All endings are bittersweet. It is very rare that you feel prepared to say goodbye to something or someone, and this includes TV shows. Whether you watch a show from the premier, or binge it all on Netflix ten years later, you want a satisfying ending. Of course you want to know how the story will end, what will happen to your favorite characters? In many ways, we watch TV shows for the end. Knowing how important these episodes are, why are they often so unsatisfying?
One of my favorite shows ended this past week, and the finale left me feeling very disappointed. Maybe it was my own expectations or maybe it was truly bad writing. Either way, it kept me thinking about why this happens so often. I'm an avid television watcher, and I can count on one hand the number of finales I've actually been happy with an ending. It isn't only me and my unrealistic expectations either- public outrage at popular series' finales is very common. Shows like How I Met Your Mother, Gossip Girl, and now Game of Thrones, are infamous for their terrible series finales. What is about these finales that ignite such fury?
What do we want from finales: The Audience Perspective
Unfortunately, it is impossible to satisfy every viewer of a show. People have different expectations and endings that they want. They root for different characters, relationships, and stories. Some viewers prefer a happily ever after tied with a bow, others would rather see a tragic ending or one that is up for interpretation.
One of the hardest things about finales is that often, viewers don't even want a finale. When enjoying a show, naturally you don't want it to end. It's something you've grown attached to, you've become invested in the lives of these characters and saying goodbye forever can be disheartening. The audience doesn't always want a finale, they just want more. This isn't always in the writer's control, however, and they are simply trying to provide a satisfying ending with the time they have left. As viewers, we need to understand that despite our hopes, it is coming to an end, that some sort of conclusion must be drawn. Wanting more than what the writers can give will inevitably leave a viewer disappointed and resentful.
Despite not being able to leave every specific individual content, shows can aim to satisfy a general audience. Past rooting for specific characters or relationships, many people can feel satiated if the ending just makes sense. If they can reasonably conclude that every episode had led up to this end, and the ending made sense for each character and for the plot, there is a certain fulfillment that comes with that. 'Makes sense' is vague, however, and can be interpreted different ways. To a general audience, this simply means that characters are written with their development in mind, and that they do not regress in order to fit the ending. It means the plot doesn't feel rushed or anticlimactic at the end. Too often, endings feel forced. Characters feel out of character, or endings are sloppy. There is a certain tone that a show sets in its first few episodes and carries throughout its series, and if this is not upheld in the last episode, it can feel very unsatisfying. No matter what, the ending will be bittersweet, purely because its an ending. What an audience wants is for it to be more sweet than bitter, which can be done by delivering an ending that is overall satisfying.
What can we do as an audience to be less dissatisfied with the endings of our shows? We need to be able to let go of the perfect ending we have envisioned, and allow the creators of the story to finish it the way they deem appropriate. While there is nothing wrong with critiquing a finale, and it is often fair to, we must consider that we may not be happy with every aspect of a finale and that is okay.
With that being said, sometimes finales cause widespread outrage, the kind of anger that isn't caused by our own distorted perceptions or overambitious expectations, but flaws in writing.
Why are Finales so Difficult to Get Right? : The Writer's Perspective
As a writer, I may not have experience writing a show but I do have experience writing endings for characters I care about. It's extremely difficult to find the right ending to fit for each character, and with the added pressure of a large audience, I can imagine that the task would become even more impossible.
One thing that must be taken into account when shows are writing their endings is the time they have to do it. Too often, writers aren't given much notice that their show is ending. They may have a vision for their ending when they start that isn't possible to write when they are notified that their show has been cancelled. Lack of time can make it difficult to bring characters to the conclusion the writers initially envisioned, and they must either scramble to create a new ending, or rush to get to the original. Either way, the finale will lack in some way.
Something that must be decided before any specifics are is what kind of ending the writers want for their show. Do they want a tragic or happy ending? Do they want a circular ending that parallels the pilot? Each of these are difficult to write for their own reasons. It seems to be a trend for writers to believe the ending of their show needs to have tragedy and heartbreak in order for it to be good or memorable. While some shows are darker in theme and require a more twisted ending, there are others that can easily have a happy ending that satisfies both the audience and writers. Forcing unnecessary tragedy is one sure way to cause anger in the audience. Circular, 'happy' endings can often be misguided as well, if writers are not careful. It is always fun to see a show honoring their beginning, seeing parallels that fans will recognize from the pilot. However, sometimes if these hints turn into larger elements of the finale, it can be a contributor to character regression. If a character has grown and developed over a number of seasons, it is not likely that they would act in the same way or want the same things as they would in the pilot. For some shows, these endings can also be perceived as anticlimactic if there is no grand finale.
So, if you write a tragic ending people will be mad. If you write a happy ending, people will be mad. Is there anyway to win? It doesn't seem to come easily, but yes. There have been many successful series finales-- there have also been dozens that have failed.
So, What is The Perfect Finale?
Good: One Tree Hill
One of the best finales I've ever watched was One Tree Hill's final episode. This is a well known teen drama that aired between 2003-2012. After nearly a decade of telling the stories of these characters, the writers were able to wrap up each of them in a satisfying way. The ending was a happy one, that assured the audience that their favorite characters had made it to the point they'd always wanted for them: happiness, freedom. There was the circular aspect in the finale that was portrayed by a son of two main characters playing basketball at the same place his father did seasons before. Having all the main characters back in the gym felt right, and it was done without taking away from any of the characters' development. In fact, they highlighted each character's growth in this finale.
Bad: Vampire Diaries
Like One Tree Hill, The Vampire Diaries was a popular teen drama that ran on the CW from 2009-2017. However, this finale wasn't as enjoyable. It tried to make some callbacks to the pilot episode by bringing back beloved villains and iconic lines, but it was very sloppily written. Several characters regressed significantly, acting in ways that seemed very out of character. The plot itself didn't make a lot of sense, and led to the unnecessary killing of the main character. This is another example of the writers forcing a 'tragic' ending. There was no reason anyone had to die, it added nothing to the story. Even in the plot, the reason for death did not make sense. It is also worth mentioning that the original main character of the series, Elena, made an appearance for the first time in two seasons after the actress who portrayed her exited the series. The audience was excited to see her once again, but because she was only in the last episode, her ending felt very rushed and unnatural. Very little in The Vampire Diaries finale made sense, and left nearly every part of its audience unsatisfied in some way.
Good: The Good Place
Like its name, CBS' widely successful sitcom The Good Place had an excellent finale. The writers had a clear idea for how they wanted the show to end, and chose to end it after four seasons despite having the audience to go further because they wanted to do the story and characters justice. Each character was given a satisfying ending, taking into account their journey throughout the show. While parts of the finale were heartbreaking, the tone was kept light and even the saddest scenes had the power to make the audience smile. It was a perfect balance of bitter goodbye and sweet endings. Not only was the ending a pleasing one, but it carried the message that the show had been conveying throughout the seasons beautifully.
Bad: How I Met Your Mother
How I Met Your Mother is infamous for the outrage it caused with its finale. Like The Good Place, this was a beloved sitcom. It was a long running series, having nine seasons in total. The series had been written beautifully, with well developed and flawed characters, heartwarming relationships, and unforgettable humor. The purpose of the show was to eventually lead the main character to finding the love of his life and the mother of his children. This finally happens, and it is invigorating for the audience. However, in the end, the mother ends up dead and all of the characters end up in nearly the same place they were at the start of the show. The writers threw away years of development, a fan favorite relationship, and used a jarring time jump in order to make the show they had created fit the ending they had in mind.
After accessing what is desired from a series finale from both and audience and writer's perspective and analyzing a few examples of successful and unsuccessful finales, we can come to a few conclusions. Series finales, and endings in general, are nearly impossible to write. They're also difficult to watch, it can be emotionally draining for everyone involved. That being said, it doesn't need to be a frustrating experience. If writers are able to envision an ending, but also take into account what their loyal audience wants in an ending, and find a balance of those, you cannot go wrong. Nothing is going to be perfect, but if characters and stories are handled with the care they demand, the general audience can be left content. This way, the story is remembered fondly and can be re watched for years to come.