So why do so many finales to these shows stink? Is there something about this narrative form that makes it more difficult to end these complex shows than, say, M*A*S*H? And does “Chosen” stick the dismount where others failed?
The classic example of a series being unable to rise to the narrative challenge posed by the long-form series is Battlestar: Galactica, which never had a plan, according to series re-creator Ronald D. Moore. The last half season provided a variety of disappointing dénouements, culminating in a finale that managed to combine moral ickiness, an incredibly underwhelming resolution to a central prophecy, wholesale betrayal of social psychology, and a late pair of smugly-delivered nonsensical revelations. Other examples of audience betrayal finales include Roseanne and St. Elsewhere.
Networks not understanding how narrative complexity works is another cause. The X-Files and Babylon 5 got unexpected extra seasons, which meant either stretching out mythology long past its expiration date or coming up with a season-long coda. Some aren’t given the chance to develop an audience, such as Firefly, My So-Called Life, and Wonderfalls. If an excellent finale isn’t aired, does it make a sound? Dollhouse clearly went into hyper-drive to cram everything in its last season, somewhat successfully albeit haunted by the what-if scenario of what the show could have been on a better network.
Sometimes, it’s the loss of a key artist. The only thing the last half-season of Twin Peaks did right was its surreal finale after network meddling caused David Lynch to petulantly abandon the show until the last episode. (That last line still haunts me.) The loss of Larry David’s guiding pathology doomed Seinfeld to repudiate everything we loved about its characters in its prosecution of them for violating Good Samaritan laws.
But schadenfreude is bad for the soul. Let’s think about how to successfully end a show built on narrative complexity.
LOST’s solution was to make one of the most heavily-promoted clip shows of all time. This was not an uncontroversial choice, as what surrounded the clips was not well received. Hopefully future series will learn not to have the protagonists blindly follow a god-like jerk who ruins the lives of children and lets a woman get run over by a car. The fact that its underwhelming final fight consists of a 37-year old man punching a 48 year-old man (as played by a 59 year-old actor) means that the flashbacks take center stage. Surprisingly, the clip show stirred viewer emotion so well that the genre’s appeal to memory might be a viable model for future TV series dabbling in narrative complexity. Think of LOST as the shipper’s solution to the problem of narrative complexity: an audience sobbing over Sun-Jin, Sawyer-Juliet, and Jack-Vincent will forgive a lot.
Another solution is insanity. That’s really the only way to describe the finale of The Prisoner (and several of its other episodes too.) Steeped in symbolism and theatricality, the finale crams more surrealism into one hour than had ever been aired on the networks. You thought LOST fans wanted answers? Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof didn’t need to leave the USA to escape irked viewers, unlike Patrick McGoohan after The Prisoner aired in the UK. McGoohan’s bravery in creating such a difficult, complex finale at a time before VCRs throws the gauntlet down to today’s producers and audiences. Could this be the path taken by Community? Or Mad Men, if it lasts until LSD becomes part of the cultural zeitgeist? If the show’s based on complex plotting, characterization, visuals, and symbolism, perhaps the finale should be the most difficult one of all.
Which brings us back to good, old Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Honestly, I was just hoping for a dignified death when I watched the seventh season finale in broadcast, because its acting and writing had been so uniformly bad. (Seriously, how do you get a bad performance out of Nathan Fillion?! “Conversations with Dead People” and “Storyteller” are really the only two good episodes, and it’s not a coincidence that they both depend on meta-narrative rather than originality for their excellence.)
Yet, Mutant Enemy came up with a stunning series finale that provides a great model for how to end a complex narrative. There’s a final battle that’s epic in scale and while still having a small enough scope for us to mourn the soldiers lost. There’s two layers of trickery complicating the war against the First Evil: Willow evens the odds, tucked away from the melee, and The Senior Partners from Another Network provide Spike with a handy amulet because they’re working on their own apocalypse, thank you very much. There’s something nice about the script doctor of Speed having the great escape portion of the final fight consist of the protagonist literally leaping onto the last bus out of town. When it comes to romance, both warring parties in the biggest shipping debate in the series have scenes to warm their hearts, while the writers carefully refuse to ruin the fun with closure. They fill a major hole in the Buffyverse, just a few episodes after finally revealing the origin story of the Slayer line. Willow’s spell shows there’s genuine divinity in the Buffyverse, as it references the Wiccan drawing down ritual that channels divinity directly into the supplicant. That’s a pretty nifty payoff after they got so much wrong about the religion. Best of all, the protagonists change the world rather than saving the status quo, which every blockbuster would tell you is sacrosanct. Who doesn’t cry at the montage of women and girls empowered? And that final shot that goes straight into the TV canon of image-making: that enigmatic expression on Gellar’s face, which suggests everything from “It is finished” to “We are not alone.”
What “Chosen” shows future creators is that a series ends best that doesn’t end at all. Characters grow and the world evolves even as the show dies, which means that it never really does.