“What the Hell Happened?”: The ‘Search Party’ Cast Reunites to Talk About Lying, Crying, and That Ending
Caution: this article contains heavy spoilers for Search Party. Read at your own risk.
At the end of season three of Search Party, the twisty millennial comedy which airs on HBO Max, we find two of our very guilty protagonists escaping conviction for murder. How? In the anything-can-happen world of Search Party, though the jury has a tape of Dory (Alia Shawkat) admitting to the crime, half the jury hears her say, “We pancaked Keith”—”pancake” being a substitute for “murder.” A nod to the viral “yanny-laurel” audio debate of 2018, the mix-up is the perfect embodiment of the fact-fudging iPhone-era absurdity of Search Party, which has carried its central cast of characters—a group of lovably entitled twenty-somethings played by Shawkat, John Early, John Reynolds, and Meredith Hagner—through four increasingly dark yet always funny seasons. From the pilot episode, which premiered on TBS before moving to HBO Max for its third and fourth seasons, it has evolved from a Scooby Doo mystery-comedy for the WeWork set to a psychological thriller, morphing into a legal drama and crescendoing at full-blown hostage horror. Rounded out by a cast that has included familiar alt-comedy figures like Patti Harrison, Kate Berlant, Chloe Fineman, and Jordan Firstman—as well as a writer’s room helmed by Sarah-Violet Bliss, Charles Rogers, and Michael Showalter, of Wet Hot American Summer fame—Search Party has become the sleeper hit of a generation. Below, we gathered the show’s starring quartet for a comprehensive roundtable about lying, crying, dying, balding, and leaking. —SARAH NECHAMKIN
JOHN EARLY: Well, hi.
JOHN REYNOLDS: Let’s go through the talking points.
MEREDITH HAGNER: What’s your favorite food?
EARLY: Macaroni and cheese.
REYNOLDS: Is that real?
EARLY: No. It’s not macaroni and cheese.
HAGNER: These are the kind of questions I really do ask everyone regularly.
ALIA SHAWKAT: What have you been making the most, John Early, in quarantine? What has been your go-to meal?
EARLY: It’s a beautiful question. Probably amatriciana, which is tomato, pancetta, pecorino, with crushed red pepper. I’ve made it for y’all before, actually.
HAGNER: John, can you do me a huge favor? Will you write me a detailed recipe of every pasta you’ve ever made me?
REYNOLDS: It should be a big painting of you in the kitchen painted by Gordon [Landenberger, Early’s boyfriend,] and then on the back of the painting you can have all the recipes. That’s actually a good present. Now run along, go get Gordon.
EARLY: John, you’ve become so authoritarian since season four.
SHAWKAT: I know. Someone should transcribe that John Reynolds is waving a pencil in our face aggressively.
EARLY: I think we should talk about Meredith’s milky maternal tits.
HAGNER: Wait, I have to show you.
EARLY: They’re stunning.
SHAWKAT: Oh my god, are you showing us a little?
HAGNER: Guys, they’re huge.
EARLY: They’re leaking!
SHAWKAT: They’re beautiful.
HAGNER: I had no boobs to begin with. Look at these things.
SHAWKAT: That’s insane. Do you just squirt it and milk pops out?
HAGNER: Yeah, literally. I could squirt you in the eye right now if I wanted to.
EARLY: Well, Mer, how is it being a mom?
HAGNER: I’m obsessed. Labor was awesome and easy, in a weird way.
REYNOLDS: Are you for real?
HAGNER: Yeah. I loved it.
REYNOLDS: Describe labor.
HAGNER: I’ll tell you later. It was awesome.
SHAWKAT: It’s so rad that you gave birth to a human. I can’t believe it.
EARLY: I think the viewers will be surprised to learn that I wasn’t the first parent of a kid.
SHAWKAT: Have you guys been getting texts from friends who watched the show, being like, “I love Search Party?”
EARLY: Yeah, I feel like more and more people are actually seeing it because of HBO Max in a way that wasn’t really happening with season three on HBO Max.
HAGNER: I think it’s because now people all have HBO Max.
EARLY: And we’re not at the very beginning of global collapse. We’ve settled into it.
SHAWKAT: The world’s a little more comfortable watching TV.
REYNOLDS: I feel like maybe my friends exhausted texting me about the show the first three seasons or something. It’s been pretty quiet.
SHAWKAT: In general you have less friends?
REYNOLDS: Yeah. The pandemic’s just really taking a toll on my social life.
HAGNER: Your hair looks good, John Early.
EARLY: Thank you. It’s the first cut I’ve ever gotten with a point of view.
SHAWKAT: Honestly, John, I was thinking the same. I was like, “Wow, he made a choice this time.”
HAGNER: Do you guys feel like all of us, except for Alia, were really shackled by whatever hair choice we made in the pilot?
EARLY: Oh my god, I know. And what the fans don’t know is that the pilot was made for about $700, max.
SHAWKAT: I was watching the first season again, and my hair is a little crazy.
EARLY: I love your hair in season one.
SHAWKAT: It’s really floppy. I’m kind of trying to get back to that now.
EARLY: It really makes sense, though. You are this millennial that we all know with cute vintage clothes and bedhead.
SHAWKAT: Yeah. We look really young in the first season, by the way. I had a moment where I was like, “I’ve aged. Fully.”
REYNOLDS: Not me. I’m getting younger.
SHAWKAT: Johnny’s kind of getting younger, weirdly.
EARLY: I didn’t realize that from watching season one, I realized that from watching season four.
REYNOLDS: I think season four, there was one windy day, and then I saw the monitor, and I was like, “Am I balding? Oh my god.”
HAGNER: I thought you were going to say, “Are my balls out?”
EARLY: I remember that. We had a really tender talk. You were like, “Am I balding?” And I was like, “Honey, I’ve been on Propecia since I was 23.”
HAGNER: You know what’s funny? I watch myself with the most critical, horrified lens. And then I just look at you guys, and I think you’re all just perfect.
REYNOLDS: Yeah, same.
EARLY: I feel like that’s true for all of us.
HAGNER: If you could only see yourself through the lens of your friends. You can write that down, Interview magazine.
EARLY: Sweetie, they’re writing all of it down.
HAGNER: All we’ve talked about are my mother breasts and our hair.
REYNOLDS: I’ve had a couple friends tell me how good you were in the season, Meredith.
HAGNER: Oh, you mean me?
REYNOLDS: Yeah. Not me, no one cares about me.
HAGNER: Well, that’s really nice.
EARLY: A lot of people, Alia, have texted me about the dramatic heights of the season, and your shocking emotional availability.
SHAWKAT: Yeah, I’m definitely emotionally available these days.
HAGNER: I love that I was just eating Chipotle at craft services, having no clue the scene before Alia was doing this was tour de force, rivaling Brie Larson in Room. And we’re all just like, “We’re going to go chase Susan Sarandon around a roundabout.”
SHAWKAT: My friends send me pictures of stuff where it’s like, “I don’t want to be me anymore.”
HAGNER: What was your process?
SHAWKAT: I just realized how tense I was that season. TMI, I had a herpes breakout too, and you can see in the episode I have full herpes lip. I was just stressed the whole season. My body was tense, and it was so cold. That was taking a toll. I had this image that I worked with of a man crawling through a window to steal something, as if I was hiding and I wasn’t allowed to take anything. And that was the energy I lived in—somebody who’s trying to take something from you, scared and hiding like a little animal who’s caged. I just stayed in that energy for two-and-a-half months.
EARLY: That was a dream you had?
SHAWKAT: Yeah. It was a dream that I worked with. There’s this woman I work with who’s really amazing, and you work with the dream energy, and then you kind of slip it into the scene. And it makes it kind of easier, because I don’t know if you remember, but in season one I used to be quiet in a corner and be like, “Got to stay in the mode.” I’d just be taking it too seriously . And this season’s so much more intense, but I would be able to slip out of it and have more fun, joking in between, even if I had to start crying with Cole [Escola, who plays Chip.] They say cut, and I’m like, “Alright, let’s go.” I felt lighter, weirdly.
REYNOLDS: I think that’s healthy.
HAGNER: Your performance is so effortless. Whatever you were doing, it’s such an unbelievable performance.
SHAWKAT: I really feel the same way about you guys. I watched it with my family the first time when we got the links, and my mom would literally pause it to talk about you guys. She’s like, “Meredith is unbelievable.” “John, he’s so good, let’s rewind that again.” We just really fan out.
HAGNER: I love that all of our parents have the nerdy, supportive parent energy. I give all my swag to my dad. All he wears is Search Party gear.
SHAWKAT: That’s so cute.
EARLY: John, any fans? The teens are crazy about you, as we know.
REYNOLDS: Yeah right. The teens want to beat my ass. I feel like I can sense more people talking about the show, but in a good way I’ve been trying not to look at any of it. The first season I couldn’t believe I was even acting, and I loved to watch it, and I was like, “This is so cool, I’m killing.” And then after that I was like, “This is hell.” I just keep being like, “I fucking suck.” But I feel better now.
HAGNER: I’m the same way. I would cry every season I watched myself in. And then this season for some reason, I’m actually enjoying it. I think because I’ve learned I’m going to hate it the first time through. Did anyone feel like it was so special that we were making this show in a vacuum for only ourselves?
EARLY: For the viewers at home, you’re referring to the fact that the first two seasons were made on TBS. One substitute teacher in Milwaukee saw it.
EARLY: And then the third season was basically shelved for a couple years as they were trying to figure out the streaming platform thing. And then we made the fourth season.
SHAWKAT: We had two-and-a-half years not being on TV.
EARLY: We made season four with season three having yet to come out. I do feel like we are very lucky to have not been in that thing which I feel is very common today, where if you make TV, then there’s the think piece about it. And then the show runs with the think piece, and you’re locked in conversation with a think piece. And that’s hell.
EARLY: We just made it in a little cave.
SHAWKAT: Yeah, that’s what it really feels like.
HAGNER: I’m already getting nostalgic about it.
SHAWKAT: Like college. We’ve done four years of this. We’ve grown so much. Just gotten so into a rhythm of making it together. One day this won’t be a thing anymore.
EARLY: I know. I hate it.
REYNOLDS: We’re all going to be on NBC pilots being like, “Whoa. Why can’t we go back to the cool show?”
SHAWKAT: That weird show that nobody watched.
EARLY: Should we head to the questions? “So much of the show explores lying.” I swear to god I didn’t pick that for me. “Lying to friends, ourselves, to those we’ve kidnapped.” Okay, that’s a major generalization. “Who is the biggest liar of the group?”
SHAWKAT: I used to lie a lot when I was young. I was very, very good at lying. I think it blurred lines with being a kid actor. I was like, “I’m learning how to lie, this is my job.” I used to lie about smoking weed. I went to crazy extremes to lie. But I don’t think I do it as much anymore.
HAGNER: I love how you’re like, “I don’t do it as much.”
REYNOLDS: You’re lying right now.
SHAWKAT: I’m lying about not lying. Yep.
REYNOLDS: I used to tell little fibs as a kid a lot. I was like seven, I had a football jersey that fit a seven-year-old, and I cut a hole in it and tried to tell everybody it was a real jersey that the players wore in the games. But it was for a seven-year-old body.
EARLY: That’s really fucked up.
REYNOLDS: Yeah. I guess everyone lies to their parents, right? But I never lied, I just didn’t tell them I was smoking weed. I also didn’t have a very strict household because for all of high school it was just my dad and I living together. I had no rules.
SHAWKAT: What? Cool.
REYNOLDS: I would come home really late at night, and my dad would be by himself, high, eating cake in the kitchen, like, “Hey, welcome home.” And I was like, “Okay.” I was a naughty boy in high school, but I guess not having those rules made me not have to lie.
HAGNER: I have a lie that I told in first grade that I still think about as really sad. I sat under my desk. I actually remember exactly what I was wearing. It was my first day of first grade in a new school, and I had a denim floral matching outfit. And there was this boy who I immediately was in love with named Scott Oswald. Where are you, Scott? I sat under my desk and wrote a letter to myself, saying, “Meredith, I love you, love Scott.” And then I was like, “Guys, look what he wrote me.” He was like, “No, I did not do that.” And it was a sad lie.
EARLY: Is this him? [Pulls up phone]
HAGNER: Oh my god, maybe. He’s so scary-looking. I actually think he’s terrifying. Would you have sex with him, John?
EARLY: Yes. Okay, I’m going to reach into the question pile. “Are you content with the way the season ended for your characters? Where would you take next season if it were up to you, and only you?”
HAGNER: I would just X all the other characters. Just kidding.
EARLY: I was going to say, I think it would just be Portia next season.
REYNOLDS: We each get a bottle episode.
EARLY: Honestly, my real question is how did it end? What the hell happened?
HAGNER: I know, I haven’t even watched the ending yet. I don’t remember it.
SHAWKAT: Oh, it gets crazy.
REYNOLDS: It ends with Dory saying she saw the light. Our characters got into an Uber and went home.
EARLY: Was the funeral real?
SHAWKAT: Hard to say. That day was so strange. I didn’t even get to see you guys’ performance. I really wanted to react to your stuff, but instead I just had to sit there and then change into different outfits and just look ahead like, “I’m dead.” It wasn’t the most fun.
EARLY: It is kind of genius, because it’s a very relatable narcissistic fantasy, to be at your own funeral.
SHAWKAT: Totally. I did that when I was young a lot.
EARLY: Did you enjoy that at all? Just seeing a wreath with your face on it?
SHAWKAT: I liked the wreath, the thing out of the flowers. It was a little upsetting, but in a weird, fun way. They had the little in-memoriam stuff with a picture of me holding a kitten.
EARLY: When I’m getting in the shower, I’ll just start breaking into a eulogy for a friend. Without even thinking about it. I’m like, “She was…” Just to feel something.
SHAWKAT: I used to do this thing when I was younger where I would lock myself in my room and make choking noises so my brother could hear it, and then I’d get quiet. And I’d just hear him eventually be like, “Alia? Alia?” He’d try to open the door, and I’d just be sitting there calmly on my bed like, “Is this what love is?”
REYNOLDS: That’s some naughty older sister shit.
SHAWKAT: Yeah, gnarly stuff. Felt good.
EARLY: Okay, I’ll reach into the question bin. “Who do you think is objectively the worst person among the Search Party characters? Who do you think really killed Keith?”
HAGNER: I think Elliot’s objectively the worst person.
REYNOLDS: Yeah. Because of the water bottle thing. He’s just much more conscious of what he’s doing.
HAGNER: And there’s not a lot of remorse. At all.
SHAWKAT: And he works on a big scale. No shame. I was watching the first season again, and I’d come into your room after you got caught lying about cancer. It’s so sweet, and then I am leaving, and I’m like, “Could I have one of these water bottles?” And you’re like, “No.” That’s so funny.
HAGNER: I would have, at the end of season three, said that hands down, Dory’s the worst character. And then now, watching season four, watching your own breakdown and remorse, I actually feel bad, and I don’t feel like you’re evil anymore.
REYNOLDS: Well, I guess they’re both insane opportunists and are just trying to survive. That’s all Elliot’s really doing.
EARLY: Yeah. And there is something valuable or maybe more admirable about his actual consciousness, whereas Dory maybe is on some level…
EARLY: Dory is kind of deluding herself and being like, “I’m lost, I’m confused,” but is actually doing awful things.
REYNOLDS: It’s very scary and sad to think that this whole thing started because Dory just wanted a hobby. It’s like, “I don’t know who I am,” so then she just murders a couple people.
HAGNER: But there is that undercurrent to that in all of our characters, too, which is when we’ve all gotten to have that realization for ourselves, and watching each character have that realization that we got dragged into this because our friend was bored. So devastating.
REYNOLDS: I think that Portia’s objectively the best one. Right?
HAGNER: She’s just the dumbest.
REYNOLDS: I don’t think that’s true, though.
SHAWKAT: She’s the most supportive the whole way through, until it’s too late. But she’s always really supportive of her friends.
REYNOLDS: And she’s being taken advantage of by everyone in every single interaction.
EARLY: So loyal, which is really a rare quality these days. What about Drew?
SHAWKAT: Good guy.
HAGNER: Great guy.
REYNOLDS: I think you pity him more as it goes on. I was watching early season one, and Drew has an inherent confidence in him in the way he holds himself that is very annoying. But then as the seasons go on, he’s just so broken and has no personality.
HAGNER: But watching you make that turn in Merry Merry Land is so fun to watch, even if it’s put on. It’s so fun to watch Drew be happy.
REYNOLDS: I know. When I watch it it’s so cringy, because he’s not really happy. He’s just like, “The food rocks!”
EARLY: Alia, I’m very curious to know what you think about Dory, where she falls on the moral spectrum. What is her realization by the end of season four?
SHAWKAT: Obviously she doesn’t fully realize everything, but for fictional sake, I think she finally realizes that she just hurt her friends so much. And I think Dory has a real confidence about her, but she wasn’t able to understand that until the stakes were so insanely high that her life was at risk. And it was kind of sad realizing that. She’s a little more at ease. She’s accepted some part of herself, which is all she can do. It was so hard for her to to like any version of herself.
REYNOLDS: Right, that’s the crux of the whole show. She just wants to like herself and she’s finding these demons. I will say this: I think Drew’s the one who murdered Keith.
EARLY: Definitely. Drew objectively did it.
HAGNER: Drew murdered Keith.
REYNOLDS: Dory even co-opted the murder.
EARLY: That’s so true. Well, we don’t really know. Maybe he bled out from the taser, and then hitting the counter, which was technically Dory. He might have just died.
HAGNER: True. Do you guys remember when we were shooting that scene where we were watching Alia’s video, and I could not get there emotionally?
REYNOLDS: Yeah. We were mid-take, and John and I were crying, and then you just stopped and went, “I’m feeling nothing.”
EARLY: That scene—we were all terrified about it, obviously, because there were high expectations for us emotionally. I was certainly terrified. It felt so embarrassingly monumental to have shed a tear.
HAGNER: How selfish of a scene partner am I? John Reynolds is sobbing. I literally feel these tears hitting my knee. And I’m like, “We need to cut, these guys are doing a better job!”
REYNOLDS: I was like, “You’re only getting a couple takes where there’s going to be tears, and then I’m going to have to take a nap or some shit.”
HAGNER: When are we finally gonna do that cool trip in Croatia? Remember? There was one season where I was like, “Okay, after this, guys, we’re gonna go on this cool trip for three weeks on a guided REI tour through Croatia.”
SHAWKAT: I’m down. I haven’t left Beachwood Canyon for a year, so I’m ready to go somewhere.
REYNOLDS: Yeah, me too. I’m itching to go anywhere.
EARLY: Well, maybe if there’s a fifth season, we can pitch that it’s in Croatia.
HAGNER: Great idea.
SHAWKAT: That’s what I was going to say. In the future, I wish our characters would dance more, or do more fun things.
EARLY: They deserve a little break.
SHAWKAT: A little lightness.
EARLY: Well, they don’t really deserve anything, I guess.
REYNOLDS: That’s the hard thing. They don’t deserve to be happy. But maybe everyone does. That’s more of a grander picture conversation. It’d be nice to see Drew have some control over himself again.
HAGNER: I’d like to see Portia evolve in some way, to see these characters actually learn something instead of just biting their own tails. That’s not even an expression.
SHAWKAT: Biting your own tail. I kind of like that.
REYNOLDS: Yeah. It’d be nice to see someone love Portia back.
HAGNER: Or just not need someone to love her.
REYNOLDS: Wow. That would be good.
EARLY: But do you think that would be a failing of the show comedically, or on a commentary level, if they did have some sort of satisfying ending where they all learned something? What kind of ending would you actually want to see?
REYNOLDS: It’s that Bedazzled thing—be careful what you wish for.