Grace and Frankie’s Golden Years End on an Emotional Note

This post contains spoilers for the final season of Grace and Frankie.

Grace and Frankie, starring Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, was never going to end Thelma & Louise-style. “No, no, no, no, never,” co-creator Marta Kauffman assures me during a recent call. “That would be so depressing. And I think there would be a rebellion by some of our fans. Frankie and Grace wouldn’t die.”

Still, the realities of aging are at the center of the show’s final episodes, which dropped on Netflix April 29. Grace wrestles with existential panic attacks, Frankie’s arthritis impedes her painting, and Martin Sheen’s Robert experiences worsening memory loss—storylines that are interwoven with the crew’s light-hearted martini and marijuana-fueled adventures. 

Co-creator Howard J. Morris says that striking this tonal balance while crafting a fulfilling conclusion for a series about starting over proved especially difficult. “We had to figure out how to end a show satisfyingly that’s about beginnings,” he says. “You want to feel like something happened that made it feel like an ending, but also don’t want to sell out the show and have some horrible thing happen.”

Instead, the show flirts with the idea of something terrible befalling Tomlin’s new-age Frankie when her psychic predicts she has three months to live. At first, she’s nonchalant: “The average life expectancy for a woman is 78—we’re past that,” Frankie shrugs. “So what can anyone do? I mean, we all have a death date. I just know mine.” But the premonition, however absurd, soon begins to weigh on our titular pair. By the series finale, they’re fighting, heartbroken over the mere prospect of losing each other.

On Frankie’s designated “death day,” she hosts an impromptu wedding for her son, Coyote (Ethan Embry). While delivering a speech via microphone, Grace embraces Frankie, spilling her cocktail onto the mic and electrocuting them both. Suddenly, they’re greeted at heaven’s gate by the one and only Dolly Parton, giving fans a long-awaited 9 to 5 reunion. “We had been trying to get her for a number of years and she was always, always too busy,” Kaufman says. “And this was fortuitous. It just seemed like the perfect thing to put her in, and she was available and it all worked out. She’s the best.”

Parton’s character, an angel named Agnes, is naturally the saving grace for Frankie and Grace’s dynamic. She’s the one who offers the duo a second chance on Earth together—zapping them back from death’s door after witnessing their bond. But it was a behind-the-scenes interaction with Parton that will stay with the Frankie-esque Kauffman. “My favorite moment from maybe all seven seasons was at the very end of our shoot,” she says. “We were taking a photograph and [Dolly] says to me, ‘Come here, you old hippie.’”

With seven seasons, Grace and Frankie ends as Netflix’s longest-running show to date. “We did 94 [episodes], which these days is like the equivalent of 300,” Morris quips. Kauffman says their series feels like it’s from another era at the streamer, which is currently in the throes of corporate reconfiguration. “Netflix is no longer doing long-running shows as you know, and I think they were feeling it’s time” for the series to end, she says. “But to be honest, they were right, because the show starts telling you what it wants. We had done the stories that were most important to us, and it felt like it was the right time to end the series. And it’s better to leave them wanting more than to have people go, ‘Oh, they should have ended last year.’” 

That said, Grace and Frankie’s world might not stay offscreen for long. Raphael and Morris have already crafted a concept for a spinoff that would follow June Diane Raphael’s Brianna, the unapologetic daughter of Grace and Robert. Its fate currently lies with the Netflix gods. “We love the characters, and if there’s a chance that they could go on, then we’d be open to exploring it,” Morris tells me. “But a million things have to come together.”

The cast and crew of Grace and Frankie did converge to get arrested during Fonda’s Fire Drill Friday climate crisis protests, right before the pandemic. “I gotta say, getting arrested was definitely bonding,” Kauffman says with a laugh. Morris adds, “If you’re going to work with Jane Fonda and Martin Sheen, who’s been arrested I think even more times than Jane, you just have to realize, ‘Oh, at some point you’re going to get arrested.’” 

Having four lead actors over the age of 80—Fonda, Tomlin, Sheen, and Sam Waterston—also gave the show ample opportunities to tackle once-taboo topics from vaginal dryness to assisted suicide. “I can’t believe we pulled off the vibrator business,” Kauffman says, referring to Grace and Frankie’s sex toy Ménage à Moi—designed for comfortable use by women of a certain age. Their other business, Rise Up—a toilet for seniors that assists in sitting down and standing up—was born from an incident involving Grace herself. “Having an actress, who also happens to be a legendary actress, say, ‘Oh yeah, you can film me on the toilet. That’s fine,’ was quite moving,” Morris says. “You can do all these touchy issues, as long as you handle it in a certain way and you’ve got the right people to communicate it.”

Perhaps even more surprising than their ability to pull off stories about septuagenarians is that a younger audience was eager to watch it. The creators recall Miley Cyrus tweeting her love for the show during its first season, and Pete Davidson’s rap tribute on Saturday Night Live in 2019. “[The sketch] was so specific to the show that you knew whoever wrote it had to have watched the show,” Morris says. “There was a turning point for us around Halloween after the first season, when we found out that some girls were dressing as Grace and Frankie—like college age-ladies. And we thought, ‘Oh, something’s happening here.’” He adds, “It turns out **** people need hope too. Who knew?” 

It’s fitting that a show as cozy as Grace and Frankie would end on an earnest note. The final day of shooting was a scene shared between Fonda and Tomlin in their beach house’s art studio. “There was a moment,” Kauffman remembers. “And this was probably one of my favorite moments of all seven seasons, where we were waiting for Lily. Jane was on set and screams out, ‘Lily, get in here.’ Then she says to the crew, ‘I can yell at her. I love her, so I can yell at her. And you can only yell at her when you love her.’” At that point, the entire crew yelled in unison: “Lily, get in here.” Kauffman adds, “It’s just so much love in that moment.”

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