finding dory

How Search Party Landed on That Surreal Season Finale

Photo: Chris Saunders/HBO Max

Spoilers for the fourth season finale of Search Party below.

With each passing season, the self-involved Brooklynites of Search Party have crept closer toward a millennial heart of darkness. In the third season, Alia Shawkat’s Dory narrowly talked her way out of a murder trial, but in the fourth, she ends up captured by a scheming fan named Chip, played by Cole Escola. Dory’s friends slowly realize that she’s missing and not just on the trip through Europe implied by Chip’s photoshopped posts as Dory, but she still spends most of the season in his clutches as he attempts to brainwash her into being his friend and absolving herself of any guilt for her crimes.

In the penultimate episode, Dory gets trapped in Chip’s house as it burns down, and in the finale, in an out-of-body experience, she witnesses her own funeral. Dory wakes up right at the end of the season, but the show’s creators, Charles Rogers and Sarah Violet-Bliss, wanted her and the audience to believe that Dory really had died, and to have her really confront the darkest parts of herself in her “white light” moment. With the full season now out on HBO Max, Rogers and Violet-Bliss talked about considering whether they would really kill Dory, their inspirations for the fourth season, and where the show might possibly go from here.

How did you land on the idea of basically reversing the premise and having Dory go missing this season?
Charles Rogers: We felt that after the third season, there was a lot of nitty-gritty of the who, what, and where of the crime. It felt like, going forward, season four would need to drop a lot of the balls that season was keeping in play. There was something nice about keeping it simple and going back to the conceit of a missing person.
Sarah Violet-Bliss: We were excited to be like, “Ooh, and then she goes missing!”
CR: There was no chance that this was going to be an easy season for Dory.

What was the thinking behind having Cole Escola’s character, this rabid fan, be the one holding Dory captive?
CR: In writing the third season, we knew we were prewriting the fourth, because we had to pick an actor who would eventually kidnap Dory. We wanted it to be somebody that we knew the audience would want to spend a lot of time with, who would be a fun villain. In that regard, Cole was perfect, but we didn’t really know what their character would be. We just tossed some ideas that the obsessed fan was crafty and made dolls and wanted Dory to be his best friend. Then we were like, “Okay, we’ll just deal with that when we get to the fourth season.” Then we got to the fourth season! We wanted to use Cole’s embodiment of older women, and so we leaned into the Silence of the Lambs/Psycho/Norman Bates antiquated tropes of gender themes, but trying to twist it on its head in an ironic way where Chip thinks it’s strategic to go out in public as a 70-year-old woman.
SVB: We did have this story line where Chip goes out into town as Laila and has to do all these chores and is a nuisance and everyone is like, “Ugh! That odd woman!” But it got cut.

In the last episode, Dory dies and witnesses her funeral and reflects on all these different iterations of herself. Why, well, kill her?
CR: We knew we wanted there to be themes of “white light” moments, where people have a turning point in seeing themselves in a new way. We wanted to incorporate that kind of breakthrough energy into the season so it felt like a big, existential turning point. We thought there was something interesting in the idea that in death you self-actualize, that Dory has this closure on all the aspects of herself she’s been reckoning with.

Dory wakes up right at the end of the finale, but did you ever consider a situation where she would just fully die?
SVB: We thought about a lot of different endings. [Laughs.]
CR: We had thought about Dory dying for real, and when we were having that conversation, we were thinking about how much weight that would have on the show and how interesting it would be to see how her friends really felt about her. So there was something about her having an in-depth vision of how her funeral would go, and leaning into it feeling like she did really die — that felt like we could home in on the gravity we felt when we were thinking about actually doing it.

What made you not take that approach and have her come back, then?
SVB: Well, we wanted that feeling of a “white light” moment. There’s something interesting about what it would feel like to really feel like you have died, and also, should we potentially get a next season, what is the story being told after that? How can you open it up, and what is that feeling like?

When Dory has this near-death experience, she also flashes back to a moment where she escapes from Chip’s car trunk but then decides to climb back into it because she’s drawn to the idea of being trapped somehow.
CR: We talked a lot in the writers’ room about Dory acknowledging things about herself for the first time. She piles denial on top of denial until she becomes unrecognizable. We thought it would be cool for the fourth season for her to just give in, really acknowledging what she’s made of. The way to exemplify that would be for there to be a scene that she was withholding from herself. It speaks to her always wanting there to be some continuing narrative at any cost.

What was it like talking with Alia about what you were gonna put Dory through?
SVB: She kind of loves that stuff!
CR: She loves being like, “Okay, so what am I getting inside of? How am I going to be tied up?” It’s been an unexpected and cool aspect of the show that it’s given Alia so much to play. We never expected that by season four she would be hopping in and out of trunks with a bloody face.

While Dory’s being held captive and brainwashed, it feels like her friends are also being pushed to the limits of their self-delusions in other ways. Elliott sells out and becomes conservative. Portia decides it’s worth playing Dory in a movie where she can be the lead. Drew escapes to an amusement park. How were you thinking of those in relation to Dory’s story line?
SVB: A lot of this season has to do with identity and what they’re doing with their identity as well. Drew’s trying to literally be a costumed prince-lion thing. Portia’s dressing up as Dory. Elliott’s switching from liberal to conservative. We also wanted to use that to mine comedy while we were dealing with all this dark stuff with Dory, and then also eventually getting them all together onto the same page. It’s a not-so-well-managed mission to find her.

Then there’s also Chantal, who originally went missing and gets an episode of her own, where Lillias White discovers her book and wants to promote it on her daytime talk show but is convinced that she’s an actual child.
CR: We loved the idea that Chantal would somehow have a brush with glory, but it would be for completely mistaken reasons. We had so many conversations about how Chantal could realistically end up on the show on the day of without having met Lillias. How could you get on Oprah if Oprah thought you were a child?

You’ve talked about referencing movies or other works as inspirations for previous seasons, like My Cousin Vinny for season three. What was on your mind for this season?
SVB: Misery was a big one, and as we’ve said, Silence of the Lambs and Psycho.
CR: We also borrowed from real life. The Patty Hearst situation was a really big inspiration, and Elizabeth Smart. People who were abducted and made to believe they were somebody else. We talked to someone named Rick Ross, who was a deprogrammer of people who had left cults but still believed in the cult. We learned a lot about what’s possible in the human mind. We had the idea of brainwashing being a theme and then tried to find the most vivid way of showing that in a kind of German Expressionist way, with a lot of dioramas and stuff. It turns out you can do just about anything to people, we learned!

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