Monday, October 19, 2015

Worst Series Finales—Dexter, Sopranos, How I Met Your Mother, Smallville

Warning: Obviously, there are huge spoilers here if you haven’t yet seen these series’ endings.

Screenwriting is largely about setups and payoffs. You set up the characters’ dilemmas, contradictions, problems, etc., and then you pay the setup off with some kind of resonant resolution. Of course, you might say that there’s a distinction between entertainment and art - while entertainment requires clear payoffs, art shouldn’t be restricted by that expectation. There are two problems with this. The first is that if you do not intend to pay off the setups you create, you should warn the audience in some way that you are doing art rather than entertainment. The second is that if you have talent, then you can do both entertainment and art simultaneously. The work of a talented artist can satisfy the requirements of both entertainment and art in TV series finales.

So let’s look at the finale examples in four TV series’:


The relevant setups were largely around the ignorance of the detectives versus the genius of Dexter. So the resolution should have been the detectives realise the truth, and the genius of Dexter wins or loses depending on big picture factors of life. Instead, the finale leaves the detectives still clueless, and Dexter foolishly tells everybody that he’s going to Argentina, which increases the likelihood that the spotlight will be shone on himself and/or his family after his escape from America. In reality, he would have had escape plans worked out years ago because he is smart. He would have told everybody he’s going to France, for example, and then would have gone to Argentina at the last minute, even surprising his new lover in the process. The finale would then have been about whether he succeeded or not.

Personally, I see him walking along a sunny beach with his woman and child. I would have had a camera pointing up towards the sky with Dexter smiling down, the wind blowing through his hair—the message being that life and God are murderers. But the complexity of life could have interfered along the way to take it another direction. Or the detectives could have figured it out and caught him or there could have been a shootout. Instead, he boats off into a hurricane and survives that to become a lumberjack, leaving his kid alone with a serial killer in Argentina. That is a fucking ridiculous plan for such a smart calculating guy.

The writers said the setup was whether he would become human and the payoff is that he did become human and couldn’t live with the remorse and was punishing himself by living in seclusion. Firstly, that’s not what the audience saw as the main setup. Secondly, his decision to be human was already resolved, so punishing him for past crimes made it seem you can never transcend your past, which is a lousy message.


The relevant setups were the luxurious lifestyle versus the ugly reality behind it all, and the delusion of Tony’s wife and the daughter. The obvious payoff, therefore, was to show the full truth about Tony to the wife and daughter. So I would have had him arrested for the murder of many people, including Adriana and Meadow’s first boyfriend. Then we could have seen the wife pretending it’s all lies and the daughter finally twigging to just how evil Tony is. Then the wife could go to jail too, and the couple spend the rest of their lives contemplating all that they have done and lost. Indeed, I thought Tony getting spiritual and taking drugs, and the wife going to Europe were experiences that gave them a taste of a better life so that it would make the restrictions of prison life harder to bear.

Instead, we get a purely artistic ending. The director said that the audience loved Tony, and so I presume the camera cutting to black was the killing of Tony and the audience. Actually, the director David Chase said:

“The way I see it is that Tony Soprano had been peoples' alter ego… They had cheered him on. And then, all of a sudden, they wanted to see him punished for all that… I thought that was disgusting, frankly.” [The Sopranos: The Complete Book. pp.182 -185]

So it seems the director the finale was about the director getting revenge on the audience for enjoying the Tony character yet simultaneously wanting justice meted out to him. Attacking the audience - how indulgent is that?

Even logically, Tony saw all these guys entering the restaurant and acting suspiciously, so why wouldn’t he respond instead of acting oblivious? Another setup that wasn’t resolved was Tony complaining endlessly to the psychologist, yet the psychologist had been raped. An obvious resolution would be that Tony finds out and realises what a complainer he is compared to how brave she is. By the way, Tony’s son suddenly wanted to join the army yet he suffers from panic attacks and depression. How is that even remotely possible?


This is a romcom, so we reasonably expect a light and happy ending. Furthermore, the characters all grew really well through the series. But, in the end, the characters reverted to their previous immaturity and they ruined the goal of the whole series—Ted’s meeting with the mother. Horrible ending. The first setup was, “Will he get Robin?” The answer was no. Disappointing, but that’s life. And the real mother well and truly made up for that disappointment by being wonderful in so many ways. So they should have ended it with Robin and Barney being happy, and Ted and the mother on the train station under the umbrella… “And that’s how I met your mother.”

By the way, they should have had him ask her why she is standing in the rain rather than under the station roof, and she would have said, “Because it’s raining,” i.e. she was enjoying the rain, which is another thing he could have loved about her.

Romcom is about escapism. Instead, How I Met Your Mother became about regression and death. I was gutted for weeks after that finale.


The gigantic setup was Lois not knowing that Clark is the Blur, and furthermore, that he’s an alien. So I would have liked to see three episodes of her coming to terms with that gigantic news. Instead, she accepts it straight away. Same thing happened with Lana. Also, how does he suddenly have the power to move a gigantic asteroid? They should have built up to it by him getting stronger and stronger. Or have him take nukes to the asteroid. As it was, the ending felt completely unrealistic. Sure, the series was already unrealistic but it didn’t excessively violate its own internal realism. To do so in the finale was incredibly lazy.


While watching many TV series, I always get the feeling by about the third-last episode that there’s not enough time left for the resolution. The writers often leave it all to the last episode, and that’s never enough time.

A good ending can save a bad series. And a bad ending can ruin a good series. A bad ending is tolerable in a film because it’s only 2 hours of your life. But a TV series can involve you for years. You owe it to your audience to make a great finale, preferably with great payoffs while beginning the finale a few episodes before the end so you have time to payoff all the setups.

Here’s hoping that producers and networks raise the standard for finales in future.

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