‘George & Tammy’ Creator Abe Sylvia on Why the Finale Was Poetic, Not Tragic

‘George & Tammy’ Creator Abe Sylvia on Why the Finale Was Poetic, Not Tragic

SPOILER ALERT: This story contains spoilers for “Justified & Ancient,” the series finale of Showtime’s “George & Tammy.”

In the end, George Jones and Tammy Wynette rode off into the sunset — at least on television.

Showtime’s record-breaking limited series “George & Tammy” came to a close Sunday night with the country music legends singing along to Hank Williams’ classic “Lost Highway” during a quieter moment on one of their final tours together.

Those familiar with the duo’s histories, together and apart, know they were divorced by the time they embarked on their reunion tours of the 1980s and ‘90s. Some may have expected the series, fronted by Jessica Chastain and Michael Shannon, to end with Tammy’s 1998 death, a tragic final note in a life defined by groundbreaking music and plagued by health issues and drug use.

Instead, it fades to black on one of their tour buses, with a performance from long before either Wynette or Jones reached their finish line.

“There are more traditional biopic ways we could have gone, but we leave the audiences with their voices,” series writer and creator Abe Sylvia tells Variety. “We are not going to a funeral or getting into the very sad details of Tammy’s death. We wanted to leave her, in particular, in a place of tension and beauty, not in tragic resolve.”

The finale begins with Tammy’s infamous kidnapping, which she is revealed (as many have suspected) to have orchestrated in order to hide bruises left by her abusive husband, George Richey (Steve Zahn). As she descends into a painkiller addiction, a now-sober George Jones and her family plead with her to seek treatment. On their “Together Again” tour, the pair are seen sneaking away for a late-night dalliance, evidence that their romance never died. But when he offers to whisk her away from her troubles, as he did at the start of their story, she rebuffs him.

“You’re too late,” a sunken-eyed Tammy says, as audiences get a brief glimpse of their younger selves faced with the same choice to run away in the premiere.

Sylvia spoke to Variety about crafting the closing notes of “George & Tammy,” the meaning behind their emotional final performance and why the series had to be driven by their songbooks.

You worked on “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” with Jessica Chastain, and were shooting this series in North Carolina when she won the Oscar for the role. You two are officially in the business of bringing Tammys to the screen. How long have you been working to make “George & Tammy?”

We met because of “George & Tammy,” so it actually predated “The Eyes of Tammy Faye.” My producers and I approached her about playing Tammy Wynette even before there was a script in 2011. I had just seen [Terrence Malick’s] “The Tree of Life” and I thought she would be a wonderful Tammy, and she stayed attached through a lot of ups and downs and different iterations of the project. I wrote the original screenplay on spec and she loved it, and maybe three or four years later, she reached out and asked if I wanted to write “The Eyes of Tammy Faye.” Here we are 11 years later, and both projects are in the can.

Michael Shannon as George Jones and Jessica Chastain as Tammy Wynette in “George & Tammy.”
Courtesy of Dana Hawley/Showtime

Now that the show has concluded, is there anything noticeably different from the vision you first pitched her to what audiences saw on screen?

Well, it’s six hours now, whereas the original concept was supposed to be a movie. But the screenplay really was the template for the limited series. All the markers, all the tentpole events are still there. We were just able to put more air into them, and include more songs.

You really do get to inject this show with much more music than a movie would have allowed. There are dozens of songs performed start to finish. Is that what drove this story for you?

Billy Sherrill, George and Tammy’s producer [who co-wrote many of their songs], really gave me a wonderful gift — anything that was going on in their lives for real, he wrote about. And they wrote about. Much like a musical, you find yourself in a new place in the story at the end of a song than you did at the beginning. We are not just watching a performance. There were a few songs in the show that are really three-act plays by themselves. They may just be standing there singing, but they hook you in and you realize you are watching a full emotional arc over two and a half minutes. It’s such a testament to Michael and Jessica as actors.

Once you got to be more greedy going from a movie to a series, were there any songs you wanted to get into the show but just couldn’t fit?

I think we got most of the big ones in there. But Tammy’s song, “Till I Can Make it On My Own,” was one we wanted to include but it didn’t fit. I just love that song with all my heart. I also love “(We’re Not) The Jet Set” and “The Ceremony.” But I think we curated wisely.

In the finale, they have divorced, Tammy is in an abusive relationship, and she has seemingly orchestrated her own kidnapping to cover up the abuse. There’s certainly tragedy in these stories, but you chose to highlight a few moments that showed their love for each other never truly went away. How did you settle on this being the best conclusion?

It has to be the music. “Lost Highway” says so much about who they are, and who they are as damaged people walking along the road of life. We leave them driving off into the sunset with this incredible body of work behind them. I would encourage the audience to listen very closely to the lyrics in that song. It is not just a singalong on a bus. It is summing up the entire series. There are more traditional biopic ways we could have gone, but we leave the audiences with their voices. We are not going to a funeral or getting into the very sad details of Tammy’s death. We wanted to leave her, in particular, in a place of tension and beauty, not in tragic resolve.

That idea came from something that Georgette Jones, their daughter, said to us, which was that you can read about Tammy’s death and its macabre and dramatic and operatic, and the temptation is to dramatize all of it. And in some of my early drafts, I did. But it says so much more to just be on Jessica’s face and hear those words, and know that no matter what happened to them, they will never leave us. They gave us such wonderful art about what it means to fall in love and what it means to fall in love with a problematic person, which all of us have done. It became simpler and more poetic when we cut it all out. The more we used music to say everything we needed to say, the series was stronger for it.

And that is a Hank Williams song they are singing, so they found neutral ground with someone else’s song.

George was a huge fan of Hank’s. He thought he would never be as good as Hank, even though he is arguably the greatest country singer who ever lived. Just as we open the whole series with Roy Acuff played by Tim Blake Nelson singing “Wabash Cannonball” as our introduction, we go out with another classic song because that is placing them in country music history. They belong with Hank and Roy.

Georgette Jones as 1970 backup vocalist in “George & Tammy.”
Courtesy of Dana Hawley/Showtime

This series is based on Georgette Jones’ memoir, “The Three of Us: Growing Up with Tammy & George.” Is that her singing with Jessica and Michael on “Lost Highway” on the bus in the final scene?

That is her! She’s on “Golden Ring” too, singing back up. She was really on that tour with her parents and sang backup for them, so that was kind of a full-circle moment for her.

She was an open book with us. Thanks to Georgette, there are things in this show that aren’t in her book and that haven’t been discovered until this show. The fact is, they were kissing and hanging out on that last tour. The writers were talking about how the romance couldn’t be dead, but we didn’t want to make up something that wasn’t true. Then we talked to people who told us they were definitely hooking up on that tour.

That’s probably one question viewers will have at the end of this series. How much of those final moments together were true? It makes sense that when so much of their story was tied up in their music, and they are singing those songs nightly on the road, the fire probably never died for them.

It never died. And I think even if you were fast and loose with some of the timelines, the accuracy of the feelings was always spot on. George and everybody in Tammy’s life wanted to find a way to save her in the end. Nobody could, and it’s because she was an unstoppable force. That was her greatest strength, and also the tragedy of it. That’s why at the beginning of the series — and the opening of the finale — we see her running. It becomes a metaphor for everything else. George says in the finale, “There’s no stopping her, that’s her beauty.” That includes her drug addiction. She’s not going to run away with George like she did the last time. But what he can do for her in the end is get back on the bus and go with her until they fade out like a song.

How does it feel to close the book on “George & Tammy” after 11 years? You were the biggest premiere in Showtime history, so it seems to have found its audience.

I will take it back to my Broadway musical roots. There is this Fred Ebb and John Kander song called “It’s a Quiet Thing.” It goes, “When it all comes true, just the way you’d planned, it’s funny but the bells don’t ring. It’s a quiet thing.” I would say it is a very nice, peaceful feeling that it is out in the world and people are enjoying it.

Your next project won’t be so quiet. You are the creator and showrunner of Apple TV+’s upcoming series “Mrs. American Pie” with Kristen Wiig, Laura Dern, Allison Janney, Ricky Martin, Josh Lucas and Carol Burnett. Talk about star power. What can you say about that series?

We are deep in post right now and I can say that it is a complete departure from “George & Tammy.” It is sort of a dark comedy, but I guess like George and Tammy, it is about larger-than-life people living in the high society of Palm Beach in 1969. It’s a wonderful ensemble of really fabulous actors, and we had a great time making it. I can’t wait for people to see it.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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