A finale is a tense moment for a TV show, especially one that aims to be taken seriously — and have a legacy. Ending a series didn’t used to so complex. In the days before DVD box sets, DVRs, and online distribution, a finale was simply a matter of maximizing audience turnout for one last appointment with their televisions. Before prime-time shows could have complicated, serial plot lines, most TV series were made up of stand-alone episodes so new audience members, or people who just missed last week’s episode, could be easily assimilated. (The big exception — soap operas — aired daily, moved slowly, and were full of redundancy so that the presumed audience of housewives could dip in and out as they dealt with domestic duties.)
These shows were purely situational, drawing on a stock, stable set of characters and settings without needing to reference past events or future possibilities. So no one expected the finales of I Love Lucy or The A-Team to make sense of everything that the characters had “been through” and deliver a satisfying account of what it all meant; they only had to be curtain calls that allowed audiences to say goodbye. Can those characters even be said to have “gone through” anything, when time refuses to cohere around them from episode to episode?
Shows with open-ended runs must craft the illusion of a world that continues to exist when you aren’t looking at it
Now, an expanded range of channels, networks, and content-delivery services have entirely changed the way TV is consumed and, thus, the way writers and producers end shows. A show whose original network run has ended may be consumed again not as random episodes caught here and there on UHF channels (as was the case, for the most part, through the 1990s), but on demand — and possibly straight through as a total package, downloaded or streamed through any number of services.
Like a serialized novel that can be picked up and put down whenever a reader wants, a television show — even one that is not explicitly a serial — can now be watched and understood as a single story told over the course of many parts. But unlike a serialized novel, the point of a TV show is both more and less than the sum of its parts: It is the parts. Each episode exists in relation to both the previous installments and the promise of future ones. For shows with open-ended runs, this state of perpetual transience necessitates a sort of endless generativity for future episodes and storylines alike. It must at least craft the illusion of endless consumption, a world that continues to exist when you aren’t looking at it: the potential for an infinite binge.
With the emergence of streaming, audiences no longer await the appointed day of the week to watch, say, Lost and spend the next day (give or take) discussing it in a cycle that unfolds over months. Now a season of House of Cards or any of an assorted mix of Marvel shows will hit Netflix on a Friday, and the weekend will be consumed with obsessive binge-watching, conversation, and theorizing — only for everyone to forget about even the season’s best moments within a few weeks, if not days. Rather than an endless, but linear expansion of TV viewing, Netflix implicitly expects its consumers to engage in intense bouts of consumption that leave them dazed and confused.
Scripted, narrative television as we have come to know it in the past few decades is meant to be a sort of endlessly expanding horizon, with the occasional beautiful sight in the distance or quiet moment of reflection but with final closure just out of reach. The defining structure of the series can be stretched, tugged in several directions, and even torn slightly, but it cannot snap.
Tech companies, following Netflix’s lead and success, see this as a “scripted content” gold rush. Netflix has spent an obscene amount of money on original programming — $6 billion in 2016 alone — and, if “chief content officer” Ted Sarandos is to be believed, it is poised to spend even more. As the streaming rights to the original building blocks of the company’s library lapse, Netflix is seeking to hold on to customers by acting as a combination of studio and network, producing its own series while cutting deals with British comedy channels and the like to be the exclusive home for American consumers. For all its talk of disrupting media models, it appears poised to become, in many respects, indistinguishable from something like HBO On Demand. And as good as many of Netflix’s shows are, the service has yet to produce a true classic (depending on your feelings about BoJack Horseman). Everyone is too busy waiting for the next show.
This looming possibility of seasonal consumption complicates the way any given episode of any given show hooks viewers. Where an episode of even a currently airing show might be structured by episode-ending cliffhangers (think Jane the Virgin), streaming series thrive on ambience and “tone” over plot, trying to ensnare viewers with bite-size portions until they commit to just finishing the bag. Does anyone actually care what happened in a season of House of Cards? Even an older show, exhumed for streaming, becomes the type of entertainment product that builds upon atmosphere and tonal momentum, which might go a ways toward explaining why sitcoms with large catalogs and gentle plot build are among the most beloved on Netflix. The impending removal of 30 Rock from Netflix has caused a minor panic, to the point where its departure — a new kind of finale — is being labeled “the end of an era.”
With that in mind, conceiving a conventional finale for such shows has become a task riddled with complication. It must exist as simply another episode, while also giving the audience a sense that the individual episodes have coagulated into something greater, something resembling “closure.” The last episode of a cop show can be just another case, because that’s the entire point of the series: There’s always another crime to solve, even if viewers aren’t in a position to see it happening. There is no teleology. (Consuming an anthology show like The Twilight Zone via streaming gives it a sort of parallel seriality, connected via thematic tissue rather than than plot, an endless carousel you can ride without needing to stop.) But when a show is conceived of or marketed or consumed as a 60-hour ongoing story, its ending is an ending. Those 22 minutes or 45 minutes of the finale are, from one perspective, just another episode, but from another they carry the weight of telling the audience what to take away from the show, while taking the show away from them.
The ambiguous ending salvages the promise of infinity that the finale otherwise snuffs out. Of course, nothing “really happened” that the writers didn’t write
As a result of the tension, what TV finales often tell audiences to take away is nothing. That’s because when a story that has promised to be perpetual ends, there is, literally, nothing. Several of the most memorable TV finales of the past 20 years are mainly meaningful in their ambiguity, which opens a space into which the viewer is encouraged to project theories that are ultimately unprovable. Was Tony Soprano killed in the diner? Did Don Draper make the Coke ad? What the hell was going on with Lost? “What year is this?”
The assumption seems to be that the more clear and definitive the ending, the less the show will linger in cultural memory. The Sopranos ends with its infamous cut to black, a void that takes the place of future episodes. The ambiguous ending, however, salvages the promise of infinity that the finale otherwise snuffs out, without forcing fans to make the imaginative leap to fan fiction. (Though, of course, they still can.) It legitimizes endless speculation in “ordinary” viewers about “what really happened.” Of course, nothing happens that the writers didn’t write. There is no “real” answer.
An episode of television is often likened to a magic trick. It can override concerns of plausibility and internal consistency through sheer momentum. Sometimes this is described in terms of “fridge logic,” which refers to objections that only occur to a viewer long after the show is over — once they’ve gotten up from the couch to get something from the fridge. If writers can get viewers to suspend disbelief until then, an episode is seen as a success, and presumably the concerns about implausibility would be forgotten by the time the viewer returned to the couch.
A similar magic is at play in sustaining viewers’ curiosity and investment in a show’s plot and characters, from episode to episode and from season to season. There must be enough mystery to prompt more viewing, but not so much that it threatens the diegetic status quo that endeared the show to its audience in the first place. Threats to bump off characters, send them to Santa Fe, or destroy the entire world are sometimes called “schmuck bait,” because only a schmuck would believe there’s any real chance of the writers allowing the show to disobey its own structural and financial logic.
Finales have a different stake. They must condense what may have been years of chaotic, scattered storytelling into a few potent images, locking a cast of characters into just the right alignment so that you, the viewer, can see the Magic Eye poster that has in theory been there the whole time. If the show is to be influential and have a second, third, and fourth life in streaming channels and continued conversation, the plates have to stay spinning, forever, persisting through a viewer’s experience with other shows, other stories. Finales conclude their specific show, but in the process are also charged with imbuing the entire medium with a sense of renewable possibility: Though this story ends, all stories keep going, indefinitely.
If a show is to be influential and have a second, third, and fourth life in streaming channels and continued conversation, the plates have to stay spinning, forever
Responding to this bind is tough, which is why the history of TV finales is littered with oddities — including several that attempt to solve the problem of narrative finality within an inherently open-ended medium through trolling. The Roseanne finale in 1997 revealed the entire season to have been a fiction generated by a grieving Roseanne, infuriating viewers until 2018, when the Roseanne revival will pretend the original finale “never even happened.” The Newhart finale posited that the entire series was the dream of Bob Newhart’s character from his earlier role on The Bob Newhart Show. The infamous St. Elsewhere finale revealed the show to have been the product of a young boy’s overactive imagination, creating a metafictional web through crossovers that has ensnared and infected most TV shows across the medium’s history. Following this thread to its “logical” conclusion feels almost besides the point; what scripted show isn’t in the end just the product of overactive imaginations?
Other shows end on a note of disgust. The much disdained Seinfeld finale seemed to go out of its way to indict its audience as small-minded idiots who, for some reason, enjoyed watching petty people squabble about nothing for an entire decade. How I Met Your Mother attempted to complicate the audience’s understanding of the show’s take on relationships in its ending, which was reviled for discarding years of character development in the interest of a conclusion that had been set in stone for years. Twin Peaks: The Return, on one reading, ended with a suggestion that trying to revisit the earlier series was futile, dooming Special Agent Dale Cooper (and the audience) to endless generativity as a form of hell. In these cases, writers and producers strain against the boundaries of television, hoping to find ways to ask more and more interesting questions. But what they end up settling with is: Why were you even watching this?
In the case of the surreal dream ending, the viewer is asked whether or not they need an ongoing work of fiction to be “real” on some level. For the indictment ending, they are asked whether they’ve gained anything from weeks, months, and years of sustained engagement and attention. Naturally, these endings, which mock people’s investment in shows while nonetheless capitalizing on it, tend not to sit well with audiences. There’s something cynical and disingenuous about reaping the benefits of television as a medium, relying on it to tell a story and build a career, only to mock it (and its consumers) when it comes time to close up shop.
Finales inevitably raise the question of what viewers want from television, and what, if anything, makes it different from other forms of entertainment. For long-running shows, finales look backward over the years of sustained attention — more than 25 years in the case of Twin Peaks: The Return. That kind of sustained investment suggests that the purpose of a television show, unlike films or books and more like comic-book universes, is to allow you to invest in further consumption. Television as a medium generates a vision of a permanent captive audience; its content must rise to the possibility by instilling viewers with Stockholm syndrome.
Viewers can perhaps be forgiven for wanting access to an open-ended medium full of stories about horny retro teens and sprawling medieval incest fantasy. Why live in America in 2017 if you can escape to Westeros? (Or at least, a version of Westeros where no one can stab you.) The massive rise of television, whether or not you want to call it Peak TV, makes perfect sense as a manifestation of what theorist Lauren Berlant has called “cruel optimism,” a fierce attachment to our consolation prizes. The prospect of an infinite market for entertainment tracks easily from the American Dream’s promise of market-fueled choice and easily fulfilled happiness, feeding the sort of contradictory nourishment at the heart of Berlant’s work. The future for Americans who may not only lack stable work, civil protections, or consistent access to health care in the present but who also confront looming specters of job-destroying automation and global environmental catastrophe is hard to perceive. But it’s easier than ever to watch other people live out the dream that there will be an ending worth watching.