Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Battlestar Galactica (Screenshot), Lost (Screenshot), Orphan Black (Ken Woroner/BBC America), The Shield (Screenshot), Twin Peaks (Showtime)

5 series finales that had their work cut out for them

Battlestar Galactica (Screenshot), Lost (Screenshot), Orphan Black (Ken Woroner/BBC America), The Shield (Screenshot), Twin Peaks (Showtime)
Graphic: Rebecca Fassola

In 5 To Watch, five writers from The A.V. Club look at the latest streaming TV arrivals, each making the case for a favored episode. Alternately, they can offer up recommendations inspired by a theme. In this installment: We share our picks for finales that had a lot of loose ends to tie up.

When Game Of Thrones returns this Sunday, we’ll be ever closer to finding out who will take the Iron Throne once and for all. But the final season of HBO’s juggernaut fantasy series will also have to answer dozens, if not hundreds, of questions that have been posed in the seven years since it premiered. In addition to very pressing matters, like the outcome of the impending war between the living and the dead, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss will have to reckon with what remains of Arya’s murder list, the true identity of Valonqar, and just when Cleganebowl is going down already.

Benioff and Weiss clearly have their work cut out for them, but their fantasy adaptation is hardly the first series to have so much to answer for in its final moments. From The Shield to Lost to Twin Peaks (the revival), shows that craft such intricate stories—their own mythologies, really—have faced the question of how to make it all pay off (or not). So before we head once more into the Red Keep, The A.V. Club is revisiting five series finales that also had a lot of heavy lifting to do.

Battlestar Galactica, “Daybreak” (season four, episodes 21-23)

Battlestar Galactica was always at its strongest when it focused on the very human elements of its small band of survivors and the Cylons hunting them. The show lost its way when seemingly divine influences intervened and grand mysteries were introduced in later seasons. Like the teased master plan for Battlestar Galactica’s scrabbling humans, the writers room appeared to be saving some big reveal—or at least an explanation—for the series’ end. Unfortunately, the finale didn’t deliver. Yes, the scrappy cohort leading humanity’s survivors (plus some friendly Cylons) found Earth—er, a second Earth—and the final scene reveals that all of this really has happened before: The events took place in the distant past, not the future. But once the cast lands on Earth, Starbuck fulfilling her quasi-messiah role to lead them there, she simply vanishes. The hallucinations versions of Number Six and Gaius Baltar are angels... perhaps, or maybe just eternal beings wandering and watching and delivering arch bon mots wherever conscious life gathers. And much of the actual decision making—the nitty-gritty questions of democracy and survival that fueled the show—is brushed aside along with the tangle of allegiances and complications in order to tie humanity’s fate into a neat bow.

Battlestar Galactica, like any good sci-fi premise, explored big questions, about democracy, religion, the cyclical nature of history, and what defines humanity. But what gave these heady considerations their heft were the complicated, desperate humans at their center. It’s a lesson Game Of Thrones would do well to consider: Answering the macro questions without addressing the micro—the characters and tensions between them that viewers are really invested in—leads to a supremely unsatisfying conclusion. [Caitlin PenzeyMoog]

The Shield, “Family Meeting” (season seven, episode 13)

More than a decade out from its bow, The Shield’s finale remains one of the best to have ever aired, with the shocking murder at the center of its infamous pilot episode having swooped back to haunt both Det. Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis) and the police department that spent seven seasons trying to expose his corruption. In the end, though, Vic won, having inked an immunity deal with ICE that protects him from prosecution. The rub? He has to confess to every one of his crimes in order to get the sweetheart deal they promised, which includes a cozy job with ICE. When he takes the deal in the penultimate episode, rattling off the myriad murders and cover-ups he’s orchestrated over the years, he triggers a chain of events that affects just about every other major character on the show.

That leaves the finale with a season’s worth of plotlines to resolve. There’s the Mexican cartel boss Vic is being forced to set up, not to mention the terror that Vic’s deal is set to unleash on his last ally, Ronnie Gardocki, who he screwed out of an immunity deal, and Shane Vendrell, the fugitive ex-cop who’s spent the entire season threatening to expose Vic. There’s also the fate of Vic’s family, who’ve gone into witness protection, and that of police captain Claudette Wyms, who, in her ailing health, wants nothing more than to see Vic pay. Meanwhile, hapless detective Dutch is trying to pin down a serial killer, mayoral hopeful David Aceveda is seeding a bit of corruption of his own, and Billings was doing whatever the hell Billings was doing (something with vending machines?). Finally, though, where will we leave Vic Mackey, who’s secured his freedom at the cost of everything he loved?

It leaves him at a desk, neutered in a baggy suit, that’s where. It’s Vic’s personal hell, the kind of fate that was both completely unexpected and completely perfect. And, somehow, despite the abundance of plot threads weaving throughout this finale, it was achieved with grit, grace, and a dizzying dose of cruelty. But Vic’s isn’t the only landing that sticks: Shane’s gutting murder-suicide operates as both thematic fuel and high tragedy, while Claudette’s final chat with old partner Dutch celebrates doggedness and determination in the face of both personal and professional injustices. Even Julien’s bygone identity struggles—which were unceremoniously dropped due to disagreements with the performer—get a nod, even if it’s only through a clever bit of editing. Justice isn’t pretty, nor is it satisfying on The Shield, but the finale’s brilliance lies in the way it makes you question what justice really looks like. Numerous as they are, nearly every plot thread unravels toward this idea. [Randall Colburn]

Twin Peaks, “The Past Dictates The Future”/“What Is Your Name?” (season three, episodes 17 and 18)

When ABC canceled Twin Peaks in 1991, it left a lot threads dangling from the supernatural drama’s red curtains: Did Audrey survive the bank explosion? Did Special Agent Dale Cooper ever wrest his corporeal from from the possession of the demonic Bob? And how, exactly, was Annie? A big-screen follow-up, Fire Walk With Me, didn’t provide much in the way of tidy answers (psychosexual prequels with ear-splitting, NSFW detours to “Canada” rarely do), so for anyone who’d never seen anything else directed by David Lynch, the last hopes for closure were pinned to the show’s long-gestating, premium-cable revival—all 18 episodes of which, thankfully, only muddied the scorched engine oil. Airing back to back on the Sunday before Labor Day, the retroactively titled “The Past Dictates The Future” and “What Is Your Name?” made good on one promise to viewers who demand at least a shred of narrative payoff from their 26-years-later TV capstones: After splitting himself into an alternately riotous and bone-chilling dual performance in the previous episodes, Kyle MacLachlan finally got back into Dale Cooper’s body. And with that out of the way, the square-jawed boy scout and Laura Dern stepped one last time into the depths of the phantasmagorical, Lynchian night, in a searching, occasionally wistful hour that’s as much a final salute to the director’s partnerships with MacLachlan, Dern, and co-creator Mark Frost as it is a farewell to the kooky little town with the heavenly cherry pie. But when it comes time for the episode to pose its own, elusive, unanswerable question, one of the takeaways is that this isn’t a finale at all. There should never be another episode of Twin Peaks, because the saga of Laura Palmer is beginning and ending ad infinitum. It is always happening again. [Erik Adams]

Orphan Black, “To Right The Wrongs Of Many” (season five, episode 10)

Illustration for article titled 5 series finales that had their work cut out for them
Screenshot: Orphan Black (Amazon Prime)

Across its first four seasons, Orphan Black developed into a thrilling (and occasionally unwieldy) web of multiplying clones and competing campaigns against their autonomy, so by the sci-fi drama’s fifth season, its writers more than had their work cut out for them in bringing everything to a satisfying close. Fortunately, creators Graeme Manson and John Fawcett had an ending in mind at the series’ inception, and the final episodes moved toward it with energy and purpose, even if they left a few strands hanging along the way. It was all done in service of “To Right The Wrongs Of Many,” where, quickly picking off its last two conflicts at the beginning of the episode, the show devoted the bulk of its final entry to giving its loyal audience (a.k.a. the #CloneClub) quality time with its beloved core characters before saying goodbye. Tatiana Maslany’s name-making run as Leda clones Helena, Sarah, Cosima, Alison, and Rachel (among others) had, after all, become the show’s primary draw, and “To Right The Wrongs Of Many” rightly ends with a focus on the chemistry and sense of sisterhood she built between them.

The show’s writers knew that, after 49 episodes of seeing these women fight for their lives, the Clone Club kind of just wanted to hang, and see everyone get the happy endings they deserved—or at least something close. Sure, Mrs. S is gone, but Sarah has hindsight and another opportunity to put down roots in the home she left her. Rachel, after all her atrocities, finally does the right thing. Alison and Donnie find something like domestic bliss, sharing a home with Helena, who now has the family she’s always dreamed of. And Cosima gets to continue her work with Delphine, armed with a cure and the complete list of 274 Leda clones they need to track down to end this once and for all. Most importantly, Sarah, Alison, Cosima, and Helena have each other for whatever comes next. Orphan Black celebrates this in one final group scene starring multiple Maslanys—Cosima draped over a chair, Alison perfectly poised next to her, and every character responding with nuance to the other as if they were different actors in a room together. It’s not just a tribute to Maslany’s mind-blowing performance throughout the series, but a moving scene illustrating the bond that will live on even though “there’s no one left to fight.” [Kelsey J. Waite]

Lost, “The End” (season six, episodes 17 and 18)

The show that launched a thousand imitators, ABC’s Lost doesn’t often get the credit it deserves for helping to shape and influence the current television landscape. And the finale, frankly, is a not-insignificant part of the reason. It’s rare to see a hugely popular show turn in such a profoundly divisive conclusion—and by “divisive,” we mean, “a lot of people hated it so much it made them retroactively angry at the entire series.” Even after shedding viewers with its increasingly dense and mythology-heavy later seasons, the supernatural drama was a ratings juggernaut, with more than 11 million people regularly tuning in for the final showdown between good and evil—and boy, did those people make their displeased voices heard once the final credits rolled.

The show had kicked off with a simple and intriguing premise: A bunch of people survive a plane crash on a remote island, only to quickly realize they have no idea where they are, and no help seems to be forthcoming. Oh, and also there might be some strange monster in the jungle? The Twilight Zone-esque twist to the Robinson Crusoe template hooked viewers, and as the show progressed, it dropped more and more tantalizing mysteries and elusive riddles. The remnants of a decades-earlier experiment! Kids with special abilities! Strange radio signals! Cursed numbers! Hatches! Temples! On and on the puzzles accrued, one after the other, with answers coming rarely, and often only to further goose the narrative, rather than resolve any lingering complications. By the final season, our castaways were split between two realities following the detonation of a nuclear weapon on the island: In one, they continue on with their island-bound struggles, trying to prevent a mysterious Man In Black from killing them and escaping the island. In the other, the crash of Oceanic flight 815 never happened, and we watch as they play out their various lives in an alternate timeline. It soon became clear that, short of a four-hour finale consisting solely of a schoolhouse lecture explaining every little symbol and confounding clue, the final episode would never be able to explain away every single strange talisman or plot wrinkle the show had introduced through the years. Instead, it would just paint in broad strokes, completing the tale creators Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse had eventually landed on over the course of its early going.

Turns out, that’s not what audiences wanted. The expansive, feel-good ending, in which our main characters all got together and passed on into the next life in one big happy family, wasn’t the salve its writers had hoped. Instead, they were bombarded with demands for explanations. How did the Sickness actually function? Are they seriously not going to explain “the Rules,” or why the numbers functioned as they did? Explain the polar bear! Everything the showrunners thought of as fun window-dressing and mystical curlicues to amplify their story about human redemption and second chances turned out to be what other folks considered the meat and potatoes of the series. Never mind that these things weren’t really that important in the grand scheme of the narrative; you’ll never make a very loud percentage of people satisfied when your show is based on little mysteries you have no real intention of explaining. Lost doesn’t deserve a lot of the vitriol it received for its finale—it’s still a very good show—but it admittedly shot itself in the foot by assembling a staggering number of riddles it couldn’t hope to ever pay off. [Alex McLevy]