clock menu more-arrow no yes
Javier Zarracina/Vox

The delicate art of the TV series finale

Ending a TV show is equal parts philosophy, craft, and luck.

It’s a muggy Atlanta afternoon, and Lee Pace is filming what will become the final shot of the final episode of the AMC drama Halt and Catch Fire.

He has to deliver just one line: “Let me start by asking a question.” It calls back to the series’ very first episode, when Pace’s character, Joe, first met Cameron, the woman whose connection to him would help propel the series across four seasons and more than a decade of time. (Halt and Catch Fire, ostensibly about the tech boom of the ’80s and ’90s, long ago shifted its focus to its characters and their clashing ambitions.)

The young extras surrounding Pace are dressed in vintage mid-’90s student fashions. (He is meant to be their high school teacher now, instead of the would-be tech mogul he was throughout the series.) Most of the extras look to be in their late teens; having been a little younger than them in the actual mid-’90s — though just a little — watching them file through the lunch line at catering earlier in the day was like being visited by a long succession of half-remembered dreams.

Director Karyn Kusama, who’s helmed at least one episode in every season of Halt and Catch Fire, takes her time with the shot. Series co-creator and co-showrunner Christopher C. Rogers arrived just a few minutes ago from Los Angeles, to be present when the final scene of his TV series is put to bed. When it lands on viewers’ television screens months later, it will ache with a sense of warmth, nostalgia, and loss, coming as it does at the end of Halt and Catch Fire’s best season, a beautiful summation of everything the show stood for. It will be scored to Peter Gabriel’s “Solsbury Hill” and edited so it cuts away at just the right moment.

But right now, it’s just Pace, Kusama, Rogers, and the crew. They try a bunch of variations. What if the camera moved like this? What if Pace paused for a beat before saying the line? What if he put the emphasis on different words? The extras watch attentively, as if he were really their instructor. And then, finally, Kusama and Rogers decide they have it. The crew moves on to other shots that will comprise the series’ final montage, depicting Joe’s new career evolution.

“Ten of Swords,” Halt and Catch Fire’s final episode, lands at an interesting time for the TV series finale. Because the advent of streaming has made serialized dramas more valuable to their studios as complete sets, with beginnings, middles, and ends, more and more low-rated shows are running three, four, or even five seasons and getting the chance to thoughtfully wrap up their stories. (The perpetually little-watched Halt is a prime example, with only one episode, the pilot, having topped 1 million viewers for an initial broadcast.)

So not only has the meticulously planned TV series finale become more common, with fewer and fewer shows each year just ending in mid-thought, but it’s become more important. A critic like me can say the journey is more important than the destination until he’s blue in the face, but to many fans, that journey will be forever marred if the destination ends up being a disappointment. The specter of disappointing finales (from universally derided endings like Dexter’s to more divisive ones like Breaking Bad’s or Lost’s — both of which I really like) looms, and nobody wants to fall prey to it. But the more ambitious swings TV takes, the more likely bad finales become.

Nobody is actively fretting about such an outcome on the Halt and Catch Fire set this July afternoon. But the concern can’t be far from their minds all the same. Filming ends in less than a week. Post-production will end in a matter of months. And then Halt and Catch Fire will either be a show that stuck the landing or one that was pretty good until it wasn’t.

So, y’know, don’t screw it up.

The Sopranos versus Six Feet Under scale: a proposed binary for characterizing TV show endings

The Sopranos
The Sopranos ended on a moment of supreme irresolution.
HBO

If you’ve watched the Halt and Catch Fire finale, you’ll hopefully agree with me that the show ended beautifully. The final two hours — aired as one big episode by AMC — left all the characters in a place where they had attained closure, but where the audience could still imagine what might come next. In particular, the series hinted at potential fates for several characters without spelling out precisely what happened to them.

In other words, Halt and Catch Fire landed on the Sopranos side of the Sopranos versus Six Feet Under series finale scale.

I talked to a number of different showrunners and writers for this article — some on the record and some on background — and the number of people who suggested The Sopranos and Six Feet Under as twin poles on a massive sliding scale of series finales got me thinking about the two as opposite endpoints on the same spectrum.

The Sopranos famously ended with a moment of supreme irresolution. Tony, seated in a diner, waiting for his daughter to arrive, looked up toward the camera before the scene cut to black. Did he live? Die? Something else entirely? You couldn’t know for sure, and the ending led some fans to worry their cable had glitched. The moment has since become a TV legend — a “where were you when?” sort of thing — and your theory about what happens to Tony after The Sopranos ends (or your lack of one) says as much about you as it does the show itself.

Six Feet Under, in contrast, ended with a beautiful montage that revealed exactly how every one of its main characters died, long after the concluding action of the finale, which involved the Fisher family’s baby sister Claire riding off into the sunset to pursue her dreams. (She would live until the age of 102, in 2085 — the world makes it at least that far in the Six Feet Under universe.) The show’s final scenes sketched in quick hints of what each character’s life had been like between Claire’s drive and their eventual deaths. The finale was all resolution, all the time.

Javier Zarracina

Neither of these approaches is better than the other; which one you choose depends on the kind of story you’re trying to tell. What matters is closure — and what qualifies as closure differs for every single show.

Here’s a good rule of thumb, then: You’ll want to have a sense that the events of the series have either changed the characters or better revealed who they really are, if only to the audience. “You want to know that things won’t continue as business as usual for these people from here on out,” says Halt and Catch Fire co-creator and co-showrunner Christopher Cantwell. “In the full spectrum of their lives, here is the cross section of their lives that we told because it was the interesting one.”

The finales of The Sopranos and Six Feet Under, different though they may be, both hit that criteria. The action of the Sopranos finale indicates that Tony will always be who Tony is, and the ending doesn’t violate that basic conclusion. If we were to keep watching, we’d just see him continue to repeat his old mistakes.

Six Feet Under, meanwhile, reaches a place where the characters are mostly okay, and the flash-forwards to their deaths in its finale indicate that, for the most part, they stayed in that place of okayness. They might have struggled here and there — but they were basically fine.

Six Feet Under
Six Feet Under ended with a beautiful montage showing all of the characters’ lives post-series.
HBO

“Even if you don’t fully, literally complete the story of the character, you can put the emotional story of that character to bed in your own consciousness,” Cantwell says. “We had to do that as writers. I can’t be wandering around, wondering what’s going to happen to Joe MacMillan anymore, to function in society, because I’m not being paid to do it.”

Damon Lindelof, the Lost co-creator who just wrapped his tremendous HBO series The Leftovers in June, believes a good finale provides the closure Cantwell is describing but also leaves viewers feeling like they just finished watching the most important part of a character’s life.

“When Sam switches off the lights [at the end of Cheers], you’re basically like, he’s going to be a bartender. He’s going to have more girlfriends. He’s going to have further adventures, but they’re not as interesting as everything else that you just showed me. You showed me the most important part,” Lindelof says. “Closure can sometimes look like the opposite of closure. What you really need to chase is something that’s authentic.”

This question of “closure” often leads writers to believe that what viewers most want is the certainty that things will be just fine for the characters. And that can be true. But still, the ending of Dexter, which ended with the titular serial killer becoming a lumberjack in the Pacific Northwest, never atoning for his crimes, remains a cautionary tale. Facile “closure” superseded what would have been a more satisfying story.

“Great endings fulfill the unspoken promise of the show, which is to say they leave you in a place where you feel finally satisfied, even if the satisfaction is about wanting more, or about feeling sadness for the characters, or feeling disquiet,” says Joel Fields, co-showrunner of the FX drama The Americans. “It’s about feeling dramatically satisfied and feeling some level of cathartic relief.”

The opposite is true for long-running sitcoms, where viewers almost always want to know the characters are going to be functionally okay. Only the rare series finale reveals each and every thing that happens to the characters after the credits roll, but most sitcoms do try to suggest that everything will be all right for all involved. (Three sitcom finales that tried to delve into the darker sides of their characters’ post-show lives — Roseanne, Will & Grace, and How I Met Your Mother — faced significant backlash for that decision.)

One sitcom that did offer a more open-ended but hopeful take on its characters was Parks and Recreation, which ended after seven seasons in 2015. And Michael Schur, its co-creator, told me on the eve of the finale, “In the final scene, the idea was that every character gets one last little joke or comment. I was like, ‘In this last scene, everybody should say one thing, and that one thing should be kind of a representative sample of what that actor or that character meant to the show.’”

Still, Schur said, it was difficult to finish: “That scene took me about three days to write. It's like three-quarters of a page long. I wasn't anticipating the real sense of like, ‘Oh God, I'm killing these characters as I write these final words.’ And that was very hard to overcome.”

So the first step of making a series finale involves deciding just how far you want to push toward answering each and every question the audience might have — and what will best fit the series you’ve constructed. But once the script is written, well, you still have to produce it, and every little choice made on set and in post-production might throw everything off course.

How to make a series finale — from script to set to screen

Halt and Catch Fire
Much of the Halt and Catch Fire finale centers on the friendship between Cameron and Donna.
AMC

“It’s like when a 95-year-old woman dies. I’m sad because I loved her, and she was a great grandmother, but she had a good life,” says Halt and Catch Fire star Mackenzie Davis, who plays Cameron. “So I don’t feel devastated, but I’m very weepy and nostalgic and keep trying to needle people into being, like, ‘Let’s talk about the first season! What was it like? Do you remember that?’”

Davis and I are sitting in an over-warm room within the official Waffle House Museum, the original restaurant in the popular Southern chain that will double as “The Diner,” where Davis’s final scene (a conversation with Cameron’s friend-turned-enemy-turned-friend Donna, played by Kerry Bishé) is being filmed.

But her overall sentiment is familiar to those who are present on the set, even Kusama, who has only directed this one episode all season. To some degree, the actual action of Halt and Catch Fire wraps up in the season’s seventh, eighth, and ninth episodes, reserving episode 10 (the finale) as a space for rumination and final thoughts.

That’s made this final go-round a chance for the cast and crew to reflect and reconnect. It has a very “last week of high school” vibe. And yet the actual production of the episode is about what you’d expect — Kusama calls, “Action,” and then the actors go through their paces. If you didn’t know this was the final episode being filmed, you might be surprised to learn it. But everything happening here is the culmination of four years of television, as well as 10 episodes that weren’t as set in stone as you might expect.

Somewhat remarkably, Rogers and Cantwell entered Halt and Catch Fire’s final season with only a slight sense of how the show might conclude. Indeed, they were still kicking around ideas for where the characters might end up as the show’s writers hashed out the season’s sixth episode.

Much of the hemming and hawing was thanks to the season’s single biggest plot turn. (Spoilers follow, though Halt and Catch Fire is a show where knowing what’s coming — as I did all season long, because I watched the filming of the finale before I’d seen a single episode — can enrich the experience.)

Rogers and Cantwell knew they were going to kill off the character of Gordon (Scoot McNairy), Joe and Cameron’s friend and Donna’s ex-husband, and they had a sense that his death would come somewhere in the season’s last batch of episodes. But the more they and their writers thought about it, the less the finale seemed like the right place for it to happen. Ultimately, Gordon died in episode seven, which left episode eight to deal with the characters’ grief and episodes nine and 10 to focus on how they moved forward from that tragedy.

The two especially liked that the final season allowed them to incorporate a full storyline about Joe and Gordon as genuine friends, something they had struggled to pull off in the first season, when Joe was a more straightforwardly antagonistic character. (In seasons two and three, there was too much bad blood between Joe and Gordon to credibly sell the two as friends.) And their ability to earn that connection — and Gordon’s gradual sense of inner peace at things going well for him — meant that having his death kick off what amounts to a four-episode coda gave almost the entire back half of the final season a greater sense of closure than it might have had if his death had come later.

“We do like that feeling that, in [episodes] seven, eight, nine, 10, there’s so much happening and so many weighty conclusions happening in them,” they could all be the finale, Cantwell said. “The characters’ human lives are really starting to overtake their technological ambitions.”

Halt and Catch Fire
Mackenzie Davis stars in Halt and Catch Fire.
AMC

Killing Gordon in episode seven left Halt and Catch Fire with plenty of room to deal with the question of whether Cameron and Donna could ever rekindle their friendship in its final handful of episodes. Almost the entire series finale was about the two of them trying to save a seemingly lost school project for Donna and Gordon’s daughter, Haley, and dancing around the question of whether they’ll work together again.

To some degree, the show’s ultimate sense of “closure” relied upon finding a professional reason for the characters to keep up their personal relationships. As Davis put it to me when explaining the scene she was about to film with Bishé, “I don’t buy that these people stay in each other’s lives forever without a company or something they’re building.”

And as Cantwell pointed out, Halt and Catch Fire’s finale is structured somewhat similarly to the series itself — beginning with Joe (who eventually skips town), then delving for a lengthy period of time into Donna and Cameron’s relationship, before returning to Joe again.

All of these questions converge in the actual production of the episode, which is built from a quiet, understated script credited to Rogers and Cantwell. Kusama’s direction follows suit, rarely going in for flash; instead, she uses a roving camera to trail behind characters, almost as if they’re leaving us behind too.

“I’m not thinking about wowing the audience with a shot,” she says of Halt and Catch Fire’s final image. “I’m thinking more about how do I leave them with a feeling. For me, the approach needs to be somewhat deceptively simple to let the audience be lulled into feeling that they’re continuing with this story, so that when it all ends, we can imagine what it is that all of these characters are leaving us with.”

She continues: “It’s a different approach when you’re ending a show [than when you’re making any other episode]. You have to be thinking about a different tonal priority, in that you’re trying to leave enough questions that the audience feels like their imagination is still engaged in the life of the show, but that you’ve answered some questions to the degree that it feels like an ending.”

Rogers echoes this concept, explaining that the ideal version of the finale will leave the audience filling in some of the blanks themselves — with different viewers having different answers.

“The viewer can bring their own skepticism to those places too. Is this it for Joe? Is this real, or is it just another chapter? Is this going to last for Donna and Cameron?” he says. “I like that we don’t say definitively one way or the other.”

Okay, but what about when your finale is (mostly, probably) planned out already?

The Americans
The Americans will air its final season on FX in the first half of 2018.
FX

In researching this story, my discussions with Halt and Catch Fire’s Cantwell and Rogers revealed a series that was still feeling out its ending very late in the process, while Lindelof has spoken eloquently in the past about how The Leftovers’ final scene was more or less decided before the show’s writers started working on its third and final season.

But I also talked to two writers who have a finale in mind that they’ve mostly remained committed to since before their show’s second season: Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields, the co-showrunners of FX’s brilliant spy drama The Americans. Their show will wrap in early 2018, and their approach is incredibly different from that of others I spoke with.

Fields revealed to me that The Americans’ writers have been working from a fairly extensive series blueprint since before season two, and it includes an idea for the finale that the writers have continued to adhere to as the show’s sixth and final season begins production. They still have time to change their minds — but less so with every single day.

“We always kind of simultaneously write very much toward the story that we’ve had in our head, with this open-ended idea that it could change,” Fields says. “So far, the ending continues to stick.”

The Americans
What will become of Elizabeth?!
FX

It’s tempting to be wary of this approach, given all of the shows that had long-planned endings that didn’t work. Perhaps the most classic example is How I Met Your Mother, which committed itself to an ending before season two — by shooting footage for a series finale that ultimately wouldn’t air until the end of season nine — and then found itself boxed in as that ending approached, in a way many fans disliked. As an example of the opposite, consider Breaking Bad, which essentially stopped trying to preplan much of anything after its second season and saw both its quality and popularity increase.

But for as much as this level of planning might worry me on another show, I think it’s fitting for The Americans (if only because it seems to have served the writers well so far). A show like The Americans, which is character-driven but has several bigger “plot” questions — like “Will the central KGB spies be found out by the FBI?” or “Will their family stay together as the show ends?” — is in a position where it essentially needs to at least hint at the answers to those questions. It’s a situation that The Leftovers (which was self-consciously about a mystery with no answer) and Halt and Catch Fire (which was about its characters’ journeys) just didn’t have to navigate. The Americans is also in a different position from How I Met Your Mother, even if their situations are superficially similar, because its commitment to plot is much deeper.

“If you’ve been telling a large, plot-driven story from the very beginning, I don’t think you want to pull the rug out from under the audience at the very end,” Weisberg says.

For an example, consider Lost. Several fans had hoped that show’s finale would spell out answers to many of the show’s biggest questions. Instead, it solved many of those questions by implication, choosing to focus on the end of the characters’ journeys. It was a choice that I — and many other critics — loved, but it also left some viewers feeling as if the show hadn’t delivered on a core promise.

The resulting backlash has thankfully subsided a bit in recent years, as the show becomes a streaming staple. But the irony is that Lost largely knew the answers that so many viewers were seeking. You can see where a sudden exposition dump so near the end of the series would have been confounding, turning off viewers like myself who were always more into the characters’ journeys. So it became a kind of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation.

“Knowing that you’re headed in a direction with the freedom to change course — to us, that’s just a lot better than feeling rudderless,” Fields adds. “As you head more toward your ending, things get more inevitable. Your choices narrow as your story progresses.”

And the pair is still in the space Cantwell and Rogers were in when they were trying to figure out how to best deploy their own final season’s biggest plot turn. For now, The Americans’ final season remains mostly a pencil sketch — even if every single day, more of it gets inked into place as the final season’s air date approaches.

In the interim, the two can still revel in one possibility opened up by the final season of a TV show — anything can happen, for the most part. Bets are off, and viewers generally give writers more space to take big swings, because they just might pay off in a massive way. Simultaneously, they’re faced with both an exciting opportunity and a potential land mine that could severely damage their show’s legacy.

“It’s so tricky to thread this needle, because if you have a fresh and unexpected ending that’s contrived, that doesn’t work either,” Weisberg says.

Of course, on television in 2017, nothing ends any more, does it?

Twin Peaks
Twin Peaks returned, and it was pretty great!
Showtime

The hardest question of all to answer about a series finale is whether a bad one ruins a TV show. I don’t think so — and neither do the writers I talked to for this article. The fact that I didn’t like the finale of How I Met Your Mother doesn’t erase the enjoyment I got from the show’s best episodes, just as the near-perfect finale of Six Feet Under doesn’t erase the weird storytelling missteps the show made along the way to that finale. And yet, increasingly, a satisfying finale tends to create the sense that maybe there should be more to the story.

Toward the end of my chat with Cantwell and Rogers, I jokingly brought up the notion of Netflix wanting to do a Halt and Catch Fire revival in 15 years, and they laughed at the idea of revisiting the characters as they would exist in the late 2000s (roughly 15 years after the series’ timeline ends).

Neither one really wants to think about this. They’ve met with me on a long day of talking to people about what their next project might be, with new characters and stories and ideas to pursue. It’s only now, about a month after they locked the Halt finale, when I meet up with them for lunch, that they feel like they might start getting perspective on it.

“You really feel like you’re chasing the show down the street for four years,” Cantwell says.

So it’s natural to wonder why would anyone ever willingly return to the world of a show that ended years ago. But there’s a creeping realization, in 2017, that any past TV show — no matter how good its ending — can be revived in the hopes of chasing a fan base that wants more content and will subscribe to some streaming service or another to get it. In the past few years, we’ve seen revivals great (Twin Peaks) and okay (Gilmore Girls) and just plain rotten (Fuller House), but it’s hard to say any of them were strictly creatively necessary. (Except maybe Twin Peaks.)

Lindelof puts it this way: After he ends a series, “I think about those characters, but with nostalgia. I think about them the same way we think about relatives and loved ones and friends who are now dead.” And he feels the same way about characters on other TV shows he’s watched and loved. “They may have gone on to live after their finales, but not in my mind. Their lives ended the last time I saw them on my television set.”

This is the trick of the finale, isn’t it? Like Fields alluded to above, it’s the idea that you can leave the audience wistful and wanting more, but still feeling satisfied. I don’t know what happens to the characters on The Leftovers or Halt and Catch Fire after their finales, and I don’t need to know, but I also want to know.

Many, many shows have come close to achieving this balance — maybe even close enough to satisfy almost all of their viewers — but the ones that have hit the mark with 100 percent precision are few and far between.

This feeling of satisfied longing makes it fairly easy to find room, even in a series finale you like but maybe don’t love, to say, “Hmm ... I wonder what happens when...” And that’s the space where revival rumors and endless, “Maybe we’ll make a movie someday!” interviews cause fans’ hope to spring eternal. Stories have to end, but TV paradoxically suggests that they might go on forever. (Some, like The Simpsons, really do.)

An ending offers its own kind of meaning as written, but it’s ultimately a meaning the audience brings to it. The idea of Joe MacMillan addressing a room full of students existed only on a script page, and then in some raw footage, and then in an editing bay. But now it exists for anybody who wants to watch it, who wants to inscribe whatever meaning that resonates with them. And it’s impossible to say what that meaning will be.

You have an idea for an ending. You share it with your writers. You share it with the network. You share it with your actors. You share it with your crew. And then you share it with the world. And then, who knows?

“Each time, it feels like your whole life is on the line,” The Americans’ Weisberg says. “It’s very sort of exaggerated, but it feels like the whole show is on the line.”

So, again, don’t screw it up.

Movies

I feel weird about Dear Evan Hansen

Movies

What the movies of this pandemic reveal

Culture

Gabby Petito’s disappearance, and why it was absolutely everywhere, explained

View all stories in Culture