Why Endings (Particularly For TV Shows) Are So Goddamn Hard
Another finale, come and gone.
This one left us with great expectation, but did it fulfill us? Did it complete its journey around the narrative sun? Did it conclude the tale of its troubled protagonist? Did it draw the character’s interior life out and connect it to the exterior? Did it show the fall from grace we were expecting?
That’s right. I’m talking about Small Wonder.
Where V.I.C.I. was forced to endure a reckoning as her evil android twin appears and sets the stage for an epic robo-showdown that results in the eventual spin-off series –
We’re supposed to be talking about the Mad Men finale, aren’t we?
Ah. Yeah. Oops! Ha ha ha boy are my cheeks red.
Lotsa folks saw the Mad Men finale and felt like it was the perfect end.
Lotsa folks saw it and seemed bewildered or bored by what they saw.
(Count me as somewhere in the middle — but more on that in a second.)
First, I want you to understand how hard it is to write an ending.
An ending should:
1) tie most things up but
2) not tie everything up and be too tidy
3) fit the rest of what came before but
4) still be its own thing
5) feel like the natural and only possible conclusion but
6) not feel too obvious because we still like surprises
7) fulfill the promises made early on but
8) also fulfill promises we didn’t realize it had made
9) confirm the theme of the piece but
10) but not make that theme so obvious it’s like a brick to the jaw
11) carry the same mood and emotional heft as the rest but
12) still be somewhat separate from the piece, too
13) answer questions but
14) ask a few new ones, too
That’s hard enough when it comes to a short story or a book.
Now, think about an entire book series. Or an entire television show.
You get more characters. More questions. More arcs to finish, more threads to see to their fraying or knotted ends. And then you have the factor of time. Five books. Seven seasons. A hundred chapters, or comic book issues, or television episodes. People investing years toward the tale — years where the pressure mounts for you to really stick that fucking landing. TV makes this even fuckier because you’ve got a week between episodes, you’ve got months (or even a year) between seasons, you’ve got the pressures of a network, the pressures of advertisers, countless writers, the loss of actors, and very likely a show who had to stretch out its journey (I’m looking at you, Lost, and also you, HIMYM), because you weren’t allowed to end when the story really should’ve ended. Oh, and not to mention the millions of people who are each waiting for their own personal vision for how the story’s gotta kick the can to the end of the road.
It’s actually amazing that any TV finales are any good at all.
So. The Mad Men finale. How’d it do?
(Note, from here on out, THERE BE MILD SPOILERS.)
For me, it was kind of… hit or miss. With a lot of the characters, it did good work — it resolved their arcs and put them the places we both expected and didn’t expect. (Again, that mysterious trick of making the ending feel organic and inevitable while still surprising us with an outcome we didn’t realize was so inevitable.) A lot of the women get fitting ends and don’t get the short shrift — Peggy and Joan in particular. (Betty, well, the show and the audience have always hated her, and so her ending seems somehow extra-malicious — if somewhat still inevitable. And I worry about Sally getting caught up in the wake of that.)
The problem for me comes in with the titular character, “MAD MAN” MCSTEVENS, the hard-charging, cigar-chomping advertising executive who punches his way to the top of Madison Avenue and with his revolutionary new ad campaign for Depends adult diapers –
*receives a note*
Okay, apparently Mad Man McStevens is not a character on that show.
Hold on, hold on.
Ah! Dick “Don Draper” Whitman.
Who I will now call “Dickie-Don.”
I feel like the finale wasted ol’ Dickie-Don.
Like, here’s the thing, right? The show’s been promising us from the very beginning that this will be Dickie-Don’s fall from grace. His climb to the top and his subsequent tumble — it’s telegraphed even in the credits sequence at the fore of every episode. It is, in a way, a promise.
But that’s not what really happens. He hits emotional bottom, maybe — though it’s not something we haven’t seen before. He’s left his life in wreckage but we never get to see him have to deal with that wreckage. Not his kids, not Betty, not the war, not him stealing someone else’s name, not Peggy, not anything. He is consequence-free.
And the emotional breakthroughs he experiences in the episode aren’t even his. Dickie-Don goes to a retreat and experiences the turmoil and fallout of other characters — characters who are in part or are entirely strangers to us. Characters who often have conversations with Dickie-Don or who offer up confessions that are so on-the-nose regarding his “journey” it made me feel like I was reading someone aping bad literary fiction. People talked the way people don’t talk to deliver thematic emphasis and emotional beats just so we understood what was happening inside Dickie-Don’s pretty little LEGO man hair-helmet head.
Now, that’s not altogether bad — it’s certainly giving us some aspect of what the show has always given us. Dickie-Don hits bottom and then we find out the bottom is really just a new way for him to climb higher and so he does. That happens here, too, with Dickie-Don creating one of the world’s most consequential advertisements moments after reaching some kind of wibbly Nirvana during the first thirty seconds of meditation.
But we never get the fall.
We never get consequence.
We never get comeuppance.
That’s certainly a message in and of itself. Intentional, I’m guessing.
Cynical, and purposefully so.
So, in that sense? It works.
But where I fall apart is, it took seven seasons to get here. It took seven seasons to stand still. It’s easy to say, well, it’s all about the journey, but this wasn’t really much of a journey. It isn’t THERE AND BACK AGAIN: A DICKIE-DON’S TALE, but rather, YOU THINK DICKIE-DON LEFT AND WENT ON A TRIP BUT REALLY HE JUST HID IN THE CLOSET AND AVOIDED ALL CONSEQUENCE. We went along on the ride for, what, almost 100 episodes over eight years to go essentially nowhere. (In this, it’s very Sopranos-esque.)
TV is often criticized as having characters who don’t change and being “all middle,” but the current Renaissance of television is changing that — or so I thought. Shows are now allowed to move, allowed to end, and not merely tread narrative water.
The problem with Don Draper is that we’ve seen him before. Too many times. Ego-fed white guy Narcissist who sleeps around and drinks and has family troubles and is highly competent at his job and blah blah blah. Don Draper, Tony Soprano, Frank Underwood, Walter White — difficult, borderline-abusive, middle-age white motherfuckers who are secretly little damaged flowers inside. Villains cast as heroes. Weaponized unlikeability.
I don’t hate that particular character, but I am getting tired of him.
And if you’re going to give us one, you need to conclude it. Or do something new.
(Walter White, to my mind, gets his conclusion. Tony and Don, not so much. Can’t speak for Frank, but I’m hopeful that the show will take us where it needs to take us.)
If Mad Men just spent seven seasons to tell us that Don Draper will continue to grin that shit-eating grin and create advertising and carry on with his paradoxically-ascendant swirl-down-the-toilet, fine. That’s certainly a mission statement and not out-of-character with the show.
But it feels a bit like a waste of our time.
For me — not necessarily for you! — I want more out of my ending.
It was close. And it’s given me a lot to chew on — which is a good thing.
But it still missed the mark for me.
Now, I ask:
What did you think?
Better yet, what were some of the best finales — and worst finales — across television?