How Game of Thrones compares to Breaking Bad, Lost, more finales

Should we bother with series finales? Is the whole idea of a TV show “ending” just a new lie invented for capitalism? The first burst of TV conclusions this century modeled bold-creative drapery: A true closing statement for The Sopranos, the planned discontinuance of Lost, a completed downward spiral for Breaking Bad. There was the oft-discussed possibility that this throw-it-at-the-wall medium was growing into your euphemism for artistic maturity. But musicians take farewell tours that aren’t farewell tours. And the easiest way to make a product look important is to offer it FOR A LIMITED TIME ONLY!

Is that all the modern series finale is? “Finality” as a brand extension? The assurance for viewers that what they are watching matters more than those silly season 5 plotlines they already forgot about? “Ask me again in 10 years,” said Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) in the series finale of Game of Thrones. You think the HBO of 2029 A.D. will say no to a reunion — or a limited revival series, the Star Trek: Picard of Westeros?

The first series finale in my adult life I recall as a proper event was 2004’s Sex and the City, a comparatively low-key jaunt from a comparatively low-key TV era, and a placeholder for movies you could still look forward to in those innocent days. The first series finale that ever really disappointed me came earlier, 2002, with The X-Files. That brand would also go on to produce miserable franchise extensions — though TV heaven really is Mulder and Scully fighting smartphones.

The first modern series finale that properly disappointed everyone was 1998’s Seinfeld, and even that received a spiritual sequel, a meta-reunion via successor series Curb Your Enthusiasm. Anecdotally, the dramatic series finale this decade that the broadest swath of people consider satisfying is Breaking Bad — and it didn’t even take 10 years for Vince Gilligan to start working on some kind of sequel. (General warning: If you see the title of a series from this point onwards, I’m probably discussing its final episode. But if you haven’t gotten to The Wire yet, well, it’s time.)

I know, I know. There are as many kinds of TV series finales as there are TV series as there are grains of sand on a beach from the very end of Amazon’s Catastrophe. And not every show is successful enough to even bother back-pocketing a return strategy. Endings are planned or unplanned, unhappy or happy, hamstrung by limitations or enriched by same. And any writing about “series finales” with any knowledgeable clarity can only tackle a small sample size. I could explain why Syfy’s 12 Monkeys series had a near-perfect finale, but that would require explaining 12 Monkeys to the human species that barely watched it. Whereas other people could tell you why The Shield finale was so great; still haven’t watched the series, gah, I’ll get to it when the monopolists pop the content bubble. (Required TV-critical mention here of the Dexter finale, a show I watched so barely that I only really know it as “the show about a lumberjack.”)

This week, the most common feeling I’ve heard about Game of Thrones is disappointment, but people get disappointed all the time. The 2010 Lost finale still gets brought up in letdown vocal tones, but hating the end of Lost is a played-out sentiment, I think, revealing ignorance of the buckwild bizarro willfulness buzzing through the ABC serial’s final act. No popular show since Lost has been even half as weird as Lost. Serialized science-fiction/fantasy got bigger budgets this decade, and corresponding shrunken ambitions. “Wow, what cool special effects!” was never a compliment you had to grasp for watching Lost.

Lost and Game of Thrones had one thing in common, a general ambience moreso than a specific story point. Both were genre shows constructed at cockeyed angle to their own genre. Lost inhaled a century-plus of cult fare, bedazzling familiar ideas with a playful self-awareness. It was a humanist story about people who know enough Twilight Zone to realize they are trapped in a Twilight ZoneThrones adapted George R. R. Martin’s fabulous novels into a de(con)structive anti-fantasy. Bran Stark — played onscreen by Isaac Hempstead Wright — was a little boy raised on heroic and horrifying fairy tales, monsters beyond the wall, noble knights fighting spider-things. So Bran’s a mythic protagonist raised on mythic protagonism, and when he’s paralyzed, it’s the first variation of a brutal lesson Thrones would teach often. The shining sparkle of noble heroism is an illusion, or even a delusion. Don’t trust the handsome warrior or the beautiful princess. Root for the cripples, the bastards, and broken things. Look in the shadows for the real power. Dragons are real, but you really have to worry about the bankers.

Around the midpoints of Game of Thrones and Lost, there was no one obvious hero. And then, in the end, both shows became a bit more obvious. Matthew Fox’s Jack Shephard and Kit Harington’s Jon Snow really were the saviors of their world, it turned out. I wonder if that, more than anything, explains the extreme reactions to both finales. There was an overdose on catharsis, a feeling that the whole world could be saved with extreme actions or messianic self-sacrifice. Tricky problem, teaching viewers to be smarter than your own clichés. (Lost co-creator Damon Lindelof nudged the final season of his next series, The Leftovers, in a more devastating, playful, human-focused direction. Notably, multiple Leftovers characters think the whole world can be saved with extreme action or messianic self-sacrifice — and this character trait is generally just evidence of profound internal sadness.)

Worth wondering, I think, if we’ve been looking at TV endings all wrong. There seems to be a feeling — on the part of creators, viewers, and the underlying corporations — that a finale needs to be big, that it needs to be decisive. Like, ugh, “stick the landing,” how many times have you seen that dull phrase bandied about lately, like a years-long creative collaboration requiring the minds and bodies and spiritual artistry of human beings is some merely athletic event?

One interesting thing about Game of Thrones on this point. The last half hour or so of the finale entered cathartic mop-up mode, granting all surviving characters rather happy endings. It’s very nearly the fantasy equivalent of the “life goes ever on” endings that rounded out The Wire and Friday Night Lights.

But here, “fantasy” really is the operative word. The Wire‘s version of life moving on meant a kind of evolved stasis. One heroin addict got clean right as one endearing teenager started injecting. Good people ditched the quagmire of politics, and so the remaining politicians quagmired Baltimore ever deeper. Friday Night Lights split the whole cast of characters across the country, carrying Texas forever in their hearts. Whereas Thrones actually handed out thrones to a couple Stark kids, and its version of punishment was smiling Jon Snow setting off with huggy-bear Tormund (Kristofer Hivju).

Those all felt like landings the show was trying to stick. You could see the wheels turning: What feels appropriate for these characters? Maybe it’s inevitable that the result feels like chest-puffing elitism, like the only endings allowed were commendations. You get the Kingsguard, you get the Grand Maestership, you get to be captain of your own ship!

Contrasted with: Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), who broke her own wheel, at least. Dany only appeared in two proper scenes of the finale. She almost seemed to be two different characters therein. Her big speech to the assembled dragon army was full-scale imperial, declaring a liberation philosophy that sounded like global tyranny. And then her one-on-one dialogue with Jon Snow was intimate, searching — almost pleading, given the deathly context, but if the scene ended differently, her words would sound romantic.

There’s a tradition in the fantasy genre of revisionist reboots: John Gardner’s Grendel retelling Beowulf from the creature’s perspective, the phenomenon of Wicked turning a witch into a complicated hero, that terrible idea someone had of turning Oz the Great and Powerful into a celebration of a swell cad and his kooky dames. George R. R. Martin still has to finish the original story of Daenerys Targaryen. But watching the Thrones finale, I also wondered if the next generation will conceive their own variation — if it won’t take too much to reimagine the end of Game of Thrones as the story of conspiring dudes and the woman they just never really understood.

Thrones felt fascinatingly unstable in its treatment of Daenerys. The show almost could’ve ended with her death, with Drogon carrying her into the clouds. To be clear, I don’t think showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss entirely knew what to do with the character — or with their other Queen, Cersei (Lena Headey), reduced to window-staring through season 8.

But sometimes I think the most interesting parts of a finale are the weirdest, the hardest to pin down. I know a lot of trusted people who love the narrative cleanliness of the Breaking Bad finale, or who worship the last episode of Bad‘s fellow secret-suburban-killer drama The Americans. But both those wrap-ups felt stained with heroic vanity, an urge to find grace for the main-character murder gods. Walter White (Bryan Cranston) became an avenging angel, not a good guy certainly but someone killing literal Nazis. Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell) wound up a hero of the late Cold War, not a good person certainly but someone whose actions help rescue a literal Gorbachev.

Not too much vanity, by comparison, in the last episode of The Sopranos. Are people still complaining about the end of the HBO mob drama? Are they crazy? That’s a series finale that comes back to life every time you watch it, enriched with the curious horror that the story doesn’t seem to know it is ending.

There is a branch of analytical thinking that has “solved” Sopranos, declaring that the non-conclusion is a fatal conclusion, the Death of James Gandolfini’s Tony. I don’t know. It remains a question mark — like the main character himself, who almost grasps deeper spiritual awareness right before he descends into gambling and best-pal murder. And much as the Thrones finale tried to “explain” Dany — much as it leaned hard on its favorite climactic trope, Tyrion Gives A Speech, to note her career arc rising killing bad guys to killing all people everywhere — she feels like a question mark, too.

So many series finales construct themselves as an answer to questions: Who will sit on the Iron Throne or What is the Island, sure, but also something like What will happen to Walter White? or Will Ross and Rachel ever get together? Or, heck, coming soon: Whither Deadwood, whither America, eh?

Maybe no answer can ever satisfy. And maybe the peculiar magic of television lies in the lingering uncertainty. One of the most wonderful finales nobody watched arrived in 2015 on a streaming platform that died soon after. And yet the end of Community lives on as a glorious counterargument against the whole idea of a proper TV ending. The finale of the cultish sitcom constructed itself as a pitch session for future revivals: Why not continue on with a new cast? Why not start a new show where some of the same characters hang out in a bar? On Community, television was always a metaphor for life — or vice versa, maybe, I don’t know how metaphors work — and in the finale of Community, life itself was the ultimate spin-off showcase, endless variations on an eventually forgotten theme, your very existence a tangled IP that evolves until you barely recognize yourself.

I know, I know, I know: “Lingering uncertainty,” yeesh, we’re feeling fancy today. What’s the point comparing Community, a low-rated sitcom the internet briefly cared about eons ago, to Game of Thrones, one of the biggest TV shows ever, so popular that there are whole metropolitan populations of disappointed viewers (and double-reverse-backlashing defenders)? Popularity itself can be a problem, though, encouraging self-regard right when creative minds should be turning a sharper analytical eye on their characters. Compare the original series finales of Arrested Development and Futurama to their latter-day extended farewell. Canceled by Fox, the quietly adored shows went out with a bang, with hastily taped-together sendoffs overstuffed with every last possibility from the idea box: A gala, a musical, siblings flirting, the Queen Mary! And then, uncanceled into eternal fandom, they limped into fan service and repetition.

You can’t offer a roadmap here. Some of the most disappointing series finales are the ones that work the hardest to offer catharsis. And there are great series finales that go small, focusing their energies on a few specific characters. The brilliant final scene of FX’s lawman crime opera Justified is just a straightforward conversation between Timothy Olyphant’s Raylan and Walton Goggins’ Boyd, a gunless “showdown” that’s all about mood, the feeling that these two guys are linked forever.

Contrast that with something like Adventure Time, which wrapped its fabulous run with a fully epic finale, a cosmic conflagration featuring a perfect song written by animation auteur Rebecca Sugar and an ending montage that played like a couple more seasons of pure subplot. You could say that Thrones tried to split the difference. The first half of the finale reduced the ice-and-fire components to Dany, Jon, a dragon in the snow. The second half expanded outwards, encompassing the new Prince of Dorne and new political realities across the continent.

Somewhere in the middle — between intimate drama and a cosmic sensibility, between a planned farewell and an eternally unanswered cliffhanger — lies the strange case of Twin Peaks. The show ended in 1991 with a hanging horror that begged new installments. It continued with a 1992 movie that made a familiar story unfamiliar, a prequel that seemed to take place after the show’s cliffhanger, but without any added clarity.

And then the economics of modern pop culture allowed for a 2017 return. It wasn’t for everyone, not the way Game of Thrones was in its golden years. Depending on your mood, you could say the new Twin Peaks had a fair number of answers — or you could pull your hair out watching it create a thousand new mysteries. Even the very last line of properly spoken dialogue is a question: “What year is it?” And then Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) screams, or maybe she isn’t Laura Palmer: That’s a question, too.

Maybe you think it’s a cheat, Sopranos and Twin Peaks with their cuts to black, the wheels rolling on through Community and Friday Night Lights and The Wire. Weren’t we promised an ending? Absolutely, and here’s my final thought.

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