David Wain Explains That Insane ‘Wet Hot American Summer: 10 Years Later’ Ending
Somewhat impossibly, the cult hit Wet Hot American Summer has spawned two star-studded Netflix miniseries. When the film hit theaters in 2001, it was a dud. Critics didn’t love it, audiences didn’t show up, and it disappeared from cinemas as quickly as it appeared. But over the years it grew a massive cult following, partly due to the fact that it featured so many now-famous actors in early roles, from Paul Rudd to Amy Poehler to Bradley Cooper. Co-writers David Wain and Michael Showalter always said they had an idea to do a prequel to Wet Hot American Summer, with the same actors playing younger versions of their characters many years later, and that came to fruition with the Netflix series Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp.
That series was a silly, fun, and memorable return to the characters and tone WHAS fans love, and Netflix subsequently ordered a follow-up series Wet Hot American Summer: Ten Years Later. That series found all the same cast members and creative returning (save for Cooper who couldn’t make it due to scheduling issues), and hit Netflix recently for all to see.
10 Years Later as a whole still suffers from some of the same problems that plagued First Day of Camp—a bit of a meandering plot, some impressionistic turns that don’t entirely work, and character threads that are less satisfying—but the Wet Hot American Summer: Ten Years Later ending almost makes up for every single shortfall from the series. Now’s the time to say if you haven’t seen the end of Ten Years Later, turn back. Spoilers ahead.
So yeah, in the final minutes of the last episode of Wet Hot American Summer: Ten Years Later, it’s revealed that the nuclear warhead subplot involving Ronald Reagan (Showalter) and George H.W. Bush (Michael Ian Black) was all a game, and the danger the camp was in was an elaborate rouse featuring actors, tricks, and Groundlings members. But Wain and Showalter don’t stop there. As they explain how (nearly) all the twists and turns make sense as part of this game, the show starts flash forwarding to seemingly endless different endings that get more and more ridiculous—Beth funds a restaurant that opens in a week; J.J. gets into Sundance; Victor gets married; and of course Coop writes a book.
This Russian nesting doll of an ending is a pretty brilliant piece of comedy that works quite well, and Wain recently spoke to Vulture about how the ending came together. As for how they came up with the idea for the twist, Wain was actually inspired by David Fincher’s The Game:
“My best recollection is that we just did a lot of brainstorming. We knew early on that we wanted this plot involving the nuclear bomb and the president and all that, and somewhere in the earlyish stages of plotting out the season, the idea came up to make it a game, not so much to explain the insanity of it, because there’s plenty of insanity already in WHAS, but to give it a good ending. I remembered seeing the movie The Game by David Fincher and I thought the movie was okay, but the ending made it great.
It just felt fun and keeping with the sensibility that this whole thing was a game. Also, it gave us the puzzle throughout the season, which was fun for us to figure out how it makes sense, going backwards. It’s similar to how it was fun to do the puzzle of making the prequel fit into all the random bits of material that were in the original movie.”
As they were shooting, they were keeping track of making sure most things made sense as part of this elaborate reveal:
“We made something of a decision to not worry too much about trying to reverse-engineer the game since it doesn’t really make sense, but we did try to keep track of it throughout and make sure that, as convoluted as the plot is, it all did track and make sense. We were constantly, throughout the shooting, catching little inconsistencies and trying to fix them, because the rule of thumb I go with in WHAS is ‘unless it’s deliberately a joke, make it real and make it true.’ That goes for everything from set design to performance to plot and dialogue. We keep the veracity high so that when we depart from it, it’s always deliberate.”
When it comes to the multiple endings, Wain says that was them leaning into what was initially a problem:
“As is often the case, it seems, we are just making lemonade out of the situation we had. We had so many things we wanted to hit to wrap up this year, and so it kept piling on, and we were like, ‘This is way too many endings and way too much ending material,’ and then at a certain point, we were like, ‘Okay, let’s lean into that.’ We were never quite sure how much to do that until we got into the edit. We were seeing this constant ‘one week later,’ ‘one month later,’ ‘one year later’ being funny to us. I’m happy with the never-ending ending. That ties up what, as a viewer, I want to see.”
One of the best parts about these multiple endings is that the actual ending to the series is a Life of Pi-esque twist in which one could believe everything we’ve seen thus far was created in Coop’s head. That was also deliberate:
“It was interesting. I read a bunch of comments online that some people were bummed by the implication that it was all made up, but I don’t think that’s what we’re saying at all! I think we’re saying, I don’t know! Personally, I think it’s ambiguous… Similarly, when we did the ending to First Day of Camp with Eric hitching a ride to New York City, there was absolutely no meaning behind it that we had in our heads. We then had to figure out what it meant the next time. I don’t know if that’s what that means for this time, but I definitely think there are many ways to interpret the last scene. Mike and I talked about them, and we decided to leave it that way, that there are many ways to interpret. We had slightly different ideas of what it was as we were writing, shooting, and editing it.”
Wain confirms that they took care in making sure the final scene looked ambiguous, but does that mean Wet Hot American Summer is now officially done? Not in the slightest:
“I have no official answer about what we’ll do with this, but I know we’re excited about it, and we have to have exactly that discussion: Is it this setting? The characters? The time period? We already realized it doesn’t have to be 1981, and I’m personally excited to explore these avenues or questions that we asked during the last three things in more specific detail. I’d love to see a whole movie about Gene and the falcon in ’Nam, or Lindsay and Ellen running Rock ‘n’ Roll World Magazine in Manhattan. But I’m sure we’ll pick up and do something with it. Wet Hot American Summer has more to go.”
I would definitely be interested to see these characters and this story take a different track outside of the camp, but I would also kind of rather see that happen in a feature film. As much as I enjoyed First Day of Camp and Ten Years Later, neither really matched the mix of absurdity, emotion, and cohesion of the original film, so I do wonder if the time and narrative constraints of a feature time make for a more fulfilling watch.
Whatever the case, whether it’s a film or a TV series, I’ll be watching. What did you think about the ending folks? Sound off in the comments below.