Redemption and Regression in the Saving Grace Series Finale
Series finales—particularly those where writers and producers get to knowingly craft a conclusion—are usually high-stakes affairs. This was certainly the case for Saving Grace, which, with its often ambitious explorations of femininity and faith, needed to accomplish a great deal in its final hours. Last Monday, 4.2 million people tuned in for the 2-hour conclusion of the TNT drama starring Holly Hunter as Grace Hanadarko, a hard-living Oklahoma City detective chosen by God to receive angelic guidance from a tobacco-chewing good ole’ boy named Earl (Leon Rippy).
The finale follows Grace to Mexico as she struggles to deal with accidentally killing a little girl by pretending to be her, making like Edna Pontellier after learning that Neely finally succumbed to her meth addiction despite Grace’s (and Earl’s) interventions, emerging from the ocean ready to turn her life over to God, and ultimately making good on that deal by sacrificing her life in order to stop evil.
The series not only ties up loose ends, but comes full circle in the final episodes. This is most evident when Grace accidentally runs over a little girl, Esperanza, who runs into the street. This tragedy sets the final plot arcs in motion and clearly brings the narrative back to the accident that initially introduced Grace to her “last chance” angel, Earl. While the show repeatedly tells us that Esperanza’s death was truly a tragic accident, the initial incident was the result of Grace’s reckless drunk driving and actually staged by Earl/God in order to get her attention and set her on a path of righteousness.
In the pilot Earl tells Grace in no uncertain terms that she is bound for Hell if she does not change her ways. The show’s early episodes suggested that the series would ultimately be about reforming Grace’s behavior, kind of like a makeover for her soul. As the series progressed however, its tone changed. Though Grace stopped driving drunk after the pilot and eventually stopped (knowingly) sleeping with married men (at the behest of her best friend, Rhetta [Laura SanGiacomo], not God or Earl), Grace did not really change who she was or how she behaved.
Over time, Saving Grace developed a narrative world in which God is not just involved in a “love the sinner, hate the sin” kind of relationship with humans and with a woman in particular, but actually values intemperances and inconsistencies. This shift in narrative tone is what makes Grace an interesting story and it also makes Grace’s later accident all the more gut-wrenching—it’s not about tests and punishments, about guilt and innocence. We are reminded of how Grace the character and Grace the series have grown and changed.
Unfortunately, in the show’s final moments, it returns to the kind of crude renderings of divinity and morality that hampered the show’s beginnings. What might be most disappointing (aside from using “Wherever You Will Go” by The Calling as the music for the final shots) is the fact that evil becomes personified and thus simplified. Hut Flanders (Gordon MacDonald), who appeared as a mysterious and vaguely menacing figure at the start of the fourth season, returns and reveals himself to be, not the Devil per se , but evil personified. In one of the last scenes of the show, he claims responsibility for many of the particular incidents of evil or tragedy that the series addressed, including sending Esperanza into the street, the rape and torture of women (including Grace), and for the Oklahoma City bombing, which killed her sister. It is his threat to commit a similar act of terror if Grace decides to let him walk away that leads Grace to flick her cigar into the pile of explosives he’s placed in the back of her truck, destroying Hut’s stock-pile, possibly destroying him, and killing herself.
Going into the series finale, my assessment of Saving Grace was that it mattered because it was a story about issues of faith that did not tell us that everything is going to be alright, but neither did it allow us to indulge in apocalyptic fantasies. Further, throughout its run, the show presented a world in which an unruly woman (albeit a predictably straight and visibly white woman) could be valued without needing redemption or containment via institutions of marriage or motherhood (though she was not immune to their pull). Saving Grace added new dimensions to popular discussions of faith and morality. By refusing a happy or even reassuring ending, I think Saving Grace’s finale stayed true to the series’ brand of realism and defied expectations, but it also returned to some of the series initial shortcomings. Grace’s unflinching self-sacrifice in the final scenes of the show was heroic and in keeping with her character, but it is too bad that we can’t yet seem to imagine a conclusion to Grace’s story that maintains both her place in this world and her integrity as a character. That said, the way the show closed Grace’s story does not diminish the narrative possibilities the series may have opened up.