When it comes to series finales, the last chapters of beloved television shows can be divisive things. Either they stick the landing and win over fans with their parting episodes or they prompt controversy and complaint among viewers for how beloved stories come to an end, a situation made even more complex when one considers that nearly all finales feature similar elements that include the resolution of a central issue, something to signify the "end of an era", and a way to tie it all together and, in some cases, leave the door open for more stories to come. If the formula is that straightforward, why is it that some series endings are beloved and others reviled?
When it comes to "good" series finales, there are quite a few contemporary examples of following the formula with great success. The Vampire Diaries, Six Feet Under, Breaking Bad, Community, and even The Americans all are examples of finales that not only checked off all of the boxes for what a finale is supposed to be but were well-received by fans and critics in the process. But on the other side of the coin, there are some endings that prompt conversation for exactly the opposite reason. Despite hitting all the episode elements, they just don't deliver and, in taking a closer look at a few of them, one of the major reasons some finales fly and others fail appears to boil down to a fairly simple concept: failed finales ultimately go against what their shows were fundamentally about.
This idea of a sort of failure of central series thesis is evident perhaps most clearly in two notably divisive finales, the Game of Thrones and How I Met Your Mother endings, as well as the more recent sendoff for The CW's Supernatural. Each of these series' endings followed the formula, as it were, but didn't leave things in a place that honored what their stories were all about.
Of that trio, Game of Thrones may be the most controversial. The finale, "The Iron Throne", certainly checks off the formula requirements. The series' central issue of who will sit on the Iron Throne is resolved when Bran Stark is proclaimed King, an act that also signals the era as he is selected by Westerosi leaders rather than familial succession. The series then also ties things up in a bow by showing the main characters heading off on their own journeys, something that also leaves the door open for new stories. In terms of pure format, it sounds like it would be a knockout. Instead, fans and critics alike were disappointed. Fans were disappointed in how the story ended for some characters -- specifically Daenerys (Emilia Clarke), who many felt was simply done wrong by the writers -- while critics roasted the episode for various issues including pacing, poor storytelling, odd tone with the finale feeling more perfunctory than revelatory and for good reason. Game of Thrones was, at its core, a story about how anyone, despite their personal nobility and legacy, even if politics and history were stacked against them, could take the throne, something that really gelled around the characters Daenerys and Jon Snow (Kit Harington), both of which were "outsiders" of a sort seemingly destined on a path that would ultimately lead one of them to the Iron Throne.
Instead of carrying that theme to its conclusion, however, Game of Thrones took the cliche way out, making Daenerys a villain, shuffling Jon away, and leaving a boy to be king. It isn't to say that having Jon Snow take the throne or allowing Daenerys to take it would have pleased everyone, but it would have been much more in keeping with the series' overall themes. Instead, the ending as it stands betrayed the character development of the previous seasons and has left series fans more eager than ever for George R.R. Martin's next book in the A Song of Ice and Fire series to see how things "really" end.prevnext
Another divisive and disappointing series finale belongs to How I Met Your Mother. The popular CBS sitcom ended its run after nine seasons in 2013 and in its two-part finale entitled "Last Forever" did in fact complete the story of how Ted (Josh Randor) met the "Mother" in the title, but then betrays the sweet, optimistic love story the entire series had been telling by throwing a curve ball. Despite Future Ted narrating how he never stopped loving the Mother even after her death from a terminal illness, the broadcast ending reveals the story was really about how Ted still has feelings for Robin (Cobie Smulders) and has had for all these years ending with Ted's children giving him their blessing to pursue her at long last.
Again, "Last Forever" checks off the boxes, but it betrays the series' established theme, which is particularly problematic for How I Met Your Mother which had anchored itself around the idea that the series was a long flashback of Ted telling his children how he met their mother, who is suggested to be the love of his life. By having the whole thing flip to it Robin really being the object of Ted's affection, the core story is betrayed. It's arguably a novel concept -- and the finale was positively received by critics -- but for fans, it felt like emotional manipulation and a bit of betrayal, giving long-time viewers an answer to a mystery that was never really there.prevnext
The idea that betraying a show's core thesis is what dooms a finale, however, may be most present in the recent ending of Supernatural in that the beloved series didn't directly fail. Supernatural did something that's a little unusual in the world of television in that it essentially offered viewers two endings in what feels like a way to appeal to every part of the fan base and yet, still comes up short. On Supernatural, the elements of a true "finale" are actually achieved in the penultimate episode, "Inherit the Earth" when the Winchester Brothers Sam (Jared Padalecki) and Dean (Jensen Ackles) have a final showdown with Chuck/God and ultimately come out victorious, having finally obtained their true free will before literally driving off into the sunset. Central issue resolved, end of an era signaled, everything in a tidy bow, and even the possibility for more stories in the same universe.
Had Supernatural ended right there, it would have been a complete and satisfying exit, but the show went one step further with a "real" finale in this week's "Carry On". The episode offered up a bit of extreme fan service by sending the brothers off on an old school adventure akin to those from the series' beginning only to see Dean die and go to Heaven while the remainder of the episode consists of an odd montage of Sam living out the rest of his life in which he settles down, has a family, and later dies an old man only to be reunited with Dean in Heaven. Critics approached the finale positively, but many fans were vocal online that it felt shoe-horned in and almost opened up more new mysteries and questions that it will now never answer. While critics approached the episode positively, for many fans that final hour betrayed Supernatural's "family don't end with blood" theme by making the final story entirely about blood family, largely abandoning the found family that had been such a major part of the series -- particularly in the case of the beloved character Castiel (Misha Collins) who despite being so important to the Winchesters was given only a passing mention in the end. There's also the idea that by rushing through Sam's "happy ending", montage-style, the story was both rushed and emotionally manipulative -- giving fans what they wanted by not offering them anything of substance.prevnext
Even with "good" series finales, there are going to be those who are disappointed. The end of anything fans love is something that comes with sadness and disappointment and certainly, from a writing and production perspective, trying to fully end something that has come to mean something to fans must be a completely daunting task. Ultimately, though, what makes a series finale "good" as opposed to disappointing is how it approaches not just the plot or the fans, but how it approaches the heart of the series on the whole. Ending a series and sticking the landing is as much about honoring the soul of the series as it is ticking off all the closing elements and sometimes, even the most technically "good" finale misses the mark, leaving fans unsatisfied and things unresolved. Unresolved, at least, until the reboot.
What do you think makes a good series finale? Is there a magic formula? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.prev