The U.S. was reeling from its worst COVID-19 surge when the “Atypical” cast and crew began filming its fourth and final season. The Netflix series has always leaned into warm undertones, but emitting a sense of aspiration and joy was now more important that ever.
“Especially coming from where we’re coming from in the pandemic, it would have been hard for us to write a really bummer ending. I think we just needed this,” “Atypical” creator Robia Rashid says. “I get so happy every single time because it is really cool to see somebody on the spectrum doing what [Sam’s] doing at the end of the show.”
Filmed from January to March, Rashid explains that everyone “worked three times as hard to make this season,” which included wearing full PPE for 14 hours a day. Such a high-level effort would be worth it when audiences see “Atypical” protagonist Sam Gardner realize a dream he hadn’t even thought could be possible: journeying to Antarctica.
The final season of the show wraps up Sam’s coming of age. What began as a goal to start dating grew to ambitions of new heights over the course of the series. In the previous season, he even admits to a professor that he never thought he’d make it as far as college. Sam’s expectations reflect that while nearly half of students with autism or a disability receive some form of higher education, the college graduation rate comes in at 41%, compared to 59% for students without disabilities.
“This whole season is about him exceeding his own expectations in every way,” Rashid says. “The idea of potential and where your dreams can take you and Sam realizing that’s available to him was so cool to us, so that was sort of the starting point for this season.”
In the first episode of Season 4, Sam officially moves out of his parent’s home for the first time and lives with best friend Zahid (Nik Dodani) in a college-adjacent apartment. It’s a big step for Sam, particularly in light of how in the previous season he attempted to live in an on-campus dorm for a while. The best friends butt heads as they adapt to each other’s quirks and habits and come to learn how to coexist. But this is just a stepping stone. Knowing that he can walk the traditional high school-to-college pipeline, Sam has an epiphany at the end of Episode 2 (big thanks to penguin Stumpy) that he can diverge from this path, and gives himself the permission to dream big.
However, the road to Antarctica is bumpy. As Sam physically, intellectually and financially prepares for his adventure, those around him unravel. Doug’s (Michael Rapaport) best friend Chuck dies the day after retirement; Zahid is diagnosed with testicular cancer; girlfriend Paige (Jenna Boyd) feels trapped by her dead-end job; and the mounting pressure of balancing academics and running track causes Casey (Brigette Lundy-Paine) to break down.
These personal battles were inspired by the own lives of “Atypical” writers. Rashid says that out of their five-person writing team, one person got a cancer diagnosis and another had a testicular cancer scare, which opened up goofy Zahid’s storyline.
“It was our way of addressing toxic masculinity and how does a player like Zahid deal with that when it feels like a specific attack on his manhood?” she says.
Out of the entire Gardner clan, Casey is perhaps the most grounded. Her sharp tongue keeps her family humble and she is one of Sam’s fiercest protectors. But even Casey — a teen who navigates star athleticism, academia overload and confusing romantic relationships with relative grace — is human. At a big track meet when a UCLA recruiter comes to watch her, she has a panic attack and leaves the race right when the starter pistol sounds off.
“Maybe this had to do with all of us dealing with a pandemic,” Rashid muses about developing Casey’s storyline. “She’s so funny and strong and such a source of power and strength for the people in her life. I’m hoping that seeing her struggle with [anxiety] can kind of normalize it a little bit.”
“Atypical” ends with Sam’s greatest feat of independence, but arguably his biggest stride is how he becomes the rock his family and friends have been for him for so long. In one of the show’s final moments, Sam holds up a metaphorical mirror to Paige to remind her of why she is such a special person. He explains that her life purpose is to be an advocate (like when she had their high school hold a silent disco so Sam could finally go to a school dance) and she needs to take the Habitat for Humanity job she was offered, even though it would mean moving to another state.
“I never thought I could find a girlfriend and then I found the best one in the world,” Sam says. “Just because we’re taking a break from being girlfriend and boyfriend doesn’t mean I’ll ever take a break from being in love with you.”
“He’s in a position where’s choosing to let it go because he believes in a world of plenty,” Rashid explains. “This is really him empowering her to no longer operate from that place of fear. We all have those breakups from when we’re 18, 19, 20 — where your heart is breaking into a million pieces but you know that your life is bigger than this.”
Sam’s life further comes full circle when Doug asks to join his trip to Antarctica. Like his son, Doug is giving himself permission to live with a sense of adventure. Rocked by Chuck’s sudden passing, he comes to understand the importance of present, fearless living. What’s more, the moment serves as a final stitch in healing Doug’s relationship with Sam. In the first episode, Doug admits he and Sam don’t connect over anything and we later learn he left the family in the wake of Sam’s autism diagnosis.
“[Doug’s] not going with him because he doesn’t think Sam can’t do it. He’s going with him because he wants to go. He’s interested and curious and his friend died and he realizes you have to seize opportunities,” Rashid says. “I think that the whole thing just ended up feeling both earned and real, and also magical and wonderful.”