*Spoilers for multiple finales – namely How I Met Your Mother, Breaking Bad, Lost, The X-Files, and The Wire*
There are two kinds of finales for a TV series: the narrative ending and the character ending. One is all story, the other all emotion. The show you’ve created will help you decide which one to do and chances are, whichever you choose, there’s still going to be a vocal group of fans who hate it anyway.
Hello, class, and welcome to our follow up lecture from last week’s How to Pilot. Finales are very tough. You have a lot of plates to spin with a finale and sticking the landing with a solid, satisfying ending assures your show’s place in the canon. Mess it up and people begin to see the cracks in the rest of your episodes.
An example of this is How I Met Your Mother. Really, for this finale, the creators had a very simple task. The lead character needed to meet the woman who would become the mother to his children. That’s it. Nine years of build up all to lead to two people meeting, and the creators managed to botch it by killing off the mother with some unnamed disease and Ted basically looking to get his kids’ permission to date his friend and former girlfriend, Robin. Many fans disliked this finale. I personally disliked it so much that it actually unraveled the show for me. The finale of How I Met Your Mother was so bad, it’s as if it turned on a light in my brain, and I realised that the show had always been bad; a good finale would have kept that light happily off. The biggest problem with the finale to HIMYM was that the creators had decided upon it very early in the show’s run when they expected to wrap the show up after five seasons.
How I Met Your Mother continued for four more seasons, though, and had myriad plot lines about how Ted got over Robin and got on with his life. The creators gave us a bad finale because they failed to adapt and change as time went on. They had picked an ending but the show outgrew it. The same could be said for the finale to Friends. By the time the tenth and final year of Friends was coming to an end, no one really cared about the Ross and Rachel relationship. It had been the whole show for a few years but the show had, again, outgrew it, so it’s odd to see the finale focus upon it as though it was something needing resolution. The lesson here is simply that no matter how in love you are with a pre-determined finale, if your show moves past it, you’ve got to catch up.
When it comes to narrative finales, the trick is really to try and save the fireworks for the final episode. Shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Fringe, and Breaking Bad spend their final seasons putting the pieces together for a big, fiery finale. The dominoes are all set up, and in the finale, it’s the joy of watching a well-written story all come together. Breaking Bad’s finale is a masterclass in finishing off a story in a way that is satisfying and narratively solid, as well as being both a narrative finale and a character one too. For all the ways that Walt dispatches his enemies in the finale, one of the standout scenes is simply Walt confessing that every brutal, awful thing he claimed to have done for his family, he actually did for himself. That line of dialogue is a perfect finale line, a button to put on the character to say this is where the story ends. Breaking Bad’s finale was actually too satisfying for some viewers who decided that because it managed to tie up every single loose end it must have really been a dream the main character was having.
The real trick to creating a successful finale is staying true to the show. The X-Files finale fails because the show had always been about secrets and mystery so the finale being essentially a greatest hits clip show of the ins and outs of the government conspiracy is unsatisfying, to say the least. The finale of Futurama is a great one because it manages to be all kinds of sweet, violent, and involves time travel and weird science, just as the show always had during its run.
One of the great dividers with finales is the final episode of Lost. The creators try both a narrative and emotional finale. They finish off the story of the island and they also give every single character a happy ending. The episode is full of cathartic moments as lost loves are reunited, characters come back from the dead, and everyone goes off in the sunset/afterlife together. People hated it because, I guess, they wanted something that would definitively item by item explain all the weird stuff on the island. Other people loved it because they loved these characters and wanted to see them happy. Either way all I know if that when I watched it I ugly-cried the entire time and spent the next week thinking about it. It wasn’t perfect but it is a very satisfyingly, out there ending, which sums up Lost pretty well.
In conclusion, to finale you need to know your own show. The ending of The Wire is great because, while some people get definitive endings, a lot of the stories continue with new characters, showing the fact that the problems faced in the show are eternal ones. The end of The Wire couldn’t be the cops triumphing and getting crack off the streets, because that’s not the kind of show it was. The ending of The X Files failed because the creators seemed to forget what kind of show it was. How I Met Your Mother failed because the creators wrote themselves past their ending but still thought it could work. Mad Men works because the show was always asking the question, how could Don Draper be happy? And the finale goes some way toward answering that. Breaking Bad works because the show was always the love story between a man and a meth empire and the finale completes that love affair.
The danger with a bad ending is simple: It is the last thing you get to say as a creator on the show. It’s the punchline, the dénouement, the quip before you leave a party. Get it wrong and it’s all anyone remembers, but get it right and people will want other people to watch your show, confident they’re giving their friends a complete package that they’ll enjoy right up until the very end.
Featured Image: AMC