If the finale of “Greenleaf” were wrapped up in a perfectly packaged bow, with complications or heartstrings pulled, it wouldn’t really be a “Greenleaf” ending at all.
Throughout its five seasons, the OWN drama tackled faith on TV in a way that few others of its kind have, slowly rolling out the flaws of the exalted Greenleafs, the first family of a Black church. It gave its audience glimpse after glimpse into the inner workings of each character’s complicated humanity, and seamlessly weaved in faith and bible lessons that helped make the show so special and ready to stand the test of time.
“Faith is a strong part of the African American experience, and to me, ‘Greenleaf’ was the first scripted show on OWN that allowed our audience to see themselves in ways that were not prevalent in broadcast or being in cable,” OWN president Tina Perry says. “Our viewers could really see church-going characters who were imperfect and moved in their faith.”
So, how does a show so beloved and important wrap up? Merle Dandridge, who places Grace Greenleaf, tells Variety she does not use the word “enjoy” when she thinks of the final episode, airing on the cabler Aug. 11.
“It’s deeply meaningful and transformative. That’s what I would say,” she explains. “Change is always difficult. No one is promised an easy life. Life is going to be difficult, but if you abide in those transformative times and push through them and let them teach and guide and grow you, you can find the redemptive purpose in it on the other side. There will be a satisfying sense of hope for the future.”
The legacy “Greenleaf” leaves includes an open door for more programming that center faith in its storytelling, let alone Black casts.
“We’ve been indoctrinated when you think about a show that is mostly involved with Black people, and that comes with it an automatic kind of thinking about what it’s going to be,” says Keith David, who plays Bishop Greenleaf. “One of the things that I hope is that ‘Greenleaf’ broke that mold and opened up more possibilities to what you think when you think about what a Black film or TV show is, and what Black people are.”
Executive producer Craig Wright echoes those sentiments, saying, “My hope is that ‘Greenleaf’ will be seen as part of that new wave of Black premium TV programming power that began to bring fresh facets of the Black experience to the viewers and to reflect back parts of the Black experience that maybe hadn’t been seen before. Specifically, I hope ‘Greenleaf’ will always be understood as a trailblazer in terms of it’s respectful, but pointed investigation into the workings of the Black church in America.”
The show certainly left a mark on its cast. As Dandridge puts it: “The fact that we can look back on five seasons now and say, ‘Wow, we really did do something meaningful,’ that’s something that you hope for as an artist.”
“That you get to have the opportunity to be that impactful and have a piece that people can look at and say, ‘I see myself, I see my situation.’ I’ve healed something in my family or my life by talking about this show or the issues that the show addresses, and all of those things make me feel purposeful. It is as if God has really taken my passion and my heart and put it directly to his use, and that is a profound life’s gift that I will never stop being grateful for,” she continues.
While the need for programming that makes the audience think and feel as much as “Greenleaf” has is still there, the time was right to say good-bye to this clan, says Lynn Whitfield, who plays Lady Mae. “We’re going to leave our audiences with an open heart yearning for more, missing us and caring about these people, like you do an old friend,” she says.
Furthermore, the series is going out on its own terms, sticking to a plan Wright and executive producer Oprah Winfrey set from the early days. This opportunity is increasingly rare on linear television, and it’s not something Wright takes lightly.
“I think the key to ending a show successfully is probably the same as the key to ending a life successfully,” he says. “Just that you finish everything that needs to be finished, take care of all your extraneous business, and try to be clear about what you came to say. Because ultimately, a story is a way to say something. And if you finally can say it, the audience can walk away feeling sad about the conclusion, but pleased with the tenor of it. The key is really what did you come to say? And did you say it.”