If Nothing Ends Anymore, Does The Ending Still Matter?
A Reflection on the Series Finale, Part 2: Ending A Series Well When Series Stop Ending
I’m not sure when exactly the reboot and the continuation of a series became so much part of out TV landscape. Was it to unlikely reunion by Netflix of Arrested Development a work of genius that was cancelled too soon? Was it ‘Live Another Day’, the limited series of 24 which was supposed to give closure to the world of Jack Bauer and CTU? Maybe it was the return of Will and Grace in 2015 which basically tore apart the idea of the show’s finale that had troubled so many.
Whatever it was within the last five years more and more series that were considered finished began to return, usually with the same casts and writers that had started them. And more often than not, elements of the final episodes which often brought so much trouble before were either disregarded or ignored. This was rarely clearer when Roseanne came back in 2017 and basically ignored the precept of its controversial finale — that Dan (John Goodman) had died of a heart attack and that the ninth season hadn’t happened. So committed was ABC to the series going forward that when Roseanne became too controversial for its network to handle, she was killed off and the series continued under the name The Connors.
And this tradition seems to be continuing even among series that in the past decade managed to end well. Justified the extraordinary FX series that clearly gave closure was constantly talked about by Walton Goggins and Timothy Olyphant for another season and now it looks very much like some version of it will happen. Breaking Bad fans were apparently not satisfied with the extraordinary prequel series Better Call Saul and have wanted more and more — El Camino debuted on Netflix in 2019. Even Six Feet Under, the series with what was arguably the most perfect ending of all, has recently come under discussion for the development of some kind of follow-up series just this year.
Ironically this refusal to end series or desire to keep going back to the well for new episodes has come at a time when more and more often so many great series have actually managed to stick the landing in a way they couldn’t before. A lot of time this is usually about series that are not nearly as popular as some of the best of Peak TV, but it doesn’t change the fact its been done increasingly well. The Americans, arguably the best standalone series of the 2010s, had one of the greatest final episodes in the history of television — one which actually earned its writers an Emmy. Mr. Robot, a series that started as a sensation and then disappeared, ended nearly as brilliantly as it began. Jane the Virgin one of the most brilliant comedy series of the decade not only managed to survive to a final season, but ended on an absolutely perfect note. Even Damon Lindelof, who has taken so much fire for the ending of Lost clearly learned from his mistakes and helped give his next series The Leftovers an ending that has already gone down in history as one of television’s best.
But far more often — particularly on network television — endings are becoming more and more irrelevant. Law and Order, which ran twenty seasons on NBC, has been recently picked up for a twenty-first. CSI which lasted for fifteen years and spawned three spinoffs came back this year and has already been renewed for a second season. There is discussion to bring series like 24 and Glee back for new incarnations on Fox. And with the growing popularity of the cast reunion — series like Parks and Rec and 30 Rock did ones even in the pandemic and Sex and the City returned for a now controversial follow-up series the year — it becomes more and more obvious that shows don’t seem to end any more so much as they do stop until people grow nostalgic for it. Sometimes this does lead to genius — the Twins Peaks Return and Deadwood: The Movie were more than worthy follow-ups, and I’m very fond of the new version of In Treatment we got this year — but it continues to take up so much space on network television that there is little room for original programming anymore.
Furthermore networks still haven’t lost the impulse to keep television series on the air until all the freshness is gone from it. When NCIS and Grey’s Anatomy eventually come to an end, no one’s going to really be curious how it happens and the odds are no one will really care anymore. That’s assuming they will end — it sure as hell doesn’t look like shows like The Simpsons or Law and Order: SVU ever will at this rate. The idea of ending a series on a note of finality has pretty much disappeared. Say what you will about the snow globe finale that wrapped up St. Elsewhere — there was no question the series was done after that. Ending a series at all is becoming less desired by anybody connected to television.
There may be one good thing about a series ending mattering less and less. It makes us seriously reflect on the value of the original show. Which, in a way, brings me back to why I constantly rewatch Lost. I’ve been asking myself the same question over and over almost since I started reviewing TV series: if a great series has a controversial or disappointing ending, does that mean the show has no merit as a whole?
And the fact that during the last decade so many people have been rewatching so many of these old series may answer that question. Millions of people were up in arms at the final shot of The Sopranos. At the time, many were so disappointed they actually thought it was inferior to shows like The Wire and Deadwood. But the fact that its been rediscovered and that people are still talking about it more than a decade after the finale does seem to indicate that there has always been and always be value in it.
And it is for that reason that I rewatch Lost over and over. Maybe part of me still thinks that if I keep doing so often enough I’ll eventually think that it ended on a perfect note. (Six times haven’t convinced me of this yet, but you never know.) Most of the time I rewatch because of the feelings it inspires. The brilliance of the acting of the cast, particularly Terry O’Quinn and Michael Emerson. The willingness of Lindelof and Cuse to take risks, whether they worked like gangbusters (the final moments of the Season 3 finale) or if they didn’t work (Nikki and Paulo). The operatic brilliance of the music. The themes and philosophies it inspired in the viewer and the deep emotions when it pulled on the heartstrings (Desmond and Penny’s love story is one of the greatest in TV history). In that sense, it doesn’t matter how the series ended. What matters is how it could make both your brain and heart ache at the same moment. Very few series — certainly almost none at a network level — have ever made me feel this way.
It is possible I stand alone in this feeling. Maybe the lion’s share of viewers are people so upset with the final episode of Game of Thrones that they will never watch the series again, let alone any prequels or read any books by the authors. Maybe they’re the same people who wanted so badly the New Blood we got from Dexter and really want to see another adventure in real time. Maybe they’re the same people who desperately ignore any of the repeated comments from Cuse and Lindelof that they will continue or reboot Lost. I’ll admit that sometimes I agree with them — part of me really wishes we’d get another season of Twin Peaks.
But to them I’m reminded of a constant phrase that came up rewatching Lost: You have to learn to let go. And I honestly think that television would be better if everybody connected would learn to let go. I’d like it if the executives would let go of bringing the same series back over and over (but believing that is harder than a pillar of smoke killing people on a mystical island). I’d like it if the fans could let go of the biases they have towards so many of the series that ended so badly and demand a new ending (that’s harder to believe than what I said about the executives). But most of all I’d like it if we can appreciate a great series for what it was. What it meant at the time and what it did right. And let that be enough. It’s not easy — nothing about being a fan or a critic of TV is — but at some point, I think everybody involved will be better for it. Stop being frustrated about what shows like Lost did to upset you and appreciate what they made you feel like as a viewer. We may not believe, like we were told in the last few minutes of Lost, in some mystical place that we all made together, but in another way, isn’t that what being a true fan is?