Oreviews And The Art of The Series Finale
Modern art is revered but there is no Louvre to host iconic shows or movies. Celebrated at flashy, and sometimes controversial, awards ceremonies, it’s easy to be dismissive of the intricacies of television and film. Every month, I will be looking at what makes film and TV special, and how writers, producers, directors, actors and more, bring (or don’t bring) the extraordinary to life.
I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t always make it to the end of a series. I miss out on a show’s attempt to tie together multiple seasons’ worth of drama, laughter, and tears because I’ve already given up way before they hit the end. As somebody that pays over real money on monthly subscription packages, I demand excellence only. And yes, I’m at home watching in my pyjamas, eating dinner on my lap in the living room, but still – excellence only. Which is why when I can see a series heading down the doomed path of mediocrity, I leave. I know this sounds toxic – when the going gets tough, I up and leave. But goodbyes are hard enough as it is, and I’d rather not use my precious free time to go through that.
Finales are hard. English was always one of my favourite subjects in school, and writing is obviously still a huge passion of mine now, but I still struggle with writing conclusions. There’s something frustratingly hard about having to sum up the entirety of your work in a couple of sentences. So, for programs that have gone through several seasons, exploring character depth and story expansion, it’s understandable that the wrap up proves difficult.
But tough. Because we’ve seen it done well before, and so I must have faith that we can see it done well again. After some extensive scientific research (via the way of an Instagram question box on my stories one Saturday night), it was clear that there was a general consensus that the secret to a good finale is one that acknowledges the loose ends left by the show and ties them up neatly.
The ties don’t necessarily have to be perfect; whilst re-watching the Friends finale for the 105th time, I noted that Joey and Phoebe’s final arcs were nowhere near as fleshed out as the other two-thirds of the gang’s storylines. But the tight “I got off the plane” bow that tied up Ross and Rachel’s storyline, along with the Monica and Chandler’s twins, was neat enough to satisfy even the die-hard Friends fan. Netflix’s Orange is The New Black is another good example – the acting was phenomenal, and as harrowing and harsh as some of the character endings were, it was good because it was realistic (a mark that the BBC’s Line of Duty tried to hit but failed to fully bring to life). A season-ending that left fans split was HBO’s Insecure, with some fans applauding it for its refreshing look into the future for the main characters, including weddings, babies, and career elevation. Some fans, however, still wanted more from the final episode, with some feeling like their questions were still unanswered and others feeling like the ending was “guessable” (but it was always going to be Lawrence, really).
The issue comes when all loose ends are left scattered. Or worse yet, when the loose ends appear to be coming together throughout the later seasons, and then everything comes undone in the final episode, the big finale. Enter, How I Met Your Mother. During the thorough research I did via social media, this one came up a couple of times, with most people complaining that the work that the show had put in with the main characters’ relationships was ultimately left useless come the series finale. I had one friend that explained that she liked the finale, explaining that instead of giving us what we wanted, it focused on the complexities of love and loss, and finding love in unexpected (or expected?) places. As someone who was personally disappointed by the finale, I don’t buy it, but it did highlight that different people will react completely differently to finales.
So like I said – conclusions are hard. And maybe, maybe it’s too hard to please everybody and tie up virtually every single loose end, right?
I want to turn your attention to two shows that I firmly believe captured the art of the season finale in all its glory. The detailed inner workings of a top screenwriter are all but revered when I think of how great these series finales, and indeed, the entire final seasons, were packaged and presented to us mere mortals. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you, AMC’s Breaking Bad and NBC’s The Good Place; two very different shows, but two shows that are a real celebration of the art of the finale.
Breaking Bad, the show that gave us Bryan Cranston’s phenomenal performance as chemistry-teacher-turned-drug-lord Walter White, looked at the difference between right and wrong and the nature of crime from the very beginning. Its slow-burning nature didn’t sit well with some people, but it’s heavily regarded as one of the best TV shows of all time, and those that stuck it out were rewarded with a storyline that was so satisfying, people still talk about it years later. The ending followed Walt right to the very end, and it was almost as though, everything we knew and believed about him was called into question. Was he the cancer-ridden chemistry teacher who “broke bad” or was he using cancer as an excuse, revelling in his newfound infamy as a drug lord? The series finale is essentially the most selfish victory lap for Walt – he starts off the series in the pilot episode telling his family how much he loves them in spite of his cancer. He ends the series finale however, dying – but not of cancer, not really anyway. He’s dying in the arms of his true love, the makeshift meth lab. There’s even a creepy smile as he succumbs to his death, and it’s so deliciously satisfying that I’m getting chills just thinking about it.
And then there’s The Good Place. An entirely different tone to Breaking Bad, no doubt, but one that equally explored the good, the bad, and the in-between. The show was lauded for its exploration of philosophy and the seamless blend they created between philosophy and comedy. The finale, without spoiling it for those that haven’t seen it, basically tackles the meaning of life – a huge feat for a sitcom with 22-minute episodes. But what it does in the series finale, is attempt to some of the big questions we have. And by big questions, I mean the huge questions, questions about the entire human experience, questions about the moral and questions about the metaphysical. It does all this, but the best part about the series finale, is that it (very tactfully) doesn’t attempt to leave you, the viewer, with a definitive answer to everything. No one likes a know-it-all, and the writers know this, instead choosing to focus on the parts that made the show so great across 5 seasons to answer what they can.
Despite my two examples, there’s no real formula to the perfect series finale. But at the bare minimum, I, from my new little column over here at The Floor, urge showrunners to remember that it’s an art, and to seriously consider what made the show so long-running in the first place. Think about how you can underscore those elements and bring us, your loyal audience, who have invested time and emotion into your show, closure. A difficult task, but a rewarding one, I’m sure.