How 'Search Party' Found Its Perfectly Maniacal Ending
Co-creators Sarah-Violet Bliss and Charles Rogers break down the HBO Max show's journey from murder mystery to zombie apocalypse.
This post contains spoilers about the Search Party series finale.
Search Party ends the way it began: with the show’s fanciful protagonist, Dory Sief (Alia Shawkat), staring at a missing-person poster on a Brooklyn street. At the outset, the absentee in question was Dory’s college acquaintance, whom she took it upon herself to track down, launching a cascade of misadventures. Five seasons later, where the series transitioned from scrappy murder-mystery comedy to poignant satire with global implications, she finds herself face-to-face with a wall full of missing persons. Having appointed herself the czar of enlightenment, Dory started a de facto cult, tried to concoct a cure-all for the world’s ills, and triggered a zombie outbreak.
Depending on your interpretation, Search Party can be a loopy portrait of millennial aimlessness or a study in world-threatening egotism. The fact that Dory’s near-death experience at the end of Season 4 convinces her she can change humankind feels like a fitting development for someone who was often more concerned with her personal quests than, say, sustaining a job. In Shawkat’s hands, Dory remained a quintessential leading lady, roping her hot-and-cold pals—haphazard boyfriend Drew (John Reynolds), pathological showboat Elliott (John Early), and effervescent narcissist Portia (Meredith Hagner)—into her escalating schemes.
Sarah-Violet Bliss and Charles Rogers, who created the series with Wet Hot American Summer star and director Michael Showalter, didn’t start out with a plan to turn Dory into a deadly guru who recruits social media influencers to be her “disciples.” After the foursome committed murder in Season 1, attempted to cover their tracks in Season 2, stood trial (and became media celebrities) in Season 3, and faced Dory’s unhinged stalker in Season 4, it made sense for Search Party to get wilder—apocalyptic, even—in its final outing. Season 5 reaches a thoughtful climax while relieving itself of the groundedness that defined other millennial-oriented hits like Girls, Insecure, Love, Please Like Me, and Shrill in favor of an abjectly surreal conclusion.
Now that the final season has premiered on HBO Max, Thrillist talked to Bliss and Rogers about the cult leaders who inspired Dory's transformation, how they pulled off the Walking Dead-lite conclusion, and what the final scene might mean.
Thrillist: I imagine that when you guys first started the show, the idea of a cult leader who spawns a zombie apocalypse was not on your mind.
Sarah-Violet Bliss: No, it wasn't.
Charles Rogers: I wonder what it would be like to literally go back in time and show us that ending and how we would process it.
Bliss: Someone tweeted something along the lines of "If you've never watched Search Party, I dare you to watch the first episode and the last episode and try to figure out how it got there." I was like, "That's fun."
Rogers: The Search Party Challenge.
In the years since the show premiered, we've arrived at a moment of peak cult intrigue. There have been so many documentaries and books and news stories about cults. Which ones helped inspire Dory's transformation? Specifically, were you looking at NXIVM?
Bliss: Yeah. NXIVM was definitely discussed. Also Holy Hell and the one where everyone killed themselves at the end.
Rogers: Heaven's Gate.
Bliss: Yeah. And then also, generally, our own interest in self-improvement and the pieces of us that make you gravitate towards that. Elizabeth Holmes was a reference, and the WeWork fiasco. I think it's fascinating to people, because it's just like, "How did these people get to where they got to?" And that reflects what we were trying to do in Search Party.
Rogers: Two other ones are Spaceship Earth and Wild Wild Country. Spaceship Earth is about people that were chosen to go into a bio-dome, and they all had these galactic jumpsuits. And Wild Wild Country, [it was] their wardrobe. Clothing has never been chicer than those people. There was just something really fun about designing what a cult would be. Also the Raëlism cult. I remember in 2002, on TV, these people announced that they had cloned a baby. They were wearing super-spaceship outfits, and then it was not true. But sometimes nothing is chicer than a cult.
I have to wrap back to Elizabeth Holmes, partly because I'm just so fascinated with her. What was the connection there?
Bliss: It was that she was trying to create something that does not exist and is impossible. It was the way she's trying to hang onto the idea. I think Elizabeth Holmes is complicated in that she wanted it to be true and so she was trying to manage it. That's what Dory is. She falls prey to that.
Every season of Search Party got bigger than the last, but the show's concerns in the final season are much more global—and not just in the sense of a zombie apocalypse. Your targets are tech billionaires and social media influencers. How did you land on those subjects as you were mapping out the season?
Rogers: We landed on having bigger satire, really out of a story need of justifying how Dory could ever get to a point where she becomes a messiah on a public sphere with an enlightenment pill. She's going to need somebody to help her, so then there's going to be an Elon Musk-type guy who can make anything come true. The needs of the story ended up making space for larger themes, especially around social media and stuff. Season 3 and Season 5 are the seasons that satirize society in a bigger sense. If anything, we felt like we were trying to counterbalance that as much as possible, checking in with them and their friendships and where they were at.
Did you start out knowing you wanted to end with Dory in this self-appointed messiah role and work backwards from there?
Rogers: Yes. But we knew that the real ending would be that the friends caused the end of the world. That was the idea. It would be the four horsemen of the apocalypse. And you have to still wrestle with Dory's intent and understand her point of view. Even if you know there's doom energy around her plans, you still have to be like, "She's got a point," just enough.
That's the Elizabeth Holmes thing. If somebody could come up with this pill, that does seem like a good thing.
Bliss: It's "maybe Dory is good this time."
I rewatched the pilot the other day, and it's interesting because Dory is so likable and Drew is so unlikable. He's needy, a terrible listener, a bit of an asshole. It surprised me because I feel like the roles are so reversed by the time we're entering Season 5. He's the lovable, dopey, relatable one, and she's the bad listener who's off the deep end. Was there a point when you were conscious of shifting those roles between them?
Bliss: It was gradual. We wrote the pilot before we cast it, and we didn't have as clear a picture for who Drew was going to be and who Dory was going to be until we met our actors and worked with them more. We started writing towards their strengths. I don't know when the switch happened, but it's in there, because everyone when they watch the first episode is like, "Ugh, this boyfriend. Get rid of him." And then it's, "He's got to get rid of her."
What does that very final moment mean to you? At first, we see Dory looking overwhelmed and disheartened at the sighting of the missing-persons wall. But subtly, her expression changes. She sort of seems satisfied with what she's seeing. What was in the script—or what conversations did you have with Alia Shawkat—that might have signaled that Dory could be at peace with the way this all turned out?
Bliss: It's open to interpretation, and that's what Dory's look is good for. Maybe that's what it is. Maybe it's acceptance. The openness to it allows you to put your own perspective on what she might be going through in that moment.
Rogers: And I think, at the very least, there's some full-circle-closure energy around her look. Alia is incredible in the sense that she can play multiple feelings at once and they feel so dynamic. It feels like it's, to me at least, hopefully an embodiment of the totality of everything you've seen her play throughout the whole series.
Were you guys mindful of needing one final device in the finale to re-humanize her? I'm specifically thinking of Dory going back to save Portia.
Rogers: If anything, I think the moment that she says, "I just wanted...," that's the moment where you get to see her vulnerability and some amount of self-awareness. That, I think, has always been a checkpoint in the series, even in Season 3, where you're starting to feel like maybe she's this vampy villain. But then you check in with her and she says, "I'm so scared. This has to work." Things like that earn you a lot more mileage with people in terms of their tolerance of human behavior. I don't think we were necessarily looking for something that would humanize her in the final episode, but we liked the idea that there was a moment where they could choose to let one of them go, but if anything, they had to band together to survive. It really honored the group-friendship aspect.
You couldn't have pulled off a zombie attack with hordes of extras, practical effects, and crane shots on the relatively low budget that you were working with when the show first began on TBS. Going into this season, was there a conversation with HBO that was like, "We want some money this time. Let's do some big stuff in this final blowout"?
Rogers: We ask for money more than a kid asks their parents for money—every season, about everything.
I assume the answer was yes this time.
Rogers: Yeah. The budget has increased some from TBS to HBO Max, and season by season. But also, the show is extremely cheap. That budget increases negligibly, and it ends up going to paying people more. We treat it like an indie film, and we bite off more than we can chew. We just watched the whole season together, and you would never know that we could only get one take of this, one take of that. It's crazy. It's the only show on television that has 400 extras, a tank parked in the middle of Williamsburg, and we get one shot.
You also had to concoct a whole scheme behind how the outbreak begins: the experiments on the rats, one of which kills the scientist, and then she comes back to life. We are in real sci-fi territory. Did charting that come naturally?
Bliss: That's always hell, trying to figure all that out. We were talking to scientists: "What would be the way that this could potentially happen? If you were going to try to do this, what steps would you take?" Sometimes it's just small things where it's like, "How do you do experiments? Oh, you extract the livers of mice?" We used rats because they're easier to train. But then, tracking everything up to zombies, you can use as much of science and as little of science as you want.
Seeing Christine Taylor come back as a zombie in the final moments is an incredible callback to one of the show's best characters. Were there any others you considered bringing back in the final episodes?
Rogers: We liked the idea that, at the heat of the moment, as they're trying to save themselves in that crowd with the military, they would see somebody that you just want to avoid, and it just being a funny social situation where you're like, "Oh god, avoid that!" So there was a little bit of a placeholder of who that would be. And then we settled on Gavin [played by Griffin Newman] because it's fun to have a Season-5-to-Season-1 bookend and you'd hopefully remember his character.
The show has had remarkable guest stars throughout its run. John Waters alone was such a treat this season. Who have you been proudest to book on the series?
Bliss: Charles has been trying to get John Waters on the show for five seasons, and finally it worked out with his schedule.
Rogers: Yeah. God, there's so many. I mean, Shalita Grant [as Dory's attorney in Season 3], obviously. There's different categories of guest stars. There are the famous people that it was like, "Oh my god, it's so mythological to get them to be in the show," like Parker Posey or Louie Anderson or Rosie Perez or Christine Taylor. And then there's people who are our friends or from our world. Or even from auditions—Shelita was an audition, and now she's left one of the biggest imprints on the whole series. But Sam Pancake, Drew Droege, Jessica Chaffin, Tymberlee Hill. God, the list is too big.
Bliss: Alia was saying we should put a reel together of all the guest actors who had one line and just nailed it.
Rogers: If anyone is reading this and wants to put together a supercut of all the one- to three-line actors...
I love that the episode titles in the final season are books of the Bible. I had to Google a couple of them to realize that some are non-canonical books.
Rogers: There's some really weird ones, like Song of Songs and A Book of the War of the Lords.
That's the one where I was like, "What the hell is that?"
Rogers: I know. I went to Catholic school, so I remember always being like, "The non-canonical ones are very mysterious." But no, it's literally just about what title sounds good.
Bliss: Sometimes it's about reading the Wikipedia paragraph summary of it and being like, "Oh, that one fits this episode."
Season 1 of Search Party premiered about two weeks after Donald Trump's election, and while the show was never overtly political, I wonder how much the nationwide unrest, if you will, contributed to the directions that you went in later seasons. The show got a bit more pointed and chaotic. Did you guys actively talk about that?
Bliss: I think it definitely seeped into our subconscious. The discussions about it were never, "So let's directly mimic culture in this way," or anything. But the context of the world that we're living in definitely informs what is interesting to us to write about. What comes to mind is, in Season 3, just how Dory implements tactics that we were seeing the president doing, saying the exact opposite of what is true and having it work because it is influential.
Rogers: More often than not, what we were doing was distilling down what it felt like to be alive during that time, at least to a certain demographic. I hope that this show is, at least, a time capsule of what it felt to be alive during this really weird era.