If Nothing Ends Any More, Does The Ending Still Matter?
Perspective on the Series Finale, Part 1: A History and When The End Started to Matter on TV
Almost every two years like clockwork I rewatch Lost. I consider it one of the greatest series in the history of television because of the brilliance of the performances, the depth of the characters and the extraordinary greatness of every technical aspect of the series. (Michael Giacchino’s score remains the gold standard for every television series since.) Like every fan of the series I find different nuances every time I look at it.
But I know that though Lost was one of the most watched series on television in the 2000s, millions of those same fans will never watch it again and potential fans are constantly warded off. There are many reasons for this, but I think all of us know the real one: the final episode remains one of the most controversial in the history of the medium. And unfortunately in the last decades, there have been more and more examples of final episodes that disappointed the devoted fan base.
I was never one of the legions of Game of Thrones fans who reacted in fury to the final episode, but it’s not like I wasn’t capable of feeling their pain. I’ve been pissed for years at the final episode of Dexter, I still can’t really comprehend the last minutes of Mad Men and even more than a decade later I’m still not sure what to make of the last episode of Battlestar Galactica. When I saw I thought it was near perfect. On reflection I can now understand why it’s so polarizing.
Series finales have become more and more central to a show’s level of greatness in the era of Peak TV and since the nature of television is fundamentally changing I think we’d do well to look at the idea of the series finale: its history, when it became critical to a show’s success, and if, in the age of the reboot, whether it still matters.
Let’s start with something that will probably shock the current generation of binge-watchers. For almost the entire 20th century series finales didn’t happen. Almost from the inception of the medium until well into the 1980s, television series didn’t really end so much as stop. I Love Lucy, The Twilight Zone, Gunsmoke, Bonanza — they just ran until they were cancelled. And many of the series that we associate with the first Golden Age — The Honeymooners, Star Trek — just got canceled without even a thought to the viewer. The Fugitive may have had the most watched episode in television history to its peak, but that didn’t mean that network executives thought The Rockford Files or Kojak needed to have a similar great ending.
Indeed until the end of the 20th Century, the series that had the most successful endings were almost entirely comedies. The Mary Tyler Moore Show may be the first truly great series to have an equally great finale, and that wouldn’t have happened if the creators hadn’t decided that they were going to stop making the show. MASH has one of the most famous final episodes in history, but its not known as much for the brilliance of the ending (although to be clear, it’s still one of the greatest final episodes in history) but because it had by far the largest audience of any series in history to that time. That, to network executives, was always going to be the definition of success, and they didn’t exactly take the right lesson from it. (Anyone remember AfterMASH?)
This trend continued throughout the 1980s and 1990s: the most successful endings of series were for long running comedies. If they happened to be perfect creatively, that was an added bonus. Everyone loved the final episode of Newhart for its cleverness only after the fact. The level of disappointment in the finales of series like Cheers and later on, Seinfeld were mostly because they seemed somehow anticlimactic. (I’ve never understood why so many people were disappointed with the last episode of Seinfeld. The series was notoriously about nothing; did the fans really expect something would happen in the last episode?)
This trend didn’t, by and large, exist with dramas. Millions of people who watched the notorious finale of St. Elsewhere might have been bewildered by the nature of the ending (a feeling that carried over to several of the cast members) but I honestly think that may have been more of a critical derision than anything else. Much of the time I was growing out, series didn’t so much end as wrap up — and in several cases like, say, Dynasty never even get an ending. It was mainly the nature of network television. A series was going to go on as long as it could make money for the network. By the time, they squeezed it dry; there usually weren’t enough fans to care.
All of this changed in the era of Peak TV, and I think we all know where. It happened with a ground-breaking HBO series that involved a family dealing with the darkest aspects of human nature for a living that had some of the most memorable acting in television history and had one of the darkest final seasons ever. I speak, of course, of Six Feet Under.
Like The Sopranos I never quite cottoned to so much of this series brilliance when it was on the air. So many aspects of it were beyond me — the presence of Nathaniel Fisher haunting his children was always bizarre, I thought the series spent far too much time on Brenda and it never seemed quite to know what it was trying to be dark or too light. But what no one can argue was that ‘Everyone’s Waiting’ and particularly the last ten minutes are among the greatest moments in the history of television. A series that by its nature was entirely about death and its ramifications did what no other series would have to guts to — show all the characters we’ve grown to love over the last five seasons futures, ending in their deaths. Ever since I heard the last note of Sia’s music more than sixteen years ago, I have never been able to get it or the final images of that show out of my head. And unlike so many other disappointments from TV over the decades, I never want too.
More than sixteen years later, Six Feet Under remains the gold standard for series finales. And though some of the other HBO show’s from that era in that time had ended — Oz and Sex and the City — I think every series since then has been trying in its own way to measure up to it. And there have been quite a few that have.
The Shield’s final episode remains arguably the most haunting final minutes I’ve ever seen for its lead and everyone around it. The Wire managed to end satisfyingly in its final episode in the sense that showed that nothing truly ends, certainly not in David Simon’s Baltimore. Damages, a little watched series that needed two networks to come up with a final season, had a satisfying conclusion for both Patty and Ellen at the end of it. When the final season of Breaking Bad came, the New York Times said, for all the praise around it, its final episode would not be a cultural event. Ten million fans begged to differ, and I think like me, we got what we came for.
But sadly, these have been the exception far more than the rule. There may be critics to this day who somehow think that notorious cut to black final image of The Sopranos may be the paramount of TV brilliance. I have a feeling many more of them feel like Tom Fontana, who wrote the notorious final episode of St. Elsewhere when he said in an interview: “Thank you for taking me off the hook.”
Far too many of the series finales in the era of Peak TV have been massive underwhelming if not out and out met with rage. Some of the examples I’ve mentioned above have made far too many critics and frustration which includes, of course, the millions still outrage at the final episode of Lost. A critic I admire immensely said that everything the series had been leading to for six seasons came down to two brothers fighting over a glowing puddle and an afterlife holodeck for the survivors. I find her description both tremendously unfair but also not entirely inaccurate. The outrage is more aggravating then most because for three straight years creators Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse said they had been intricately plotting out the end of the series. A lot of fans still have trouble believing that.
I can’t help but remember how frustrated a similar group of fans (I among them) were upset when The X-Files came to an end in 2002. The mythology that had made up the bulk of the series had become incomprehensible years ago but millions of us still tuned into the final episode somehow hoping that creators Chris Carter and company would have found out some way to satisfyingly resolve the series. To say we were disappointed is an understatement. In this case, it was clear that the writers had long since lost the narrative thread that made up the spine of the series. Just as it would be for Lost viewers had been persuaded to keep tuning in week after week with promises that everything would one day be revealed. Watching the final season and finale, it was clear that the writers were never going to that. In both cases, it was dramatically unsatisfying.
That has been at the core of so much of the controversy behind the final episodes of Peak TV series — the need for a satisfying ending. Except now television is changing in such a way that may not ever truly happen. In the second part of the article I will go into how the age of the reboot and continuation of the series may have brought about the end of endings — and why endings still matter and why they never did.