Type keyword(s) to search


The Best Series Finales Deny the Characters — and Audience — What They Want

They recognize that the most satisfying way for a story to end is not always by guaranteeing simple satisfaction.
  • Clockwise: Mad Men, Parks and Recreation, Breaking Bad, Succession, Barry (Photos: Everett/WarnerMedia; Primetimer graphic)
    Clockwise: Mad Men, Parks and Recreation, Breaking Bad, Succession, Barry (Photos: Everett/WarnerMedia; Primetimer graphic)

    Four seasons of peerless emotional brutality really should have prepared us better. Somehow, though, there was no bracing for just how bravely, astonishingly sour HBO's hit tragicomedy Succession would get at the finish line. In a small conference room, right where everything began, the dream of the show's title dies a spectacular death, as Kendall Roy (Jeremy Strong) watches all his life's ambitions evaporate under the blinding-hot resentment of his only sister, Siobhan (Sarah Snook). Even by the standards of this series, it was a shockingly bitter pill to swallow — and as gloriously feel-bad as finales come.

    Part of what made that climax so cruelly effective was how Jesse Armstrong, the show's creator and the writer of that last episode, teased us with the possibility of a rosier upshot. For a moment there, it actually seemed like Succession might save the Roy children from themselves. The calm before the storm, when the three seem to set aside their differences and revert to childhood camaraderie at their mother's house, was a brilliant misdirect that played on a viewer's secret desire to see these scion brats triumph over the odds. Falling into that trap of sentimentality was the ultimate proof of what Armstrong and his team accomplished with Succession: making us care, however grudgingly, about characters of such consistently loathsome character.

    Still, how could we have been so gullible to think that a show about a father who pitted his children against each other their whole lives would actually end in them circling the wagons together? Succession ended the only way it made sense f0r it to end, with Rome (and Roman) falling from within. That it was possible to hoodwink us into predicting otherwise, even briefly, is less a reflection of the expectations Armstrong and company set than evidence of how smartly they subverted the general endgame trajectory of television. After all, it's a long list of series that decide, in their closing stretch, to give the characters — and, by extension, maybe the audience — everything they want.

    The urge to arrange a happy ending for the protagonists of a TV show must be overpowering. Audiences, the real people at home, get invested in the fictional people a show introduces. We see them grow up and grow older on screen. We follow them through the ups and downs of imaginary lives that sometimes mirror our own. They start to feel like family, coming into our home every week for years. Assuring that everything works out in the end for them is a showrunner's way of rewarding a fanbase. You came along on this journey. Don't you deserve to feel happy at the end of it, and to see your fictional friends happy?

    The creative teams get attached to their creations, too. You see that a lot in series finales, when the melancholy of a cast and crew putting years worth of work behind them seeps naturally into the show itself, unmistakably coloring its exit. Such sentimentality, though, doesn't always suit the material. Sometimes, it results in final episodes that bear little resemblance to everything that came before. Just look at the extended goodbyes of The West Wing and Battlestar Galactica, two very different visions of political institutions that got so hung up on tearful valediction — on waving farewell to themselves — that they found no room for the pleasures that got audiences hooked on them in the first place.

    Often, pushing towards a happy ending for the characters ends up betraying not just the vibe but also the values of a series. Even great TV shows are not immune to these kinds of goal-line fumbles. Breaking Bad's oddly celebrated finale, for example, looks like a downer from a distance, in keeping with the ruthless no-one-is-safe stakes of the five seasons leading up to it.

    In reality, though, it ended up rather neatly fulfilling the desires of its antihero, providing him a romantic outlaw redemption arc — a kind of implausible vigilante victory over the real bad guys — that felt like a gift to fans who disturbingly idolized Walter White. The ending was so out of sync with Vince Gilligan's unsparing perspective on his monstrous subject that disappointed critics rushed to frame it as a fantasy, a death dream. (Years later, the Breaking Bad spin-off Better Call Saul would much more successfully stick the bittersweet landing.)

    The most egregious example of a show succumbing to its worst warm-and-fuzzy impulses might be Parks and Recreation, whose finale is total wish fulfillment. A show as aggressively nice as that NBC sitcom was, of course, never going to work its way to anything but a happy ending. But creator Michael Schur was so intent on sending viewers out on a wave of good vibrations that he rather remarkably dispelled any possible uncertainty about the characters living happily ever after. The finale's flash forwards in time confirm the ongoing good fortunes of Leslie Knope and her coworkers; the show doesn't just leave them on a happy note, it promises nothing but happy notes to come. It's like the polar opposite of Succession's scathing reality check.

    Maybe that was what some fans wanted from Parks and Recreation, a final fatal overdose of feel-good. But it felt, as too many series finales do, like a misinterpretation of what made the show it was wrapping up so special. Before that ending, Parks and Rec had already compromised the logical arc of Leslie Knope's career. The show hinted for years that Leslie would eventually have to choose between her ambitions for higher office and her stubborn loyalty to Pawnee. In the final season, Schur said screw it, and let her have both, relocating her dream job as head of the national parks department to her beloved hometown — a plot turn as chickensh*t as it was nonsensical.

    At its core and its best, Parks and Recreation was about disappointment, and how we respond to it. Leslie is an inspiring character because she holds onto her idealism even as the world continuously lets her down and tries to disabuse her of it. It was a sitcom not afraid to let its characters fail, professionally if not romantically: Tom's business ventures stall out, Andy's dream of becoming a police officer dies on the vine, and Leslie is recalled from office by an ungrateful constituency. How the characters responded to those hardships, finding solace in each other, was integral to the show's appeal. Giving them everything they could ever possibly want in the end betrayed that. It settled for a sappy bear hug over the more complicated bliss of its heyday.

    Of course, not every show needs to leave its characters as broken and unhappy as Succession left the Roys. That sort of cynicism wouldn't work at all for Parks and Recreation or plenty of other series. And there's a way to deliver a happy ending of sorts without violating the ethos of the larger story or devolving into pure implausible fantasy. You're the Worst, a sitcom as biting as Parks and Recreation was cheerfully positive, brought the f*cked-up love story of Jimmy and Gretchen to a deeply romantic conclusion that still honored the spirit of the characters — in part by sidestepping the obvious, conventional endpoint to which it seemed to be incongruously headed. And Mad Men managed the impressive feat of delivering one of the single most withering closing beats in television history — an ironically blissful stare into the black hole where Don Draper's soul should be — while still giving poor, overworked Peggy some hard-earned personal happiness to go with her professional success.

    Some of the most satisfying series finales — or at least the most admirably bold — resist the binary of "happy" or "sad." HBO, in fact, has a pretty good track record for those: the audience-antagonizing irresolution of The Sopranos, which radically, pointedly rejected the comforting closure we expect a finale to deliver; the cyclical table-resetting ambivalence of The Wire, in which new characters slip into the roles of old ones to underline how nothing ever really changes in America; and, on the same night Succession ended, the disquietingly strange left turn of Barry's final half hour, which felt a little too neat right up until the point that it reframed its main character's toxic quest for absolution in the most bitterly ironic way possible.

    Happy, sad, or somewhere in between, the great TV finales look beyond easy catharsis. They dare to risk approval by recognizing that the most satisfying way for a story to end is not always by guaranteeing the simple satisfaction of the characters. Sometimes, it's about denying the characters what they want, just as life so frequently denies each of us what we think we deserve. Other times, it's about giving them what they really deserve. And every once in a while, it's about giving them what they don't know they want until they have it — or giving the audience that instead.

    Succession earns its place in the TV-finale hall of fame by staying true to its acidic self — by following through on its vision of broken rich scoundrels caught in the terrible shadow of a giant. A happy ending was never in the cards for the Roys. What's ultimately so amazing about the show's conclusion was that it felt impossible to predict but inevitable in retrospect: After watching that punishing final showdown between Ken and Shiv, you can't imagine Succession ending any other way. To see a show come together that perfectly, that effortlessly, is its own happy ending… at least for those who stomach a full meal without dessert.

    A.A. Dowd is a writer and editor who lives in Chicago.

    TOPICS: Succession, Barry, Battlestar Galactica (2004), Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Parks and Recreation, The Sopranos, The West Wing, The Wire, You're the Worst