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Limitless dramatically raises the stakes at season’s end

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When designing a television procedural, the test of the show’s premise used to be simple: “Can you imagine episode 100?” It is a question of sustainability, considering whether or not the cast of characters, their place of employment, and the distinct focus of their investigative procedure could theoretically run for the five or more seasons necessary for the show to turn into a profitable hit for the studio behind it.

This question is still relevant in 2016, but it hasn’t felt like the most relevant in the case of Limitless. Yes, as a procedural that is completely owned by its network, Limitless is a show built to run for multiple seasons and sell into syndication to make money for CBS, and thus the 100-episode test is undoubtedly being considered by the network as it determines the show’s future (the show has not yet been picked up for a second season). But Limitless has foregrounded a different question: “Can you imagine an episode where the stakes of the show change dramatically?”


This, by comparison, is a question of scalability, which is crucial to the ability for a procedural to function in a moment where seriality holds significant cultural capital. More than ever before, it is expected that even case-of-the-week procedurals like Limitless will build toward a significant climax, and feature a mythology that can generate suspense and pathos in equal measure. And so the question is how efficiently the show can do this: can the show scale up to raise the stakes while still appearing sustainable? Can Limitless still feel like Limitless when it needs to deliver a two-part finale that pays off viewer investment?

The answer is (mostly) yes, although that shouldn’t be a surprise. Limitless has been interested in scalability from the beginning, embracing its stylistic excesses and its comedic leanings to explore how far it can stretch its premise without breaking it. But while “Finale: Part One!” demonstrated that the mythology of NZT could easily push out to a larger conflict with Sands emerging as a threat to national security, “Finale: Part Two!!” reminds us that this increase in stakes does not come without consequences. NZT is both the cause of and the solution to the problem of Sands and the Legion of Whom’s plot to wreak international havoc: as the stakes increase for the story, so too do the stakes increase for Brian himself, whose immunity to NZT is fading day-by-day. And so the finale is not really about whether or not the FBI will stop Sands in his plot to spread NZT and exert power over the global financial market: it’s about whether Brian will cause himself irreparable harm in order to stop him.

In this way, then, Limitless ends its season exploring the tensions between scalability and sustainability: NZT gives the show easy ways to escalate the storytelling, but the finale smartly acknowledges that this can’t happen in a vacuum. “Finale: Part Two!!” develops what I would consider a shockingly credible threat that Brian Finch would die in the midst of solving this case: even if in the back of your mind you feel like this finale is heading toward a happy ending, the hallucinations are legitimately harrowing, and key emotional scenes between Brian and his father and Brian and Rebecca carry significant weight. Although the episode has its flights of fancy—there was a Canadian diplomat in a super-villain Canadian flag bodysuit in a dormant volcano, after all—it feels grounded in the idea that Brian is taking an incredible risk, and that everyone is letting him do it because they know that it’s probably their only chance at solving this conflict.


Obviously, Brian wasn’t going to die: sustainability always trumps scalability, and any argument for the power his death would have in the narrative gets trumped by the market logics of program branding. But the episode nonetheless establishes the corruptive force of NZT, even in ways beyond the impact it has on Brian. The FBI is shockingly cavalier about the deployment of the drug here on two levels. First, letting Brian take it is reckless: yes, Brian admits he’d just take the drug off the street if they didn’t provide it for him, but they could simply quarantine him for his own safety if they wanted to. They want to give him NZT, and they want him to risk his life, and there’s something unnerving about that for me. It’s also something that’s echoed in the choice to use NZT as an interrogation tool, giving someone a drug that could have significant side effects simply because it helps their investigation. That’s an incredibly slippery slope to go down, and raises serious questions about how the government understands the place of NZT within the context of law enforcement. Even if you accept the logical argument that Brian can’t die, this doesn’t change the fact that his life and the lives of others were put at risk, and these shadings are not necessarily unwritten by a happy ending.

However, given the way the episode ends, they kind of are. The episodic story of “Finale: Part Two!!” reaches its climax when Rebecca guns down Sands, but the season’s larger arc climaxes when Brian returns to his parents’ house after sharing an emotional moment with Rebecca. There are countless things he could encounter when he enters that house: Senator Morra was one logical option, and I expected that we would see the show pivot the ongoing storyline in a new direction in a hypothetical second season. However, what we got instead was something entirely different: Piper, inexplicably alive, with a convenient permanent immunity shot that she delivers to Brian before disappearing into the night.


I’m incredibly conflicted about this scene. On the one hand, I appreciate that the show doesn’t intend on dragging out the immunity booster conflict. It’s the kind of premise-breaking element that other shows—I’m looking in the direction of Suits and Mike’s Fake Law Degree, in particular—drag out for too long, continually trotting it out to scale up the storytelling but then just storing it in the junk drawer to be pulled out the next time the writers are struggling to come up with a different cliffhanger. And so taken in the abstract, the magic immunity shot is a positive development, and allows the show a chance to move past a storytelling crutch that could have gotten played out on a lesser show.

However, taken in context, this ending was way too clean. Piper makes mention of her concern regarding what would happen if the permanent immunity shot would fall into government hands, but the episode doesn’t pick up on that thread of concern as I expected them to. I kept waiting for them to pivot toward Senator Morra, or some semblance of a larger plot, but everything kept resisting scaling the story outward. Brian and Rebecca return to the rooftop to mirror the final scene of the pilot, but it’s just so Brian can learn he’s getting his own secret squad. And while I was waiting for the title card to fade into some type of serialized epilogue, instead we got a very light-hearted journey through the show’s side characters, giving everyone a final moment to shine. And while I enjoyed those side characters, and it absolutely reflects the strong work the show did playing up its comedic side, I couldn’t help but feel like that montage was regressive. It was the show doubling down on the ways that the immunity shot represents a turn toward sustainability, despite how much the show’s interest in scalability drove its creativity.


In an interview in support of the finale, creator Craig Sweeny has laid out his plans for a second season, and he speaks to the threat of NZT remaining a part of the show. But it’s difficult not to read the ending of this season as a suggestion that Limitless is going to have a few more limits next season. I don’t say this to suggest that the show is ruined if this is true: the stated plans of bulking up the ensemble suggest a logical progression of the series’ storytelling, and I support the show resisting falling into a rut. But the decision to put a bow on a season of television that so willfully explored the complex realities of Brian’s arrangement with the FBI reads as a gesture to an audience—and a market logic—which wants the show to “settle down.” And after a finale that otherwise brazenly pushed the premise to its limits, the hurried nature of the resolution—I was convinced it was a dream sequence it was moving so quickly and smoothly—leaves me more mixed on the episode than I would have anticipated just minutes earlier.

When I take a step back, I have no problem embracing a fun, light-hearted Limitless that backgrounds the serialized elements, effectively treating season one as an origin story that informs character development—Brian “earning” the right to use NZT by showing his good heart and desire to help people—as they move forward with more of the type of sharp, playful episodic stories that helped the show stand out. That is a marketable television show, and something that they could probably “relaunch” successfully in order to stabilize ratings (perhaps paired with similar-in-tone Scorpion), and I would absolutely watch what that show has to offer.


However, it’s hard in light of everything else that happens in this finale to embrace a version of Limitless that feels like it’s even slightly backing away from its commitment to exploring a deeper mythology. While it’s true that it doesn’t necessarily need this in order to function, we saw what the show was capable of, and to see it do anything to lower the degree of difficulty feels like a disservice (as opposed to a death sentence). I have faith the show can still embrace its creativity within a structure more focused on sustainability, but if the show is heading in the direction it seems to be heading in (and if it gets a second season at all, which could well be the logic behind the story choices here), I feel like I’ll always have “what could have been” in the back of my mind. And so while I mostly come away from Limitless season one impressed by its charm and excited to see more of these characters in a deserved second season, those feelings will have to co-exist with some questions about whether the show could sell itself short in the long-term.

Stray observations

  • Okay, look, I understand that this happens all the time with other countries and I don’t say anything because I am a typical sheltered, privileged individual living in a developed western country, but the entire episodic story about Canada was insane. The idea of there being radical Canadian nationalists related to any topic other than Quebec sovereignty—and even there it was the sovereigntists who were radical—is a fiction of the highest level. While there are obviously elements of extremism in any country, to suggest a movement on the level implied here as related to an Arctic dispute with Greenland stretched credulity beyond acceptable levels. And yes, I know I sound like Comic Book Guy here, and I’m fine with that. I accept my fate.
  • The procedural elements here were generally pretty uninspired: the body count was high, but the story was more interested in Brian’s side effects, and so all the story was really required to do was move forward and force him to keep taking NZT to keep up. I’m not shocked the actual logic fell by the wayside.
  • Sweeny confirmed in the aforementioned interview with TV Insider that there was a version of the finale that had Cooper in it, which would support the idea that there was a conscious decision made to back away from the Morra story. He also suggests that Cooper will return to recur in a second season, but I’m curious how his presence would change if that comes to pass.
  • Continuing a theme from the earliest episodes where she is treated as an equal to Brian, Rebecca ultimately pulls the trigger on Sands, although the tight focus on Brian’s side effects did keep the arc with Rebecca’s father from having much in the way of resonance here. They pinned that story on Sands to help elevate him to the season’s “big bad,” and they delivered a showdown between the characters, but it didn’t really land the way you’d expect. I’d anticipate that’s a good enough reason to keep Sands alive (they never confirm he dies), and let that be something Rebecca explores in a second season.
  • I know I complained about the Canadian storyline, but I was at least glad to hear Sands so viciously spit out “N Zed T” in his showdown with Rebecca. When I first moved to the U.S., I had to give someone my Canadian postal code, which had a Z in it, and I said it about five times before I realized why the guy was confused.
  • So it turns out Mike’s real name is Darryl, but they didn’t put a chyron on the screen, so it’s possible his name will remain misspelled. Sorry about that, pal. I know you’ve been through a lot.
  • Lots of familiar faces in the montage at the end—which really was a lot of fun, despite my skepticism above—but the most interesting for me was the young woman that Brian helped in his first NZT-fueled temp job back in the pilot. It’s a nice way to bring the story full circle, and pull out the distinctions between Brian and Eddie Morra’s use of NZT that Sweeny and I discussed earlier this year.
  • While we weren’t able to pick up coverage after dropping in earlier this Spring, I’m glad I got a space to reflect on the finale, and I’m intrigued to hear how everyone felt about the rest of the season. Also, to the people who kept commenting on the drop-in review complaining about how there were no reviews: I fully trust your commitment to Sparkle Motion.