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True Detective, Fargo, and the problem with TV endings

Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey starred in the first season of True Detective. They were great. As you'd expect.
Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey starred in the first season of True Detective. They were great. As you'd expect.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

2014 taught me that I don't like endings.

To me, the ending of a story is almost always less interesting than the continuation of a story. And looking at my fellow critics' top 10 lists on the annual Hitfix poll only drove this point home for me even further.

Almost everybody had either Fargo or True Detective in their top 10 list somewhere. I found room for neither.

It's entirely possible I'm wrong. Both series are part of the newest, hottest trend in television, where each season of a show tells a discrete story, with separate characters and settings. The harbinger of this trend was FX's American Horror Story, but it exploded this year, with Fargo and True Detective garnering huge critical support and awards attention.

Certainly both series are worthy of that attention. Fargo is a better show than True Detective, by a slim margin. But both featured fantastic performances, great writing, and mesmerizing direction. They were hugely cinematic series — True Detective with its oily Southern grime; Fargo with its snowy Midwestern dreamscapes — that took big storytelling chances because they could. Getting to tell their whole stories in one season meant that anybody could die, any plot twist could legitimately change everything, and every story point had to matter.

But that also put a lot of weight on each story's respective ending. And in that regard, both shows came up short.

Finale backlash

So much was written about the True Detective finale, and so much backlash was directed against it, that to a degree it changed the public perception of the show. What had been hailed as one of the freshest, most innovative detective shows in years was derided by some as a show that revealed itself as just another cop series, with some cool philosophizing and great performances. (I would argue the show had always been just another cop series in its structural bones, but the time-jumping narrative following a case across decades made that easy to ignore.)

Billy Bob Thornton played a contract killer in Fargo. (FX)

Less was said about how the Fargo finale took a show that had been gloriously, weirdly unpredictable and stuffed it back into a safe box marked "order out of chaos." It was easy to see what series writer Noah Hawley was trying to do here. Having brought the horrific randomness of violence to the perfectly rigid life of small-town Minnesota, he was hoping to restore some measure of that rigidity. But that led a series that had felt imbued with the randomness of real life throughout to become trapped by convenience.

A disappointing ending makes neither series "bad." Both were great fun to watch, and both sit comfortably among the best TV shows of the year. If you're the kind of person who loves great acting, then both series provided ample opportunity to appreciate just that. And it's also worth pointing out that this is the first time Hawley and True Detective's Nic Pizzolatto have ever done something like this. Practice makes perfect, and the upcoming second seasons of both shows will hopefully improve upon the first in ways even the most skeptical of viewers will be impressed by.

But that quibbling over endings reflects some of the arguments over Breaking Bad's conclusion last year, where many argued the program's finale felt too tidy. It also recalls the current consternation over the thought that the ending of Serial, the podcast sensation, won't be satisfying enough, even though the program is based on real life, which is not known for providing satisfying endings.

As Time's James Poniewozik remarked as Battlestar Galactica came to an end, we often don't want endings to just conclude stories. We want them to provide answers — answers for why things happened in the story as they did, or answers for why we watched. If the destination was disappointing, then the journey has to be a little bit too, right?

I would say wrong. The journey is the point. It has to be in television.

Questions and answers

One of the smartest things I've ever heard said about television came from the mouth of master showrunner and Avengers director Joss Whedon, speaking at a screenwriting conference in 2005 in support of his then-new movie Serenity. Movies, he told the assembled crowd, are answers. They pose particular story points and characters, then bring them to a kind of resolution. Even the most artistic, avant garde movie you can think of is, in some way, bounded by possible answers about what it means — even if we argue over what they might be.

But television, Whedon said, is all about questions. If movies want to take us into a space of definition, then television wants to be about possibility. It wants us to believe that every week could bring the best episode, that every story could be better than the last. Obviously, this works much better in theory than in practice, as TV shows that run too long quickly grow enervating, while a movie that runs too long is over in three or four hours. But in theory, it's such a beautiful idea, isn't it? An endless well of amazing stories, driven by characters you care about, moving always, propulsively forward.

This is why I tend to favor endings that aren't endings. The finale of The Sopranos suggests that there are other stories to tell about these characters, regardless of how you feel about Tony's fate. So does the ending of Cheers. And the British Office. We just won't get to see those stories, because our time with these characters was always destined to be limited. But the possibility lives on.

Both True Detective and Fargo tried to be satisfying, above all else, to provide the answers to both questions viewers had and to thematic questions the programs themselves had raised. But in so doing, they closed off so much of that possibility that makes the medium run, that makes shows live on in the imagination. Compare either to, for instance, the most recent season finales of The Americans or Hannibal, two episodes of television that would have worked beautifully as series finales but still left lots of room open for future stories.

This new method of telling separate stories with every new season of a show is still in its early years. I suspect that in time, it will become one of the primary methods of telling TV stories, and we'll be looking to Pizzolatto, Hawley, and American Horror Story's Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk as pioneers. And in time, maybe the possibility engine that drives television will return to these stories as well.

But for right now, is it so wrong to want television that acts like television? I love movies and books and their definitive endings, too, but for different reasons. I want my television shows to exist not just in the episodes and seasons that make them up, but in the gaps between them, when we wait and wonder and hope next week brings something even better than the last.

Come back every day of December for Vox's picks of some of our favorite pop culture of 2014.