The final six minutes of Parenthood have no dialogue. Instead, the only thing fans of the NBC family drama hear is an acoustic cover, courtesy of Sam Beam and Rhiannon Giddens, of Bob Dylan's "Forever Young," the theme song that introduced the Bravermans for 103 episodes — and a lyric of which ("May god bless and keep you always") serves as the series finale's title.
Those last minutes of the episode center on a baseball game in Braverman family patriarch Zeek's (Craig T. Nelson) memory interspersed with flash-forwards that depict how each individual family unit progresses. And any fan of Parenthood showrunner Jason Katims' previous series Friday Night Lights was likely particularly moved by those last six precious minutes, seeing as FNL said its good-bye in a similar fashion.
"The one thing that I think did inspire me from Friday Night Lights was that there's a version of the flash-forward at the end when you look a little bit into the futures of everybody," Katims told BuzzFeed News in a phone interview a few days before the Parenthood series finale aired. "Obviously, it's a very different ending. But I did think, in both shows, the one thing I really wanted to do in the ending was not only feel like I gave the show a satisfying ending, but I really loved the idea of getting into where everybody was heading next."
Unlike Friday Night Lights, which ended on a high note with the East Dillon Lions winning the Texas state championship football game, the Parenthood series finale went out bittersweetly in the wake of Zeek's death. Katims said he wanted to ensure fans didn't only cry tears of sorrow during the last episode, but that they smiled as well.
"The whole final season of Parenthood was about Zeek's passing, and I knew that's where we were going to head toward the end of the finale episode. To me, the flash-forwards helped for us to have that ending, which was a very tough thing, but still give the sense that, hopefully, the ending was ultimately uplifting because it's all about how life goes on," he said. "When you saw all these families continuing to grow and new families forming and you saw everybody sort of thriving, I thought it struck a very nice balance between the sadness of losing Zeek."
And unlike Friday Night Lights, which showed all of its characters eight months into the future, the time jump on Parenthood varied from family to family. "It was supposed to be free-wielding in terms of the amount of time," Katims said. "I think in general it was, like, a couple of years ahead."
Seeing as he wanted to include different stages of life for the characters, Katims had to be flexible with the time jump. He wanted the audience to be able to watch Max (Max Burkholder) graduate from high school, which he was only two years shy of, but also give Julia (Erika Christensen) and Joel (Sam Jaeger) a fourth child — a detail Katims assumed some viewers may miss. "I didn't think people would notice that because it goes by so quickly and I just wanted to look at that puppy!" he said. "I think [the fourth baby] just goes to show how surprising life is. I've heard so many stories of people who adopt a child because they're unable to have their own child and as soon as they adopt, they find out they're pregnant. I also thought that was somewhat poetic to me because now they had a family with four children and that's like the family we just observed for the last six seasons."
When it came to showing what the future held for Amber (Mae Whitman), Katims set her story a bit further in the future: Baby Zeek looked to be about 3 or 4, and Amber was married to a single dad, played by FNL's Scott Porter (Jason Street). In his interview with BuzzFeed News, Katims filled in the details, saying the two met while he was out with his young daughter, who also appeared in the final scene with the Braverman-Holt-Rizzoli family.
"The casting was simple," Katims said of bringing another FNL favorite to Parenthood (nearly 10 actors made the transition from Dillon to Berkeley). "I basically called Scott and asked him for that huge favor to come in and do that one moment. It was great. It wasn't even a moment of hesitation. He said yes."
While it was exciting for fans of Katims' earlier work to see Porter again, it was even better to see him reunite with his Friday Night Lights co-star Matt Lauria, who played Ryan, Amber's former fiancé and the father of young Zeek. "You have that great moment of Ryan showing up at the end," Katims said. "I definitely thought it would be a fun aspect to the audience, but it was really more because I thought Scott would be great and somebody I felt I could ask to come on and do a scene that was literally no words!"
While the final moments of Parenthood didn't take place on a football field like FNL, they weren't set too far off.
"The idea of having it happen on the baseball field came up very early on, so we were able to plan things," Katims said. "Like in [Season 6], Episode 2, Zeek basically says, 'Well, just spread my ashes on center field.' So we were able to literally set up these moments."
Baseball has been a central component to the Bravermans' story since the beginning. In the first season, Max was obsessed with the sport, and, as time went on, it was used as a way for Adam to bond not only with Max, but with his nephew Drew (Miles Heizer) too. Joel and Julia also encouraged Victor (Xolo Maridueña) to join a baseball team to make new friends, and at another point, Crosby (Dax Shepherd) explained to Jasmine's pious mom, Renee (Tina Lifford), that baseball was his family's religion: They spent Sundays at the ballpark all together rather than attending a church service.
Throughout the series, the sport has always been used to bring the family closer — even from the stands (where Amber met Ryan). And Katims wanted to acknowledge the sport's role in the series finale. "I didn't think from the pilot, This is where it's going to end exactly. But it is something we've thought all year," he said. "Baseball has been a theme that's been recurring through the entire show, from the pilot episode to the end. I really liked being able to have these subtle allusions to the history of the show and make that ending feel like not only a satisfying ending for what's been going on this season, but, if you've been following the show for the whole time, you would see those little touches as well."
As the final scene of Parenthood comes to a close, the Bravermans run in from the field and the whole family gathers at home plate, hugging and giving one another high-fives. Then, they all head off the field in a clustered group, but Max lags behind a bit and picks up a bat and ball. Some viewers may have wondered why Adam, who has always been the glue of the family, wasn't the last one to leave the field, but director and Parenthood executive producer Lawrence Trilling had his reasons.
"The way I see it, Max has been the emotional centerpiece around which the show has pivoted," Trilling wrote to BuzzFeed News in an email. "The crux of the pilot and the engine of the whole show is when Adam says, 'There's something wrong with my son.' I really feel like the journey of Max has been the journey of the show. So that last image is really a visual metaphor for the entire show, [which] starts with Max alone and winds up with him joining the community and belonging in a way he didn't and couldn't have conceived of at the beginning. He even allows himself to be embraced by his father, which is what we see right before the picture fades. The shot is a little encapsulation of Max's whole journey, and more broadly, it's about the entire family embracing each other in good times and bad."