From Kristen Wiig to Fake Richard Nixon: The ‘Palm Royale’ Finale, Explained

Apple TV+
Apple TV+

It’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment in the season finale of Apple TV+’s Palm Royale where the realization happens that, “Oh, this is not like any finale I’ve seen before.” But when it does, it practically crashes down on you like an anvil from the sky.

(Warning: Spoilers ahead for the season finale of Palm Royale.)

In the comedy/drama/soap opera/Technicolor bonanza, Kristen Wiig plays Maxine Dellacorte-Simmons, a wide-eyed social climber in the 1969 Palm Beach, Florida, social scene—a scene which wants nothing to do with her. Still, she scrapes her way to the top of the high-society ladder, using various wheeling-and-dealings, moral barterings, scams, and a helluva lot of gumption as rungs. Her efforts pay off with what should be her dream come true: Much to the chagrin of Queen Bees Evelyn (Allison Janney), Dina (Lesie Bibb), and Norma (Carol Burnett), Maxine cohosts the event of the season, the Beach Ball, at the Dellacorte Manor.

That “I’ve not seen a TV ending like this before” epiphany? It comes roughly around when Wiig, as Maxine, is performing a rendition of Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is?” for the Palm Beach crowd in the massive Beach Ball tent in the manor’s back yard. (Maxine’s rivals had plotted to have Boone’s Farm wine and cottage cheese replace the champagne and canapes, attempting to sabotage the event—and making for quite the aesthetically dissonant sight against the chandeliers and ball gowns.)

In the middle of the song, she begins to have a breakdown, after realizing that her friend and confidante, Mitzi (Kaia Gerber), had an affair with her husband, Doug (Josh Lucas), and is pregnant with her baby. On stage and shattered, she continues on with the performance. Between choruses, she starts shouting everyone’s dirty laundry to the crowd, which includes President Richard Nixon in attendance.

Leslie Bibb and Allison Janney face off in a still from ‘Palm Royale’

Leslie Bibb and Allison Janney

Erica Parise/Apple TV+

As this is happening, Laura Dern, playing a feminist activist named Linda, is sprinting across the Dellacorte lawn, desperate to stop an assassination attempt against Nixon she just learned about. Simultaneously, Ricky Martin, playing a closeted gay pool boy named Robert—who, at this moment, is inexplicably wearing an astronaut’s space suit—is walking to the stage to comfort Maxine. Linda arrives just in time to smack away the gun pointed at Nixon, but it goes off in Robert’s direction instead. As Maxine wails in horror seeing her friend bleed to death, the season ends.

So, yeah: not your typical finale…

“A pistol in a hairdo!” director and executive producer Tate Taylor (The Help, The Girl on the Train) exclaimed, recalling yet another bonkers detail of the episode when we spoke recently about his work helming the finale of the show. His list of memorable moments goes on—“Don't forget the astronaut! Richard Nixon! And Carol Burnett!”—until he trails off, knowing he could be naming more examples all night.

We spoke with Taylor about his work on the finale, which he called “one of the most complicated things I’ve ever directed.” Now that you’ve (hopefully) seen the episode, here’s his behind-the-scenes look at pulling it all off: everything from Wiig’s singing breakdown to the murder of Ricky Martin.

Kristen Wiig Deserves an Emmy for the ‘Palm Royale’ Finale

There’s something about Maxine singing “Is That All There Is?” specifically while all of this was happening. It started somewhat humorous and evolved to becoming so tragic. How did you land on this song?

[Creator] Abe Sylvia and the writers room, that was their doing. They just wanted to find that perfect song to encapsulate all she’s gone through. I know they searched and searched and searched. I was very pleased that that's the one that came across. Also, Kristen was comfortable with it. She’s singing. It’s quite a task for the actress.

The entire season builds up to one huge event, the Beach Ball. That must be a lot of directorial pressure.

We spent a lot of time coming up with the design and the look of this party. All of the characters, they kind of have their own spot [in the gala]. So I storyboarded this for about two weeks. I realized that the biggest task I had was not being stuck in a tent where every angle looks the same, because that’d be tedious. That’s when I decided to have one of the tents open, where the moon could be seen.

It’s also why we had the little mini rooms in the tents, especially when Maxine confronts Norma and she shuts the tent wall. I wanted the tent to be on the back part of the Dellacorte mansion, so I would have the stairwell [to the lawn] for when the attempted assassination hits. I just needed layers. And of course, swinging mermaids on trapezes do not hurt.

Tate Taylor poses for a picture at a step and repeat for the premier of ‘Palm Royale’

Tate Taylor

Amy Sussman/Getty Images

Were there photos or video footage you could look at to get a sense of what an event like this would have been like?

There were no Slim Aarons photographs of a Beach Ball, sadly. We really just went with the templates that we had already set for our show. I wanted it to be opulent visually, just to contrast against the Boone’s Farm and the cottage cheese that was being served. We didn’t do a deep dive into anything. We had some historical footage of Palm Beach citizens at parties that we used a lot to develop the interior. They’re very private and secretive, so there is no such filmed party.

Maxine’s musical number sequence, which becomes a murder sequence: How did you go about tackling that?

Well, if you think about it, there are a lot of entrances and exits in these scenes. So a lot of [the challenge] was planning where in the tent the scene would take place, so that as characters exit that scene, I can already be waiting for the next one and have them pass by or pass through to join. There’s a lot of people overhearing things. It really was, directorially, a chess board. Especially Laura [Dern] going after the gun, I liken it to a painting, an immersive painting, and every part has to come together.

‘Palm Royale’: Allison Janney Crying to a Beached Whale Is Such Important TV

This is a show that dances delicately between tones. Kristen’s musical performance is both funny and heartbreaking. Could you talk about how the two of you found the right emotionality and tone?

First of all, Kristen and I spent a lot of time figuring out the beats. Because she didn’t want to waste it all on the extreme close up. So one time we shot her close up first, so we could get the emotion, and then we would back out. With Kristen, I said, “Now, look. If you’re not happy with [a take] and you’re not feeling it, you can just go back to one and then we will reset everything. I’m not going to run up and discuss each take. You are in charge of your emotional reaction to this, and I want you to be in complete control of ‘it’s not right’ or ‘my tears are not coming, I have to make this more personal.’”

So it was really a collaborative effort. I can’t get into her head. The worst thing I could do is think that the take has gone a little too long when that is, in fact, her ramping up her emotions. I also don’t want to yell “cut” after I think something was beautiful and she wasn’t quite ready.

Ricky Martin looks at Carol Burnett in a still from ‘Palm Royale’
Apple TV+

Then there’s the action sequence before Ricky Martin’s character, Robert, gets shot, with Laura Dern running in and grabbing the gun. And then when the chaos and thrill dies down, everyone notices that Robert is bleeding out, and Maxine is shrieking in horror. Can you talk about balancing the intense action and then the very dramatic emotion?

Again, I worked with Kristen. I explained all the shots that I was going to get. I would say, “This is what I’m gonna get. This is what I’m going to shoot. And I want you to have the opportunity to say what order you want to do it in. For much of the reasons I explained earlier, with Robert getting shot, she wanted to go for it right off the bat. And she did it. It was beautiful. I let Kristen be in charge of her emotions. For me, my job was the sightlines. Can you see from here? Is the shot from the balcony going to work? And at the same time, I’m hiding this Richard Nixon lookalike’s face in the shadows.

That’s something that is also quite unique to this finale. Directors aren’t normally dealing with Richard Nixon lookalikes whose face you have to hide.

I’m saying, “Bigger flower arrangement!” “Put another flower arrangement here.” It’s hard to get a Nixon lookalike right for something like this.

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