THE MOST FRUSTRATING THING ABOUT BAD FINALES
Posted May 24, 2019
[WARNING: Beyond this point be spoilers for the finales of Game of Thrones, Seinfeld, How I Met Your Mother, and The Office. But if you’re alive in 2019, it’s probably nothing you haven’t heard already]
As slowly the “ayes” creeped around the small circle of self-appointed oligarchs in favor of Bran the Broken’s nomination for King in Sunday’s episode of Game of Thrones, I finally acknowledged what I had been resisting all along: I was in the middle of another disastrous finale. Throughout the season, and even throughout the first forty minutes of the program, I had held out hope that there might still be a great ending to a great show that could make me forget the rushed episodes and disappointing character arcs of the previous few weeks. But as I watched that small council vote, it became clear that that great ending would never come.
As this season hurtled toward its landing like a war plane that had taken too much enemy fire, I marveled at how often great shows get it wrong. The way the creators of How I Met Your Mother dropped napalm on nine seasons of television at their finish line. Or how the team behind Seinfeld punted on the idea of even writing a finale. I never saw Lost, The Sopranos or Gossip Girl, but I know their conclusions left far more fans enraged than satisfied.
Here we sit, in the era of peak TV, the most brilliant shows ever created being churned out at a relentless pace, and yet somehow we seem to be getting worse at writing finales.
Over the next few days, the backlash from fans poured in but so too did a sentiment that is becoming more and more familiar. Two phrases sprung up everywhere, online and in conversations with friends: “Maybe it’s impossible to write good endings in this era” and “there’s no ending they could have written that would have left people happy.” Twin ideas that basically boiled down to the same thing: After years of a great series, you build up expectations to an insurmountable height, then you stick that final story on a screen in an era obsessed with tearing things down. Of course everyone’s going to hate it.
And as person after person said it, I kept thinking the same thing: “No. You’re dead wrong.”
There have actually been good finales, and while they probably took some heat on the perpetual anger machine that can be social media, most people were able to appreciate them. No, you can’t write a last episode that will please everyone, but what’s so frustrating is how often final shows are written that please no one. And that failure is avoidable.
The secret about finales is they don’t even need to be good episodes for them to be good endings. The comedies don’t need to be hilarious, and the dramas don’t need to be thrilling. And, by the way, they don’t need to be happy either. All we are really looking for is for is a conclusion that resonates as true, both for the people involved and the story that was told.
For writers who have spent a decade with the characters, it shouldn’t be hard to know the ending they deserve. And for writers who’ve focused a show around a central story, it’s fair to ask that they had a satisfying conclusion in mind as they walked us down this path. We’re not asking for the finale of MASH. We’re just asking for closure.
Take the last episode of The Office. For a series that was so often funny, I’m not sure I ever laughed in those final 60 minutes. But it was still a great sendoff. Jim and Pam left for a new adventure, their love for each other stronger than ever. Dwight, a man obsessed with workplace productivity, got the job we all finally realized he so badly deserved, and he excelled at it. Michael got a family. It was a light sitcom with heart, so the expectation for a happy ending was far higher than Thrones, yet there were still a few unhappy exits. Creed was carted off to prison after it turned out he had been a wanted fugitive for years and Kelly ended up with Ryan. Yet we weren’t upset because even for those moments, there was something that felt right about them.
I’m sure somewhere on the internet, fans attacked these outcomes, but the notion that everyone hated them as much as they hated what they got on Sunday is absurd. These were conclusions clearly written by people for whom the show and the world they created mattered as much to them as it did to us. And that made it work.
That’s also what made the endings of shows like How I Met Your Mother so frustrating. After a final season spent making it so utterly clear that Robin and Ted were never right for each other, Ted ended up with Robin anyway. It was like they hadn’t even watched their own sitcom.
For some programs, the plot is a character itself, and so it needs its own ending as well. We’re not asking for every loose end to be perfectly tied up or every build-up to be perfectly paid off, but we are asking that when it comes to the big stories—like, say for example, who wins the Game of Thrones on a TV show called Game of Thrones—that the writers had some idea where they were going this whole time and that, by the time you reached the finish line, they would have laid enough groundwork for that finish to feel right.
And on this issue, two more common refrains have been bouncing around our conversations and internet posts: “Oh yeah? Like you could have done any better if you were the writer?” Or its close cousin, “Well if you’re so smart, how would you have ended it?”
But it’s not the viewer’s job to be a better showrunner than the actual people running the show. Creating something is their job. Having an opinion about it is ours. It’s the same reason I can complain about the bug in my iPhone even though I can’t code or the burnt hamburger at the restaurant even though I can’t cook. I’m not arguing I could have done better, I’m just saying that I wish they could have.
Whether Bran is the right choice to become King is almost beside the point. I personally would prefer someone capable of empathy who, across eight seasons of television, had shown even one moment of leadership, brilliance or ability to plan, but what do I know? The point is that for a show focused around a decade of battling for the right to rule the land, there’s something monumentally disappointing about that fight finally being won by the character we all cared the least about. And the one who at no point in the show ever mattered. He was boring and irrelevant, and there was one season where they just stopped writing new stories about him and viewers didn’t even complain.
Like How I Met Your Mother, it felt like a conclusion written by people who didn’t understand or care about their own creation. And for viewers who spend years coming to understand and care for that creation and its characters and its story, there’s nothing more frustrating.
When I look back at my relationships with people I truly cared about, two breakups stand out in my mind that I actually remember somewhat fondly. In both cases, we knew things would never work long term, but we were sad to see it end all the same. Both times I proposed we postpone the dissolution of our relationship until the next day and spend one more night together. I will always cherish both of those last two nights, as we stayed up talking, hoping the morning would never come, but knowing it eventually would. And when it did, we said goodbye and I love you.
Most of my other breakups have been far worse. Usually, the end is messy, it is sad, and it doesn’t go the way you would have scripted it. And in those moments, it’s hard but important to remember that a terrible finish doesn’t invalidate all the wonderful moments that came before it. I was still grateful for those relationships, just as I am still grateful for decades of shows about nothing, yellow umbrellas and fire-spewing dragons.
But those two breakups will always stay with me. They still hurt and were sad and painful, but somehow they also felt good, because we ended it in a way that reminded us both of why the whole thing was so special in the first place.
I was never a TV writer, but I was once a ghost writer. You can read more about that experience as well as my time as a bathroom attendant, a conjoined twin at a trade show, and a crazy couponer in my book Odd Jobs by clicking here.
To make my book the next thing your book club reads, then bring me in for a virtual Q&A afterwards, click here.
To be notified any time I post new content to jonathankrieger.com and receive a copy of one of my favorite pieces unavailable anywhere else, join my mailing list below.
To read the next entry from my writings, click here.