Perhaps the best 'formula' for a finale is for its makers to simply focus on what made the show great

After eight years of great television fuelled by heavy symbolism, complex characters, meditations on masculinity, feminism, capitalism and media, Mad Men came down to one parting image: an old Coke commercial with an insufferably catchy jingle. The inevitable social media storm ensued: was the 17 May conclusion satisfying or frustrating? Cynical or hopeful? The worst or best thing ever to happen on television and possibly in all of cultural history?

Such histrionics would surprise television viewers of several decades ago, who often didn’t notice when a show went off the air. In fact, until the 1970s and ‘80s, most shows were ‘cancelled’ – because they were past their prime – rather than having the privilege of a meticulously planned and hyped ending. By the time long-running programmes signed off, few people cared enough to watch at all, much less scrutinise the final episodes frame-by-frame – very often those final episodes weren’t intended to be final episodes at all and provided little in the way of closure. The Mary Tyler Moore Show on US TV changed that by planning its own end date in 1977, resulting in a finale many would argue sets the standard for all future television endings.

Catchy conclusion: The Mad Men finale

Now, in what so many TV critics have hyped as the ‘golden age of quality television’, most shows that make it past a first season do get a chance to end gracefully. That’s great, but it also raises the emotional stakes; even programmes with cult followings get a big sendoff that fans will over-analyse on the internet for days and weeks afterwards. Parenthood’s January finale drew only about 5.5 million viewers, a relatively small number for US TV, but the show trended on social media for days before and after it aired. For comparison purposes, consider that the M*A*S*H finale, the most-watched broadcast of scripted television in the US ever, attracted 106 million viewers.

Finales are inherently difficult to master: up to hundreds of hours of television, aired over several years, come down to one episode, one final scene. Viewers expect more from their finales these days. And they rarely get what they’re hoping for. As Rolling Stone critic Rob Sheffield, an avowed Mad Menfanatic, wrote on the occasion of the finale: “Series finales always suck, and everyone knows it, but TV shows still feel obliged to keep attempting them. The idea that a show needs a finale is just one of those daffy ideas America took to heart in the 2000s, like MySpace, the Zune… or the concept of Paula Abdul judging a singing contest. It was a confused time.”

Despite such confusion, there are some elements that can help finales rise to their inherent challenges, or at least survive them, with a series’ legacy intact.

Looking for closure

For starters, having something interesting to say helps. No one doubts that Mad Men’s final moments had a point. It resulted in exactly the kind of discussion that makes a finale resonate – we watch quality dramas, after all, so that we can have the lightly intellectual cocktail party chatter they inspire. Mad Men’s ending invites comparison to that of its spiritual father, The Sopranos, for which Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner was a writer. That series’ ambiguous, cut-to-black 2007 finale enraged viewers who demanded a clear resolution for its characters – but it allowed for a debate that cut to the heart of the series itself. Either Tony Soprano died, or he didn’t. But the important question may have been: why does it matter to us so much to learn how he died? Why did we need to see him die? He would die eventually, because humans do – and the show’s major theme was always inevitable mortality, the ways we often misuse our fleeting time.

Seinfeld’s controversial 1998 finale pulled a stunt that inspired similar debate. It put its main characters on trial for, essentially, being terrible people – that is, for violating a ‘Good Samaritan Law’ in a small town far from the show’s New York setting. And it found them guilty. So many viewers despised the Seinfeld finale – perhaps because it made them uncomfortable in having to question why they liked characters who may indeed have been terrible people. What did that then mean to be a Seinfeld fan?  It was the perfect ending for a show that often commented on the very nature of television.

Seinfeld and friends are put on trial

A thought-provoking finale doesn’t often inspire much love from longtime viewers of a show, though, even if it can result in a stronger piece of art. Many want a finale that tidily wraps up each character arc and plot thread. Some love the warm-bath feeling of the predictable ending, like that of Sex and the City in 2004, which united star-crossed lovers Carrie and Mr Big. Too bad the series did this at the expense of its core empowering principle: that romance is nice, but female friendship lasts forever. Carrie was definitely meant to return from Paris to her true loves, New York City and her three best girlfriends. Mr Big was supposed to be beside the point, not the sudden hero. Likewise Friends had a heartwarming, totally forgettable sendoff that seemed like it was checking off boxes on a list in a make-your-own-finale kit. (Will-they-won’t-they couple united at last, babies adopted, one last cup of coffee… we’re outta here!) And if you think about it, even the much-praised Breaking Bad finale followed suit – it tied up every loose end while undermining the show’s previous complexity by choosing ultimately to make Walter White a hero.

A bittersweet ending for the Mary Tyler Moore Show

If The Mary Tyler Moore Show remains the strongest series finale ever, perhaps it’s because it combined these approaches: it gave smart viewers something to think about like Seinfeld or The Sopranos – in a softer, sweeter manner that also provided satisfying closure.  In that show’s finale, the entire staff at the TV news station where Mary has worked for the whole series, WJM, is fired. As they all clean out their desks and move on, we see how office mates often function as families, and were becoming especially important to single, working women like Mary in the ‘70s. Such insights, undercut with the melancholy of a real goodbye, earned the finale every right to some tearjerking.

Saying goodbye

The Mary Tyler Moore finale showed that a thought-provoking ending doesn’t require ambiguity. The same goes for Six Feet Under’s final episode in 2005, which took closure to the ultimate extreme, previewing the future cause of death for every major character on the undertaker drama. Could there be any debate about this ending? Certainly not. But the conceit had fans talking the next day, and, in fact, the lingering effect of that death montage – a little fun, a little macabre, thought-provoking despite the total lack of ambiguity – erased the memory of the series’ uneven final years. It’s even possible that inconsistent shows with long runs, like Star Trek: The Next Generation and Battlestar Galactica, were enshrined as ‘classics’ in hindsight simply because of their strong finales. And consider how the only memory most people have of Newhart is of Bob Newhart waking up in bed beside Suzanne Pleshette, who had starred in his previous series, and realising he had merely dreamed the entirety of the later show.

Anyone for cards? Star Trek: The Next Generation deals out the final scene

That brings us to another major guiding principle of great series finales: The best ones enhance the show on a re-watch binge, rather than ruining it. The UK version of Life on Mars, a time-travel mystery begging for a definitive ‘what the hell happened?’ conclusion, delivered in its final episode in 2007. This enabled a second, more complex viewing of the entire series filtered through the perspective of that finale – you wanted to watch it again from the start for clues you missed the first time that explain how it wrapped up.

Perhaps the best “formula” for a finale is for its makers to simply focus on what made the show great, while giving viewers some ideas to mull over and talk about and that ultimately inspire nostalgia for the experience of watching the series in the first place. After all, we get so emotional about finales because they’re a way for characters we’ve come to love, despite their flaws, to say goodbye to us. Our prolonged debates, discussions and dissections are a way for us to hold on just a little longer.

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