The last episode of the Ellen talk show didn’t necessarily rewrite history. But it certainly glossed over part of it.
Of course it was always going to be this kind of poignant celebration. And of course it was not going to acknowledge the elephant in the room, though that elephant got more unruly, more agitated, and more impossible to ignore as the episode doubled down—and tripled down, quadrupled down…basically talked nonstop—about how nice DeGeneres is and the “family atmosphere” that her show cultivated.
In the summer of 2020, a Buzzfeed investigation put into text one of Hollywood’s biggest open secrets: that TV’s patron saint of niceness, the “Be Kind” lady, was a monster to work for.
There were detailed accounts of racism, fear, and intimidation, a ruthless environment ruled with the harsh iron fist of the woman at the top. The rumor mill had churned for years about DeGeneres’ temper and unreasonable demands. Where there was smoke, there turned out to be a blazing inferno of toxic behavior. More, three executive producers were fired for sexual misconduct, prompting an investigation.
DeGeneres was forced to address all of this on the show, with an apology that was surprising in that it happened—Hollywood is known more for denial, deflection, and delusion than it is for contrition—but was still unlikely to satisfy most of her critics. That is, the critics who cared. The truth was that, for 19 years, DeGeneres has been a beloved source of entertainment and inspiration for millions of people who are, blessedly and blissfully, not “extremely online” and may have been wholly unaware of any of this controversy in the first place.
It’s in that muddy space that the Ellen finale struggled to produce a squeaky-clean final episode, the kind of earnest tribute that an institution like this show is typically given without an asterisk accounting for the complicated conversations surrounding its star.
If anything, the greatest service Thursday’s episode provided was that it was a powerful reminder of how complicated those conversations are.
We take for granted what an omnipresent, major celebrity DeGeneres has become—so prominent as to, according to those allegations, morph into quite the diva. It’s easy to forget how unlikely it is that we’re even at a place of having these debates about her and her show.
“Twenty years ago when we were trying to sell this show, no one thought this would work,” she said during her opening monologue on Thursday. “Not because it was a different kind of show, but because I was different. Very few stations wanted to buy the show, and here we are 20 years later celebrating this amazing journey together.”
Her sitcom had been canceled after she made the decision to come out, both in real life and as her character on her series.
It’s almost trite to say that, as an out gay person, it’s impossible to quantify the impact that DeGeneres and her public-facing bravery had in building the world that I’m able to live in today, or to explain what it means that, despite what she went through after coming out, she still had the courage and tenacity to carve space in people’s hearts for acceptance.
“When we started this show, I couldn’t say ‘gay’ on the show,” she continued. “I said it at home a lot. ‘What are we having for our gay breakfast?’ Or, ‘Pass the gay salt.’ ‘Has anyone seen the gay remote?’ Things like that. I couldn’t say ‘gay.’ I couldn’t say ‘we,’ because that implied I was with someone. I sure couldn’t say ‘wife,’ and that’s because it wasn’t legal for gay people to get married. And now I say ‘wife’ all the time.”
Then the kicker: “Twenty-five years ago they canceled my sitcom because they didn’t want a lesbian to be in primetime once a week, and I said, ‘OK, then I’ll be on daytime every day. How about that?’”
That this show happened, let alone that it became such a hit, is astounding in ways that deserved a send-off like the one the finale orchestrated. And, my word, did the show do so much good during its 19 seasons. At one point during the episode, it’s revealed that $460 million had been given to charities and deserving viewers over the years.
But, again, things are complicated. We’re a culture not in the business of complicated legacies. Nuance is an extinct concept. Measuredness? Haven’t heard that word in years.
DeGeneres built a fortress on the artifice of inclusivity and kindness. What she didn’t realize is, for the rest of us whose emotional labor is baked into each brick, how painful it is to watch it fall. So it was a confusing experience to watch Thursday’s finale and see that rubble rebuilt as a shining monument to niceness and joy, exclusively.
There certainly was a lot of that. But there was also so much more. That “more” was never going to be addressed in a series finale, which meant watching it was always going to be somewhat perplexing.
“What a beautiful, beautiful journey we have been on together,” she said during the show. “And if this show has made you smile, if it has lifted you up when you’re in a period of some type of pain, some type of sadness, anything you’re going through, then I have done my job. Because of this platform, we have been able to change people’s lives.”
That’s not something pompous, or an egregious display of narcissism. (OK, maybe a little.) It’s true. It’s true for me, at least, and I know I’m not alone. At a specific time in my life, Ellen was exactly that. It was the thing that made me smile, that lifted me up through pain when that pain seemed like it was all I’d ever be able to feel. From 3 to 4 p.m., five days a week, the show was something bright that somehow managed to pierce through that teflon cloud of darkness.
It wasn’t just the philanthropic aspect of it. It was the easy rapport she had with her guests. The wily, mischievous grin she would have while delivering her jokes. Yes, it is embarrassing to admit, even the dancing.
Those were the obvious things. Probably bubbling somewhere subconsciously, too, was the meaningfulness of a person like DeGeneres, who had been cast off by the industry and a large swath of culture for daring to articulate who she is and ask to be accepted for it, being the one to have such a triumph with this show. And that instead of leading with bitterness, she insisted on trumpeting that kindness and that lightness. Culture, and especially TV, had become cynical and exploitative. It was almost revolutionary for there to be something—and someone—that cared about the idea of “nice.”
Her finale guests on Thursday were Jennifer Aniston, Billie Eilish, and Pink, each of whom tearfully thanked DeGeneres for that. “If I help people find their pain, you help them find their joy,” Pink said. “You are as kind as you seem.”
In contrast to when celebrities posted vague words of support when the Buzzfeed investigation was first published, this doesn’t necessarily seem like A-listers circling the wagons to do damage control and protect their own. (Would you believe that a very famous person might be friendly to other famous people, but not the plebeians on their payroll?) I can buy that it was a genuine attempt to center the conversation about the show ending around what actually made it special.
That doesn’t mean that DeGeneres’ harshest critics aren’t spending this evening tending to their burn wounds from their blood boiling over each time someone, DeGeneres most of all, mentioned the “family atmosphere” at the show. Ellen! We all read the article!
But the truth of the matter is that the show that ended on Thursday was the show that Ellen always was.
Sure, it engaged with the real world—especially when, like in that 2020 apology episode, the news forced it to. Its insistence that joy is a choice in the darkest of times acknowledged that the universe of Ellen wasn’t a bubble or some sort of utopia. When the credits rolled at 4 p.m., we all had to go back to face reality and shoulder our struggles.
That said, it was a show about pleasantness, to the extent that, as it went on, some accused it of mediocre blandness. The finale had pleasant celebs talking pleasantly with a host who was in a pleasant mood. A sendoff of any other kind would have been absurd, no matter how much some people might have desired the Be Kind Lady’s mea culpa.
The world DeGeneres is saying goodbye to is a baffling one, considering the historical context she gave in her monologue. A potential Supreme Court decision could snowball into the dissolution of LGBT rights and civil liberties. “Don’t Say Gay” laws and anti-trans bills are popping up all over the country. The whole idea of a series that aims to be a respite amid a horrifying reality certainly reverberates given recent news.
It’s surreal in some ways. It makes you question whether we still need someone like Ellen, who was a trailblazer, or wonder who might be the person who’s next to carry that baton—and what that vehicle, if not a daytime talk show, may be.
DeGeneres did dance one last time in her final episode. Where she’s dancing off to next—and whether we should be following, if we should follow—still remains to be seen.