*Editor’s note: this article contains spoilers for the True Detective and How I Met Your Mother Finales. There’s also discussion of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and LOST, though no actual spoilers for those programs.
Here’s the thing about a series finale: you cannot get it right. Or, perhaps more specifically, you cannot win the series finale, you can only lose. The finale episode of a television show is like a cover letter for a dream job: no matter how great your letter, it won’t get you the job. But it very easily could cost you the job.
I’ve been thinking about finales a lot this week. I’ve watched two. The first was True Detective (though not technically a series finale, it functions as one) and the second was How I Met Your Mother. These shows have nothing in common. Nothing. On the spectrum of television programming, they could not be further apart.
Except in one key way: each ended terribly.
Before we get to that, though, here’s what I think a satisfying series finale calls for: an emotionally acceptable exit for viewers who have invested their time. That’s it. When we watch a show, we enter into a contract with the show’s creators. We don’t know quite what it will be when we start, but by the end, we know (or should), and we want to walk away feeling something in accordance with the bargain. A finale does not have to provide all the answers, it doesn’t have to dot all the Is and cross all the Ts. It can have a surprise right at the last minute that realigns all the pieces we’ve already seen. It can do anything. Just let me leave feeling satisfied for giving you my time. Sitcom, drama, PBS documentary series, sci-fi apocalyptic zombie-horror. Doesn’t matter. Keep the contract, and provide an exit.
If that seems a low bar, history proves otherwise.
Every show builds a world, creates characters, relationships, stories, questions and expectations. No matter your genre, this is what our stories consist of. The more time you invest in a show, not just watching a show but thinking about it and talking about it and celebrating it, the more important it is for the finale to provide that exit to its viewers.
This, in my opinion, is why the LOST finale was such a let down. Throughout the series J.J. Abrams and his crew crafted a compelling and mysterious world by embracing and mashing up the sci-fi/mystery/adventure/suspense genres. Fans attached strongly to the mysteries of the show, and that was part of the appeal of LOST. We felt akin to these characters because we, too, had no answers. We never got ahead of Jack, but like him, we always assumed someone had some answers. But in the end these mysteries were rejected, and instead LOST opted for an emotional exit for the characters. If the castaways found some kind of peaceful conclusion (or whatever), audiences were left with just another mystery. As viewers, we did not get our exit.
Compare that with another beloved series, the horror-drama Buffy the Vampire Slayer. After seven long seasons of mixed quality spent expanding the Buffy-verse, the 2-part finale was tasked with tying up more than a few loose ends. And it did feel rushed; the plot pushed just to the breaking point of belief, and the Whedon dial is turned up to 11. But Buffy’s finale is a triumph. Whedon and co. know exactly what needs to be done in those final moments, and they achieve it. The viewers, after what feels like a lifetime with Buffy, can walk away pleased not because we understand everything that just happened, but because we are given the opportunity to share the satisfaction of conclusion that is found inside the show (this is vague, but I’m trying to avoid spoilers). We get our exit, regardless of whether Buffy and the Scoobies gets theirs.
All of which is to say, a finale is not only about tying up the loose-ends, or revealing the mystery, or pairing up the central romantic coupling. It’s also always about showing the audience out of the auditorium with dignity. About closing the back-cover of the book with a few last lines to hold on to and remember. I’ve invested, give me some return. Don’t cheat me out of my investment.
People invested heavily in True Detective. Though only 8 episodes, the murder mystery the plot is built around was poured over, and the identity of the killer and the fate of Detectives Cohle and Hart, as revealed in the finale carried overwhelming weight. How I Met Your Mother was also heavily invested in, though in a different way. After 9 seasons, HIMYM became inescapable in American popular culture. The show is in constant syndication (and I mean constant) and the jokes and characters (especially Barney) have seeped into the broader imagination of the public. Both of these finales were hyped, and are structured around their ending: The reveal of the mystery and the meeting of the mother.
So how did True Detective and HIMYM go wrong? It happened in the same way, in fact: both finale’s exit with a surprise that, when revealed, changes not only the plot (that’s what surprise endings are for) but the contract we, as audience members, signed on to.
The True Detective finale has been considered and analyzed here at length, and I won’t go into as much detail as Andrew has already done so well. But suffice it to say that the last 10 minutes of the finale are as poor an exit for a show as I can remember. Really. The reveal of the killer, as is needed in a murder mystery, wasn’t great, but that happens. Someone has to be the killer, and in True Detective, there really weren’t that many options. That’s not the kind of problem that derails a series.
The problem comes with the redemption through resurrection of Rust, and his re-positioning in the the battle of the light vs. the dark. This ending, of uplift and hope, actually requires viewers to suspend our understanding of True Detective. The conversation Rust and Marty have outside the hospital just doesn’t live in True Detective. Hope does not live in this show. Perhaps if we spent 3 or 4 seasons with Rust and Marty, it might be plausible to reach this kind of change in the story. A longing to return to the love of your deceased child is a beautiful sentiment, but it literally does not live in the 8-episodes Nic Pizzolatto created. That it doesn’t is one of the great things about True Detective. This is a show about bad men who spend their lives pursuing bad men. I love that about True Detective. That’s a show that takes real courage to make.
This ending, though, takes no courage. The rising Christ-figure comes back with a message from the other world? How can a show of such creativity land on such a pedestrian conclusion? This is made even worse by the fact that True Detective has, only minutes prior to this scene, the perfect ending in Rust’s hospital room, as Marty and Rust trade barbs and lament that they could not bring down all those involved in the murders they investigated.
Whether you enjoy the level of brutality and depravity and moral chaos True Detective embraces or not, that’s what this show is. The writers provide a guide to the viewers through the chaos, the Virgil to our Dante, who looks unwavering at the black and tells us what he sees. Waiting until the final moments of the show to redeem our philosophical guide, pulling him out of the chaos and depravity and placing him on the path to light is no way to restructure a show. Let alone in the final 5 minutes. It’s a fatal flaw.
Too little depravity in the ending is not the problem for How I Met Your Mother. Thank goodness. But HIMYM also tacked on a surprise ending at the finale that fundamentally alters the contract between the show and the viewer.
In the case of HIMYM, the writers perhaps just got too clever. They were seduced by symmetry, and wanted to end the show where it began, with Ted and Robin. On paper that might seem appealing, but it eschews what the show’s writers gave audiences to hold on to in the first place: Ted’s obsessive romanticism. For 9 seasons, HIMYM told viewers about the dream girl that Ted would eventually find. The bass-playing nerd girl of his dreams.
Finally Ted meets her. But the audience does not. We never meet the mother, not really, and it’s a shame because she was the best thing going in a terrible last season. Cristin Millioti plucking out La Vie en Rose on her ukulele is easily the most memorable moment in season 9, and the treatment she is given by the writers is disgraceful. That moment, Ted alone in the night, hearing a beautiful song beautifully rendered by a woman he does not yet know will be his wife, that is the contract viewers signed with HIMYM.
But we don’t get it. Instead we get a device. The mother arrives, dutifully plays her part in the writers’ plans, then dies off to make room for a pre-ordained ending that just doesn’t fit. I feel sorry for the mother in How I Met Your Mother. She was the dream girl the show was built around, and she didn’t even get to spend her time with him. She was relegated to taking the picture of Ted and the gang. She should be in that fucking picture.
The problem is not that Tracey gets sick, that she tragically dies in middle-age. That happens all the time, and building the show’s climax to the death of the mother would have been, if nothing else, emotionally powerful. It would, I think, have allowed viewers the exit necessary. But as it happened, no. Her life and introduction to the show and sudden death only serves the last 60 seconds of the series. That’s a pretty harsh punishment, writers room.
Luckily for these shows, a series does not wholly depend upon its finale. Both How I Met Your Mother and True Detective have bad finales. But they are not bad shows. Most finales, in fact, fail to the provide audiences a satisfying and emotionally poignant exit. Perhaps it’s inevitable. How I Met Your Mother was excellent, once, but has been mediocre for a few years, and the final season was down right poor. Why would we think the finale would be different? Reverse that, and the problem remains. The first 7 episodes of True Detective make for incredible (if problematic) television. It felt new, creative, different; no small feat for a detective murder mystery. How can a finale possibly live up to that?
I believe that a bad finale does not necessarily ruin what came before. The last five minutes of a commitment, be it years long or short and intenste, doesn’t erase the past. I mean, my favorite television show is Battlestar Galactica. The first seven seasons of X-Files are brilliant, and remain so despite the post-Mulder seasons and the finale of season 9. That’s too much responsibility for a single episode, and unfair. Not every finale can be as satisfying as M*A*S*H* or Buffy or Friends.
Still. How a person feels when they stand up from their couch at the end of their investment matters. Maybe it should matter more in the writers room. Not by pandering to the audience, of course. But by upholding the bargain that we’ve made together.