The end of every SNL season is accompanied by one question: “Who’s leaving?” Well, this year Kate McKinnon, Pete Davidson, Aidy Bryant, and Kyle Mooney got ahead of that on Friday by announcing it would be their last season, putting the spotlight on them for this season finale. While SNL has largely shifted focus away from them in the past year, they are arguably the show’s biggest stars, and all four have been on for at least eight seasons. This sets the stage for a series of emotional good-byes in this finale, but despite a solid effort from host Natasha Lyonne, a wisecracking comedy veteran, this ended up being an episode with few laughs but lots of farewell tears.
The episode opens with Kate McKinnon reprising her “Close Encounter” character Ms. Rafferty, which she debuted in season 41 and has brought back a few times. Being questioned by Mikey Day and Aidy Bryant’s FBI agents, Natasha Lyonne and Cecily Strong’s characters recount being enveloped by a pure light, but Miss Rafferty had a different experience: She was grabbed by a claw machine while popping a squat on the median. She barely managed to pull her wonderwear back up. (Day: “Wonderwear?” McKinnon: “Yeah, I call them that because if you saw them, you’d wonder where they’d been.”) When Lyonne and Strong talk about how there is a universal language that binds the universe together, and the closest word to describe it is love, Ms. Rafferty counters a gut-busting monologue about her untrimmed pubic hair. This is where McKinnon is at her best, playing a super-weird character delivering hard punch lines while everybody else plays it straight. It makes the final moments of the sketch all the more unexpectedly touching, as an alien spaceship opens its doors, McKinnon steps aboard, and thanks Earth for letting her stay awhile. It’s a perfectly executed send-off for SNL‘s best performer for the past ten seasons.
Lyonne comes out for her monologue in an amazing catsuit, apologizes for not being Harry Styles, and reminds us of her show. Russian Doll now has a season two on Netflix. (Natasha: “Two things you definitely want to be associated with are Russia and Netflix.”) She’s interrupted by Maya Rudolph and ex-boyfriend Fred Armisen, who hastily debut their Natasha Lyonne impressions and then immediately leave. (SNL Producers really need to go back through old episodes and watch how monologue interruptions are done. The way they do them now is so inorganic and lifeless that they actually mess up the host’s momentum.) Lyonne then explains that her parents wanted her to be a child star, setting up a sweet clip of her getting introduced to Pee-Wee Herman on Pee-Wee’s Playhouse. She then opens up about her career, admitting that after starring in the American Pie movies, she struggled with drug addiction. But then in the most random yet hilarious reference, she says just like Fabio when he got hit by that bird, she got back on the roller coaster. We’re lucky she did.
After missing the last couple of months and also being conspicuously absent from the first half of the episode, Pete Davidson appears on “Weekend Update” to say good-bye. He shows a picture of himself in his first episode, saying he was a skinny kid and no one knew what race he was. (“Now everyone knows I’m white because I became hugely successful while barely showing up to work.”) Colin Jost asks him if this is really it, and Davidson says yes and that Lorne Michaels accidentally gifted him a sock. This is a reference to, and bear with me, Harry Potter tricking Lucius Malfoy into giving Dobby a sock and freeing him, since Dobby could only be freed if his master gifted him clothes. Anyway! Davidson then talks about the Oscars slap, which is a painful reminder of how long he’s been off the show. That happened in March!
Davidson claims he should be an inspiration, since it means anybody could be on the show, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Pete Davidson is one of the most brilliant casting decisions in SNL history. He may not have a catalog of standout characters, but he injected a lot of energy into the show with his authenticity and good-natured honesty. Could anybody else have been as fun as he was in the “Adam Driver Oil Baron” sketch? I don’t think so.
If McKinnon was the brains of SNL and Davidson was the heart, then Aidy Bryant was the backbone. Just as comfortable carrying a sketch as the straight man or unspooling it as an outrageous character, she has been as consistent as anyone the past ten years. Tonight she and Bowen Yang reprise their “Trend Forecaster” characters on “Weekend Update,” much to the consternation of Michael Che. They claim that while tying a cherry stem with your tongue during sex is in, navel oranges are out because they have belly buttons. (Bryant: “What’s next? Honeydews with C-section scars?”) They then go into greeting trends, accepting “hey” and “Katherine” before attacking pilots who make announcements. (Yang: “You’re flying a plane, not hosting a podcast.” Bryant: “You’re a pilot! Captains are for boats, you sky bitch!”) After a couple more trends, Bryant, in her normal voice, says, “In, ten nice years.” Yang replies, “In, a friend I couldn’t have done this without,” as they hold hands and return the waterworks.
Lyonne gave it everything she had, but SNL didn’t meet her halfway. She was solid in the pretapes, but there was nothing she could do with the immediately boring “’50s Baseball Broadcast,” the incomprehensible “Summer Gig,” and the I-can’t-believe-this-is-a-sketch. Mr. Dooley. ” Is the joke that Natasha has to play a dead body while being tickled? That’s a gag that would get cut from Whose Line Is It Anyway?.
The real MVP tonight was Bryant. While Davidson and McKinnon made brief appearances, Bryant was still gamely working. It can be debated who will be the biggest loss to SNL, but the fact that Bryant was in five sketches in her final episode underlines how valuable she is to the show. She really stretched out McKinnon’s laughs in “Final Encounter,” and she has literally never missed when playing her old-woman character, as she did tonight alongside McKinnon in “Women’s Commercial.”
At the same time, season 47 was ultimately a down year for SNL. The show has a huge imbalance between veterans and newer performers trying to break through, which leads to writers, who are battling tooth and nail to get a sketch on the air, to err on the side of caution and just submit updated versions of stale sketches . That lack of imagination was on display throughout the season – I can’t imagine several writers leaving mid-season, including head writer Anna Drezen, could have helped – and it was the show’s newer cast that suffered for it. James Johnson seemingly broke out in the season premiere, unveiling a terrific Biden impression and his hilarious Larry the Cable Guy, but after that he was mostly relegated to the cold open, either as Biden or Trump. Bowen Yang, who gets laughs every time he’s onscreen, sometimes goes a whole episode with just one line. The last “Please Don’t Destroy” sketch was April 17. You’re not going to get great work out of comedy writers if you reinforce that the only way to get sketches on the air is to put Kenan in a game show.
These are likely not the last departures from SNL, and that’s a good thing. After Michaels let go of Taran Killam and Jay Pharoah, he said, “Change is the lifeblood of the show; it has always been. ” Now, he was probably avoiding saying the real reason he fired them, but he was also right. Nothing brings more excitement to the show than a new star breaking out. It feels like yesterday people were losing it over McKinnon and Davidson’s first seasons. They can bring that energy back. They just need to get back on the roller coaster, like Fabio after he got hit with that bird.