An analysis on effective (or not) TV finales
By Craig Allen, Contributor
Last month, people around the world waited in eager anticipation for the end of one of the biggest shows of the collective watching era of television: The finale of Game of Thrones. The multi-award-winning show cultivated a fan community that very few shows have ever been able to accomplish.
This final episode should have seen its fans rejoicing and being brought to tears by the end of one of the biggest shows in television history. Instead, the finale of the show brought anger, condemnation from the majority of the fanbase, and tears of frustration. Whether it was Emilia Clarke’s Daenerys committing genocide on a village, or the rule of the kingdom being given to the unpopular Bran Stark played by Isaac Hempstead Wright, many fans were not pleased with the outcome of the juggernaut show. They signed petitions demanding the show’s final season be completely redone, and even demanded that the creators of the series—David Benioff and D. B. Weiss—have a future Star Wars trilogy they are working on taken away from them.
Game of Thrones is not the first show to enter the pantheon of horrible series finales. Great shows like Seinfeld, Dexter, and How I Met Your Mother have all been criticized one way or another for their series finales. In fact, the moniker of having “the worst series finale ever” is a title so often given that it begs the question: Is it even possible to have a series finale that will be universally beloved?
Series finales can be extremely tough to write. Television shows are not like movies, where there is a defined beginning, middle, and end all neatly packaged in a roughly two-hour block. Even sequels eventually lead to an end. For television, shows by nature have to be designed to focus more on the journey than on an actual conclusion.
One prime example is the finale of How I Met Your Mother (HIMYM). The show is about the journey of a man named Ted Mosby (Josh Radnor) as he tries to find the woman who will be the wife of his children. The show was a huge hit for nine seasons, gaining viewers with its fun characters and enduring mystery of who the mother was. However, in the end HIMYM suffered one of the biggest falls from grace in TV history purely due to its finale. The final season of the show was set around the wedding of characters Robin Scherbatsky (Cobie Smulders) and Barney Stinson (Neil Patrick Harris). It is at this wedding that Ted meets the long-promised mother, Tracy McConnell (Cristin Milioti). However, the finale goes on to show that Tracy dies young, Robin and Barney break up after only two years of marriage, and Ted, after some encouragement from his kids, returns to Robin in hopes of rekindling their relationship. This finale went on to become reviled by the fans, who hated it so much that not only did it ruin the show’s final season, which has the lowest critical score out of all the show’s seasons, but it retroactively ruined the entire series for many.
How I Met Your Mother is just one in a long list of shows that hurt their overall legacy with a really bad finale. Whether it was Seinfeld, the “show about nothing,” sending its entire cast to jail over their past transgressions in the series, or Dexter, where the serial killer played by Michael C. Hall ends the show as a low-key lumberjack, television is filled with finales that have let down fans and tarnished the series.
This is not a hard and fast rule though—some shows have had beloved series finales. These include M*A*S*H and Newhart, and even the Seinfeld finale has seen fans turn their perception around upon further review. These shows managed to give fans a satisfying send-off for their characters but did so in completely different ways. On M*A*S*H it was the finale many expected. The Korean War which the show was set around ends and everyone goes home. On Newhart, the show’s finale reveals the entire series to be a dream, with Bob Newhart’s Dick Loudon waking up as his character from his previous show The Bob Newhart Show next to his co-star Emily Hartley (Suzanne Pleshette). While M*A*S*H delivered the finale everyone expected, Newhart completely shocked its audience with its final scene reveal that in some ways is more memorable than the rest of the series.
Having a terrible series finale is likely not what any writer or creator wants for the end of a show they have worked on for years, but in some cases, a bad series finale may not be the worst thing. There are shows like Everybody Loves Raymond in which Ray Barone (Ray Romano) almost dies and the family shows him how much they love him, and Friends which tied up every loose end, with Ross (David Schwimmer) and Rachel (Jennifer Aniston) getting together and Joey (Matt LeBlanc) moving to Hollywood to be a full-fledged actor (let’s just forget that spinoff even happened though). Both shows had solid and satisfying finales only to have them be completely forgotten to history. Maybe in the case of series finales, it might be better to be infamous than forgettable.
In reality, the problem may not be with the show but with the fans who watch them. With an epic series spanning many seasons, viewers have already invested so much emotional energy into a show that their expectations for the payoff are skewed by this emotional baggage. That could be the main reason fans are so upset with Game of Thrones. They have invested so much into the show that in the end, the show’s finale was never going to appease them.
To answer the question posed at the beginning of this article, it is possible to make a series finale that both satisfies fans and wraps up the show, but this is a task fraught with failure. Along with this, it may be better to have a finale that is bad than a finale that is forgotten. People remember the best, and people can even remember the worst if only for reasons of hatred, but nobody remembers the middling three-star series finale—and in the entertainment media, being forgotten and irrelevant is in some cases worse than being hated.