[Opinion] - Final Seasons, Series Finales, And How Not to Suck

Via Uproxx.
Endings are hard, simple as that. Ending a relationship, ending a holiday, ending a bag of maple bacon flavoured crisps. The weight and pressure on a writer to bring their creation, be it a novel, a film, a play or a television series, to a satisfying conclusion can be debilitating. Characters need conclusion, the audience needs satisfaction and the writer themselves need closer. But which instincts do you follow? Whose advice do you listen to?

In the last two weeks, we've seen two high profile shows come to an end: Dexter, with all the dexterity of a bag of potatoes falling off a grocery store shelf, and Breaking Bad, with a nimble elegance usually reserved for turn-of-the-century Russian ballet dancers. After the jump, we'll examine the faults and failures, and the successes of how these shows ended, and others, and try to determine if there is a "right way" for a series to be brought to a final end. Spoilers, it not need be said, follow in copious amounts.

Final seasons come in two flavours: the planned, and the unexpected. The unexpected can't be planned for (obviously), though the general lack of security in modern television and constant threat of cancellation should be enough motivation for writers to keep their series as good as possible every year, in case it's their last. Hopefully, an unexpected cancellation might come early enough that the writers are able to shape the final episodes into a conclusion of sorts, as Joss Whedon did with Angel. Most of the time, the death call comes long after the season has wrapped, and the audience must make do with whatever pseudo-ending they are given. This is less a concern with episodic television and most comedies, whose episodes are self contained, and lack overarching storylines. So long as the episodes are fullfilling in and of themselves, there isn't as much potential for viewer alienation. Look at a series like IT Crowd, which had a somewhat unexpected end, but was little more than a series of teniously connected episodes held together by characters. It was the strength of individual episodes, rather than the whole, that carried that series forward, and when it began to falter it was removed.

The rise of the arc based drama, popularised by X-Files, standardised by Buffy, and taken to eleven by LOST, creates an entirely new problem. Long burn mysteries form the centre of these kinds of shows (which is now effectively the norm), and showrunners usually have a multi-year plan in mind when shaping the direction of the show. When these shows are cut off mid story, it can retroactively damage the opinion of the narrative, simple because it lacks any conclusion. These shows make an unsafe assumption that there is a measure of longevity to their series, when the truth is that nothing is promised. This is part of the reason that the producers of LOST negotiated a long term end date for their series three years hence, so they would know exactly how long they had left to tell their tale. They were only able to do that based on the show's huge success in its early years, a success few other shows achieve, and a plan that few networks would be willing to confine themselves to. Even Game of Thrones, which HBO knows by now is as close to a guaranteed hit as you can have, still waits on renewal season by season. Because at any time, that success and popularity could turn, and a long term deal would stick a network with an expensive and unprofitable element.

The other issue is the over reliance on the cliff hanger, a horrible bit of corporate manipulation, designed to enticed the viewer back at the beginning of each new season to see how things turned out. Audience loyalty should be earned through powerful story telling and captivating characters, not through cheap gimmicks and emotional exploitation. The annual event of putting cherished characters in peril for the sake of a dangling plot thread is comparable to dangling your child over the balcony every evening, so your spouse can wake up the next day and see if they fell (although, you know, fictionally). These "events" add nothing to the narrative but manufactured drama, are a disservice to the audience and the characters, as the opening moments of the premiere must be sacrificed to resolving the lingering threat. You can tell how apathetic a writer is to the concept by how quickly the problem is resolved when the new season commences. Season two of Human Target, for instance, dispatched a kidnapping plot left over from the previous year in a flashback within the cold open. Over use of this tired cliche has resulted in innumerable series meeting their premature ends with characters facing doom, stories unresolved, and viewers irritable. Potential LOST successor Alcatraz ended it's first year with a major character dying, and an explanation for the thrust of the series only beginning to be teased. And thus it will remain.

But those are the unexpected endings. Dexter and Breaking Bad both knew their times had come. These were the contractually negotiated ends for both series. So why was, as a final year, and as a season finale, Dexter a fetid turd and Breaking Bad a golden egg, when both were oozed from the cloaca of modern television (and yes, that metaphor just happened)? Well, one did everything a final season should, and the other simply didn't. On any complex drama, be it arc-based or not, by the time the end comes, the characters should be complex, fully developed beings. And because this is a story and not real life, character need resolution. A planned final season should be devoted to resolving the character's story. This could involve any number of things. Dealing with outstanding family issues, allowing them to reach a level of emotional stability that otherwise had been unattainable during the life of the show, having them slay the dragon. Or die, as the story calls for. For heroes, there is an expectation of just rewards. For villains, for reasonable punishment. Breaking Bad did all of this. With the entire series to this point concerned with building Walter White up into the Kingpin of Crime, the final season was about him retiring, escaping, and paying for his crimes. It was a resolution to every action he had committed in the four seasons previously. He was held accountable for his behaviour.

Dexter, perhaps in a misguided attempt to ferret out an additional year, or perhaps out of blind insolence, did just the opposite. There was nothing in the final season of that show that suggested it was the last year. Dexter encountered a mysterious influence form his past, as he has done before. Dexter falls in love and believes he has matured to the point of not needing to kill, a struggle and realisation he has made several times over the series. For Dexter himself, there was no culmination to his story. He was not held accountable for his crimes. Every action taken by him and taken against him was based on little more than what had happened in the episode before. Considering that he has spent the last eight years killing with a frequency that would place him on par with war criminals, there was no attempt to redeem or punish his actions. He was simply allowed to continue, which isn't an ending. It is a empty attempt to say that the story doesn't end, which is not a good way to tell a story. LOST fell into this same trap in it's final year, continuously introducing new elements instead of resolving lingering ones. Dexter's biggest problem was that, it had already told the story that it needed to tell in it's final year. And it was told in season two. The hunt for the Bay Harbor Butcher, the pressures being applied to Dexter and the sacrifices made to secure his survival is the last Dexter story. It was just followed by six more years of stories that make less sense in it's wake.

As for the final episodes, those are tough to do in any situation. The conventional design is to encapsulate the series as a whole in a single episode, and have the characters go out doing something big and meaningful. In the modern environment, this usually involves explosions and a fist fight. Buffy, which had two finales, took different paths with each. In the first, intended finale, Buffy and the Scooby's resolve the season arc by confronting the Big Bad. Buffy, to save her sister, draws on the lessons learned over the previous five years, and sacrifices herself so that her family can live. It is a poniente and meaningful ending to a tragic story. The second ending, the one that took, sees her lead an army into the Hell Mouth and fight with vicious abandon against a CGI army of ubervamps. There were lessons and messages in there, but mostly it was just a lot of punching. LOST too, decided that the best way to end six seasons of philosophy, temporal antics, and studied explorations of self, reality and fate, would be with a fist fight on a rock cliff. And it's not their fault. That is the expectation put upon writers, that there has to be one final confrontation to end on. I disagree, and would point to the (admittedly an unintentional) finale of Quantum Leap, which saw Sam encounter several characters whose lives he had leaped into before. The episode was reserved, discussion heavy and focused on providing an explanation to the core theme of the series: why was Sam helping people? For my money, it is one of the best series finales out there.

Breaking Bad managed to find an equilibrium between these two approaches. The majority of the episode was a philosophical exploration of Walter's failings. In that final hour, rather than fight against his fate, he tried to undo as much damage as possible. And still managed to cut down a shack full of Nazis with a high powered remote controlled machine gun. Even that decidedly action heavy moment had reason behind it, and fed the simpler idea of Walter obtaining redemption. It was an instrument of his intent, rather than a set piece. And Walter's death isn't viewed as a gimmick as much as it is a natural and inevitable conclusion to Walter's story. This was a man who was told on day one that he had two years to live. Two years later, he dies. It was sheer elegance in it's simplicity, and brought the journey to an end, conclusively.

Dexter, on the other hand, was a series of events that didn't make much sense in context, dependent on uncharacteristic decisions, and designed to make shocking moments that would be talked about the next day around the water cooler. Deborah dies for no reason other than to provide a solemn piece of empty drama that doesn't play into any of the themes of the season, it happens exclusively because it was the last episode and death is a cheap plot device to tread out when you've run out of ideas. Dexter does a complete 360 on decisions he's spent the whole season coming to terms with. And it ends with a twist ending that defines all logic and reason, put there exclusively in an attempt to shock the audience, despite the fact that it makes no sense. Dexter's finale was about about sensationalism, as too the show had become in these latter four seasons. Pointless, repetitive, meaningless sensationalism. Pornography dressed up as poignancy.

What can writes learn from these two shows, and others, about how to tell their stories, and end them well? I my opinion, the lessons are clear and simple. First, if you are going to tell stories in an arc, contain the arcs as much as possible. View each season as it's own entity, and never assume that you'll have time later to continue to explore. Build on what has previously been established, but don't get ahead of yourself. For a perfect example, look at Justified. The producers have a six season plan in place, but never write beyond the current year. they let events and characters of previous seasons influence and inform, but never intentionally set up things that won't pay off outside of the season they are writing for. Buffy did the same. As do most non-genred dramas. Even Breaking Bad, with it's extremely tight storytelling, kept each year as contained as possible. Dexter contained itself too, with each season having a Big Bad for Dexter to hunt down. the problem was, after season two, it became apparent that there wasn't going to be any risk taking with the formula, and that if you had seen one season, you knew exactly how things would play out in any other.

Second, keep finales simple. Don't try to over do it with grandiosity. Stay true to the characters, their motivations, and what would be a reasonable reaction from them to a situation. Dogs backed into a corner may bite, but they don't suddenly develop the ability to shoot lasers from their eyes. If the characters stay true to themselves, and the plots are resolved in an honest and believable way, then the audience will appreciate them. It is my belief that the Breaking Bad finale will be viewed as one of the best, ever, because it feels true, to the show and it's legacy. Nothing in it felt forced, or manipulative. It all just fell into place.

Third, avoid unnecessary death. Death in a final episode is almost always there for shock value. Since the characters aren't continuing, there isn't a reason for them to continue. This sort of death is empty and pointless. Death in real life is empty and pointless, death in storytelling needs meaning. Dexter killed Deb for no other reason then to shock. It wasn't about furthering Dexter, or Deb's story. They even chose to have Dexter disrespect his sister by disposing of her in the same way he did all the rapists and murders he had butchered over the years. That's not to say death shouldn't be an element, if it was a part of the universe to begin with. Hank's death several episodes back in Breaking Bad's final season is an excellent example. His death meant something, to him, to Walter, and to the story at large. it was a breaking point, it was a fulcrum of the narrative. Without Hank's death, everything happens differently. Death, at any point in a story, should be as irrevocably life changes to the other characters as it was to the character who died. It should cause strife and turmoil and emotional instability. Death should kill things. Death for the sake of a moment is exploitative and disgusting.

Endings are hard. And as proof of that, I can't think of an effective way to end this essay.
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About MR. Clark

Adopting the descriptor of "successfully unpublished author", MR. Clark began writing things on the internet in 2012, which he believed to be an entirely reputable and civilized place to find and deliver information. He regrets much.


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