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Is This the End of ‘Bluey’?

‘The Sign’ may or may not be series finale, but it does work as a perfect goodbye — and a testament to how great this children’s show really is



In the early days of the Covid lockdown, you heard a lot about people taking up new hobbies: making sourdough bread, learning to knit, mastering Peloton — whatever it took to stay occupied and relatively sane while stuck in our own homes, isolated from the rest of the world.

In my household, nobody studied a foreign language or alphabetized their bookshelves. Instead, Bluey became our sourdough starter. And we clearly weren’t the only ones who found comfort in deeply uncomfortable times from this cartoon, aimed at preschoolers, about a family of anthropomorphized dogs.

By now, even if you don’t have kids, or have fully-grown kids, or barely even remember being a kid yourself, you’re probably aware of Bluey on some level. There’s a Bluey float in the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade. Big box stores feature entire walls made up of Bluey merchandise. Abbott Elementary did a memorable episode where Gregory had to keep a Bluey-obsessed student from disrupting class every day. The Bluey brand is reportedly worth around $2 billion now. Bluey and the rest of the Heeler family are everywhere.

In the early spring of 2020, though, Bluey was much more obscure. Though a success in its native Australia, it had arrived in America a few months earlier on both Disney Junior and Disney+ as just another import in a catalog full of them, not as something with any marketing muscle behind it. But then word of mouth began to spread — like the day in April that year when a Twitter follower made the best viewing suggestion I’ve gotten in many years — that this was something special. Designed by writer and animator Joe Brumm for small children, the series turned out to be so funny, so heartfelt, and so insightful that it became just as addictive to parents — and even to older kids like mine — as to younger viewers who were the age of Bluey or her little sister, Bingo. Like Ted Lasso that summer, it was a blast of kindness and warmth at a moment that desperately called for it. As it gradually became safe to interact with other humans, Bluey would come up in conversation, and at least one other parent each time would admit that they sometimes watched episodes on their own after the kids were in bed, just because they needed a laugh or a smile.

The irony of the massive line of Bluey toys, clothes, and more is that the series is first and foremost about the power and importance of imaginary play. Bluey and Bingo have lots of toys, but their favorite activity is slipping into character for various invented games with their father, Bandit, and their mother, Chilli. The girls, for instance, love to pretend to be a couple of irascible grannies, usually causing trouble for the people around them, but occasionally proving helpful. In one of the show’s best episodes, “Bus,” they harass and annoy Bandit’s harried bus driver, but then pitch in to play matchmaker between him and Chilli’s shy, lovestruck passenger. In another instant classic, “Rug Island,” the girls use a surplus of felt-tip pens and a play mat to create their own island paradise, a world so intoxicating that even Bandit can’t resist begging off of work to stay there with them.

The overall fantasy of Bluey is nearly as alluring — if still intimidating. Bandit and Chilli are willing, even eager, participants in the girls’ games, raising a seemingly impossible standard for any mom or dad watching at home. But each episode is so well-structured — whether the game goes well for the parents or disastrously — that the notion of the Heeler adults being this available and encouraging feels aspirational, rather than frustrating(*). Who wouldn’t want to contribute to a life where even the most boring parts have the potential to be transformed into something fun?

(*) From an adult POV, it also helps that the one source of ongoing tension in the marriage is Chilli’s frustration that Bandit gets to be Fun Dad 24/7, leaving her to be responsible at times when she’d much rather be goofing around in the pool with them, too. But she’s never presented as a killjoy, because when she disagrees with Bandit, she’s always correct. And she’s funny, like when he pretends to be a Magic Claw machine and makes the girls do chores to win prizes. “This is great,” he insists. “They’re learning a lesson, and we get the house cleaned.” Chilli, looking around at all the messes the girls are making in their hasty enthusiasm, dryly responds, “Neither of those things are happening.” I don’t know how vast the intersection on the Venn diagram is between Bluey fans and Better Call Saul fans, but Chilli is basically the Kim Wexler of the Bluey Cinematic Universe: whipsmart, superhumanly capable, and caught between her desire to play along with her husband’s schemes and her acknowledgment that the world has rules that everyone but him has to live by.

Brumm and the writers turn the seven-minute episodes into either precision-timed laugh delivery machines, or unstoppable tearjerkers. “Sleepytime,” where Bingo attempts to sleep on her own for the whole night, or “Camping,” where Bluey befriends a French-speaking dog on a trip and doesn’t see him again for years, are as emotionally cathartic as some of the best adult dramas I’ve seen. And the ways in which Bandit continually overestimates his ability to avoid injury or public embarrassment at the hands of his adorable yet frequently exasperating daughters provides an endless source of comedy.

But is Bluey itself meant to be endless? The series is about a specific moment in the lives of these children and their parents. As the two girls who anonymously play Bluey and Bingo have audibly aged across three seasons, there seem to be three options for Brumm (who based the Heelers on the relationship he and his wife have with their own kids) and company. One, recast the roles, and pray that the kids in the audience — who have by now seen every episode at least a dozen times, and memorized every intonation and cadence of both young actresses — don’t notice or care about the difference. Two, do some kind of time jump to where the Heelers have a third child who’s around Bingo’s age now, and show how a slightly older Bluey and Bingo deal with a younger sibling who wants to play the way they used to. Or three: end the show while it’s still this perfect thing.

Certainly, the audience wants more, more, more. So, understandably, does Disney, which has reportedly tried to buy the rights to the series, and/or expand it into theme park attractions, movies, and many more seasons.

But then there is “The Sign,” the Very Special Episode of Bluey that began streaming this weekend. In addition to being four times the length of a normal episode, it spends much of its time acting like a series finale. As panic-stricken viewers learned at the end of the previous episode (“Ghostbasket”), the Heelers’ Queensland house has been put up for sale. As “The Sign” begins, the family is preparing for two events: the wedding of Bandit’s brother Rad to Chilli’s friend Frisky, and the Heelers themselves moving to another city so that Bandit can take a better-paying job.

“The Sign” is filled with ideas and vignettes that would ordinarily be at the center of separate episodes, rather than placed together. But over time, all turn out to be about the same things. Early on, for instance, a tearful Bluey tells her classmates about the move(*), and their wise teacher Calypso begins reading a pop-up book about a farmer whose luck seems to constantly shift from good to bad and back again. With each turn of fortune, the farmer simply replies, “We’ll see,” prompting Bluey to wonder whether the story has a happy ending or a sad one. “It’s both,” Calypso says.

(*) The show is very careful about when to let its characters act like dogs (including their names), and when they should act like people. Here, the other kids surround Bluey in an empathetic group hug, then begin to howl like members of the same pack.

From there, Bluey’s anxiety about moving is intertwined with that of Frisky, who is upset to discover that Rad also wants to leave Queensland for other professional opportunities. Bluey, using seven-year-old logic, assumes that if she, Bingo, and their cousins can get the For Sale sign off their lawn, then the house can’t be sold and she can stay where she is. Frisky, reverting back to seven-year-old logic, decides to run away from her problems, and Chilli and the girls spend much of the episode chasing after her. The pursuit through various familiar parts of town serves as a reminder of how well the Heelers know this place and its people, so that by the time Chilli confesses that she also doesn’t want to move, we understand exactly why.

Rad apologizes and agrees not to take Frisky halfway across the country, and the wedding goes off as planned. And as we see most of the show’s recurring characters enjoying themselves at the reception, and as Bingo finally comes to understand that selling the house means they can’t live in it anymore, it seems as if we are heading for the conclusion of the entire series.

But then, in a Rube Goldberg chain of events not dissimilar to the plot of Calypso’s pop-up book, the couple who had been planning to buy the house fall in love with another property, and back out of the deal. And Bandit — who has also felt uneasy about the move, even as he convinced himself that he’d be giving the girls a better life — takes this news as an opportunity to turn Bluey’s naive fantasy about the sign into reality. He marches over to the accursed thing, forcefully yanks it out of the yard, and hurls it into the cul-de-sac, all to the soaring music of Meg Washington’s “Lazarus Drug.” And if you are able to avoid getting choked up, if not begin outright sobbing, as you watch Chilli leap through the air and tackle her husband in relief and gratitude, then you are made of stone, friend.

Like the conclusions of episodes like “Sleepytime,” “Camping,” or “Granddad” (about Chilli coming to grips with her aging father’s mortality), “The Sign” is a masterclass in how to imbue these seemingly ridiculous cartoon dogs from a little kids show with enormous depth and shading, all by beautifully articulating the kinds of emotional struggles and desires that ring true whether you’re Bingo’s age or Chilli’s.

It concludes with the Heelers moving back into the house, and enjoying a picnic dinner in the unfurnished family room — with Bandit and Chilli’s tails wagging to confirm their joy at getting to stay. This could suggest that this isn’t meant to be the end of the show. As of this writing, no one wants to say one way or the other. When I asked a Bluey publicist if this was the series finale, I was given this statement: “We can’t comment on speculation, but our promise to fans is that as soon as we have news to share they’ll hear it from us first.”

It could be that Brumm hasn’t decided yet what, if any, future he wants to give his creation, and crafted “The Sign” to allow him to have things both ways: a tearjerking conclusion in the event no more episodes are made, but something that doesn’t preclude future seasons if he wants to make them. (Or if Disney makes him an offer he can’t refuse.) But much as I want to see more seasons, “The Sign” arguably works better as the period at the end of a sentence, rather than as an ellipsis.  Anxiety about moving is as real as so many of the other subjects Bluey has dealt with. And real life tends not to turn out as neatly as it does for the Heelers here. The show is so great because of how effectively it taps into these universal feelings, and along the way helps children and adults better understand things they couldn’t articulate. Some of the series’ best episodes are about learning to make peace with life’s disappointments, rather than engineering a way in which everything always turns out okay(*). “The Sign,” though, backs away from that usual understanding in order to let the girls stay, which in turn could allow many of its younger viewers to remain in Bingo levels of denial until the pain of the move finally hits. If it’s meant to be the last Bluey story, then some degree of wish fulfillment, along with a curtain call for the larger ensemble and that emotionally overwhelming hug on the front lawn, feels deserved enough. If it’s just meant to be one chapter in the middle of many others, then perhaps a less traumatic conflict was called for.

(*) An earlier episode, “Onesies,” revealed that Chilli and her sister Brandy siblings had grown estranged because being around Bluey and Bingo forced the childless Brandy to reckon with painful memories of her struggles with infertility. That story ends with Brandy finally making peace with the situation, at least enough that she wants to be back in the lives of her nieces and her sister. At the wedding reception, though, we see that Brandy is pregnant. As with canceling the move, it’s the show walking back a tough but honest moment to ensure that all of its characters get what they want in the end. 

But perhaps it’s best to focus on Bluey’s conversation with Calypso about the pop-up book. After discussing the meaning of the farmer’s story, Calypso attempts to reassure her sweet young student that, “Everything will work out the way it’s supposed to, Bluey.” If we’re looking at that as her prediction about the Heelers’ move, then perhaps it’s another instance of the show atypically treating a child’s fear as not requiring validation. If we’re looking at it as a more existential discussion of a hugely influential show presenting this mysterious but frequently wonderful special, then it begins to seem more fitting.

Is this the end of Bluey? Like the farmer said, we’ll see. But whether or not it continues, everything will hopefully work out the way it’s supposed to.

From Rolling Stone US