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Why are TV finales so difficult to get right?

Daenerys and Jon
Credit: Helen Sloan/HBO

In the aftermath of “Game of Thrones,” fans found themselves in a familiar position, sifting through the events of a final episode, weighing whether they liked how it ended, considering whether the story as a whole was worth their time. Some of the greatest TV shows in history have stumbled horribly at the finish line, either due to fatigue, a lack of planning, or indecisiveness. While we’ve been treated to many wonderful shows, you can probably count the number of highly praised finales on one hand. Why is that?

Spoilers below…

The job of a finale

A proper finale needs to accomplish several critical tasks:

  • Answer any lingering important questions
  • Provide closure
  • Nod to the past
  • Hint to the future
  • Fit with the rest of the series

If a finale fails at any of those points, you can be sure the fanbase will revolt.

The best TV finales

If we’re lucky, we get one near-perfect finale per decade. “M*A*S*H” is often cited as a great ending. The comedy-drama series focused on the Korean War. Considering the frame of the war, the end of a conflict is a natural reason for our characters to part ways. Wars never end at a particular point in a character’s evolution – it’s always an abrupt and arbitrary development. The characters have a clear reason to say goodbye, bury the hatchet, or make amends. And because we know that all of these characters had lives before the war, we know they’re returning to those lives. They’ll be forever changed, but all of them will return to a version of their previous existence.

According to Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey, we are all predisposed to anticipate that after a great battle, the hero returns home with something he or she gained, now prepared to share it with those who have not yet ventured forth for their own great battle. The hero becomes the mentor. The heroes of our stories become the leaders, and the next generation must step forward. That homecoming or return is often a tricky thing to pull off, so it’s often neglected or ignored. But it usually boils down to a simple rule: the end is in the beginning. At least one character must return to a familiar place, now changed by what has happened.

“M*A*S*H” is also notable for a real shock turn for one of the main characters. Hawkeye Pierce suffers a nervous breakdown as he remembers the extraordinary step one woman took to prevent discovery and capture by the enemy.

A war between nation-states makes it easier to pull the plug than something like a battle between good and evil. One presumes that evil never rests. At the end of “Game of Thrones,” we’re meant to believe the decisions made will put an end to generations of conflict, yet the new king points out the necessity for a Master of War. So much for utopia.

Another finale cited as one of the best is “Newhart.” Sitcoms, by their nature, have less to do with continuity and more to do with simply making us laugh. Too many sitcom finales get bogged down with sentimentality, leading our characters to behave in ways they’ve previously never behaved. A sitcom usually only functions because of its characters’ lack of growth. We crave the reliability of their flaws.

Newhart

“Newhart” wisely side-stepped this pitfall. The comedy focused on a man and his wife who operated a small inn in Vermont. In the final episode, a visiting Japanese tycoon buys out the entire town. Like “M*A*S*H,” the show’s framing device is eliminated, so it provides a natural opportunity for everyone to say goodbye. Also like “M*A*S*H,” the decision is taken out of the hands of the protagonists. That’s also crucial since the finality of the development removes any scenes of characters waffling about the decision. By using an external force to close the show, fans won’t find themselves second-guessing a character’s decision to leave. The decision was forced upon them.

“Newhart” transcended all other comedy finales with an audacious stunt. When Bob Newhart’s 1990 character is whacked in the head with a golf ball, he wakes up… on the set of his beloved 1970s sitcom, “The Bob Newhart Show.” He tells his wife from that show about the crazy dream he just had. It was subversive and meta and groundbreaking and satisfying all at the same time. And, importantly, it doesn’t negate what happened. Even if all those seasons were part of one crazy dream, they were still enjoyable. By reframing the entire series as a dream from another, similar character, it plays fair.

The best TV finale in recent memory is “The Shield.” The story of a rogue cop unfolds like a perfectly laid trap. All of the secrets in the series are laid bare, and everyone is shocked. Because that show always dealt in a wide grey area between right and wrong, the 2008 finale’s last shot is a perfect fulfillment of that promise. It’s concrete enough to hint to the future, but vague enough to allow the viewer to make their own conclusions.

The ending of “The Shield” is also notable because it followed a logical path. Shakespeare tells us that Romeo & Juliet are going to die right at the beginning of the story. He then weaves a story so compelling, you forget the promise made at the outset. Either that, or the dread informs your consumption of this story of young love. Telling the hell out of a story is more important that shocks or u-turns or deus ex machina or mind-blowing revelations. Shakespeare says, “Watch me kill these young lovers.” We watch anyway and it’s great. And no one feels ripped off when they die.

The most disappointing TV finales

Lost cast

“Lost” is an example of a show that rocketed out of the gates, then stumbled, and stumbled, and stumbled some more on its way to a much-reviled ending. Where did “Lost” get, well, lost?

That show made lots of promises to the audience. If you tell us that everything is happening for a reason, you should have that reason figured out before you launch your show.

Too often, showrunners promise an equation where 2+x=4. Part of the joy, then, is giving the audience enough clues so they can eventually discover that x=2. But this often ends up overcomplicating things. Instead of doling out x in small doses, we start adding other variables: red herrings and narrative dead ends that only exist to prolong the solution of the equation. So you end up with a final equation that looks like 2+0.1+z+3-2/5+∞=4? And you, the viewer, say, “This doesn’t add up to four at all!” The showrunners fire back, “It was never supposed to add up to four.” And you say, “Look at your first season! All you talked about was four!”

Supernatural shows often fall prey to this trap. Ditto for Stephen King novels. We are so intrigued by the possible reasons for the mystery, our imaginations fire off multiple solutions, each more satisfying than whatever we’re given. Was there really any way “Lost” could pay off a polar bear on a tropical island, the magic numbers 4, 8, 15, 16, 23 and 42, the smoke monster, and The Others abducting Walt because he was “special?” No. It was all nonsense. Fans worked furiously to find one solution to these riddles, but even the showrunners had no idea what they were doing. So the solution was that the characters were dead all along and they were just puttering around in purgatory and the island was somehow a container for evil. It’s just more nonsense.

If you have a supernatural story, the most important thing you have to do is establish a set of rules. Absent these rules, anything can happen for any reason at any time: people can come back from the dead, witches can birth smoke monsters (one time only, apparently), time travel is possible. The audience will swallow a lot as long as there are some boundaries involved. The moment you toss out the rules, your show falls apart.

“Lost” could never decide on its rules and drowned itself in a sea of false starts. Nearly the entire second season focused around the survivors from the tail section of the plane, and those characters did nothing to propel the overall story. If you can skip the majority of a season and the story doesn’t seem radically altered, that’s poor storytelling.

“Dexter” is often cited as the worst ending of all time, as the main character ventured off to become a lumberjack. (I haven’t seen the show, so I can’t comment on the narrative betrayal, but I am assured it is awful.)

Another much-loathed finale was “The Sopranos.” When that show was at its best, it was a strange cross between violence, comedy, and psychiatry. When that show was at its worst, it was self-important (ugh, the dream sequences!), ponderous, and pretentious. The ending was the worst example of this. In a brazen, audacious move, the screen simply cut to black. Nearly every fan had the same reaction: “Did my cable just go out? That wasn’t the end, was it?”

To this day, people argue whether that means Tony Soprano was killed or the show picked that random moment to stop. When we rewatch it, we suspect the final scene is packed with mundane details because that’s the whole point of the show: as terrifying as mob life is, you still have moments of boredom, and you’ll be looking over your shoulder for the rest of your life. You might disagree with that assessment, but that does not mean that this finale was an artistic masterstroke. It means the show failed in its duty to elicit an intended emotion. It just copped out. “Here, you decide what happens,” is incredibly lazy. The easy fallback for the creator is, “Well, maybe you don’t understand it because you’re not sophisticated enough or you didn’t pick up on the clues that I did a terrible job supplying.” Nonsense.

To be clear, “The Sopranos” and “The Shield” both have ambiguous endings. But “The Shield” presents two clear timelines. “The Sopranos” presents infinite possibilities, each equally valid. Why not end the show 10 minutes earlier or 10 minutes later? If an abrupt ending is supposed to be the point, it could happen anytime. So why then? And what are you trying to say?

“Mad Men” is another prestigious TV series that fumbled its ending. That show was always at its best when it used the frame of the advertising agency to explore social dynamics. Because the main character hit the road, separating himself from that environment, we missed out on the crackling dialogue and character-driven tension that made the show sing. Don Draper’s disappearing act would be like buying a ticket to the NBA Finals, only to learn that Steph Curry has decided he’s going to skip the game to launch his career as a forensic pathologist. Steph might be a great forensic pathologist, but we just want to watch him jack up threes, preferably alongside his teammates.

“Seinfeld” is an example of a disastrous finale in the comedy genre. Instead of leaning on its observational strengths, the final episode felt more like a glorified clip show as they brought back dozens of guest stars, and finished with the four leads stuck in prison. What? That show picked a weird time to become introspective. Again, we were robbed of what made the show great – interactions between the four main characters. Also, the episode wasn’t particularly funny.

The finales that split the difference

“Breaking Bad” is another series on TV’s Mount Rushmore, but the final episode had the unenviable task of coming on the heels of the third-to-last episode. “Ozymandias” is perhaps one of the most perfect hours of television ever filmed. It offered gut-wrenching payoffs to nearly every secret in the “Breaking Bad” universe. Walter White came in direct conflict with everyone he loved. So the last two episodes suffered by removing Walt from those characters. While the finale offered satisfying moments, we were starved for those rich moments of 1:1 interaction that made the series great. It also doesn’t help that a group of random Nazis can’t hold a candle to the series’ greatest villains. For that reason, something like Season 4’s “Face Off” finale against Gus Fring felt more satisfying.

Breaking Bad

Fans tend to love or hate the end of the “Battlestar Galactica” reboot. Again, it fell into the supernatural trap, not laying out the rules by which the show would play. If you’re willing to make some pretty big leaps of faith, the series plays out like a tone poem to evolution, both personal and biological. If you insist on answers, you’re not going to get them here. Because the show always dabbled in the mystical and unexplained, we liked the ending. (Baltar’s emotional breakdown was especially powerful.) In some cases, a show is better off shrugging its shoulders and acknowledging powers beyond its understanding, rather than trying to shoehorn an unsatisfactory explanation into the mix. (Remember, we like The Force, but nobody likes Midichlorians.)

battlestar galactica

“The Wire” is probably the greatest television show of all time. Season 4 is a peerless dramatic masterclass. But Season 5 featured an uncharacteristic logical leap required because the show had made its primary villain (Marlo Stanfield) too powerful to take down fair-and-square. “The Wire” had an incredible grasp of the big picture, but its low ratings meant HBO was reluctant to greenlight a Season 5. Had the showrunners known they’d only get five seasons, it’s likely they could have orchestrated a clean landing. Since they had no assurance beyond one final season (and a shortened one, at that), they took some narrative shortcuts that show nearly always avoided before the end.

The issue with “The Wire’s” finale isn’t what happened to the characters. All of them got fitting ends. It’s the path that got them there that was so frustrating. In that way, it shares some DNA with “Game of Thrones” – you know how great that show can be, so it’s frustrating to see it underachieve in the finale.

How do we fix final episodes?

In the case of “Game of Thrones,” we watched the quality degrade as soon as the show surpassed its source novels. With most of these shows, the lack of a defined endpoint means that the showrunners have no idea how to pace the series. Just look at “The Walking Dead.” AMC has apparently commanded that it run forever. So the writers need to come up with juuuust enough threat to keep its viewers intrigued, but not the full-tilt narrative violence that a successful zombie story requires. If you can’t kill important characters in a zombie show, why even have zombies on your show? Writers are forced to saddle characters with plot armor so they don’t jeopardize the longevity of the series.

The Walking Dead

In an age of streaming, it would be great to see Netflix, Amazon, or HBO make a multi-season order and stick to it. If creators know they have 70 hours to tell a story, that allows them to build the story correctly. As it stands, showrunners might be building toward a three-act structure, only to be told they’ll have to wrap up in two acts… or extend to seven. Guessing at your story structure is an impossible feat, and only leads to the messes we’ve seen so far.

An alternative is to follow the sitcom model and make every story stand on its own. “Black Mirror” follows an anthology model to great effect. The first season of “True Detective” was great because the story was constructed in eight chapters with a definitive end. But fans crave the mythology and character growth that comes with a sustained series, told over several years.

Yes, it’s true that stories can evolve in the telling. Jesse was supposed to die at the end of the first season of “Breaking Bad,” but the showrunners were so taken by Aaron Paul’s performance, they changed course. But you should have a destination in mind before you pull out of the garage. Detours are fine as long as the scenery is worthwhile, but you always need to be driving to the end.

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