Editor’s Note: All season long, Jesse Hassenger has been reviewing SNL for Consequence. He returns today with some thoughts on the show’s finale. You can revisit his other pieces here.
It was a weird season of Saturday Night Live, and the show acknowledged that right upfront during its Season 46 finale. As part of the show’s ongoing vamping over what to do for cold opens now that they aren’t tackling President Trump on a weekly basis, the final opening sketch of the season went both self-referential and sentimental. For the former, the cast reflected on the past year-plus of pandemic comedy, making semi-pointed jokes about the recklessness of returning to a live show way back in the fall, well before vaccines were ready, and about the characteristically uneven results. (Finally, a reason for that stupid Elon Musk-as-Wario sketch: It did, admittedly, make for a funny single image when Cecily Strong threw to a supposed best-of clips package that contained that moment alone, in slow motion.) There were also moments where cast members were clearly speaking from the heart about their experiences.
SNL has experimented more with these moments of sincerity over the past five years or so, and while it’s less unusual that it was in the 2000s, it still has notes of both novelty and discomfort. The thankful, reflective nature of the opening felt like it was teeing up a goodbye for one or more of the show’s longest-standing cast members. Indeed, as the cold open cut around to different small groups of the cast, Kate McKinnon (completing her ninth full season and 10th overall), Cecily Strong and Aidy Bryant (both on their ninth season), and Kenan Thompson (finishing up his astonishing 17th season) stood together. McKinnon struggled to hold back tears. It felt like the end of an era.
Until it didn’t, then did, then didn’t. The finale, hosted by Anya Taylor-Joy, was in many respects a pretty normal, if above-average, episode of SNL. There was one pretty bad sketch—early in the show, too, showing a bizarre confidence in a Hollywood Squares rerun bit that relied on constant cutaways to text on a screen to explain the absence of since-canceled celebrities, rather than the host and cast members. There were, however, a couple of strong filmed pieces: Beck Bennett playing one of his specialties, the dad whose haplessness turns desperate and dark, in a prom-photo sketch, and a Pride Month music video showcasing Bowen Yang as well as musical guest Lil Nas X. And there were some gratifyingly silly sketches stuck into the show’s final half-hour. It was all characteristic of the largely pretty decent post-Trump episodes SNL has been producing this spring, freed from the burden of political buzz and allowed to simply juggle the whims of an oversized cast.
The finale was also a traditional outing in that it’s still impossible to know for sure if it was serving as a farewell to any of the aforementioned long-tenured cast members—or anyone else. Before the show even started, Melissa Villaseñor caused a minor stir on social media when she suggested she was leaving the show, then recanted. Then, during one of his trademark Weekend Update pieces, Pete Davidson made self-deprecating jokes about his mental health, and closed by thanking the audience for watching him grow up. (This was his seventh season on the show, and he started at age 20.) Is he planning to leave, or just covering his bases in case he makes that decision later? Shortly thereafter, in a plum spot, Cecily Strong closed out the final Weekend Update of the year with her riotous Jeanine Piro impression, which included her singing “My Way” and jumping into a giant box of wine. This felt even more like a curtain call for one of the show’s best performers—and closer to the kind of unofficial, unsentimental sendoff the show used to give.
As longer cast member runs at SNL became more common in the 2000s, the show started actually acknowledging departures: Will Ferrell got a testimonial-filled goodbye segment in 2002; Jimmy Fallon ran through a “Summer Nights” homage in 2004; Kristen Wiig had a slightly embarrassing last dance in 2012. Though not every beloved cast member’s goodbye has been so explicit, it certainly feels like Thompson or McKinnon would likely receive some kind of shout-out. Instead, neither of them appeared much at all in the episode; while Aidy Bryant didn’t have a Strong-style fanfare, she was front and center for a number of sketches. Bryant using any final-episode clout to push through a fake local ad for a defiantly unsexy bra store would be in keeping with her goofy, perfectly observed comic sensibility.
Maybe McKinnon or Thompson just weren’t interested in goodbye flexes, big or small—or maybe they truly aren’t sure yet what the fall will bring. (I’d bet money—maybe not big money—that Thompson will be back, even if he assumes more of a part-time Adjunct Cast Member position going forward.) Some SNL watchers are constantly yearning for the kind of massive housecleaning that results in an all-new cast, and it would make sense if the show lost the five or six dependable players who have been on the show for nearly a decade. At the same time, that hasn’t been the show’s way for 25 years—and even then, the total-reboot approach has been exaggerated. Season 21, which introduced Will Ferrell, Darrell Hammond, and Cheri Oteri, retained five cast members from the disastrous Season 20. Nearly half of the “new cast” had already been on the show. In 2021, five cast members could drop from the current cast, and it would still be a robust fifteen people, including multiple players approaching the decade mark.
That’s all to say that instead of a momentous occasion signaling a sea-change at the show, we got an amusing episode with Anya Taylor-Joy having fun doing Celtic dancing and hawking elaborate bras. That well-intentioned cold open prepped the audience for an emotional catharsis, then left fans of the show hanging, perhaps moved by McKinnon’s tears or Strong’s exuberance, but uncertain about the future. Something about the lack of immediate closure feels both true to SNL, and true to life. “Back to normal” isn’t going to feel normal, and normal wasn’t always that great. Eras are always easier to mark out in retrospect than they are in the moment. Chances are, someone was saying goodbye tonight. We’ll only find out who it was after the fact.