If any show had license to kill off its lead, it was "Rescue Me."
Instead the show's finale Wednesday surprised us with one of the most hopeful endings television has seen in years — and managed to be about something bigger than a TV show.
There's a long list of recent dramas that seemed to throw up their hands when it was time to finish their runs. The new go-to ending is to kill the main character. Or everyone.
Before the finale, co-creators Denis Leary and Peter Tolan nearly decided to kill Leary's character, Tommy Gavin, by fire or water. They even opened the finale with a long sequence imagining his death.
It would have made sense: Gavin is a firefighter haunted by 9/11 survivor's guilt, with a long history of self-destructive behavior and an intensely dangerous job.
But for all the show's occasional bitterness and cynicism, it ended on a refreshing, inspiring note. Tommy delivered a passionate speech to new firefighters about what it means to do the job, just as he did in the first episode. Then he got in his car to discover his dead best friend, Lou, who seemed determined to cheer him up from beyond the grave.
"It was obviously a bookend to the first scene in the pilot, so that felt right," Tolan told TheWrap on Wednesday after a screening of the finale. "But also you wanted to see some forward movement in Tommy, and he's only slightly different."
"He gets a little more contemplative during that speech," Tolan added. "And then the idea of a guy who's been haunted by all of his failures, and the people he couldn't save, and in the end he's still haunted, but it's by a friend. So it's much more hopeful than any of the other endings we talked about."
The fire that killed Lou (John Scurti) had special meaning for Leary: It closely paralleled the Worcester, Mass., fire that killed his cousin, Jeremiah M. Lucey, and five other firefighters in 1999.
"There's a reason that that fire ended up in the second-to-last show," Tolan said. "I think it was a little too close for Denis to revisit."
The most impressive part about the finale is that it managed to be bigger than the show. Tommy's final speech invokes the 343 firefighters killed on 9/11, and the final lines spoken on the show are the names of some of those firefighters. Tolan said "Rescue Me" has always felt a duty to keep memories of 9/11 alive.
"I definitely did want people to remember 9/11 and remember the people who died," Tolan said. "I don't think people really want to be reminded. It's still 10 years later, it's still too soon, because of the size of the calamity and the fact that it took place on our own soil. I definitely feel like that was part of our mission statement, without overstating it, without using the tragedy to keep the show going."