Monday, June 1, 2015
Eschatology & Series Finales: Why Can’t We All Be Happy With Endings? Mad Men, Letterman, & The Following
Even if you exist in the furthest outskirts of the pop-culture periphery, you will at very least be aware that recently we saw the long-awaited series finale of AMC’s Mad Men as well as the final episode of Late Night with David Letterman. If you have not heard of either of these events, well, thanks for reading! And Jesus Christ what kind of bullshit schedule do you have that has made you so completely oblivious to these milestones!? You must be a very, very busy vascular surgeon... or, like, a parent or something.
No doubt while you were reconstructing that femoral artery or just trying to keep up with the pounds of laundry produced by your sloven progeny you also missed last week’s series finale of The Following! So, what with all these finales, that patient bleeding out on your table, that never-ending monotony of washing, drying, and folding (fuck! All that folding!), and a general apocalyptic sense of ending in the air, why is it that you were so unaware that last week also saw the series finale of the Fox network’s Kevin Bacon serial-killer vs. FBI-agent horror/psychological thriller, The Following???
One of the most unique phenomena of these series finales is the idea that there are people that never watched a single episode of Mad Men and still tuned in to view the very last episode and similarly with Letterman. I can honestly say I haven’t watched an episode of the Late Show in at least ten years, yet I had my DVR set to record Dave’s final show—by the way I’d like to send a special “fuck you” out to my cable provider that halted the recording of the show after an hour, stopping with the final 30 min still to air. Sure, I watched it online, but it’s not the same, damnit! [pounds fist on table].
Letterman is a milestone we’re not likely to see again; it is history and has its place in pop-culture already set aside. We’ll see this again soon (to a lesser degree but still no less of a milestone) when John Stewart steps down as host of the Daily Show in August. Mad Men is the type of finale where no one is happy because viewers are not comfortable with ambiguity. We want (or think we want) an ending that actually ends. Everything must go! Everyone dies! As Americans we’re drawn to this sense of ending, we’re the descendants of Puritans for crying out loud—we work too much and we’re preoccupied with apocalypses and endings in general. On the other hand you have Breaking Bad which is the platinum standard of series finale satisfaction because there is no ambiguity: Walter White is dead in the first episode, you just stick around for five seasons to see how it happens… (oh, and it’s a masterpiece, you should really watch it. No bullshit. Highest possible recommendation); In Breaking Bad the end is embedded within its formula, could you imagine an eleventh season of Breaking Bad?
Given the context of series finales in recent years, having experienced the aforementioned platinum standard of satisfaction that was Breaking Bad and also the platinum standard of fuckyoufuckyoubullshit finales that was Dexter, I think casual viewers are drawn by an inherent cultural desire to see where a series will land within this spectrum. Will it be akin to the non-ambiguous Breaking Bad or the forced ambiguity because we don’t know what the fuck we’re doing of Dexter? Then why did no one tune in to The Following? C’mon, man, it’s Kevin Bacon as Special Agent Ryan Hardy! He’s a drunk FBI agent with a heart condition tracking down serial killers! What’s not to love? Well, fuckin’ plenty… and yet no one is talking about it.
Today’s study question: what is it about some series finales that immediately draw the ire of viewers to the point of regretting fucking off after work watching a TV show? I’m sure not many people passed up serious life experiences to watch the self-destructive behavior of America’s sweetheart sex-addict, Don Draper, on Sunday nights… well, maybe they have while binging the series on Netflix but even if they did why such anger, it’s just a TV show, right?
Upon the ending of Mad Men, the Twitterverse was aflutter with mixed reviews, ranging from “genius” to “meh.” In those reviews leaning more toward the “meh” side of things were also tepidly venom-laden comments such as, “I wish I never watched this show” or “I feel like I’ve wasted my time.” This isn’t the first time I’ve encountered such languid outrage (Lost comes to mind, as well as The Sopranos) and to those that share the views of these uninspired Tweeters: What about The Following? Sure, it wasn’t as popular as the others, which is certainly why it didn’t draw casual viewers to the finale but still there wasn’t as much anger drawn from a show that (sorry, cast and crew of the Following) deserved a scolding. While The Following finale was not very good it didn’t flat out piss me off (see Dexter)… it’s ending was not so much as ambiguous or forced, it kinda just ended.
The truth is the Mad Men finale is more on the Breaking Bad side of the spectrum and The Following, on the other hand, while bad is not on the Dexter side of things either, it’s not even on this spectrum. We forget that we live in a time where series actually get an ending. I can still readily recall not knowing if my favorite show would even come back next season. The A-Team never got a “finale,” neither did Married with Children, sure there was a “final episode” but there wasn’t a “finale.” No final good-bye, no tying up of the loose ends, no “let’s complete the promise of the series”-type ending… just done and gone. Don’t even get me started with Twin Peaks. “Where’s Annie” indeed… but more on that in a moment.
The Following is the kind of ending that I grew up with, and anytime I actually get a finale from a favorite show I don’t expect a unanimous sentiment, good or bad, because there is no such thing as closure. As Americans, the cultural descendants of Puritans all “waitin’ on the judgment day” we want so desperately for there to be closure… but there never is. Anytime it works (see Breaking Bad) it’s because closure or finality has been somewhat embedded into the narrative. Endings aren’t really the end anymore: I’m not even really sure that we’ll never see any more adventures of Special Agent Ryan Hardy, who knows what will happen in twenty-five years? I’m finally going to learn about what happened to Special Agent Dale Cooper! Bring on Twin Peaks! Dear Showtime, please, don’t fuck it up. Even if shows “end,” they’ll probably come back, continued or reimagined or rebooted, or perhaps just in conversation… we’re still talking about the Sopranos and Breaking Bad, and, I sure as hell won’t forget (or forgive) the end of Dexter. That finale is my dark passenger.