What do we want from a TV finale?
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Warning: This article contains spoilers for already-aired episodes of Fringe, Lost, and The Shield. DVD marathoners beware.
The creative team behind the Fox sci-fi series Fringe wrote and shot the show’s fourth-season finale before they knew for sure that Fringe would be picked up for a fifth season, so they designed the episode to function as an ending to their entire story, just in case. I knew this when I watched the episode this past Friday, which meant that when a key Fringe character appeared to die at one point, I had to ask myself: Would they really do this? Would the Fringe writers end the series with the death of one of its heroes? If so, it wouldn’t have been entirely unexpected. The character in question—super-powered FBI agent Olivia Dunham—has been prophesied to die multiple times over the run of the series. And Fringe has always explored the boundaries between life and death, along with the line between the organic and the inorganic, and the differences between science and magic. In that context, to end with something as cold and final as Olivia’s death would’ve been poignant.
But Olivia did not die. Or, more accurately, she did die, but was immediately revived by mad scientist Walter Bishop, who would take advantage of a special chemical compound that Olivia has been regularly dosed with since childhood. And that’s not the last bit of good fortune in the episode. In the closing minutes, the audience learns that the process of resurrection has largely rid Olivia of this chemical, which had been plaguing her for years. Also, she’s pregnant now, and she and Walter’s son Peter are beginning to look for a new house to raise a family. And the FBI’s “Fringe Division” has been fully funded by a previously skeptical federal government, which means the couple’s future is fairly secure. There is an ominous note at the very end of the episode, setting up a potentially dystopian future that has been seen on Fringe before. But otherwise, this season four finale serves to reassure longtime Fringe-watchers that if this had in fact been the end, then these beloved characters would’ve been okay, at least for a while.
I’m not one of those who believes that the way a TV series ends determines its ultimate value. If Fringe’s fourth-season finale had wrapped up the series, I would’ve shrugged off the surfeit of happy endings and would’ve reflected instead on how much the show has gotten right in its previous 80-plus episodes. Still, I’m glad that there are actually 13 more Fringe episodes left, and part of me is glad too that the fan reaction to the season-four finale has been so mixed. It’s not a bad episode on the whole, but the “all’s well” elements feel forced, and not entirely in keeping with the tone and themes of the show. With the renewal, it’s like Fringe has been given a second chance to get its finish right.
This fannish demand that TV shows end properly is a relatively new phenomenon, because true series finales have long been the exception in television, not the rule. Most often, shows get canceled before they have a chance to complete whatever larger story the creators meant to tell, or before they can say any kind of meaningful goodbye to the characters. In the past, even some hugely successful shows have ended abruptly, because the people involved decided to move on to something else, and didn’t feel the need to make a big fuss about the last episode. In both cases, the finales may wind up working as an ending anyway. Or they might be frustratingly elliptical. But does anyone really think any less of The Andy Griffith Show because it doesn’t end with a swell of music and Opie writing “GOODBYE” on the front lawn before he putters off on a motorcycle to go live in Mount Pilot?
Well… maybe some people do. One of the reasons that devoted TV-watchers want finales to be strong is because a tough, thoughtful final episode can demonstrate the medium’s ability to compete with cinema, theater, and literature in terms of delivering rich, involving, no-punches-pulled storytelling. When The Shield ended its half-decade study of corrupt cops by either killing, imprisoning, or otherwise neutralizing its antiheroes, that completed the show’s overarching narrative in a way that feels both satisfying and uncompromising, even now. Some of the best series in TV history—Barney Miller, The Fugitive, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Cheers—have also gone out on a high note, which has given their fans the power to make a strong case for those shows. And even when an ending is completely nuts—as is the case with Newhart, St. Elsewhere, and Dinosaurs—there’s a “you gotta see this” factor that belies television’s reputation for blandness.
Then again, not all television is designed to be gripping or emotional in the way that something like The Shield is. The default mode for most TV is “amiable”—likable characters having troubles that are fairly easily resolved, in locations that the audience doesn’t mind returning to week after week. It’s not high art; and it’s not meant to be challenging. It’s just entertainment. And there’s nothing wrong with that either. I do like it when TV guts me. Just about every time I push “play” on a new episode of Breaking Bad, I mutter “Oh God” to myself, and get a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. I have an intense experience, and like most intense experiences, I come out of it feeling a little bit more alive. But then I celebrate that feeling by watching Cougar Town or Royal Pains, to unwind.
What’s trickiest is how a show handles its farewells when it’s neither total fluff nor edgy drama. ER did a fine job of bowing out three years ago, delivering a two-hour episode that was honest about the flow of misery that will keep running through County General, while also allowing longtime fans to see some of the main characters—both old and new—have a few moments of closure before the closing credits. This is a fairly common approach to finales: safe but functional. We get a sense of what’s going to happen to the characters after they take their leave of us, and the time that we’ve put into getting to know them is honored in some small way. But if I’m being honest, I have a stronger memory of the weirdo finale of the terrible U.S. version of Life On Mars than I do of, say, Friends or Frasier, two shows I watched and enjoyed for over a decade, and two shows that opted for the warm, feel-good, ultimately forgettable kind of goodbye.
The most divisive finale of recent years (outside of maybe Battlestar Galactica’s), would have to be Lost’s, which tends to cleave people based in part on what they really want from a finale: to be comforted or chilled. I could make the case for Lost’s finale on a meta level. I could talk about Lost as a “story about stories”—as I often did when I was writing about the show—and talk about how satisfying “The End” is for the way it acknowledges the significance of these characters as characters, connected solely by the power of a narrative. But on a more basic level, I have to acknowledge that the Lost writers did flinch a bit. They looked for a way to deliver a sentimental, Friends/Frasier kind of ending—by reuniting most of the main characters in a kind of purgatorial dimension, before sending them off to the afterlife together—and in so doing they backed away from some of the tougher ideas that the show had bandied about for the previous six years.
I still like the Lost finale. I think it works as an episode of television, if not necessarily as the ending to an epic tale. “The End” is funny at times, exciting at times, and moving at times, and who knows? When I finally get around to re-watching the entire series (as I hope to do someday soon), I may even find that it finishes the story more suitably than I currently believe. For now though, I’ll stick with what I wrote in 2010: “If you consider Lost to be one long story, I’m not sure that anyone was thinking after the first chapter, ‘I wonder what happens to these people after they die?’” The Lost creative team went in the direction they did because they were more interested in character arcs and redemptive spiritual journeys than in mythology and mysteries, which is fine. It doesn’t make me think any less of “Ab Aeterno,” or “Jughead,” or “The Constant,” or “The Man Behind The Curtain,” or “Walkabout.”
Yet as the end of Fringe approaches, I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I’m hoping for something closer to The Shield than Lost, if only in terms of the finale following logically from what came before, and in terms of it respecting the deeply philosophical questions that Fringe has raised over the years. I don’t want a happy ending just for the sake of a happy ending, in other words. As a longtime Fringe defender, I want to urge people to watch the entire series, knowing that the finish will justify what will be nearly 100 hours of viewing when all is said and done. “Entertaining” is fine. Who doesn’t like to be entertained? But the TV that lingers longest in our minds is the TV that’s willing to hurt us a little on its way out the door.