NEW YORK — Now that the dust (and ricin) have settled from Sunday’s “Breaking Bad” finale, it’s worth considering what makes a drama series’ exit good or bad.
As much as fans may miss “Breaking Bad,” they were able to bid farewell satisfied that it met its obligations at the end no less than it did every week from the first episode.
“Breaking Bad” left the air with a finale that stands alongside the best ever, inventively tying up five seasons of narrative loose ends.
Now what about a bad finale? Easy: “Dexter,” which aired the week before.
It was disappointing, full of holes and a disservice to a series that, against all odds, managed to make a sociopathic serial killer attractive and believable to viewers for eight slice-and-dice seasons. The finale was a contrivance meant to drag the series to the finish line. In only that respect did it succeed.
But not every worthwhile series even gets a finale.
In 2010, “Law & Order” concluded after 20 seasons and some 450 episodes missing a proper goodbye or opportunity for closure. Though it was largely episodic, without the serialized through-line many dramas trade on epically, “Law & Order” and its viewers were denied the ceremony they were due at the end.
Similarly, “Deadwood” fans still grouse that HBO pulled the plug in 2006 after its three seasons with no finale or, despite vague promises by the network, a movie that could wrap up this rich, complex frontier saga.
The finale for “House,” though hardly at the level of best-ever, did right by this medical series when it aired in 2012 after an eight-season run. The quirky, pill-popping Dr. House was facing jail for a prank gone wrong as well as the demise of his cancer-ridden best friend. He faked his own death to evade arrest, then he and Wilson rode into the sunset on their motorcycles. The perfect getaway. The perfect ending.
No finale was more wickedly perfect than that of “The Shield,” aired in 2008. Detective Vic Mackey, its brutish anti-hero, received a fate worse than death or any prison term: the loss of authority as well as his family into witness protection, and a desk job as part of his immunity agreement.
Not only an honest tearjerker, the finale of “Six Feet Under” in 2005 was flawlessly in synch with the series’ sensibility. A drama about a funeral home, it had been a five-season meditation on life and death. Fittingly, the finale tracked the life and eventual death of its family of characters. The moral was clear and beautifully drawn: No one is immune.
Or course, some finales leave viewers scratching their heads as much as nodding them with pleasure. After six seasons and 120 episodes, “Lost” left the air in 2010 with a rapturous close that provided more comfort and inspiration than hard answers. For one last time, viewers were obliged to get lost in the many dimensions of “Lost,” and did. On its own oblique terms, it worked.
But there was no more jaw-dropping finish to a show than that of “St. Elsewhere,” a pioneering, often mordantly funny hospital drama a quarter-century ago. On the night of May 25, 1988, viewers learned that the series’ entire six-season run had been a figment of an autistic child’s imagination. His snow globe containing a toy replica of the hospital was seen in the series’ final shot.
If that ending fueled debate, its scale and intensity was nothing compared to the uproar after “The Sopranos” cut to black in June 2007.
An argument can still be sparked among “Sopranos” fans over What That Ending Meant:
Was the nervous implication (that Tony Soprano was about to be whacked as he dined with his family in a local restaurant) carried out after the screen went dark? Or had Tony, glancing up, just been acknowledging his daughter Meadow’s entrance?
Was the scene one of brilliant ambiguity (life goes on, whether or not TV keeps showing it to viewers), or a screwing-around-with-the-audience cop-out?
After all this time, no resolution has ever been arrived at, while, ever since that historic blackout, conflicting views have only hardened. “The Sopranos” got flack (and praise) for an inconclusive ending, and still does. The furious debate proves how good it was.
“Breaking Bad” (a vastly different show in nearly every way) chose a different kind of ending: Display the complete puzzle with the pieces all in place, letting viewers at last see everything with clarity.
Good finales are recalled and spur conversation for years, as that of “Breaking Bad” is likely to do.
Meanwhile, future finales are eagerly awaited, long before viewers are ready to turn loose of the series.
For instance, “Mad Men”: What will be Don Draper’s destiny? We’ve got two years to wonder.
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