The Series Finale: Where Last Impressions Matter Most

“The series finale of…”

Few words carry as much weight and significance in the pop culture zeitgeist. They indicate the end of an era, the passing of something big, something that captured the imagination of millions for years at a time.

Last night, both Breaking Bad and Dexter rode into the proverbial sunset, leaving a hole the size of an RV in many a fan’s heart. Last night, we bid farewell to a couple of game-changers, shows that irrevocably transformed the way we watch television. They were bold and unusual, daring us to welcome a meth cook and a serial killer into our homes on a Sunday night. And in their final hours, they cruised to record ratings. Here are shows that defined the binge-watching phenomenon, as fans rapidly devoured episode after episode in order to catch up and participate in the fanfare of the finale. It’s a testament to their iconic status that so many viewers ditched the time-saving perks of DVR and online streaming to watch the final moments of their beloved series live.

For those of you who didn’t, I will be careful to note spoilers wherever they may occur. As I am woefully and regrettably behind on Dexter, you can rest assured that there won’t be any spoilers about our favorite serial killer here.

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These days, there’s no question that television matters. It’s almost become a cliché to discuss the layered narratives, complex characters, and moral ambiguity that define these shows. But now more than ever, the ending of a popular series has become a cultural milestone, followed by an obligatory period of “did you see the finale of…” and of course “what did you think?”.

The second question is as curious as it is complicated. Of course, “showrunners” like Breaking Bad‘s Vince Gilligan care about the answer. After all, it’s the fans that ultimately determine a show’s legacy. It’s the fans that allow a show to succeed in the first place and it’s their support that allows a story to be told in full. But television is a fickle beast; some fans are more important than others, some numbers mean more than others, and more often than not, the cards will not align for a perfect series, much less a perfect finale.

And what is a perfect series finale anyway? Fans mostly agreed that Breaking Bad cooked up the blue meth of curtain-closers. Dexter fans (it seems) were less impressed. I can’t speak to what Dexter did “wrong”, but I can certainly speak to what Bad did right.

It remained fiercely, gloriously true to itself. Like Heisenberg himself, Gilligan and his team of writers (most of whom were with Bad from the beginning) were always one step ahead, expertly plotting out moves and countermoves in a masterfully orchestrated chess match that never lost sight of its tortured relationships and profound moral dilemmas. Action never felt rushed. Dialogue never felt dull. Long passages of scenery and silence never felt unnecessary. With chemistry as its grand analogy, it devised for its protagonist a grand transformation, with actions and reactions along the way that stopped our heart, knotted our stomach, and took our breath away.

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It also knew when to end, showing admirable restraint with five jam-packed seasons and a firm deadline in mind. Many have praised the show’s tight, clean finish, one that refused to leave any loose ends or ambiguous cliffhangers for viewer interpretation. I can’t say I disagree, but I’d hardly call that the formula for a perfect finale. It fully depends on the nature of the show. For Bad, clarity fit like a glove.

As popular as the ambiguous anti-hero has become in contemporary television, Walt doesn’t quite fit the bill. We’re meant to condemn him, to identify his behavior as wrong and his motives as suspect. (***SPOILER***) That’s what makes his confession to Skyler so satisfying. “I did it for me. I did it because I liked it”. It’s a liberating exhale after a series of holding our collective breath. It’s fitting that Walt dies on the floor of his lab, his only love, the only place he ever felt “alive”.

Equally gratifying is Jesse’s refusal to kill Walt, justifying our tenuous identification with Jesse as “the good guy”, the guy that deserves redemption despite his faults. The fact that he finally gets to take back some control and exact revenge on Todd is an added bonus. (***END SPOILER***) Here is a show that demanded resolution, and Gilligan and co. leave no stone unturned. For that reason, it may be the only television drama to be remembered as pretty close to perfect. 99% pure, you might say.

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Maybe Dexter, with its lengthy eight season run and multiple showrunners, suffered from crossing the finish line alongside a perfect opponent. But I certainly don’t think that resolution must always equal perfection.

A series finale must bridge the artistic vision of its creators with the hopes and expectations of its fans. It must never sacrifice its own identity for the fickle desires of viewers, but it must be careful not alienate those who invested their time and money into a show that belongs to them as much as it does the creators.

Sounds impossible, doesn’t it? Everyone comes to love and adore and obsess over a show for different reasons, but when it comes to shows that inspire this kind of passion, the similarities often outweigh the differences.

A great series finale captures everything that made the show what it was and distills it, freezes it in a scene or a moment or an exchange, something that stays with you long after the credits roll and reminds you why that show was so special to you, why you’ll be revisiting it time and time again.

In other words, a perfect season finale doesn’t necessarily need to be perfect. It can be open-ended (Angel), it can be twisted (Twin Peaks), it can be ambiguous (The Sopranos), it can be withholding (yes, I’m one of the few that excused LOST‘s shortcomings), it can be a football flying through the air (Friday Night Lights). As long as it maintains the unique essence of the show itself and reminds us why we fell in love in the first place, it’s done its job. It can ride into the sunset as a success.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Brett has an MA in Cinematic Arts (Critical Studies) from USC. Exhilarated by the arts, he is an avid scholar, writer, critic, and teacher of Film/TV.

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17 Comments

  1. Pete Gowen
    0

    The story arc with Gus in seasons 2.5-4 was much better than the arc with Lydia and the Nazis.

    However if the show had ended with Gus’ death, we would have had a Sopranos type ending (one interpretation of the Sopranos at least)in which things continue on but we are just not watching it happen anymore. The season 5 arc and conclusion wrapped most things up with a pretty satisfying conclusion where every main character’s story has ended and they are either dead or beginning a new and significantly different chapter in their lives.

    The only flaw in the ending for me was that Walt and Jesse were largely separated in the final episodes and we didn’t have the special chemistry of the two characters being together that had made so much of the earlier episodes so enjoyable. Walt had more to say to Lydia at the end then Jesse.

    • Nilson Thomas Carroll

      I’m still torn about the end of Breaking Bad. Walt gets what he wants in the end, peace, Jesse’s freedom, and money for his kids. It was strangely a happy ending. I’m glad Jesse gets out, but it still felt a little easy, almost surreal.

  2. The past seasons of Dexter have been crap (even since the Trinity Killer one) but the series ending was good.

  3. Jon Lisi
    Jon Lisi
    0

    I enjoyed reading this and agree that the finale should remain true to the show’s vision–whatever that means and whatever the writers think it means. This is all we can ask and frankly all we deserve.

  4. Brett Siegel

    Just want to correct a goof in the above article: Dexter’s series finale aired on September 22nd and Breaking Bad’s on September 29th, not on the same day as stated.

  5. Great article. I’m glad that Vince wrapped it up the way he wanted to but I cant help to wonder what if it ended the same way as Season 3. Meaning, what if when Jesse picked up the gun and pointed at Walt, they cut to black in the same way as when Jesse killed Gale? I don’t think this ending would’ve had the same impact as the one we got, but I thought for a split second that they might end it like that.

  6. Nicholas
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    A topic that I find interesting is how great shows like Breaking Bad, The Wire, The Sopranos… change the way we consume TV programming. They basically ruin TV. Really, how do I watch something without comparing it to these.

  7. Robert Humphrey

    I, too, am unfortunately far behind on Dexter — like 3 and a half or so seasons behind. Despite what pretty much everyone says about the quality of the series in its later years, I have to continue with it.

    However, the Breaking Bad finale was brilliant. Some were complaining saying it “didn’t feel like Breaking Bad.” I didn’t really understand that complaint. Many other people, so I saw at least, kept mentioning how they were glad the finale wasn’t The Sopranos-esque, i.e., they were glad things weren’t left hanging. I’m pleased I got closure with the BB finale, but I don’t see the need of others to make comparisons of the BB finale to The Sopranos finale. I’ve never understood the vast amount of vitriol that finale received. I actually thought that closing scene conveyed a message to the audience that the entire series had conveyed throughout, which is the uncertainty and fragility of life. The BB finale and Sopranos finale are two completely different things, but I thought they each did something brilliant and fitting for the given series.

  8. Tyler McPherson

    Great Article, I really enjoyed reading it. I really liked the final episode of Breaking Bad. It didn’t leave much hanging and felt like it ended in the right way. Another great show ending is How I Met Your Mother and I can only hope it stays true to itself for its final, though if the start of this season can give a hint about it, then i don’t think I need to worry as it is still mixing comedy and drama really well as it always has done.

  9. Jessica Koroll

    This is a lovely article. I’m one of the few who hasn’t gotten around to watching either show but I’m also endlessly fascinated with series finales and how certain shows always seem to garner so much attention with their final acts. It sounds like Breaking Bad was a rarity in its insistence of telling its story and going no further. While I agree that successful season finales can come in a variety of forms, there’s something to be said for the shows that know what they want to say and uphold that idea straight through.

  10. Abby Wilson

    It’s hard to really nail the season finale and make it a memorable episode for their viewers. I think Breaking Bad did the show justice and Dexter, too. A memorable season finale for me was the F.R.I.E.N.D.S. finale; they just summed it up so well and it was one of the most watched episodes in the series’s history. Season finales are always dwindling on a fine line of success and failure. Interesting article, though.

  11. Nick Santoro

    Great article, man. I think the ending to Breaking Bad was perfect. Everything I wanted (called it) to happen, happened and I don’t think it could have ended any other way. It is truly an end of an era in television with both BB and Dexter no longer running.

  12. Nice article. I thought the breaking bad finale was amazing and jesse being set free was absolutely right. But my favourite part had to be when walt told lydia that he’d poisoned her with Ricin….hilarious.

  13. I loved the Breaking Bad finale but had to re watch the end a couple of times to fully appreciate how well everything had been wrapped up. Maybe I was just in a state of shock that 3 months of my life spent binging on Netflix drinking fizzy pop was over. However, I do hear bad things about Dexter – Is the ending really THAT disappointing and is it worth watching at all if I’ll be left ultimately unsatisfied?

  14. good article,

    I agree BB’s finale was possibly the best TV show finale ever, especially considering how much was riding on it. It’s the final piece of the puzzle: without it you can’t make up your mind about the picture as a whole.

    In my opinion what made BB great and different from what we are used to, is that it had a thoroughly constructed storyline, and as you said, didn’t just pile up more seasons on top of one another as long as the viewer ratings followed.

  15. Kathryn

    I think that because the Breaking Bad writers were, as you said, always one step ahead it made for a relatively short show with a satisfying and appropriate ending. It just…felt right somehow haha. Like, I can’t imagine the show ending in a more perfect way. There were no loose ends that needed to be tied up, all the characters’ stories felt complete (except perhaps for Marie and Walter Jr) and Walt’s death could not have been more perfect.

    Dexter, on the other hand, seems like it went on for too long and by the end of it writers were desperately trying to come up with more plot points but after watching Dexter almost get caught and chase a new killer down in every season it got pretty old and predictable. And the ending, in my opinion, did not do any of the characters justice and felt rather incomplete.

  16. bhammer100
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    The Shield is the best series finale of all time.

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