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.
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.
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.
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.