Kung Fu’s season finale aired last week with a happy ending for our Shooby gang as they embraced their future. With season 4 still up in the air, the showrunners Robert “Bob” Berens and Christina Kim wanted to give the series a fitting goodbye to at least this chapter of Nicky Shen’s (Olivia Liang) story.
“We actually went into the season because we knew one way or another [about season 4],” Berens tells The Nerds of Color. “We went into the season knowing we wanted to close out both the mythology storytelling and Nicky’s arc that we had set up in the pilot. We were arc-ing towards this being a very big finale regardless [of season 4].”
With the loss of Pei-Ling (Vanessa Kai) in the finale, Nicky is able to fully accept her sifu’s fate and move on from there. The rest of the Shooby gang were also given their moments: Jin (Tzi Ma) making a difference as a politician; Mei-Li (Kheng Hua Tan) and Sebastian’s (JB Tadena) food truck Warrior Wok is a huge hit; Dennis (Tony Chung) and Althea (Shannon Dang) have moved out of the family home on their own; Althea’s job with the NSA is going well; Evan (Gavin Stenhouse) and Nadia (Marissa Cuevas) welcome their daughter; and, Henry (Eddie Liu) continues his father’s legacy by working with the Wan Zei. Though it seems like the series are concluding their stories, Berens says if given a fourth season, they have plans for the characters to come together again.
“The truth is that Nicky is out there in the world separate from her family,” Berens explains. “For us, we’re excited with the opportunity of coming back. We’ve seen Nicky heal her relationship with her family and they’ve become this great team. In the event that we get to come back, there is a chance to shake up the Shen family but also find a way to bring them back together.”
The Nerds of Color asked Kim and Berens about their decisions for the season finale, what could have been, and what to expect if given another season.
The Nerds of Color: Obviously, we don’t know what is in Kung Fu’s future, but what was the idea behind this season’s story of bringing Pei-Ling back, only to lose her?
Bob Berens: Our intention was to bring Pei-Ling back partly because of how much we love Vanessa [Kai]. We wanted to give her some really meaty stuff to sink her teeth into and with the combination of her dual role, that certainly happened.We thought it would be surprising and hopefully very satisfying for viewers to bend the finale back to the pilot in a really impactful way. That seeded the ground for that twist that would bring us back to Pei-Ling’s original death where it started this all and Pei-Ling’s death the second time around would be the capper on the first three seasons of the show. I think emotionally it anchored Zhilan (Yvonne Chapman) and Nicky’s arc across these three seasons. As much as Nicky has grown and matured, there’s a part of her that still hurts about the death of her sifu and still desperately wants her back. So what felt like a gift this season was also an opportunity for Pei-Ling to teach her and show her that she has to let her go. And, that the natural order of things and everything Pei-Ling taught her at the monastery about life and death speaks to this unnatural resurrection that was connected to dark magic and outside the natural cycles of life and death that Pei-Ling believes in. It was heartbreaking, but almost a poetic necessity for us, the more we discussed it.
There is something that bothered me about Pei-Ling’s sacrifice and that is at the hands of Nicky. Nicky has already been through so much trauma in her life and to have to do that to her sifu. Why couldn’t Pei-Ling do it herself? Why put that trauma on Nicky?
Berens: Ultimately, by the end of the season, Nicky has the strength to do it without being traumatized. It was heartbreaking. But she has ascended to a place where she understands the necessity of [it] and she’s actually ready to let Pei-Ling go as heartbreaking as it is. She sees the justice and rightness in it. We don’t see a Nicky who’s waking up in cold sweats down the road about what happened. We wrote it and understood it as a moment of Nicky accepting and growing into that this was necessary to do.
Kim: I think Olivia played that moment so well, because there really weren’t that many words that Pei-Ling had to explain to her in terms of what she needed to do. Nicky knew. She understood it was up to her. This is her story. This is her relationship with Pei-Ling. As Bob was [saying that Nicky] was really not able to let go of the pain of Pei-Ling’s original death. So in that moment, Olivia played it perfectly where that moment of recognition of “it’s finally come to this. I knew it was coming but never wanted it to come.” I agree with Bob that there was already acceptance there. It’s not fresh trauma to her. It was a natural conclusion.
With the end of Xiao, does this mean all the Warrior/Guardian line is over? Is Nicky now just using her skills to be a protector?
Berens: Yeah. Seeing how much the show was really about these characters, this family and the magic and the mythology, we really felt the opportunity to bring everything we’d established to a close as far as that goes. The show will live on either in reality or in people’s heads and hearts on the strength of these characters and their future. It also felt like there was justice to this being a Pei-Ling-centric season. The truth is that though Pei-Ling was connected to all this magic and the bloodlines, her core beliefs are not about magic and all of that. That’s more for our villains. It’s really about the reality of human life on its own terms. So what made Nicky a hero is not being part of the bloodlines, it’s the things she’s done. It’s the choices she’s made. It’s the people she’s attached to. We were really excited by the chance to close the book on the first volume of our mythology and purge the bloodlines from our world.
I want to talk about all the characters. It’s hard for Asian people to walk away from their lifelong career, especially since they built it up — also, we really hate starting over. What were the talks regarding Mei-Li and Jin’s career changes?
Kim: I think it’s hard for anybody to move away from what they’ve been doing [for so long]. There was something very universal in the decision for Mei-Li to walk away from the restaurant. I love Mei-Li’s character arc, starting from the pilot to where we’re leaving her in the finale of season three because she’s come such a [long] way. She was the one person that held on to everything so tightly in the pilot. And here, she’s become this evolved mother figure, not only to Nicky and her kids, but to Sebastian [and Zhilan]. She’s able to step away and look at the totality of things, which is something that she wouldn’t have been able to do in season 1. Of course, it’s a hard decision. We see her working through it but, at the same time, I think there’s like a lightness and the way Kheng plays it, [we] felt her joy and hope for the future. So it’s a little bit not what you would expect.
Was there ever a chat about Jin NOT winning?
Berens: We talked about both versions of the story there. This did feel like the natural evolution for Jin that was completely surprising to him. He’s not a person who looking for power. He is [just] a natural leader. That’s the arc we charted for him this season. In a situation where there’s a deficit [and lack of] leadership, he is serving the interests of his community. He steps up and we enjoyed the surprise, happy ending of that arc. It definitely served a function in that episode, because there was a lot of dark news in that one as well. Seeing him step out into that role just excited us and it leaves him in a very interesting position at the end of the season.
At the end of the episode, Zhilan’s future isn’t really shown. Zhilan’s whole purpose has been to exact revenge on Russell Tan and then find her sister. What is her purpose now?
Kim: I love Zhilan’s journey because, as you said, so much of it was about revenge. She was so solely focused on it that it consumed her life and her character, but we’ve seen her grow a lot too. We’ve seen her grow as she’s developed a relationship with Nicky and even the Shens, which has been really fun. Her journey now is about redemption. There’s different ways that she can seek that. There was something really beautiful about the fact that when faced with her sister’s death, she didn’t have the answer. She didn’t have an immediate angry response. There was acceptance. She is taking a moment where she doesn’t know where she’s going. She doesn’t know how she’s gonna play it next, which is not how we’ve ever seen her character in the series.
Berens: She’s so driven and so focused, and we saw how that led her to extreme evil and villainy earlier on the show’s run – and then increasingly on this redemption journey. We saw a little poetic karmic justice. Zhilan has this tunnel vision, “if I can just save my sister all will be good.” And to see that taken from her, it opens up a more existential sort of redemption and a larger redemption story. Her sister was not the only person she hurt when she was a villain. She took a lot of lives. We love our Zhi-Zhi, but there was a bittersweet justice in depriving her of that catharsis, honestly. [It’s for her to] face the totality of what she’s done and ask a bigger question about how she can make good on her life.
We need to talk about Bo. I didn’t sympathize with him in the beginning until we got to his childhood trauma. I really empathize with him afterward, but then he gets trapped and essentially killed. What can you tell us about that?
Kim: We love Ben Levin. He’s a fantastic actor and such a wonderful person. When you have a combination of both, we, as writers, are always looking for ways to keep them around. I don’t know what we can really spoil or say [if we do get another season].
Berens: There’s a lot of happy endings at the end of this season. In the case of Zhilan — and to a larger extent, the case of Bo, there’s a little note of sadness really because ultimately, he redeems himself and goes out in a pretty brutal and horrifying way. That was upsetting to us, but it was important that it not be all sunshine and cupcakes for our characters and it felt right. It is not the end [for him] on our show. If we’re lucky enough to come back, I don’t think that’s the last you’ve seen of him. There’s more story to tell and there’s certainly more fun to be had working with Ben Levin, who we just adore.
We’ve lost a lot of people throughout the series, but there’s always a way to bring them back. In this season, we lost A LOT of lives. If given a chance, would you be bringing these people — like Mia, Pei-Ling, and others — back or would this be final?
Berens: It was important that at least within the terms of the season that we assert that through all our magical resurrections, death is a part of life. Pei-Ling is the character that embodies that because as much as she appreciated the second chance to spend time with Nicky, she always knew this was wrong and it wasn’t meant to be. We wanted to honor that theme and that ethic and ethos, but as far as the future, if we’re lucky enough to come back, we never say never. Certainly in terms of the characters who have survived, there’s a lot more story that we want to tell about the Shens and Shooby gang.
Speaking of Shooby gang, it seems like everyone got their happy ending in the end. How did you decide on each of their stories — Nadia and Evan with a baby; Althea with the NSA; Seb and Mei-Ling’s food truck; and Nicky and Henry being their own Indiana Jones?
In the case of Nadia and Evan — this is very behind-the-scenes, our characters are in their mid-to-late 20s. People are gonna start having families. It’s funny. We even floated the idea at one point of possibly what would Althea as a young mother look like? Shannon genuinely didn’t want to play that story. We never got very far in it. That idea migrated to Evan and Nadia — and once that did, we loved it. It wasn’t planned. It didn’t serve a great macro narrative function. It felt life-like. That this would happen and we see that evident in Nadia, despite the surprise. We loved that it was a chance to celebrate one of the Shoobys who was not an immediate family [member]. It was something for them to celebrate as a victory lap at the end of the show. Our finale is so much about knotting it back to the pilot. It gives you an opportunity to take the measure of Evan and Nicky’s friendship across three seasons and how it evolved from their breakup before the show began to “will they, won’t they” and now three seasons later with Evan starting a family with Nadia. That just felt delicious and unexpected to us.
Speaking of relationships, was “Hicky” endgame all along?
Kim: There was a lot of debate back and forth because our writers room is just as divided as our fans. There was definitely a pull towards Nicky and Henry because they were brought together by fate and both did have their own mystical storylines. There was always that love there.They just have such great chemistry. We wanted to have an ending that was satisfying but also realistic in terms of where they were on their individual character journeys. So hopefully it satisfies the Hicky lovers.
For Sebastian and Mei-Li, I need to know more about their food truck name: Warrior Wok. Is it Filipino food or is it Chinese Filipino fusion? What’s going on here?
Berens: It is fusion. There are certain questions we put to the cast for brainstorming. Warrior Wol was the final vote. If you speak to JB and Kheng about it, maybe I’ve got this wrong, but we were pitching back and forth. It became the consensus vote for the name, but we had a couple of different options in the running. Warrior Wok served a nice function because we just ended the warrior bloodlines. There’s a nod to what made them connected to the bloodlines. I’ll just invoke that in the food as that goes on like their lives and their stories.
Kim: We went back and forth a lot of different names because we were debating whether it should be pure Filipino, [which is] more of Seb’s vision or is it more of a fusion/ It felt very much a partnership. So yeah, there were a lot of things going back and forth. Warrior Wok seemed right to our family, but then, also, a fun name with alliteration.
I love the last shot being connected to the 1970s series of Nicky walking into the sunset. Was this the plan the entire time to have it connect to the previous series?
Kim: We were excited by having a nod to the original series. We’ve been asked a lot of times along the way, especially in the beginning when the show first came out, about how much is the show like the original? How much is it going to be like the original? Obviously, it was not very much like the original at all. It was a big departure. But in terms of playing some tribute to the original and also being true to Nicky’s character, it felt like we’d gotten her to a place over these three seasons where this felt like the right ending and launching point for Chapter Two. Hopefully, we will get to write about Nicky’s character and that she had sort of earned this place to go out into the world with all the skills that she’s learned from not only her sifu, but from her time at home and being with her family and helping her community.
What would you say is now Nicky’s purpose?
Kim: She has this really wonderful scene with her mom in the kitchen which, by design, is a mirror of a scene that was in the pilot, when Nicky first comes home and has a very upsetting conversation with her mom in the kitchen who is angry and hurt that Nicky ran away and doesn’t understand her daughter. Here we see in the finale, it’s almost shot exactly the same in the same location in the kitchen with Mom cooking and Nicky standing there looking for approval and guidance. It’s a completely different Mei-Li who’s the one that encourages Nicky and gives her permission and blessing for Nicky. Nicky’s got a lot to do in the world and there is a big world out there. It’s okay to go and explore and to figure it out. We love connecting it to the pilot and showing how our characters have grown and launch Nicky into a new chapter that way.
Because we don’t know the finality of the series, was the season finale structure changed from what was planned? The season finale ended pretty tightly with everyone getting some sort of closure and happy ending.
Berens: I would say in some small ways, yes. Generally, we actually went into the season before we knew one way or the other. We still don’t know, but we went into the season knowing we wanted to close out a lot of the mythology and storytelling and Nicky’s arc we had set up in the pilot in the first season. We were arc-ing toward this being a very big finale regardless, like we always wanted this to resolve a lot of stuff and surprise viewers with how resolved it was before there was any uncertainty about whether we’d come back. It was a happy accident. The truth is, we went back and forth on a couple of cliffhanger beats like how resolved do we tell the story. Do we make this final? Ultimately, we came back to the same thing, which is we can resolve as much of the mythology as we want because what makes the show is not the magical story or the plot, it’s these characters and this family and this hero. We felt safe putting the pedal to the metal and going to a very big and resolved finale because whether it’s the end or not, it opens a lot of doors for us in the future. It creates a very open sense of what we can do and if we do come back. It worked out that way.
If greenlit for a season 4, what are the discussions for the Shens and the Shooby gang?
Berens: At the end of the finale episode, everyone’s embarking on big new chapters. Jin entered into politics. Mei-Li and Sebastian started this business. Althea starting her NSA venture. The truth is that Nicky is out there in the world separate from her family. For us, we’re excited for the opportunity to come back. We’ve seen Nicky heal her relationship with her family and become this great team. In the event that we get to come back, what’s interesting about that is to take our characters with these new destinies and then converge them again. It’s the chance to shake up the Shen family, but also find a way to bring them back together that excites us.
Kung Fu is available on streaming platforms on The CW.