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 –

*receives note*

Oh. Ohhhh.

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.

*shuffles papers*

Ah! Dick “Don Draper” Whitman.

Who I will now call “Dickie-Don.”

Right.

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?

89 comments

  • Breaking Bad managed to stick the landing well. As did Avatar: The Last Airbender. I was okay with Lost’s ending, which surprised the hell out of me.

    The one that I think really nailed it though, and I keep coming back to it, is Angel. Which not only wrapped up things for characters, but summed up the theme of the show nicely.

    In terms of bad endings, Alias was one that fell apart for me at the end (although that show I had issues with after the second season finale), and Battlestar Galactica pissed me off to no end.

    The Prisoner has an ending that sums up the show perfectly and also is one of the most bug-fuck strange things I’ve seen on television. I still can’t decide if I think it’s brilliant or horrible.

    • I’m with you on BSG, and man… Alias… I don’t remember which season it was, but after she woke up an indeterminate amount of years with no memory…that show went on a steep downhill slide.

  • Watching the Mad Men finale real-time, my reaction to Don’s conclusion was an aggressive eye roll. “Don doesn’t get it, no matter what happens Don will never get it, cool story bruh.” But I have to say on re-watch and seeing the broader inter-web reactions it’s winning me over a little.

    I’ve realized the more popular (and at least just as well supported) read is that Don finally came to terms with Dick and had his little moment of peace on the mountain as opposed to my “well that was the most cynical 5 minutes of T.V. I’ve seen in a while.”

    I’ve always enjoyed Mad Men’s writing, but honestly the characters have never been as strong for me as the way the show kind of creates a unique personification of it’s era. And if the 1970’s are a smiley face and daisy decal slapped over what many feel is the darkest decades of the century, I see Don/Dick doing yoga and meditating in Big Sur… as mostly a way to dream up a feel-good way to sell the next generation their poison of choice.

    I think Don had a shot at some kind of happiness… Betty’s cancer gave him a narrative opening to set down his hobo ways and actually show up for his family — The way that we’ve just seen Pete and even kind of Roger get genuine satisfaction from doing. Instead, I think he followed Ken Cosgrove’s path and passed up an actual shot at fulfillment for something else.

    I originally wasn’t thrilled with this and it really felt like an anticlimax… But honestly if I stick with my cynical version, Don/Dick really *selling* the audience on his enlightenment is maybe a little silly, but fun. It’s the sun-shiniest existential despair ever, which again is a great way to kick off this particular decade. And I can see consequences — Don’s soul is forfeit to Coca-Colahh, he validates his childhood abandonment by recreating it with his kids, he directly contributes to the social conditions leading to Reagonomics… ;)

    Just to be clear, I don’t think that my interpretation is “right,” I think Don’s story is deliberately open. But I kind of like that openness now better then I did on Sunday? Or maybe I’ve just had too much post Mad-Men whiskey…

  • Don’s ending felt right to me. There’s always been a deliberate, paradoxical duality to the show – that advertising (and identity, which is what advertising is all about) can be honest and beautiful while also being a cynical swindle, depending on whether it’s viewed as an individual’s artistic creation or as a small part of the larger culture. Don is the mask he wears – and in a way we all are to society, despite what’s in our heart of hearts.

    Weiner made a really good point about that Coke ad – he said that only a decade before it, people of colour couldn’t even be in ads. And that ad, despite being a corporate co-option of 60s counterculture, reflects that change. It is beautiful, but it’s also cheap and tawdry. These things can be both.

  • I agree that the ending of BSG was a huge disappointment, but the writers lost their way long before that. Has no one yet mentioned the gawdawful betrayal that was the finale of Dexter? Sheesh. That was an epic fail. Then of course there are the canceled shows that ended on a cliffhanger, with no opportunity for resolution. Glad to see Longmire is going to have another shot.

  • The best finale I’ve ever seen was Charmed. My daughter and I loved that series ( especially the finale ) we bought the whole thing! Would love it if they followed through with the wide open window they left for the next generation’s antics!

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