‘Heartbreaking, no matter what’: How ‘Superstore’ said goodbye to America Ferrera
Warning: The following story contains spoilers from Thursday’s episode of “Superstore,” “California, Part 2.”
Back in February, America Ferrera stunned “Superstore” fans by announcing her departure from the NBC sitcom. The producer and star was scheduled to make her final appearance in the Season 5 finale, which was scuttled when the COVID-19 pandemic led production to shut down in the spring.
Instead, the season ended with the last episode they were able to shoot: a hopeful cliffhanger, in which Amy (Ferrera) got a new job with the store’s parent company in California, and Jonah (Ben Feldman) offered to leave his life in St. Louis and move there with her.
Ferrera — who exited the series to pursue other projects and spend more time with her family — agreed to see this storyline through to Thursday’s episode, the series’ milestone 100th. So how did her character leave big-box retailer Cloud 9, especially since she and Feldman have been the show’s central “will they or won’t they?” couple since its 2015 debut?
In tears. Amy and Jonah broke up.
“We wanted it to be a nice goodbye to this character we love, but there’s just no nice way to break up this long love story,” said Owen Ellickson, who wrote the episode. “It was going to be heartbreaking, no matter what.”
The breakup was a collaborative decision, made with Ferrera and Feldman. “This was the best solution that we all came up with together, the thing that felt most real,” said co-showrunner Gabe Miller.
“We definitely discussed other options, and even entertained the idea of them dating long-distance. But when we thought about how that would actually play out on the show, it seemed like it might be actually more frustrating for viewers to think that Amy is just on the other side of Jonah’s phone calls. And eventually that would peter out and we’d end up having to do an off-camera breakup, which really wouldn’t feel right.”
It was a long road behind the scenes to the sudden split. As a series that has never shied away from addressing real-world issues like gun control, ageism and immigration, the creatives concluded that COVID-19 would be a major storyline throughout the sixth season.
“When everything shut down, we all went home from playing these goofy little grocery store workers on TV, while our real-life counterparts stayed at work and became these life-risking frontline heroes,” said Feldman, who became a series producer last year. “It energized us. We felt like we owed it to these people to tell the story right.”
Last week’s season premiere showed how the novel coronavirus was testing Amy and Jonah’s relationship. Beyond their own worries as store employees in an unprecedented emergency, Amy’s time was constantly monopolized by Zoom meetings with corporate, not only about safety protocols for her current role but also onboarding for her new one. That episode spanned many months, mirroring the time that’s passed since Jonah and Amy agreed to move to California together.
“Having that time in between, both in the show and in real life, made it seem more plausible that they could get to a point of breaking up,” said co-showrunner Jonathan Green. “It put their relationship under stress the way the pandemic has made everybody rethink their priorities and what they want for their future. It’s made a lot of people think about a lot of things they were taking for granted before. So the next time we saw them, they’ve changed, just as we all have throughout this weird time.”
Besides integrating COVID-19, the script also finds Jonah secretly taking one of Amy’s rings to get it measured in order to propose. The move leaves Amy questioning their relationship and even whether she wants to remarry at all.
“I married Adam because I felt like I had to, and that was the wrong thing to do,” she explains . “I just feel like this move is pushing us down this path, and I don’t think we’d be talking about marriage if I didn’t get this job, right?”
Jonah, who is uprooting his life to follow her across the country, tries to hide his shock as he returns Amy’s ring. An earlier version of the episode featured a more comedic version of cold feet, but Ellickson says the change was necessary “to get these two, after their saga of years together, to break up so quickly, in a way that felt earned and real. It had to be something ugly and painful, that really showed the gap between them.”
Amy tries to resolve things by suggesting she might be open to marrying Jonah someday and that they should see how things go once they’re in California. He asks her — not as a proposal but as a straightforward question — if she wants to marry him. Finally, she answers: “No.”
“When we first met, you told me that all your days felt the same and you felt trapped,” he tells her. “And I don’t want to be the reason you feel like that again.”
Feldman and Ferrera, who was unavailable to comment for this story, rehearsed these pivotal scenes over Zoom — a rarity of sitcom shooting schedules. “When you get into real moments with real emotion within a half-hour comedy, it comes down to making the actors comfortable about what they’re saying,” said director Victor Nelli Jr. “We read the scenes a couple times, so we’re not rushed on the day of shooting; we talked about the scenes, the past, what’s going on and where we’re going. We wanted to earn those lines and make them real in such a concise way so that it doesn’t feel forced.”
The episode’s two big conversations weren’t finalized until the day of shooting, with endless tweaks and numerous takes to get them right. “These are the signature fights of our series, and on set we were all feeling like it just needed to get a little more raw,” said Ellickson. “I give a lot of credit to America, because she’s been the star of the show; she could leave in whatever manner she wanted. But she was OK with being the person who screwed up in the relationship, which I think is the best thing for the series.”
Immediately after the breakup, Sandra (Kaliko Kauahi) cathartically shouts into the void, “I hate 2020!” Green said the line is for any viewers disappointed by the decision: “That was our way of acknowledging, in a funny way, ‘Yes, we know we’ve been building up this relationship for many seasons, and [it] was supposed to be the perfect love story. We’re very aware of how this might be tearing some people apart.’”
The final scene Ferrera shot on the series, in which Amy puts on a smile for a tribute video from her colleagues, happened to involve the entire cast. “It was hard; the whole crew wants to hug and they can’t, and everyone was so separated in masks and plastic shields, sitting apart from each other,” said Nelli, who previously directed Ferrera in the “Ugly Betty” series finale. “But there was a moment at the end where all the actors got together in a circle, really thanking each other. We were crying. It was beautiful.”
The episode closes with everyone celebrating with drinks and fireworks in the parking lot. Amy and Jonah don’t speak again but instead share a distanced, silent toast. “We’re saying goodbye to Amy, and we want to wish her well as she leaves, but we didn’t have the time to get Jonah to that place emotionally, and that toast is the most he can muster,” said Ellickson. “It would be dishonest to pretend like it wasn’t going to be terrible for both of them, that it’s actually all cool. That would just do a disservice to the relationship we built all these years.”
Though the split is sad, Ellickson, Feldman and the showrunners agree it’s much more satisfying than what was initially planned in April, a week after “California, Part 1.” “I 100% feel that the lack of convenience throughout this entire process has created a far more nuanced and realistic story, both on a narrative level and on an emotional level,” said Feldman. “I feel so guilty having a reason to be excited about a deadly pandemic, but in this one little tiny corner of the giant hellscape that is coronavirus, it just became so much fuller and richer and more interesting.”
And if Ferrera ever wants to return to Cloud 9, the store’s doors are open. “One thing that we liked about Amy leaving to take a job with corporate is that she’s still involved in the world of the show, and so it wouldn’t be completely out of nowhere for her to still be interacting with her former colleagues from time to time,” said Miller. “We love America; she left on very good terms and she has talked about wanting to come back at some point. There are no firm plans yet, but we definitely would love to have her back sometime.”
When: 8 p.m. Thursday
Rating: TV-14-DL (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with advisories for suggestive dialogue and coarse language)
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