Geeking Out Over the My So-Called Life Finale With Creator Winnie Holzman

Photo: Maya Robinson

We’ve been looking back all week at the hugely influential 1994–95 network-television season, which found new shows Friends and ER hobnobbing on the same schedule with SeinfeldThe Simpsons, and The X-Files. We’ve counted down the season’s 100 best episodespresented an oral history of the first season of Party of Fivetested your Friends knowledge with an SAT-style exam, and so much more. But this hour is all about My So-Called Life, and we close our coverage out in appropriate fashion: with a deep-dive conversation about the bittersweet series finale with MSCL creator Winnie Holzman.

Almost two decades after ABC cancelled My So-Called Life, the pain is still exquisite. It was — and is — nothing less than the loss of TV’s best and most closely observed teen drama. On the other hand, there’s nothing better than going back and reliving it! As part of our intensive hour-long tribute to all things My So-Called Life, Vulture asked series creator Winnie Holzman to reminisce with us on all the wonderfulness of the finale, named for and framed around Delmore Schwartz’s short story “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities.” Not only was Holzman game to geek out with us, she also divulged what would have come next — at some point, she might have mentioned something about Angela longing for Brian (!!!). But we had to start with the show’s biggest bummer.

Rayanne and Angela break up a few episodes before the finale, and for me it was the most devastating split of the entire show.
I couldn’t agree with you more.

And the Our Town scene from “Betrayal" — gah!
A lot of people don’t specifically talk about that scene, but I have to say, for me, it’s always the scene I come back to in my mind. The way both A.J. Langer and Claire Danes played it was extraordinary, and those characters were so real to me personally.

Because the break between them happened so near the end, I think we all knew reconciliation wasn’t coming anytime soon.
Rayanne’s totally alone by her own making, and it reaches that level of heartbreak because Rayanne is somebody who knows that she created that for herself. Obviously, if the show had come back, there would have been a sort of long, interesting climb back to whatever that would have been. I don’t even know if they would ever become friends again, but their lives would intersect majorly.

Did you feel that relationship could be mended at the time you wrote the finale? Were they kindred spirits? Or were they just really fascinated by each other?
It’s a really good question. If we’d been given the opportunity to come back, I would never have stopped exploring their relationship, but that’s not the same as meaning they’re kindred spirits. It might have been they had more to do with each other, but not necessarily — and this is interesting to me — as friends. I think there was a pain there, and a need on both parts that wasn’t done being explored. I would have kept that going.

The show was on the bubble, leaning toward cancellation. How did that affect what kind of story you wanted to tell as your last one?
The job at that moment was to find a way to do something that was the ending of a season, but also, I was very cognizant that it could be the end of the whole show. It had to be an ending.

Everyone’s talking about their dreams in the episode. Strange ones, hopeful ones. Dreams pop up pretty consistently through the show. How did that become one of the series’ frameworks for you?
When you’re doing a series, you’re really in a zone. You’re thinking about those characters and their situations in a free-floating way all the time. They live with you all the time. So it’s just as natural as breathing to be having ideas and thinking about what they’re thinking about. Series television is kind of intensive in terms of time. You fall hard for TV writing, but it’s almost love-hate. You’re under pressure all the time, but that pressure gets interesting things out of you that are, you know, mysterious. The whole idea of a dream, to me, is a mystery plane. Things are operating there that tell us the real truth. The stuff going on inside us that we don’t express or even know about pours out in our dreams. In a funny way, it was a way for me to instantly get to a deeper psychological place.

The finale begins with Angela’s dream. She’s chasing Jordan through the hallways of her school, her parents are there, Great Aunt Gertrude’s funeral’s happening.
Are you asking if that was a reference to the end of the show? [Laughs.] It really just had to do with trying to capture what it’s really like in a dream, when there’s stuff going on that, really, you don’t understand why those things are there. But they do point to aspects of your consciousness. What’s going on underneath with Angela? Well, she’s pretty upset with Jordan. I’m also fascinated by people showing up in each other’s dreams. It happens to me, and to everyone, I’d guess. I realized, well, of course that’s got to be happening to the characters. They’re all going to be dreaming about each other. Honestly, I could have gone on forever like that. I would have loved to do ten times more with dreams than that.

I liked hearing that Sharon dreamed about being in a water ballet with Rayanne. For charity. Their friendship is this unexpected thing that happened quietly in the background. Almost without them knowing it.
I loved the whole idea, first of all, of what friendship is. Very often there are people that somehow you don’t know how to declare that you are their friend, but you are their friend. That happens in a lot in high school. And outside of high school. It’s just interesting that you can have a declared friendship where you’re actually not as intimate with that person as you are with the person who you don’t even acknowledge. And that’s who really knows you. I’m just really interested by stuff like that.

And in the last scene with them, when Rayanne is having a pity party in the bathroom, declaring she has no friends—
Sharon acknowledges the truth. That they are friends. And that yes, Rayanne really messed things up with Angela.

Okay, let’s get to the Letter. Like Rayanne and Sharon, Brian and Jordan have unexpectedly bonded during their tutoring sessions, which was an interesting move for the Brian-Angela-Jordan love triangle. Where did the idea come from?  
That’s another thing I could have done for the rest of my life! There were certain things that we happened on that I just felt like, Well, I could write this forever. I don’t think I’m giving away anything too private, but that did come specifically from life. Jared Leto was a bit older than Devon Gummersall and certainly in some ways was teaching him certain things. Devon looked up to him. There was no question I was noticing that and finding it charming, so I put it in the show. And it makes sense because there’s a part of Brian that knows how much Jordan could teach him. There’s where the irony comes in: Even though Brian is tutoring Jordan, Jordan knows so much that Brian wants to know.

But in the finale, Jordan really does need Brian. “Help me, Brain.”
[Laughs.] He was like a puppy with someone in its paw: “Please take the pain away!”

Brian reluctantly agrees to be his Cyrano, and he writes Angela such a self-loathing apology/amazing declaration of love (transcribed here): Dear Angela, I know in the past I've caused you pain, and I'm sorry. And I'll always be sorry, 'til the day I die. And I hate this pen I'm holding because I should be holding you. I hate this paper under my hand because it isn't you. I even hate this letter because it's not the whole truth. Because the whole truth is so much more than a letter can even say. If you want to hate me, go ahead. If you want to burn this letter, do it. You could burn the whole world down. You could tell me to go to Hell. I'd go, if you wanted me to. And I'd send you a letter from there. Sincerely, Jordan Catalano. Can you tell me everything you remember about writing that letter? Did it come to you quickly?
You could almost say I was stealing Cyrano de Bergerac. I was trying to use one of his letters from the movie, but trying to make it Brian’s. I wanted to show Brian’s desperation, his intensity, and also the unconditional aspect of his love. Like, I’ll always feel this way, and nothing could make me not feel this way. He was speaking right to her, speaking right from his soul. This is where it comes back to the way I use dreams because it wasn’t the Brian that was walking around in life who wrote that letter. He went to this really deep place inside himself, and he wrote from there. That’s what spoke to Angela. It wasn’t the person that she actually sees in school or day-to-day-life. I think in a way Angela always knew it wasn’t Jordan, because that wasn’t the voice of Jordan Catalano and that was not a move that Jordan Catalano could really pull.

Right, and when Rickie tells her the truth about the letter, she accepts it almost instantly.
That was her unconscious, which is really the whole show: What do we let ourselves know? What do we really know?

Rickie says he’s gay aloud, to the very sweet Delia, for the first time. Was that something you wanted to do before the end?
Until I went there, no. I wasn’t thinking about the finale until we wrote it. First, I really related to Delia, and her having a crush on him and everything. So, her being very attracted to him and him being attracted to the idea of her, like, Wow, could I, like, have a girlfriend and go that whole route? Could I pull that off? made sense to me. And his realization that he couldn’t I think had to do with, in a funny way, his affection for her. “This girl really likes me. She’s around me all the time. I really like her, too. She’s a sweet person. She’s a good person. I even think she’s cute. But it’s like ... I’m so gay.” It was almost like a come-to-Jesus moment for him.

I remember being relieved to hear Delia say she knew he was gay, especially after what happened between her and Brian.
Yeah, with Delia, I think sometimes people just come into our lives who are there to really help us get to the next phase. They’re there to say to us, “Well, this is who you really are, right?” Delia’s that person for Rickie, and for sure, had we come back, I would have had more of her. She would have had a relationship with Brian Krakow.

Oh! So we would have seen a lot more of her!
Oh, yes. She and Brian would have been boyfriend and girlfriend, and he would have told everything about it to Angela. He would have used Angela to help him through that relationship, for advice and stuff. And it would begin to sort of destroy her.

Because she would have been with Jordan?
She would be in a relationship with Jordan, Brian would be in a relationship with Delia, and they would be longing for each other, basically.

I think there are many, many, many people who would have loved to see that play out. This hurts to hear!

Even though the ending was perfect and poignant.
Yeah, it was. We all felt that way.

I also want to talk about Angela’s parents, who look like they’re headed for trouble in the end. First, Patty always got a bad rap for being uptight, but she has a very nice moment with Jordan.
I’d say she was an uptight person [laughs]. There’s no question. But there was an aspect of her that could really come through at great moments. Like when she saves Rayanne’s life. You know she’s a dependable person.

But she’s so cool with Jordan. She gives him milk, they talk, and yet they both know that he’s really hurt Angela.
I mean, his charm works on everyone [laughs]. That’s part of it, you know?

That conversation they have, what Jordan says to Patty, completely could have been his letter to Angela. Or the beginning of one: "It’s like, you think you’re safe, or something. ‘Cause you can just walk away anytime. Because you don’t, like, need her. You don’t need anyone. But the thing you didn’t realize is … you’re wrong."
That’s exactly right. What I loved is that you were seeing it privately, him talking to Patty, saying all the stuff that he would never probably say to Angela. I remember a long, long time ago, I was asked to do a talk for a writing class, and this teacher was describing Jordan, and he said something like, “So, you’ve created this male bimbo …” and I was like, What the fuck? I was just horrified by that. In other words, the fact that Jordan couldn’t write that letter doesn’t mean he didn’t have things he wanted to say. He didn’t feel like he could write a letter. That wasn’t his worldview of himself. He’s dyslexic. He had trouble reading. His image of himself, I think, could never write a letter — but in that scene, we realize, of course he could write a letter!

I read you had plans for Patty and Graham to divorce, which made me sad until I remembered you laid that groundwork in the pilot. And in the finale, Patty did dream of Princess Diana saying, “Princesses don’t get divorced.”
Exactly. Yes, we would have split them up. I was going to have Patty go into a rather deep depression, like a clinical depression. Angela would have had to really, in a way, take charge and be there for her mom in a way that she’d never been, and be there for her sister. She’d have to be kind of the designated adult in the family. It’s something that I think a lot of teenagers have to deal with, suddenly having to be the adult.

Would Graham still have been part of the show?
I could not imagine not having him, but things would have been different. The way [executive producer] Marshall Herskovitz and I would like to do things is we liked to take our time. So it’s not like we would have come back and suddenly, everybody’s neatly divorced. That would have been a big mess.