The importance of television series finales

Chosen

Endings can be hard. How do you say goodbye to someone after you’ve spent years together; shared the highs and the lows. What if they just turn around and slap you in the face?

This week How I Met Your Mother came to an end leaving many fans angered because things didn’t play out like they wanted or hoped. This isn’t anything new; who can forget the great Lost debacle of of 2010? While most television shows face the ignominy of being cancelled without much warning, these shows had the luxury of an announced ending, meaning the writers could perfectly conclude the story.

These particular cases had overarching narratives that fans had invested time and expected answers. In the case of Lost, everyone thought they were watching a mystery about what this mysterious island actually was. In fact, it was all about the characters the writers said. To which the audience replied “Oh, you had no idea what you were doing. My bad. Thanks for wasting my time.” It was as if an episode of Poirot had ended with him putting all of the suspects in a room and walking away to reminisce with Captain Hastings about Belgium. No one was watching for Belgium.

If Lost was a botched job, then How I Met Your Mother led exactly where it was always going. It may have disappointed people but it’s pretty clear that writers Bays and Thomas had a plan and stuck to it, even if they probably should have let characters dictate it rather than being slavish to scenes that had been filmed early in the run. As time moves on, as do characters and people invest in their stories and their evolution.

What might have seemed to make sense in season one of a show, could be completely unthinkable by the end. It’s this investment that creates expectations. Because a television show has a definite ending, it’s important where it goes but that idea almost antithetical to the nature of television shows. So often they are about a certain group of characters at a certain time, in a certain place whose lives reset at the end of every episode. So why should the ending matter any more than any other episode?

In some ways it’s because the end sums up what the show was. If the pilot as a mission statement then you want the end to declare the mission was accomplished. It’s a conclusion to tell you that everyone was on the same page. It might harken back to the earliest days and tell you what the real story you were watching was all about, which if a show has been through significant changes can alienate some of the more recent converts.

ER ran for 15 seasons and changed it’s cast significantly throughout its run but it was always about John Carter. Even when he left after 11 years, there was a gaping hole. He ‘set the tone’ just as he had been mentored to do by Mark Green. That final season was reflective, bringing back virtually every cast member in some capacity with the final episodes focussing on Carter’s return, at the cost of some of the newer characters story lines. But all shows should be in some ways reflective of where it began. If the journey matters then there must be a beginning and an ending, and what’s the point in an ending if the journey now belongs to a different character?

David Duchovny was back in The X-Files finale following a season of absence and what was the show without his Agent Mulder? In fact the show had attempted a series finale at the end of season 7 returning to the very first case investigated. That episode itself was somewhat underwhelming but nothing compared to the tedium that would follow with the show continuing beyond creative motivations.

The problem is that a fictional world continues even when the characters stop being it. Many would say that Life on Mars had the perfect ending where 21st century cop Sam Tyler jumps from a building and arrives back in what used to be his nightmare world of the 1970s. But that world continued in a spin-off Ashes to Ashes without Tyler so perhaps the only true ending can be the death of a protagonist.

This happened in Blakes 7 where Blake had been absent for two series. He both returned to bring the show full circle and died along with the rest of the cast. That’s a real ending.

What happens then when the one time lead doesn’t return? Quirky drama Northern Exposure followed the story of New York Doctor Joel Fleischman who finds himself as a fish out of water in the remote town of Cicely, Alaska. Morrow had been unhappy on the show and negotiated his way out during in the sixth season his character returned home through a magical quest. Really, that was the end of the story but the show limped on for a few episodes more and ended with a turgid and forgettable wedding.

Even though most shows peak somewhere in the middle of the run, there is still the notion that the best should be saved for last. While some finales hit the right notes they don’t ever hit the creative greatness of the earlier years. Buffy the Vampire Slayer ended with our heroine standing outside her now destroyed her home town, having defeated the First Evil and passed on her power to all those with potential. Thematically it was a solid ending, but it never had the emotional power of season two, or the closure of season five.

It’s spin-off Angel took a different approach, killing off one of the leads before ending on a hopeless cliffhanger with the gang about to take on a hoard of demons. It might have left many angry due to lack of closure, with Angel never meeting his prophesied destiny or even getting help from Buffy, but it that cliffhanger perfectly encapsulated the show – keep fighting no matter the odds.

Another that ended on a cliffhanger and worse with some expository text was Quantum Leap. While some were angry that Sam Beckett never returned home, what we got was far better. Time traveller Sam arrives in a bar, in his own body on the day of his birth and is apparently faced with God in the form of a barman. It’s a confusing and philosophical episode but its mystery somehow helps it to live forever.

Another which didn’t give all the answers was the reboot of Battlestar Galactica. It did give a proper ending, with the titular ship destroyed and fleet dismantled and they actually arrive on the fabled planey Earth. It turns out that these humans were our ancestors and arrived based on the interventions of God and angels. This literal Deus Ex Machina left many thinking it was a cop out but certainly fitted with much of what had come before.

While the success of these might be debated, there are some shows which hit it note perfect. Alan Ball’s funeral home set drama Six Feet Under ends perfectly, having killed the lead during the final season.  In the greatest montage ever edited Claire drives away, we travel through time and see the deaths of the ensemble. It’s sad poignant and perfectly executed, just like the show itself.

Another which managed to save the best for last was Star Trek: The Next Generation which performed all the tricks while still leaving the characters exactly where we left them. ‘All Good Things…’ saw a reflection on the past, a look at the future and the return of old friends and foes. What a shame this was followed up by a series of mediocre movies.

You can never underestimate the value of nostalgia at times like these. Episodes live forever and fans will re-watch them countless times. There’s an appeal in the unchanging world, so if the end changes the meaning and drive of the show, then.

  • Ridley

    Quantum Leap should be brought back with Sam as a data ghost in the Al role.

    It just shouldn’t star Betsy Lou or whatever the heck her name was.

    • It was Sammy Jo. That exact premise had been planned and got as far as the script stage. I believe it was called Quantum Leap: The Great Leap Forward and written by Trey Callaway