a lot of times it doesn’t work out — it’s either too expensive for you to go shoot it, or the timing doesn’t work out or you don’t have a story for it. Like, the Navy would offer us really cool stuff and we didn’t really have a story that was designed around that. You had to be picky and choose your battles.
I knew early on I wanted to do D-Day, so I said to the Marines, “If you’re ever doing any kind of amphibious landing exercises down at Camp Pendleton — nothing you’re not going to already do, because we don’t want to use taxpayer dollars — but if you’re going to do it, can you let us film it?” So I drove down the coast with a small crew, brought like nine cameras and a drone, and we filmed this amphibious assault exercise with the amphibious tanks coming out of the water and all this stuff. That was in April, and we went back in September and shot again with our crew. And then all the Marines who were off-duty came out and worked as extras for us…. We got a lot of production value, is my point, for the same budget we always have. It still was the most expensive episode of the season, probably, but we also find ways of doing smaller “bottle episodes” where you don’t even need a set and you do very internal storytelling. Those episodes actually end up being sometimes our most successful because we’re really getting creative.
TVLINE | Talking about bottle episodes, there was one a couple of weeks back where you had a team in Cuba working through different scenarios to take back the command center in Florida. That gave me déjà vu to a Season 1 SEAL Team episode — but in retrospect, you actually filmed yours before they did. And maybe that’s just a common tactical thing.
It’s funny. I haven’t seen the SEAL Team episode where they did that, but it is actually very common for SEALs to do a full rehearsal. Like when they got Bin Laden, they do a full rehearsal over and over again. The only difference with ours is that different people were rehearsing than would be executing it. And what was challenging about that was we had to figure out how to redo our entire command center set. It was actually the very same set; we just boarded it up and then shot the scene the way it looked in Cuba.
TVLINE | Let’s talk about the finale. Was there any debate about Chandler’s eventual fate? Because you had me thinking he heroically went kablooey, which I would have been “OK” with.
Well, it’s good that you didn’t know. We took the show from, I think, a much more popcorn, all-American story of good guys and bad guys in the first season to much more complicated areas as the seasons went on, and we have always dealt with moral ambiguity and other real issues.
And in this last season, we were sort of undermining a lot of what we’d built in the first season because we wanted to show that all this gunplay and shoot ‘em up and war actually killed people that matter, as opposed to extras or just bad guys. They killed people we love, and that screws up brains and emotions. So you see Danny go into his struggles with Kara and just being a dad, and Chandler being haunted by the specter of his own demise. He’s been haunted since really the third season, when he was like, “I don’t want to be the man who saved the world any more. I don’t want to be this guy who’s face is on the wall of the buildings.” So yeah, if he did actually die, you would see that as a logical conclusion to his story.
But the one thing that we kept from the very first season — and from the very first meeting I had with Michael Wright, who at that time the head of the network, and I totally agree with it — is that this is a show about hope. The book on which it was loosely based was a nuclear holocaust story which didn’t have much hope. I wanted to change it into a pandemic because that was more frightening to me at the time, but also with a sickness there’s always hope for a cure. So the idea of killing off the hero at the end felt a bit like a betrayal of that. What I wanted to really say in the end is that yes, despite being haunted, despite this fact that the world can be an ugly and awful place with violence, if you theoretically or metaphorically go to the light, or go towards where there’s love and hope, you’ll be better off.
I think that was kind of the metaphor or the theme for the whole five years, “looking for the light.” So even though Chandler really feels like he’s committing suicide as he’s crashing his ship into the other ship, he does have a choice when he’s underwater. He can follow his Nathan James into the murky depths and join Tex and Rachel and Michener and Meylan and Burk… everyone who’s passed away that he feels responsible for and guilty about, or he can listen to the voice of his daughter and go towards the light. So it was never really in doubt for me. I like that it was in doubt for you, but no, we were always about ending with a sense of hope. (Coming up this week on TVLine: the inside story on how the series almost ended.)
TVLINE | Because, man, that was a brutal fight, including him getting stabbed six ways to Sunday and shot, twice. He was operating on pure adrenaline there.
I called Bren Foster and said, “I want to give Wolf the mother of all Wolf battles, but I don’t want it to be in this big, open space, and I don’t want any guns involved, at least in your hands.” I told him we’re going to do it in a hallway, so he went to the location a week in advance with his team of martial arts experts and choreographed this thing, and I can say he really brought everything to it. He gets shot twice, he gets stabbed, he gets punched in the groin a couple times…. And the way, Bren described what he was doing to people! He goes, “Here I’m going to break the guy’s trachea. Here, I’m going to punch his rib cage into his heart….”
TVLINE | He knows his stuff.
It was pretty visceral, but that alone is a really fun kind of relationship story, between me and Bren. I passed him for Season 2 based on his audition, but I didn’t know he was a martial artist. Someone told me on the set: “Have you seen Bren’s martial arts videos?” I said no, and I looked on YouTube and I was like, “Oh, my God.” He’s a several times world champion in many different versions of martial arts, so I said to Bren, “Yeah, maybe we’ll take the gun out of your hand a couple times.” [Laughs] I was just happy I’d named him Wolf because it worked out perfectly that he became Wolf.
TVLINE | Tell me about approaching John Pyper-Ferguson, because seeing Tex at the end was a perfect callback.
Pyper is just a great mascot of the show. We originally only had a two-year deal with him, because he was exploring other opportunities, and I begged him, please, let’s find ways to be able to work together. On a handshake agreement, we agreed he’d come back for three episodes in Season 3, but we knew we didn’t have a contract with him and that he wasn’t going to be available to us on a full-time basis beyond that, so I killed him off. And his death was so important because it was the last straw that kind of pushed Chandler to the edge. I knew that when Chandler was going to be teetering between life and death, Tex was the one guy he was always able to talk to him straight. Even if Slattery and Jeter were always guys he could count on, there was something about his relationship with Tex, because Tex wasn’t in the Navy and there was something more plain-spoken about him.
It was great for the cast and crew to see him again — it was like homecoming week. What was lovely was bringing back all the old faces for the final scenes, when they’re all in the room saluting Chandler. Actors and friends who’d been gone for several seasons came back, and we had a great kind of reunion there on the set which was nice.
TVLINE | Well, I have to ask: Do you even put in the phone call to Rhona Mitra, to her people? To actually show Rachel?
No. We do not. In fact, I shouldn’t say that – I was going to, but then she made it very clear on some of her social media postings that she was not happy with the way things ended with us, so I didn’t want to stir the pot. But I think the way it is now actually is more spectral, more interesting.
TVLINE | True. True. And then lastly, if I were to say that I think that Season 5 was among the best, perhaps the best of the run, would you argue the point?
No, I would appreciate that. Every year I go, “This is our best season yet,” and I think that’s because I’m always looking forward, I’m always trying to evolve the show and grow the show. I feel like we’ve done so many cool things over the years. We’ve been as much of a genre show as any kind of Walking Dead-type show in terms of our virus, but we did a very realistic version of it. We dealt with the occult and the religion that cropped up in this post-apocalyptic world. We dealt with post-traumatic stress and the drugs and the Mediterranean adventure…. This was really just our way of saying that in the end, these people were warriors and this is what a warrior’s life is like.
I think also that this was our most accomplished season because we got really good at making the show. We did Season 4 and 5 back-to-back, and the demands on that were so great. On the one hand, we had to create two seasons’ worth of stories and mythology without a break. Normally you get 10, 12 weeks of buildup between seasons just to get a running start. We finished the writing of Season 4 really early, by November of whatever year that was, 2016, and we were still filming that season in April of the following year. That gave us a big head start to really get our act together and write Season 5.
We also got really good, as you can imagine, with our production meetings, where I’d say, “OK, Page 2, how many tanks do we have? OK, we have 40 tanks, great. And we have two helicopters, and we’re going to blow up how many people…?”
TVLINE | You no longer have Jimmy in the props department saying, “Tanks?! Where am I going to get a tank?”
By the time we got to Season 5, it was no skin off anyone’s back. “You want 12 tanks? You got it.” The crew was so professional and there was no challenge too big for them. I remember we had a guest visiting during one of the production meetings and he was, like, having a panic attack just listening. “How do you do this every week on the budget?!” Because every episode is really custom made. There’s no episode that’s like the others, so each one created from scratch.
I could go on at length about our amazing locations and art departments. That we were able to shoot from the North Pole to Asia to South America to the Mediterranean without leaving Southern California? That’s because we found great locations and we had great art direction, a great production design team, great visual effects people…. I’m so very proud of those guys, and I’m very proud of Season 5. I think that we took the show to its logical end, and it feels like the show was always destined to be five seasons as a result. People say, “Could you have done six seasons?” You know, of course, but…
TVLINE | I love the show, but I’m very satisfied with where and how it ended, yeah.
That’s the way I feel. Again, the biggest thing for me is that we had just gotten so great at doing the show and we were such a tight-knit family. That’s the biggest loss for me, that everyone’s kind of scattered to the wind to do different shows. I’m proud of all of them, but what we had was really special and I’ll cherish it.