WARNING: this post contains spoilers for, well, everything.
When I was eleven years old, my parents allowed me to stay up late and watch the series finale of M*A*S*H. I loved M*A*S*H, and still do—it was, I think, the first bit of television (aside perhaps from The Muppet Show) that was more than just mere entertainment for me … I was deeply invested in those characters and their situations, and when it came to an end I was gutted by the fact that there would never again be new episodes. Hence my parents’ willingness to let me stay up late for once.
The series finale of M*A*S*H, which ran for a feature-length two hours, remains the single-most-watched episode of television ever, pulling in over 120 million viewers. I have never again watched it, and only vaguely remember a few key plot points—Hawkeye has a nervous breakdown, Charles teaches North Korean prisoners to play Mozart, Klinger ends up staying behind to help his new Korean bride find her parents. That, and of course the iconic final shot of the word “GOODBYE” spelled out in rocks for Hawkeye as he choppers away.
Endings are tricky things. When done well, they bring everything that has preceded into sharp relief, or deliver a satisfying sense of closure. I tell my students that the period is the most significant bit of punctuation, because it defines the sentence. Without a period, a sentence simply runs on and on and adds more and more possibly extraneous information, or digresses into the eddies of subjunctive clauses, twisting about its length like the confused coils of a snake, which can of course be virtuosic in the hands of a talented writer, but if the sentence, like a story writ small, cannot be brought to a satisfactory conclusion, then, well …
There are two endings in fiction that have devastated me. The first was when I finished The Lord of the Rings, the novel that first taught me that literature can have affect, can change you on the molecular level. In the final chapter, Frodo and Sam, along with Merry and Pippin, ride to the harbour of the Grey Havens; Sam does not know that Frodo means to leave Middle-Earth forever. Along the way they meet up with Gandalf, Elrond, Galadriel, and Bilbo. Frodo and Bilbo depart with the others across the sea to the Undying Lands. Frodo cannot stay—he has been too deeply hurt by his time as Ring-Bearer. In spite of his grief at losing his best friend, Sam watches him go and returns home to Bag End and his wife and baby daughter.
At last they rode over the downs and took the East Road, and then Merry and Pippin rode on to Buckland; and already they were singing again as they went. But Sam turned to Bywater, and so came back up the Hill, as day was ending once more. And he went on, and there was yellow light, and fire within; and the evening meal was ready, and he was expected. As Rose drew him in, and set him in his chair, and put little Elanor in his lap.
He drew a deep breath. “Well, I’m back,” he said.
It is a simple enough ending, but that is where its power lies—in the sense of return, of homecoming, a narrative depiction of what T.S. Eliot expressed lyrically in “Little Gidding”: “the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.” There is also, however, a profound sense of loss: though Sam is now entering the next, fulsome stage of his life, the world of Middle-Earth has ended—the magic has literally gone out of the world with the destruction of the Ring and the departure of the elves, all of which for Sam is encapsulated in the loss of his beloved Frodo.
The sense of loss I felt at the end of The Lord of the Rings functioned on several levels, not the least of which was the inchoate recognition that I could never again read the novel for the first time. It was, like Sam’s farewell to Frodo, like saying goodbye to a good friend.
The other ending that devastated me was that of One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez. While the end of LotR was all about departing a world that had held me in greater thrall than any I’ve ever read, Solitude was about getting hit with the hammer of narrative virtuosity. A defining text of magical realism, the novel is a multi-generational, sprawling tale about the (fictional) isolated Columbian village of Macondo. Early in the story, an elderly Gypsy man writes out in coded language the very story of Solitude; the text is indecipherable until decades later when a younger scion of the central family cracks the code and realizes that the Gypsy had essentially foretold his family’s story down to the last detail. He reads the final lines of the story just as a hurricane strikes the village, and reads of his own death at the conclusion just as the storm kills him:
Before reaching the final line, however, he had already understood that he would never leave that room, for it was foreseen that the city of mirrors (or mirages) would be wiped out by the wind and exiled from the memory of men at the precise moment when Aureliano Babilonia would finish deciphering the parchments, and that everything written on them was unrepeatable since time immemorial and forever more, because races condemned to one hundred years of solitude did not have a second opportunity on earth.
The convergence of that moment left me quite literally breathless—I had to put the book aside and inhale deeply to deal with its emotional impact.
Novels are one thing, as are films, as they tend to be self-contained narratives. Television is quite another thing, unfolding as it does episodically and often over multiple seasons. The shift from episodic to serial TV changes this dynamic, but not entirely: the length of a series’ run still tends to be determined by its popularity, and even the most rigorously serial series—I’m thinking especially of The Wire, in which the credits at the end of individual episodes often caught me by surprise—tend to have season-long narrative arcs. And one way or another, television tends to have a cumulative effect: even when we’re considering classic syndicated TV (in which self-contained episodes don’t require you to have seen anything previous), there is still a great emotional weight when it comes to the conclusion of a series. Theoretically, episodic TV shouldn’t need a definitive finale: there is really no need to put a bow on a sitcom or a procedural when each episode follows a wash-rinse-repeat formula. In these cases—excluding, of course, series that find themselves cancelled unexpectedly—making a big deal of the finale is largely about fan service. It was unthinkable to end M*A*S*H mid-stream, just as it was unthinkable to end Friends or Seinfeld or Cheers without giving longtime viewers something approaching the closure of an emotional goodbye.
But what makes a “good” series finale? In case it wasn’t blindingly obvious, I’m writing this post apropos of the conclusion of Game of Thrones, and the social media backlash that has accompanied not just the finale, but the entire final season. As I made clear in the previous two posts I wrote with Nikki, I have some fairly serious complaints about the way the series was brought to an end, but they are complaints that fall well short of shitting on the entire show retroactively or demanding that HBO entirely redo season eight with “competent writers” (good luck with that, people). That being said, I think that GoT does fall into the category of Very Good Shows That Ended Badly. It is not asymptomatic of HBO, which has tended at times to rush or condense series for budgetary reasons; most notably, Deadwood and Rome had each planned to run one season longer than they were allowed, with the predictable effect that the conclusions the showrunners had planned were arrived at with somewhat less narrative subtlety than was really needed. We see this most egregiously with Rome, whose first season, I will always maintain, is about as perfect a season of television as has ever been made. It was never intended to be a series to run indefinitely: the creators planned a modest three seasons, but HBO stepped in and told them that would be too expensive for too few viewers, and made them end it in two. Hence, they had to cover way too much historical ground: presumably in the original plan, season two would have ended with the defeat of Brutus and Cassius at the Battle of Philippi, and given season three breathing space to explore the fraught story of Antony, Cleopatra, and the rise of Augustus.
As has been made clear, however, Game of Thrones’ hasty ending was not a budgetary imperative but the active choice of showrunners Benioff & Weiss. HBO was willing to let them take as much time as they wanted—unsurprising, considering that the show is the most profitable property ever for the network, even with the huge budgets it demanded—but they opted for brevity. This choice makes me an awfully lot less sympathetic to the last two seasons’ flaws. Serenity might not be the greatest film ever made, but one can see in it the nascent virtuosity of a final season of Firefly, had certain executives at Fox not been ginormous douchenozzles; similarly, the final few episodes of GoT feel more like plot sketches than fully realized story, but one can see the shape of a subtle and nuanced conclusion, if only it had had the space to fill.
I suppose it should go without saying that none of this would really be noteworthy were it not for the fact of the series’ massive popularity. Had GoT only boasted viewership numbers on par with, say, The Wire—which topped out at about two or three million—not only would it have been an extremely different series, it probably would not have survived eight seasons. As it was (the final episode drew over nineteen million viewers), its popularity fed its budget, giving us vastly more lavish set pieces and special effects than anything we saw in season one (if you recall, there were no large-scale battles then: we only saw the aftermath of the Battle of Whispering Wood, where Robb Stark captured Jaime Lannister; and the climactic battle between the Starks and the Lannisters resorted to the expedient of having Tyrion knocked cold before the battle started, waking up to hear how it had gone). Lacking the viewership it developed, it might well have gone the way of Firefly—a short-lived and cruelly decapitated piece of well-made TV loudly lamented by fans crying for the blood of the studio execs who wielded the axe.
But its popularity also fed its fans’ expectations, and at the time I’m writing this, the Change.org petition to have the entire eighth season re-done has surpassed one million signatures.
In some ways, the unevenness of series finales is simply reflective of the unevenness of television itself. Episode to episode, season to season, the necessarily collaborative nature of the medium and the necessarily sprawling nature of the storytelling lends itself to a significant ebb and flow of quality and focus. The revolving doors of writers’ rooms, the switching up of showrunners, pressures brought to bear by ratings and studio interference, the departures and arrivals of key characters and actors—all of these considerations and more mean that it becomes difficult to look at a television series in its entirety as a cohesive, finished text. (By way of example, a question for passionate fans of Lost: if you could go back and change ONE THING, would you “fix” the finale or excise the protracted Nikki and Paolo storylines?)
The rise of the televisual auteur á là Joss Whedon, Amy Sherman-Palladino, Aaron Sorkin, Shonda Rimes, David Simon, or Benioff & Weiss has meant that there is more television out there now with more coherence in terms of vision and over-arching narrative, but the flip side of that is when the auteur departs a given show, especially when the departure is acrimonious: fans of Gilmore Girls, The West Wing and Community will all attest to, if not necessarily a decline in quality, then certainly a change in the basic character of these shows when Sherman-Palladino, Sorkin, and Dan Harmon were respectively given the boot. The situation with Game of Thrones was a bit different, as it was (the consensus seems to be) the point at which the series definitively outstripped the extant source material than things started to go pear-shaped—perhaps revealing that the showrunners were very good at adapting rich and complex narrative to a more abbreviated format (mostly—I think most of us would agree that the Dorne subplot was something of a failure), but not so good at building out from a thumbnail sketch to a nuanced and textured story.
I suppose the TL;DR of all that is that almost all television, but especially longer-running series, has peaks and valleys, good episodes and bad, stronger and weaker seasons, and that how a series ends is a function of that inconsistency. Game of Thrones always had its work cut out for it, as it is a story that necessitates an end in a way that almost all the other flagship dramas on HBO have not. Deadwood ends with the passing of a lawless order and the establishment of a corrupt legal order; Six Feet Under ends with one stage of Claire’s life ending and a new one beginning; The Wire ends with a recognition that nothing really ever changes; and so on. Which is why I think the series finale of The Sopranos—which evoked Lost-level howls of complaint—was particularly brilliant. Cut to black. Wait? What happens? Was Tony about to get whacked in the diner? Analyses of that final scene have been written with Talmudic intensity, trying to come to a definitive answer, but I think the point was that it doesn’t matter. The cycle continues one way or another, a point made more lyrically by the montage at the end of The Wire, which shows change at the personal level for some characters, but none at all on the societal level.
In the end, there’s a certain truism in that, ultimately, series finales are about fan service. I was thinking about this after watching Avengers: Endgame. I would imagine that, to someone who has been an indifferent and sporadic viewer of the MCU, that film would seem needlessly protracted; speaking for myself, as a fan who has seen all of the preceding films, I felt quite definitely served, to the point where I really could not care less about the glaring time-travel inconsistencies. We do expect a certain emotional punch at the end of things, which was probably why the one part of the Game of Thrones finale I haven’t read or heard many complaints about was the final montage of the Stark children: Sansa being crowned, Arya the Explorya heading west on a direwolf-prowed ship, Jon returning north and being reunited with Ghost. Those few minutes, at least, felt something like closure accompanied by a swelling soundtrack.
I think this might be why proleptic endings, i.e. those that project into the future to show you the fates of beloved characters, tend to be the most successful. I asked the question on Facebook of people’s favourite series finales, and by far the most common answer was that of Six Feet Under: as Claire drives east to her new life, we have a montage to Sia’s haunting song “Breathe Me” of the deaths of all of the series’ main characters. What makes this work so well is that it is entirely in step with the series key theme: at the start of every episode we see someone die, who will then end up at the Fischer family funeral home, along with a title card with their name and the years they lived.
Another favourite was the final episode of Parks and Recreation, which similarly looked into the future to show us where and how everyone would end up. And more recently, the series finale of Veep ended twenty-four years in the future, with everyone attending Selina Meyer’s funeral. After seven seasons, Veep has the distinction of being one of the more consistent television series, in both tone and quality, ever made … but the fact that coverage of the Meyer funeral was pre-empted by the death of Tom Hanks at 88 seems like a sly acknowledgement of the fact that the conclusion of Veep was almost certainly going to be overshadowed a week later by the conclusion of Game of Thrones.