This article contains spoilers for the June 15 episode of Kung Fu, “The Source.”
Everything that is born must die. In the heart-pounding season 2 finale of Kung Fu, Nicky (Olivia Liang) and Zhilan (Yvonne Chapman) put aside their differences to stop the sinister billionaire Russell Tan (played by Kee Chan, and then Ludi Lin) from achieving immortality in the wake of a devastating earthquake in San Francisco. Together, the Warrior and the Guardian, who were once mortal enemies, crossed over into another realm that holds the spirits of all the warriors and guardians who have ever lived, but they were unable to stop Tan from taking the Source, the root of the two mythological bloodlines.
When Mia (Vanessa Yao), Nicky’s cousin who is a Warrior-Guardian hybrid, discovers that Tan is one step closer to changing the natural order of the world, she enters the realm with a dagger and tries to kill him, only to realize that he can not only heal himself but also overpower multiple Warriors and Guardians at the same time. The realization leaves Nicky, Mia and Zhilan—all with their own emotional baggage—to decide who should stay back and keep Tan from causing mass destruction in the real world, essentially forcing one of them to pay the ultimate price for the greater good. In the end, Zhilan decides to sacrifice herself, telling Nicky and Mia to return home before finding themselves trapped in the other realm forever.
But after helping Nicky on her quest for justice, Henry (Eddie Liu) tells his girlfriend that he needs to find out the truth about his enigmatic father, who was shot and killed while trying to help execute Nicky’s plan—and he wants to do it alone. And in the final scene, a mysterious woman, who appears to be a resurrected Pei-Ling (Vanessa Kai), can be seen walking through the woods on a stormy evening, setting up a new complication for Nicky and the Shens next season.
On the night of Wednesday, June 15, Liang, Chapman, Liu, Kai and executive producers Christina M. Kim and Robert Berens, who wrote the episode, reunited on Twitter Spaces to break down the key moments of the finale. These are edited excerpts from the exclusive 50-minute roundtable conversation.
Christina and Bob, what was the process of crafting this jam-packed season finale? Did you always know that Russell Tan’s endgame was to seek immortality at all costs when you introduced him last season?
Robert Berens: We had a very clear idea of where we were taking this story and where we were leaving our major characters—even a pretty good idea of what we wanted to do with Russell Tan in terms of his final goal and even the body swap, although the mechanics of that were late discoveries. We did not know his sob story, how he turned into such a rotten person—we discovered that monologue very late in the process.
Christina M. Kim: I think we pitched the actual Pei-Ling cliffhanger at the end of the previous season, so we knew where we were going. That shot gives me goosebumps, so it’s even better than we had imagined it from way back. That’s kind of my favorite moment.
Olivia and Yvonne, how do you think your characters were able to evolve from being enemies to partners in the quest to take down Tan?
Olivia Liang: When the idea of Zhilan being redeemed was first floating around, I was like, “There’s no way Nicky will forgive this woman.” As an audience member and getting to read the scripts, I got to see Zhilan’s backstory and know where she was coming from and how she became the way that she is. But all Nicky knows about Zhilan is that she murdered Pei-Ling and a lot of other people with seemingly zero remorse, so I was a little bit hesitant. But then, once that final moment with Pei-Ling happened in episode 12, it changed everything for Nicky to, once again, “look beyond the duality of good and evil.” They just wrote it beautifully. I wept when I read Yvonne’s final line of “Go home, little monk.” That was… harsh. [Laughs.]
Yvonne Chapman: For me, it’s just such a beautiful thing. It started off as such a mockery to Nicky, and it became one of something of affection. The whole redemption thing is very different though on my side, because everything was justifiable for Zhilan. It was just her coming around and realizing that there was a different way of doing things.
What made them realize they share much more in common, when it comes to seeking justice, than they probably once thought?
Chapman: I think it was iterations of things happening bit by bit, but a big part of it for this season, in my perspective, was finding the common ground with Mia and seeing a younger version of herself being down this trajectory that just didn’t serve Zhilan, and it wasn’t going to serve [Mia] either. But in this finale, I think it was the idea that there’s really no success without some kind of moral underpinning. [After] everything that Zhilan has done, and for her mother to say, “No, you’re wrong,” all that Zhilan really had left was what Nicky had shown her. There’s more to it than that, and it was that kinship between her and Mia and understanding that was the better way to go.
Liang: I think introducing Mia and the fact that Zhilan cares—that’s the first shred of humanity that Nicky has seen come from Zhilan, and of course Pei-Ling had to help her see that. But I think that was a big turning point for Nicky.
Was it an intentional choice for the writers to push Nicky into that gray area and to shade her a little darker this season?
Berens: Absolutely. In season 2, we were excited by the chance to push Nicky into situations where she’s taking some bigger risks, the stakes are higher, she’s exploring the gray area a little bit. But I think at the end of the season, it’s pretty clear that she still has that very strong moral line, and it comes from her Shaolin years. She spent those transformative years at the monastery, and I think it speaks to that code that inspired her not to cross that line. If season 2 was a small exploration of the gray, you ain’t seen nothing yet.
There was never going to be a scenario where Nicky, Zhilan and Mia were going to defeat Tan, and they came to that realization pretty quickly. What did you all want to convey in that scene and the dynamic between the three of them?
Liang: [Nicky] just is always willing to do the right thing, which is why I’m so excited to see what happens next season since Zhilan was the one to ultimately make that sacrifice, and I think that’s really going to start blurring the lines for Nicky of good and bad. I think Nicky’s immediate response to sacrifice herself is just who she is and who we’ve seen her be.
Berens: Nicky honors her commitment to protect the world: “If it comes down to someone, that should be me.” Mia was her charge. [Nicky] took on the responsibility of her fate and her future at the beginning of the season, so for her it was really the completion of that arc. It wasn’t even really a question for Nicky, and it obviously landed and had an impact on Zhilan, for whom that kind of sacrifice is definitely not first nature for her.
Kim: Nicky had a very interesting arc in which Mia is like her student, and Nicky is the shifu, but how do you teach someone who doesn’t want to be taught? To go from that point in the story all the way to the point at the end where Mia is saying, “No, let me be the one to sacrifice myself, because I basically can’t be redeemed,” and for Nicky to look at her student and to remember Pei-Ling’s words and remember that she’s still her mentor, for us, was really emotional and really brought it back to Nicky’s journey and how much she has learned from Pei-Ling. We wanted to just go back to the roots of the show in that moment, and I think any time we see Nicky when she first arrived at the monastery, it always gives us goosebumps.
Chapman: [Zhilan] had always been a lone wolf until she met Mia. Having that relationship with Mia and understanding that she didn’t have to do this alone, and then seeing that familial relationship with Nicky and Mia and seeing that dynamic play out, especially in that moment, she knows that Mia is going to be better off, obviously, with Nicky. In my head, and this is the way that I justified it, she wants Mia to have the life that she never had. She can have a family with Nicky and the rest of the Shens—she can have that kind of future ahead of her. So for her to have that reasoning of avenging her mother taken away from that interaction of meeting her mother and then seeing this choice laid out before her, it seems like the obvious decision was to sacrifice herself and let Mia have that life. But also, at the same time, she still poetically got her revenge by killing Russell as well.
After losing his father, Henry now has all of these unanswered questions about his family. Eddie, why do you think it is so important for him to go on this journey of finding himself without Nicky at his side at the end of the season?
Eddie Liu: I think that when you pick up on Henry at the start of this whole Kung Fu journey, the fact that Nicky could be superhuman and that there’s this whole mythical lore out there that is true and real—Henry just dives head first into that. He has been all about the mission; he has been all about that goal for the past two years now. And because of how it went down with his dad coming back in his life after being gone for so long, and then just being ripped away from him so tragically, there’s just so much trauma to process. There’s no way that he can do it sitting still in that library in San Francisco. It’s something [where] you just have to go out on your own. It makes complete sense to me, and he knows that it might not be resolved or discovered anytime soon, but he just knows in his heart that this is the move he has to make.
What does this shakeup mean for Nicky and Henry’s relationship?
Kim: Well, we can’t really tell you. [Laughs.] We know there are a lot of Nicky and Henry shippers out there, but it also felt like they had such a real fight with legitimate issues, and it’s exactly what Eddie said: [Henry] dove into Nicky’s world head-first, and he hasn’t had a second to look at his own world. I think there’s an opportunity for [Henry] to really grow between seasons when we catch up with [him] in Season 3, and when [they] meet up again, what does that mean? I can’t say, even though we might know. [Laughs.] But we’re excited about it.
Vanessa, in addition to playing Pei-Ling, Nicky’s shifu, this season, you were also given an opportunity to embody Xiao, the creator of the warrior and guardian bloodlines. How did you come to understand her motivations, and how did you want to differentiate her from Pei-Ling?
Vanessa Kai: I always go back to the text, and I always go back to the writing, and that’s why I love writers so much. When I look at what Xiao’s language is, what anchored me is when she felt that she needed to create the warriors and guardians for a better world. And I then started to dive in, like, what was it about the world that she lived in that inspired her [and] motivated her to want to create the superpowers? And then I also leaned into, what does it mean to seek power? I don’t think [differentiating her from Pei-Ling] was necessarily my intention. I think the ultimate idea was just this sort of heightened reality in storytelling.
And now we don’t know for sure if it’s Pei-Ling, Xiao or another woman who appears at the end of the finale. Christina and Bob, what can you preview about where the show picks up next season?
Berens: I’ll say one thing: Every season, we schedule Zooms with all of the cast. We download them on what we’re thinking, and there’s collaboration and ideas that they have. We start with a foundation, they pitch in, we keep going with it. We have not had those conversations yet. They’re being scheduled right now! So everyone is totally in the dark. [Laughs.] And as far as what we can tease, Christina and I have been struggling because we don’t want to tease anything.
Kim: The good news is that the fans don’t have to wait as long as they have had to wait in previous seasons. We’re back in the fall, so it’s not as torturous. [Laughs.] We can tease more kung fu, more sexiness, more love, more complications—we’re cooking up some really fun stuff.
Berens: There will be something of a time jump. I’ll say that the rebuilding of San Francisco is really the context of the season. And what’s interesting is we’re kind of in a rebuilding moment in our own lives, in our own world, so there’s a bit of eerie synchronicity with the stories we’d like to tell about how a city rebuilds itself after something. Now that we’re in this transitional moment where we’re still dealing with COVID but things are opening up, there’s a weird zeitgeisty synchronicity that’s happening as we’re telling these stories. What is San Francisco on the other side of this transformative destruction? How have people been rebuilding? What is San Francisco going to look like on the other side of this process?
Have we seen the last of Zhilan?
Berens: I think it’s okay to say that we will see her in some form at some point.