As far as I’m concerned, there are 3 major categories of TV show finales:
- The ‘eh’ finales: ones that tie up loose ends and satisfy a large majority of the viewership by providing a happy (or at least predictable) ending; these might also include finales that were never really meant to be final episodes, but are forced to end a show prematurely, due to cancellation;
- Others that add a final twist or a cliffhanger and blow our minds, whether it’s convincing or just put there for shock value, otherwise known as the ‘wtf’ finales;
- And then there are the ones that somehow manage to wrap up the plot and give us closure: unexpected or not, the finale is believable, stays true to the story and the characters and doesn’t shy away from a not-so-happy end. Those I lovingly refer to as the ‘hell yeah’ finales.
Perhaps the disparities between a good, a bad – or at least controversial – ending, and one of the ‘wtf’ variety is parallel to the difference between a show that isn’t afraid to do the unexpected or even kill off favorite characters and one that will compromise believability in favor of protecting its viewers’ sensibilities.
When discussing hell yeah TV show finales, one that leaps to mind is Breaking Bad: the anti-hero meets his end, all the pieces fall into place and we’re left with a bittersweet sense of finality that rings true and doesn’t feel convenient.
Sadly, most shows, no matter how good a run they had, end up disappointing us in the finale, leaving us with a sense of being cheated, or what I usually refer to as ‘is that it?‘ These can be shows that fall into either of the first two categories: in both cases, we’re just left expecting more.
The finale of Lost notoriously belongs to this category: we waited for our questions to be answered for 8 long seasons, only to find out that we had been deceived all along: the first fan theories that had sprung up concerning the fate of our characters had been correct, every single episode had been designed to dispel these theories and suggest there’s a bigger picture in the horizon…. and in the end, our journey throughout the show had all been for nothing. Out of every show I’ve been invested in, both emotionally and in terms of time, this awful finale felt like the biggest cop-out of them all. I was too young too watch St Elsewhere, but I imagine this is what they had in common.
A twist ending might be good for ratings, but it doesn’t do much for the story if it automatically makes it moot.
Lost is probably a rarity: we seldom come across a show where most viewers suspect the end right from the start and are actually vindicated in the finale, to their major disappointment; to a lesser extent, this was the case of How I Met Your Mother.
Sitcoms are not immune to the wtf treatment, as evidenced by Rosanne or Seinfeld, but the fact that instead of unsolved mysteries, they’ve provided us with laughter over the years, makes them slightly less infuriating. Having waited patiently for the real story about the Mother for years, we come full circle and discover that Ted’s painfully long narration basically serves as a way of securing his children’s permission to be with the one girl we knew he’d end up with since the pilot episode. Although more sad and less shocking, the twist in the finale was still a cop-out, and would have been more effective had we not spent years building up Robin and Barney’s relationship, or the better half of the last season getting to know the perfectly lovable Mother.
[Although the HIMYM finale also qualifies as a wtf one in my book, the effect is slightly weakened by the fact that the show had jumped the shark for me during the last couple of seasons. Much like House or Prison Break, we didn’t really experience the full impact of the bad ending because we had gradually been losing interest before the actual finale.]
Plenty of shows fall squarely into the wtf category: aside from the aforementioned, The Sopranos and Twin Peaks easily spring to mind. Dexter‘s finale also qualifies as a wtf ending, largely because the writers apparently couldn’t leave well enough alone. We all knew that the titular character could never lead a conventional life; wrapping up his story would have been well served by having the character meet his end, which he had closely escaped several times during the show.The image of Dexter sailing into the storm would have been the perfect ending; alas, the writers decided to completely screw it up by sparing his life, and leaving us with an isolated, bearded lumberjack Dexter living out the rest of his days shut off from the world. Unlike Breaking Bad, we were robbed of a satisfying ending for the sake of a completely unnecessary twist.
What makes an ‘eh‘ finale, then? The factors contributing to a less spectacular, more conventional ending are sometimes fairly evident. This is largely the case with rushed endings, sloppily put together to wrap up a show that hasn’t completed its intended story arc. We can hardly blame the creators and writers for a less than amazing premature ending, but the result is the same: a usually unsatisfying end that leaves us wanting more, such as the finales Veronica Mars or The Newsroom.
In the case of the first, it felt like every mystery quickly came to a close before the finale, as if the creators were in fear that every episode might be the last one. Worse than that, the Veronica/Logan love story was terminated with merely hints as to Veronica’s reasoning behind the decision, only to be finally rekindled a decade after the show’s cancellation, in the unremarkable spin-off movie. In the case of The Newsroom, not only was the final season shorter and the overarching story far less intriguing than previous ones, but the finale, despite the sad death of Charlie, offered just about everything on a silver platter in a happily-ever-after sort of way that wasn’t in keeping with the show’s theme.
When it comes to shows that have avoided cancellation and actually complete their run, these factors are slightly more difficult to pinpoint, and the disappointing ending is less easily forgivable.
This may seem like a strange proposition, but often the less ‘serious’ shows are the ones with the most potential for a spectacular finale – and, of course, a higher chance to miss the mark. Take Gossip Girl, Revenge or even True Blood, for example. The shows’ long run gave the writers very little leeway in terms of keeping things simple and not venturing into soap-opera territory. The first season of Revenge would have made the perfect stand-alone vengeance story. The first couple of seasons of Gossip Girl could have been an iconic teen show.
Similarly, the first few seasons of True Blood were a delightfully over-the-top supernatural tale. By extending their shelf life, the creators were baited into producing one convoluted story line after the other in order to justify these shows’ very existence. By the end, everything was fair game, therefore any ending other than a truly creative, surprising one was doomed to be disappointing.
In the case of Revenge, which dragged on far longer than was warranted, it could have been as simple as letting Emily/Amanda die; this would probably make her one of the few characters who didn’t actually fake their own deaths or survived a fatal injury, so that fact alone could have been its saving grace.
Gossip Girl‘s finale, on the other hand, was pretty much everything any fan expected: the entire cast reunited, the identity of Gossip Girl coming as a shock to absolutely no one, and quite a few plot holes nobody seemed to mind. True Blood was another kettle of fish altogether: I have complained about the adaptation of the books to the small screen before, and the deviation from the book ending was inevitable seeing as how much the two diverged, but that could have been a blessing in disguise: the show could have offered the ending most book readers had been hoping for (and never received); instead, we were once again left feeling like everything was conveniently tied up in a bow, in a way that made little sense to anyone with enough attention span to remember what actually went on in the series.
Which leads me to the TV show finale that actually inspired this long-winded essay: White Collar. Ah, Neal Caffrey, I expected more from you.
I never actually watched White Collar while it was on the air, so I binge-watched all six seasons back to back over the span of a few weeks. While not obscure, the show hadn’t been high-profile enough to warrant huge headlines when it aired its finale, so I managed to steer clear of spoilers for the duration of my binge. As evidenced here, I was fairly impressed with the show. It was definitely intriguing and kept you coming back for more, though I’m on the fence about whether this is owed to the interest factor of the cases or Matt Bomer’s indisputable charms.
Over the six seasons of the show (well, five and a half, to be exact), we got to know the main characters enough for the ending to not exactly come as a surprise: despite the evolution of the relationship between the two leads, there wasn’t enough character
development transformation to make us expect radical changes. The FBI guy was still a man of the law, just like the art thief was still a conman at heart.
The Pink Panthers plot was a good way for the show to go out with a bang, as the criminal organization was built up to look like a team of super-thieves, although it’s puzzling why we never heard of them before, or why Neal had never joined their ranks during his criminal career, given his reputation as a mastermind. Siphoning a big chunk of cash through defunct pressurized airways was a brilliant con to wrap up the series, although admittedly not the most spectacular they’ve pulled. But all of that would have been fine and dandy, had it not been for the ‘surprise’ twist at the end.
Like Dexter, Neal wasn’t supposed to make it; Rebecca/Rachel had warned him a few episodes back: people like them live on borrowed time. And while we’re on the subject of his last girlfriend, allow me to rant a bit: I may have been unenthusiastic about Neal’s love interests in the past, deeming neither Kate and Alex nor Sarah worthy of his attentions, but this one I actually liked. And, of course, this one turned out to be one cold psycho killer; sounds about right. Murder and lying aside, I thought the two had chemistry, but in the end, she had to go. Just like Kate did, just like the villains in each season.
Over the course of Neal and Peter’s relationship, it was made clear over and over again that complete trust between the two was always out of the question. Still, they trusted each other when it counted. The way this final score was set up in season 6, it could have gone either way: Peter (and the FBI) could have held up their end of the bargain, finally setting Neal free – free of his anklet and free to walk away with his cut of the heist – or there could have been yet another obstacle, forcing Neal to run (again, with his cut of the heist). Had Neal run, it goes without saying that Mozzie would have gone with him. We knew Keller would double-cross him, posing as yet another obstacle to Neal’s freedom, and possibly his life.
In the end, Keller meets his maker, but not before fatally wounding Neal. This could have been a very convincing ending. Fast-forward a year later, Peter and Elizabeth and baby Neal would be moving on, much like the rest of the White Collar unit, and even Mozzie would have made his peace and overcome his grief. Instead, in the last few minutes of the finale we see that everything had been an elaborate plan, one last big con – the very con Mozzie kept insisting Neal had pulled, right to the end, until he was forced to reconcile with the loss of his friend. We see Peter finally looking at the clues Neal left to put the pieces together and realize his best friend had conned him one last time.
And where does that leave Neal? Alone, having left behind all the people he cared about, never having met the baby Peter and Elizabeth named after him, living outside the law once again. His entire story arc had been for nothing: he might as well have run any number of times throughout the show – back when he actually had reason to run. Finally about to be granted his freedom, he chose to claim it the only way he knew how; except he did come to know another way. Neal was not the same criminal Peter had arrested in the pilot episode, but the finale reduced him to one.
To me, the White Collar finale was a missed opportunity. Whether they’d gone for the happy ending (removing Neal’s anklet and declaring his sentence fulfilled) or for the tragic one we more or less fell for during the heartbreaking goodbye/death scenes, either scenario would have been better than the one we witnessed. None of the three would have been a shock, but at least we wouldn’t feel conned (pun intended) into grieving for a favorite character only to have him come back to life; if anything, the ‘faking your own death’ gimmick is old and overused.
So is that what makes a good finale? Having the characters meet their destiny, whatever that may be, so that we, as an audience, get closure? Possibly. Does a death bring finality – and similarly, does an ‘open ending’ ensure the possibility of future spin-offs or TV movies? In a world where ratings rule, that is certainly a deciding factor. Not leaving the audience with the sense that they’ve been robbed? Probably.
In the end, it’s really simple: the finale needs to be as good as the show, if not better.
It needs to be the perfect bookend, strong enough to stand up to whatever kept us coming back in the first place, so that we’re not left with a bitter taste when it’s over.
It’s why I can’t begin to imagine how Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead will end, and I sincerely hope for a ‘hell yeah‘ finale that will blow our minds.