The Last Episode
Don’t be scared by the headline. I’m not talking Game of Thrones today. By now, you’ve all heard more than enough finale takes, so you certainly don’t need mine. But whenever there’s a polarizing series finale (which is to say, whenever there’s a series finale), I always ask myself the same question. So many great shows have fallen victim to bad finales. Why is it so hard to stick the landing?
In all my youthful hubris, I’m convinced that I’ve found the answer. I’ve nailed the question that has stumped countless Hollywood showrunners. Because I think every truly great finale has something in common.
I began by thinking about my favorite finales. To me, the gold standards are Sons of Anarchy and Mad Men, in that order. Loyal readers will remember that those are my two favorite shows, but I like to think I’m unbiased. I have no problem calling out a favorite show for a bad ending (looking at you, Entourage.) Without spoiling anything, I think those two have perfect finales because they end not with words, but with a single image that encapsulates the theme of the entire series. As there is no dialogue in their last moments, it’s almost like their writers are dropping the mic. After giving us years of their brilliant words, they simply let go, letting their finished work stand on its own.
It’s interesting, because in a script analysis course I recently took, we were advised to avoid such decisions. On this blog, I’ve made no secret of my admiration for the playwright Celine Song, particularly her play Endlings. In this class, we were discussing an early draft of the piece, which ended with a character holding a giant pearl over her head. But I learned that the ending was changed; the thought process being that a play which utilizes beautiful words should not end with a silent image. It needed a perfect final line.
While I love the way the play turned out, I strongly disagree with this way of thinking. Ending with an image is a much stronger choice than any dialogue you could write. By the end, the audience should have heard everything you want to tell them. You’ve told dozens of intertwining stories, hopefully centered around a few unified themes. If you’ve truly done your job, you should release your grip and let everything come together silently. The results are much more poignant.
This way of thinking has made me something of a social pariah, as I’ve lost dozens of friends through my insistence that How I Met Your Mother has one of the all time great finales. Send mean emails if you want, but I stand by the claim. Say what you will about their last few episodes, but that last shot is the perfect bow tying the series together.
Of course, correlation does not equal causation. I could be horribly, horribly wrong. But it seems like more than a coincidence that every great finale does this. Television is a more literary medium than film, relying more on writing than visuals. But in their last moments, truly great shows become movies. It’s a bold move, because it’s much easier to hide behind dialogue. Only the truly great writers can essentially stand naked in front of the world, letting their characters live their final moments silently. Hopefully I’ll count myself among them one day.
I have finales down. Now I just have to figure out how to start a show and write everything in between. That’s tomorrow’s project.