What makes a good series finale? Three events this week bring this question into focus: Sunday's "True Blood" series ender, Monday's celebration of the departed "Breaking Bad" at the Emmys, and Wednesday's Vox interview with David Chase, where the "Sopranos" creator finally offered an answer to the question of whether Tony died at the end of the notorious blackout finale of the 1999-2007 series.
All three of these finales, plus others of shows that went off the air this year ("Dexter," "How I Met Your Mother") drew both kudos and complaints. Some fans found these finales satisfying and others found them cheap copouts. It almost makes you sorry for the writers, who seem bound to disappoint some faction of fans, no matter how they choose to wrap things up.
Take "True Blood," for instance. (Warning: Spoilers follow.) Fans who'd been watching since the beginning of the HBO series seven years ago may have expected Sookie (Anna Paquin) and Vampire Bill (Stephen Moyer) to end up together. For such fans, Bill's insistence on having Sookie put him out of his misery (instead of partaking of the Hepatitis-V cure) so that she could live a normal life (whatever that meant) made little sense. The finale also seemed in a rush to tie up loose ends for most of the other surviving characters. (Some, like Sam and Lafayette, were given especially short shrift.) And the happily-ever-after Thanksgiving tableau (which made the vampire drama look like the opening credits of NBC's "Parenthood") that saw Sookie pregnant and living with an unseen new man frustrated those who wanted to see Sookie and up with Bill, Eric (Alexander Skarsgard), or at least some other character not introduced in the last moments of the series.
On the other hand, the finale did manage to encapsulate neatly the theme of the entire series, in Sookie's question to the preacher of whether, if we're all created by God, any of us can be considered mistakes. That's a nice way of summing up the series central vampires-as-gays metaphor. If everyone, even once-closeted fringe-dwellers like vampires, is a human with dignity and deserving of love (everyone, that is, except bigots like Sarah Newlin (Anna Camp), whose fate is to live a life devoid of hope, chained up in the Fangtasia basement, to be fed upon by wealthy vampires), then it's no wonder that the finale centered on the impromptu human/vampire wedding of Hoyt and Jessica and ended with that human/vampire/fairy/shapeshifter Thanksgiving celebration. In the end, it doesn't really matter who Sookie's man is, only that she found one without giving up the fairy powers that make her who she is.
So if you thought your favorite "True Blood" character got either shortchanged or over-explained, you're not alone. The episode seemed designed to please and infuriate in equal measure.
That's hard for fans to accept, for any series finale. We want our hours, our years, of emotional investment in the show and its characters to be rewarded in a way that honors our commitment, even though the elements we often admire about shows – how true-to-life the characters are, how complex the plotting is – mean that tidy resolutions that offer closure for all the characters are hard to come by. Maybe the only series finale of the past decade that remained true to its premise while offering closure for all the protagonists was mortuary drama "Six Feet Under," which told us how each of them would die.
Still, this past year was full of unusually unsatisfying finales, from "Dexter" (he becomes a lumberjack? Really?) to "How I Met Your Mother" (all those years of preparing for the Mother's arrival and for Robin and Barney's wedding were a big head-fake? Really?). Even "True Detective," whose next season will center on all-new characters and a new storyline, ended its first season of deep philosophizing and arcane literary references by having its sleuths stumble upon the killer almost by dumb luck rather than expert puzzle-solving skills.
It's no wonder, then, that Monday's 66th annual Primetime Emmys served as a celebration of a series whose finale we're still talking about in mostly positive terms 11 months later, "Breaking Bad." True, Walt (Bryan Cranston) almost too neatly tied up all his loose ends before he died, but then, that's the kind of person he was. And he didn't tie up all loose ends; he didn't get to reconcile with his son, for instance. But he did free Jesse (Aaron Paul), kill off his remaining enemies, and provide financially for his family's future. Most important, he finally admitted to his wife Skylar (Anna Gunn) that he didn't turn to crime just to build a nest egg for his survivors but also because he enjoyed it. Everyone pretty much got what the fans felt they deserved, the show went out on a high note, and the series as a whole ended up looking like a classic, especially in light of this year's shows with weaker finales.
The ultimate in divisive, ambiguous finales was, of course, the 2007 conclusion to "The Sopranos," with its buildup of unbearable tension in that diner and its abrupt blackout, leaving Tony's (James Gandolfini) fate in narrative limbo. To this day, it's a climax fans argue about bitterly – which is also a measure of its success. Fans don't just debate whether or not Tony was about to die, but whether series creator David Chase ended the show in a fitting way or cheated fans out of closure by refusing to reveal Tony's fate.
For seven years, Chase has declined to say whether Tony survived long enough to finish his plate of onion rings or not, essentially arguing that it doesn't matter because Tony's story was over. Even if he lived, he'd still be sentenced to life as Tony Soprano – always having to look over his shoulder, always having to deal with his resentful family – and that might be poetic justice enough.
Wednesday's Vox interview seems to be the first time Chase has allowed the door to swing one way or the other. The article quotes him as saying of Tony, "No, he isn't" –- though it doesn't say what question he's answering (presumably, "Is Tony dead?").
If that's really what Chase meant to say, then the remark is itself a puzzler. Why break the silence now? Why break it at all? Why ruin the ambiguity he's made a point of preserving all these years?
Indeed, Chase and some of his TV critic acolytes seem to have spent the last couple of days walking back the remark. Chase issued a press release insisting that his remark was misconstrued. "There is a much larger context for that statement and as such, it is not true," the release read. "As David Chase has said numerous times on the record, 'Whether Tony Soprano is alive or dead is not the point.' To continue to search for this answer is fruitless. The final scene of 'The Sopranos' raises a spiritual question that has no right or wrong answer."
You could take Chase's press release one step further and argue that whatever he says doesn't matter, even if he's the guy who created the series and wrote and directed the last episode. No matter what he says, the episode exists, the ending exists, and it speaks for itself, no matter what its creator has to say about it. Whatever he may say now, a resolute answer to Tony's fate is simply not there on the screen. The ambiguous final shot isn't a puzzle to be solved; it's a moment whose crystallized uncertainty is emblematic of the six seasons' worth of episodes that preceded it.
TV is like life, in that sense. It shouldn't be about the ending, but about the journey. That's the way we experienced it while we watched it, and that's the way we experience it again in reruns, not with an eye toward how it will all wrap up in the end, but rather as an interesting stop along the way, to be savored and explored for its own merits. It would be nice if the end offered enough meaning to make sense of it all, but life doesn't always work out that way, and neither does TV.
Of course, you almost never know when life will end, while TV creators, if they're lucky, get a season or two of advance notice as to their show's finale date. Even so, some of them don't seem to plan well in the season or seasons leading up to the end; characters are killed or otherwise hastily written off and plot complications are either too quickly tied up and swept aside or ignored altogether. For many, that was the problem with the final season of "True Blood" (and other recent shows, including "Lost," which gave itself three seasons to resolve its mysteries and still ran out of time, or "The Office," which fumbled around its last season until it could coax Steve Carell to return for the finale).
So for those series whose finales we'll see during the upcoming season ("Boardwalk Empire," "Mad Men," "Parks and Recreation"), you scriptwriters have your work cut out for you. Plan well, but realize that you're not going to make every fan happy, tie up every loose end, or give every character satisfying closure. So you might as well embrace a little ambiguity. Better to leave fans wanting more than to overstuff them and make them feel queasy about the entire series.