Series finales. They can make or break an entire show. And yes, TV is TV and what’s the big deal — well, after you invest three or four or more years in a show, only to have the end make no sense or take the easy way out or otherwise completely let you down, tell me then it’s no big deal (Exhibit A: The Sopranos. I didn’t watch a single episode, but its finale was a shot heard ’round the world. It was the top news story of the week.)
I’m writing this because of How I Met Your Mother, a show I didn’t personally care for but my friend feels the ending was a real stinker. Worse, it retroactively ruined the entire previous series. I at first thought she was being dramatic, but then I realized the same thing had certainly happened to me. It got me thinking about the deadly importance of finales, how so much is riding on them, yet how rarely writers successfully nail them.
(Quickly, a word about HIMYM, and this will probably get someone’s tits up, and I know it’s just a sitcom so this might be harsh, but here we go: What a dumb premise for a show, on the face of it. Dad is telling his kids the story of how he met their mother. Except it takes a ton of detours and lasts nine seasons, more than 76 hours. Show me kids sitting still for dad’s 76-hour anecdote, and I’ll show you a couple of Amish children with no Xbox or smartphones tied to a chair because they’d rather be out milking cows or raising barns than listening for one more second to dad’s endless talking. But that’s not why I gave up on it.)
This list is by no means exhaustive (obviously I haven’t seen EVERY show). But it does necessitate spoilers, so you have been warned. And obviously the judgment of the success of a finale is subjective, though there are many shows that do seem to have a consensus among fans. Let’s begin.
The short list is, clearly, the shows that managed to not piss their fans off, and ended satisfactorily.
I would put at the very top, without question, Firefly. “But Miss Elaineous,” you’re probably thinking, “that show was canceled unexpectedly. It didn’t even have a finale!” It didn’t, unless you count the unprecedented achievement of fans (and Joss Whedon) working so relentlessly that it was made into a major motion picture, and one of the best finales ever. So if you count the film, Firefly had beginning to end an almost perfect (but far too brief) run.
Then there’s Xena: Warrior Princess, a show I loved more than my own life. I hung out in online chatrooms of fans. I got a tattoo based on her costume. I went to a convention in California. And in the finale (SPOILER), she died. I spent the first week in outraged denial with my fellow fans. We had been cheated. It was so unfair. By the second week, I had more or less come to terms with it and even saw the beauty (if not the logic) of it, enabling the show to live on fondly in my memory.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer is another example. Not consistently great, no (that last season seemed especially aimless and had me concerned for the end). But I think the finale pulled its fat out of the fire. Specifically, Spike pulled it out. He took one for Buffy’s team and the show’s, and gave it the punch that a dozen Potential Slayers couldn’t. Well done, Spike.
M*A*S*H nailed it. So did Roseanne and Newhart, or so Tery tells me.
But the finale by which all others are judged is, without a doubt, Six Feet Under. Another show that was really good, started to slide a bit in the last season, but then in the penultimate episode Nate (SPOILER) dies, and we thought we’d never see anything sadder. Then the finale comes, and those motherfuckers top themselves handily with a heartwrenching 6-1\2 minute montage of every single characters’ death. You made Tery the Ice Queen openly weep, Alan Ball. That deserves an award right there.
So we can see that a killer finale can pull a show that’s had better seasons back up again to finish triumphant. But can a crappy one retroactively undo all the good that came before? (There’s no point in asking if the reverse is true, since I doubt anyone sits through a bad show to see if the finale will redeem it.)
I’m looking at YOU, Battlestar Galactica. I was totally into it, even all through the last season. Then with about three eps left to go, I remember thinking that we were neck-deep in some really involved storylines, and how on earth would they all get resolved in time? Answer: they wouldn’t, and the finale was, in my opinion, a real cop-out. Maybe it was just relief that now I could resist the urge to buy the DVDs, but I lost interest so hard I never watched the followup series Caprica.
I’ve already written about how much I disliked the Dexter finish, but it wouldn’t keep me from enjoying previous seasons (my coworker hasn’t seen any of the last season yet, and has read online he might be better off skipping it entirely; I wish I’d gotten that advice). The finale will never take away all the truly memorable villains the show gave us before taking all the bizarre, out of character detours that plagued the last season. I’ll remember it fondly, but again, I was spared another bunch of boxed sets on my shelf.
Arrested Development is in a strange category; they got the word they were cancelled in time for the last few eps to reflect the decision (and I remember some of the actors couldn’t totally keep their sadness out of their performance). But then Netflix resurrected it, but I’m not sure that was for the best — it didn’t have the same energy, seemed overly confusing, and as of this writing we still haven’t finished it. (I reserve the right to change my mind when I’ve taken it all in.)
Lost also stands in a category alone, because we knew about three eps in that it was probably going to have a strange/unsatisfying ending. Which made us no less resentful at wasting so much time on it.
We’re very slowly working our way to the end of Breaking Bad, but I’ve been assured by that same coworker that it’s “brutally honest,” which I much prefer to a nonsensical happily ever after (DEXTER). And we’re only two seasons into Game of Thrones and I can already tell there’s a lot riding on its finale (though I suppose George R. R. Martin bears the lion’s share of that burden). Same with Walking Dead and Robert Kirkman, though the show has set the precedent of diverging from the comics already, so I guess they have the luxury of taking or leaving his ending (if he ever gets to one, which doesn’t seem likely at this point). Or Doctor Who or The Simpsons. There’s no doubt the bar goes higher and higher the longer a show goes on.
It’s funny: halfway through writing this I saw a Big Bang Theory where Sheldon’s favorite show gets cancelled and he reflects on the importance of finales (“…Heroes just gradually lowered the quality season by season until we were grateful it ended”). Then I read this headline on the cover of Entertainment Weekly: Creators Weigh In on the Art of the Finale, and thought “get out of my damn head, universe!” (Long story short, everyone hates writing them because they know the stakes are so high.)
The stakes ARE high, so I suggest this to writers; if your show makes it past two seasons, start thinking of endings then, or at least general ideas for some. Because after a pilot, the finale is the second most important episode. We all count on you.
(I can imagine how hard it is to write a good ending; I don’t have one for this post.)