It’s hard to believe that Greenleaf is coming to an end.
The pilot episode of OWN’s drama about a family running a Memphis megachurch premiered in June 2016 and it started like any new TV show—with no strings attached. You never know what you’re getting into when you start a new series.
However, within the first few minutes of episode 1, Greenleaf matriarch Lady Mae (Lynn Whitfield) greets her daughter Grace (Merle Dandridge), who has returned to the family estate after being away for 20 years, cautiously with, “Promise me you’re not here to sow discord in the fields of my peace.” And with that, viewers knew they were in for a ride.
In 2017, Panama Jackson of Very Smart Brothas wrote on The Root, “they could re-name the show ‘Shenanigans’ and it would not make an ounce of difference. In fact, ‘Shenanigans’ might be a better name for the show.”
The Greenleafs are a dynasty saddled by dark secrets. Grace, the oldest of the Greenleaf children, returns to the fold after her younger sister Faith commits suicide and she soon discovers that Faith had been molested by their uncle Mac (Gregory Alan Williams), who is also responsible for several rapes in the Memphis area. Bishop James (Keith David) and Lady Mae Greenleaf knew about it.
The Greenleaf children, meanwhile, all want to be number one. The ne’er-do-well only son, Jacob (Lamman Rucker), thought he’d take over the family’s preaching legacy at their church, Calvary, and is recently divorced from his wife, Kerissa (Kim Hawthorne). Charity (Deborah Joy Winans), the youngest and most overlooked Greenleaf, is fighting to be recognized beyond her singing ministry, and is constantly unlucky in love. It turns out that Grace is a product of an adulterous affair by Lady Mae, and that she herself has a long-lost son, A.J., whom she gave up for adoption when she was 18.
On top of all of the above, the Greenleafs are in a rivalry with another church family, the Skanks.
Led by the family’s son, Basie (Jason Dirden), and his half-sister, Rochelle (LeToya Luckett-Walker), the Skanks believe Bishop Greenleaf killed their father (in addition to stealing their church). Over the course of four seasons, murder, infidelity, FBI raids, and paternity and maternity secrets have added to the mayhem.
Created by Craig Wright, who previously produced and wrote for Lost and Six Feet Under, Greenleaf boasts the type of loyal fandom that treats the series like appointment TV. They watch and live-tweet with the cast every week. They rejoiced when a spin-off was announced—a new series that Wright says will most likely look at the church in a a COVID-19 world.
“It might be something that is much more about social service,” he says. “It might be something that’s much more about picking up where the government gives up and taking care of people in the ways that Jesus told us to, so that’s really exciting.”
But for now, the fandom is preparing to settle into Greenleaf‘s final season, which kicks off on July 14. For Wright, it’s the right time to end the saga.
“The reason I said five seasons was because I got my start on Six Feet Under, and Six Feet Under went five seasons, and that show is beloved by people because: a) I think it was a good show, but b) you want to finish the story the way you want. You don’t want to let the gods of television just pull you off the air at random,” he says. ” That really leaves audiences forever with something they can turn to that’s like a good novel. “Also, after Six Feet Under, I went to Lost, which went on forever, in every god-awful direction, just to keep on churning out that bologna. And the audience looks back at Lost with a lot of resentment. People know there was some good stuff on Lost, but they knew that they were being conned, that ABC just wanted to keep people watching and audiences don’t like that. I didn’t want to be remembered that way.”
The final episodes take place over the course of a week in the Greenleafs’s lives, just before their church is about to be torn down. Basie Skanks is presumed dead, Rochelle’s whereabouts are unknown, Charity is still trying to come into her own, and Bishop and Lady Mae are rekindling some lost love. There is no doubt that more hairpin turns await.
Here, key members of the cast discuss how their characters’ stories will come full circle, dissect fan theories, and speculate on the Greenleafs’s future.
Merle Dandridge (Grace Greenleaf)
On Grace’s self-reckoning
“Every step of the way there’s another issue for Grace to confront, and that’s why I feel as though viewers are pulled to her. Not only do they know that she’s going to fight for an injustice anywhere, but we also see in her as she confronts all of those demons. It’s empowering.
We get a taste of that in the end of season 4, when she was finally stepping into the calling on her life and also falling in line and in full support of her family, rather than butting heads with them. They started to move forward in the same direction, putting energy behind each other.
And the fact that with the entrance of this son that she’s had, in the same way that she has asked every other Greenleaf to stop running away from the truth, when he walks into that church, her truths are colliding like comets. It is a combustible energy that she’s just like, ‘I cannot face this publicly. I am going to move this calling aside because this is a part of my life that I need to address.’ Yes, it was born in the fact of all the pain of her teenage years and how she felt pushed out of the family. And suddenly to be a teenage mother. I mean, from a rational grown perspective, that’s a lot for an 18-year-old to be saddled with.
And so we can have sympathy for her in that, but now she’s ready to address that. Everything is affected right now by this choice that she made 25 years ago, and so it’s important for her to put on her big girl panties and walk right into it and not turn away from it. She must look straight into the storm.”
On the fan theory that A.J. is an imposter of her real son
“The plot thickens! As we have found, there isn’t much that’s out of the realm of storytelling in Greenleaf. We stretched far and wide. . . . I do love that [theory]. The fans are that invested and everybody’s watching and really chewing on this because one choice can change an entire life and you never know what happened when A.J. was in jail.”
Lynn Whitfield (Lady Mae Greenleaf)
On Lady Mae and Grace mending their relationship
“The tension is something that happened when Lady Mae realized that her affair, which was pretty much a one-night-stand kind of thing, or a summer dalliance . . . actually manifested a child and that she had to actually look Grace in the face and own her mistake. Lady Mae, who is telling everybody what they should be doing, what they’ve done wrong, and what they need to be doing, has to really face one of the biggest consequences of poor judgment ever and stand there and know that Grace has found out. And then when we came into the fourth season and Grace then has to confront this son that she gave away.
So these two women, their circumstances, and the choices that they’ve made, and the consequences, is the great equalizer in humbling them both with each other. They realize that they need to work together, and aggressively, to try to save the church.
It’s a huge, fantastic arc that this Black woman—Black, Southern, complex, layered woman—has taken. I pray that as the actress being the vessel for this, that I’ve allowed her to come through and nurtured her coming through with authenticity, with humanity, both the good, the bad, the beautiful, the ugly, where you see all of those things, and prayerfully it lets everybody know we’re all human. We all bleed the same color blood. We all make mistakes, and we can all come to a better spiritual place to try to heal it.”
Keith David (Bishop Greenleaf)
On Bishop owning his mistakes
“I think that if the Bishop had any sin that he could be responsible for, it’d be the sin of looking the other way and not taking that responsibility. But the time in his life that he is in now—that he’s come into in the past two seasons—is he’s now willing to face whatever God has put in his way. He’ll have to deal with it in order to make his soul right.
That’s where we see him now. Once he has stepped down in retirement and now that the church is being taken over, I think that’s part of what he’s had to deal with. I think there’s a part of him that is willing to face all those things, but never lose his faith. He always believes that, in the end, God will see him through and see his family through no matter what. Sometimes that means losing everything. That’s where we see him now. He’s accepting his bad part of his faith and he’s also willing to start again, because that’s how much he believes in his wife. Perhaps we should start again in a new church. That’s where his mind is.”
On the fan theory that Basie Skanks is his son
“Basie is not the Bishop’s son. I guess he could be in somebody’s universe, but not in mine.”
Kim Hawthorne (Kerissa Greenleaf)
On Kerissa going wild
“I love Kerissa. I love what she represents, being a strong, self-possessed, educated, hardworking mother, ride-or-die black woman. I don’t necessarily always like the choices that she makes. … But it’s a drama.
This last season, when she just went rogue, was one of my favorite seasons. She got a little bit more than what she bargained for, but every action has a consequence. I know people fell off their chairs when the doctor diagnosed her with chlamydia. It gave me a lot to play with. It also showed that my character is fallible in the flesh as well.”
On what’s in store for Kerissa
“What I would like to see is some mutual understanding and some mutual forgiveness for a wrong that my character is all too familiar with, with her husband. Because it’s mighty interesting how once Kerissa cheats, now Jacob is like, ‘I’m done,’ but he’s been doing it to her. That’s interesting. So as I’m going through the script, I don’t know if Jacob is going to forgive me or not, but the question to ask is, if he is not going to forgive her, is it just a passive way to get out of a marriage that he wanted to get out of all this time?”
Lamman Rucker (Jacob Greenleaf)
On what’s in store for Jacob
“Jacob learned a lot of lessons from Basie. He gained a lot more respect and appreciation for his father and what it’s like to run a church and manage that kind of responsibility to deal with people around you that are shady and unstable. He learned a little bit of the politics and power game. He learned how to leverage money that he had to save the church, and of course that got him into a certain amount of debt, but he learned a little bit about how to play cards—how to play some poker; how to play your hand, and how to not play your hand.
He saw that Basie was actually really fighting for some of the downtrodden. They had that in common. I think this is about really speaking to the real true needs of the community on a grass roots level.
Basie now being out of the picture helps Jacob with his independence. Now he’s really forced to stand on his own feet. Jacob has to find his own back bone. Whether there’s a future with Tasha now that he and Kerissa are no longer together and Basie is dead, who knows?
Actually, two more people in the Skanks family pop back up. You’ll see what I mean by that when they show up and in what form they show up. But I have to say, Basie being gone creates a lot of opportunities for Jacob.”
Deborah Joy Winans (Charity Greenleaf)
On Charity’s evolution
“Charity has had so many highs and so many lows. When you meet her, she’s a child. She’s young. She’s naive. She has done what her parents have asked, despite the fact that she’s never really wanted to be the singer. She’s always wanted to preach. But she’s like the do-gooder.
Finally she has this talk with Iyanla Vanzant and has this a-ha! moment, which was such a beautiful moment because you got down to what it was she was truly feeling. It was about not being seen and feeling scared. … Then you get to season 4, where they continue to say, ‘Well, Charity, they just didn’t want you,’ or ‘Right now, it’s just Jacob.’ And she’s so tired of being unheard, invisible. She decided to take matters into her own hands. What can she do to forward her dream, to get her to her destiny? I think she made a bad choice in how she did it, but I can respect the fact that she just didn’t sit in a corner and just say, ‘Well, they don’t understand my dreams.’ She found a way to make it possible.
And a lot of times we just need to recognize that whatever dreams and passions God gives us, they may not be something that everybody else sees initially. It may not be their vision of you, but that doesn’t matter. He gave you the vision for your life, and so sometimes you just got to go after it, no matter what people are saying. She fell in love and love just works really horribly for her. She gets hurt by this man, but he keeps his promise. She’s doing the job that she has said she has felt called to do for so long, but how do you do that job? How do you minister to people and show the love of God in a pure way, when you are working for this man that has hurt you so deeply, that betrayed you so deeply, and do it with a smile on your face, and do it with your heart in the right place?
And then you have to go home and live with the people that you have betrayed and hurt so deeply. So right now, that’s what Charity is trying to figure out. She knows that she messed up with her family, but she believes that there’s a way to fix it.”
On why the series is so addictive
“I think Greenleaf has resonated with the fans because it’s a mirror. It’s a reflection of what we see, what we’ve seen growing up, and to have, particularly in the Black church community, to have the beauty that we hold so dear front-and-center on a TV screen is amazing. The colorscape is just incredible. I think it shows the beauty of our culture, but it also shows that these people are flawed and that being flawed is okay. It’s those super juicy moments, of course, that keep you coming back, but I think that it also starts conversations. And especially for my character in particular, Charity is like the woman that you love to hate and you hate to love because you see some sort of parts of yourself in her. And it’s frustrating and aggravating and amazing all at the same time.”