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The Real Reason Ellen Barkin Left Animal Kingdom

In show business, people leave jobs all the time for all sorts of reasons, just like in any other industry. But the thing that makes leaving a show business job unique is that if it's a high-profile job, everyone then has to explain to the entire world why they left — and they have to do it in such a way that the rest of Hollywood will want to work with them again. So, when actors, directors, or screenwriters leave a project, there are usually two stories: the official one and the real one.

The TNT drama "Animal Kingdom," about a Southern California crime family, premiered its fifth season on July 11, 2021. While fans are excited for new episodes, many lament the departure one of the show's biggest stars, Ellen Barkin, who plays family matriarch Janine "Smurf" Cody in the show's first four seasons. Smurf is suddenly killed off in the penultimate episode of season 4. Diagnosed with terminal cancer and slowly fading, Smurf's grandson J shoots her in an act of mercy (which she kind of forces him to do, but that's Smurf for you).

After such a shocking departure, it was inevitable that fans would wonder why Barkin really left the show. There are at least two sides to this story, and probably more.

Why Ellen Barkin left Animal Kingdom: the show's side of the story

On Aug. 13, 2019, "Animal Kingdom" executive producer John Wells sat down with Entertainment Weekly, and he was diplomatic about the reason why Smurf was written off the show. According to Wells, the decision was made as a way to shake things up and keep the show fresh. "A big part of the challenge on any show is to try and keep it feeling real for the audience in the sense that it's still fun to watch because you don't know exactly what's going to happen," he said. Going forward, the Cody family will now have to find their way without the matriarch's guidance.

Wells also explained that the writers felt they'd told enough stories about Smurf in the present and instead wanted to explore Smurf's origins. Season 4 included flashbacks to Smurf in her 20s, played by Leila George, and George will be returning for more in Season 5, per Deadline. At the end of the interview, Wells claimed that Barkin agreed with the decision. "She comes from the movies where you normally do three months and then you're done, so she was surprised it lasted this long," Wells said. "But she understood and thought it was a really good story, and she was really excited when we shot the scene. It's a great final "Macbeth" moment."

However, Barkin herself has a different version of events.

Why Ellen Barkin left Animal Kingdom: her side of the story

The day after the EW interview went live, Ellen Barkin posted a tweet that seemed to indicate some bitterness. "Next episode Smurf's will is opened. She left her boys a hit TV show. Carry on Codys...well, maybe not all Codys." Per Cinema Blend, Barkin then liked several tweets by fans who were speculating that Barkin's departure was involuntarily and may have been related to age.

In September, Barkin took a more direct shot. She argued on Twitter that the "Animal Kingdom" social media account had "vanished" her for four years. A few days later, she tweeted, "Looks like TNT is purging themselves of lots of female leads. But just you wait, I've got a theory..." According to Business Times, Barkin also indicated that her male costars supported the decision to write her off the show, replying to a fan who asked about the male cast members' thoughts on the departure by simply saying "some held the door..." 

Wells and TNT haven't responded publicly to Barkin's tweets. Obviously, there's more tea to be spilled here. Whatever the truth is, TNT definitely does know drama. 

Barkin spoke out about ageism on Animal Kingdom in the past

Even before Smurf made her last appearance on "Animal Kingdom," Barkin was very open with her fans on Twitter about her concerns over ageism on-screen. In a tweet from December 2018, Barkin referenced her character's relationship with Anne Ramsay's Lila Cole, who Smurf hooks up with in Season 1. According to the tweet, the two were supposed to have a more explicit sex scene but it got cut, with Barkin attributing it to the trend of "no sex for older women" in television and film, as the entertainment industry has historically lacked representation and good roles for older women.

Even before Smurf's last season started airing, Barkin hinted at her smaller role in "Animal Kingdom," and she didn't seem happy about it. In March 2019, Barkin tweeted to a fan that "Smurf is definitely in Season 4 of Animal Kingdom...just don't blink," while her presence on Twitter in April and May featured further discussions about the presence of women in front of and behind the camera on the TNT series. Being very honest and practical about her critique, Barkin praised the diversity of the production staff, stating that "I've never been on a set with as many women behind the camera," but that this "does not diminish the erasure of the onscreen 64-yr-old female lead. When will it be ok to show my face?"

Is ageism the real reason Animal Kingdom introduced Young Smurf?

While Smurf dying definitely challenges the Codys and changes the dynamics on "Animal Kingdom," the producer's made another big decision in Season 4 to introduce a younger version of Smurf, known then as Janine, played by George. The actress first appears in the crime drama in Season 4's premiere episode, shown through flashbacks back to more than three decades earlier, when Janine is first getting involved with crime with her boyfriend Jake (Jon Beavers). Janine's story throughout Season 4 leads up to the birth of the twins, Pope and Julia, and the flashbacks continue in Season 5, showing Janine's relationship with a woman named Pamela Johnson (played by Milauna Jackson in the flashbacks and Charlayne Woodard in the present), who she leaves everything to in her will. 

Considering Barkin's statements about the ageism she felt on "Animal Kingdom," it's entirely possible that Janine was first introduced to the series as a way to replace the 67-year-old actress with someone new and younger. George is a very talented actress, but she's also conventionally attractive and 29 years old, fitting in with the actors who play the Cody boys, whose median age is somewhere around 35. New cast member Woodard, who is also 67-years-old, is a great addition to the show as the older version of Pamela, but her casting doesn't disprove the idea that the producers of "Animal Kingdom" are ageist, as they seem to be simply switching one older female character for another and never expanding on the representation. 

Looking at the whole situation, you can't help but wonder if Smurf's departure contributed in any way to TNT's decision to end "Animal Kingdom" with Season 6, as reported by The Hollywood Reporter early this year.