Cut to Black: The best (and worst) post-'Sopranos' TV series finales
It's been a decade since "Don't Stop Believin'" cut off in Holsten's, and The Sopranos cut off with it. June 10 marks the tenth anniversary of the original airing of "Made in America," the final episode of creator David Chase's modern mafia masterpiece. Credited (correctly!) with kicking off a new Golden Age of Television, the show ended on an equally influential note: silence. We'll never know whether mob boss Tony Soprano was killed as he sat down for dinner with his family (as in nuclear, not crime), or if his life simply went on, with the next FBI raid, hitman or plate of ziti always just around the corner. Nor are we meant to figure it out, no matter what you've read on the internet. For Chase, the ambiguity and uncertainty speak not only to Tony's uniquely precarious existence, but all of ours' as well.
Demanding, divisive and pretty much perfect for the show it concluded, "Made in America" remains the gold standard for finales to this day. In one form or another, nearly all its successors are a reflection of it, whether attempting to right its perceived wrongs or live up to its masterpiece status. Moreover, as one of the first major shows of its kind that was allowed to end in its own time and on its own terms, The Sopranos accidentally popularized the unfortunate idea that a show is only as good as its final episode, and that if you don't "stick the landing," nothing that came before is worthwhile. That's an extreme overreaction, of course — a bad finale is not a magic eraser that wipes out the hours you spent enjoying the show up until that point — but it's a concept creators and audiences alike now wrestle with.
With Tony trapped in that diner limbo for ten years (Schrödinger's Soprano?), we're taking a look at six of the standout series finales that have aired since: Mad Men, The Wire, Breaking Bad, Boardwalk Empire, Lost and Battlestar Galactica. What did they get right, or wrong, about the shows they're concluding? What did viewers take away — and what should they have focused on instead? Should we be asking if they stuck the landing, or if they leapt into the unknown? Fire up the Journey and find out.
BEST: Mad Men (2015)
Sopranos veteran Matthew Weiner didn't really set out to end his signature series with its own inscrutable finale — "I am not ambiguity for ambiguity's sake," he said afterwards — but despite his best efforts, Mad Men's final hour almost turned out that way anyway. The show's closing installment sees its mercurial but undeniably brilliant advertising exec, Don Draper, bottom out in a California hippie retreat after spending half a season slowly shedding the trappings of his old life. He's reeling from the news that his ex-wife Betty is dying and that both she and their daughter, Sally, would prefer if the kids live with someone other than him after her death. He'd come to the retreat with Stephanie, the niece of Anna Draper — whose late husband was the original owner of Don's stolen name and who was one of his few real friends before her death — but Stephanie ditches him without warning, wracked with guilt over giving her baby away, just as Don has abdicated responsibility for his own kids. He calls up his protege Peggy Olson in tears just to say goodbye, sounding like he's on the verge of suicide.
When he's convinced to attend a group therapy session, something pulls him back from the brink. Don watches a stranger named Leonard confess that he's spent his whole life demanding to be loved without really even knowing what love is, and feeling invisible to everyone he cares about. Recognizing himself in this man, Don crosses the room and embraces him. Some time later, we see Don meditating in the lotus position on a hilltop. As a gnomic smile creeps across his face, the episode cuts to 1971's "I'd Like to Buy the World a Coke" commercial, one of the most famous advertisements of all time.
The initial reaction to the episode focused right on these cryptic final moments (you could all but hear the critics of the world say, "Huh?"). Is the idea that Don wrote the commercial, or was it merely inserted as meta-commentary on the collision of commerce and counterculture? If he did write the commercial, was he cynically repackaging spirituality to sell soft drinks, or was he really trying to convey a message of togetherness? Weiner addressed these issues soon after the episode aired, implying (if not stating outright) that, yes, Don wrote the ad (this was actor Jon Hamm's interpretation, for what it's worth), and, no, there's nothing cynical about it. "I did hear rumblings of people talking about the ad being corny," he said. "It's a little bit disturbing to me, that cynicism. I'm not saying advertising's not corny, but I'm saying that the people who find that ad corny, they're probably experiencing a lot of life that way, and they're missing out on something."
But while the commercial hit so many of the show's sweet spots (namely the rise of the counterculture and its almost immediate commercialization) and came after a build-up featuring the fundamentally happy endings experienced by every other major character, the phone call to Peggy and the group therapy session that follow are where the real enlightenment occurs. Hamm's work in these scenes is so intense that they can be difficult to watch; he shatters his character's alpha-male facade, revealing nothing but self-disgust and disappointment beneath it. "I broke all my vows. I scandalized my child. I took another man's name and made nothing of it." That's the sound of a man taking stock of himself and finding himself completely worthless, useless, loveless. Yet when he attends that group meeting and sees Leonard break down over the same fears, he reaches out and offers him comfort, a capacity he had in him all along. The episode is called "Person to Person," a reference to the collect call he places to Peggy; and it's those person-to-person connections that make the episode so moving, whether or not you'd like to buy the world a Coke.
WORST: The Wire (2008)
In which there's such a thing as too much connection. David Simon's sweeping story of Baltimore was told largely through the eyes of the dealers and cops who waged the disastrous drug war helping to destroy the city. But beginning with season two's radical shift to the town's ailing docks and dying unions, The Wire spiraled outward to encompass so much more. Whether highlighting the politicians who sacrificed society on the altar of expediency or the teachers and schoolchildren left to survive in the wreckage, the series went big-picture like no show before or since. While always a bit hamstrung by literal-minded political didacticism — watching The Wire never made you wonder what Simon thought, or what you thought — in its best moments (seasons two and four) it was powerful, furious, tragic and unforgettable.
Then came season five, which… well, it was memorable, all right, the same way you remember breaking your tibia. Simon plucked out his gimlet eye for human frailty and foibles, turning his lead detectives from corner-cutting but intelligent risk-takers into bumbling schemers and treating the editors of the Baltimore Sun, the newspaper where he once worked, like far worse villains than any mass-murdering gang enforcer, corrupt politico or abusive cop we'd seen before in the series. And no, don't believe anyone who tries to pass off that newspaper storyline as satire; there's about as much precedent on this show for broad lampooning as there would be for an alien invasion.
Still, the memory of the show's stronger seasons, and fine work involving the dead-eyed young crime boss Marlo Stanfield and good-hearted junkie Bubbles (played by the chilling Jamie Hector and series MVP Andre Royo, respectively), might have been enough to overlook some of the final season's storytelling sins. Then, in its last moments, the show finally did the unforgivable: It got sentimental.
It ends on a musical montage featuring the show's buoyant original theme song, in which we get a "where are they now" peek at many of the major and minor characters and locations we've seen throughout the series. The righteous and the wicked alike move up the food chain in their respective fields, life and death go on in the streets and the docks and the schools and the bars, yadda yadda yadda, all seen through the jaded eyes of disgraced Irish-American detective Jimmy McNulty before he drives out of Baltimore. After years of showing us the complex systems that divide us by race and class, The Wire reduced its message to something as simplistic as a Tommy Carcetti campaign slogan. Named "-30-" after the alphanumerical symbol used to indicate the end of a story in journalism jargon, the episode allows you to turn the page feeling you've figured it all out — a betrayal of issues that demand never to be defused and defanged.
WORST: Breaking Bad (2013)
Walter White wins. If you said that to anyone watching Vince Gilligan's desert-set crime saga — which focuses on the transformation of a mild-mannered chemistry teacher into a mass-murdering drug kingpin — even two weeks before the show's series finale, they'd have asked you if you were smoking Heisenberg Blue. "Ozymandias," the antepenultimate episode, sees Walt's hubris sever him from everyone he loves.
He's betrayed by the white-supremacist gang he'd employed. They murder Hank, his beloved brother-in-law, who'd finally thought he'd caught Walt red-handed with the help of Walt's former student-turned-assistant, Jesse Pinkman. Walt hands Jesse over to a life of captivity and torture at the gang's hands, and reveals he played a part in the death of the kid's girlfriend, Jane, a few seasons earlier. He returns home, gets rejected by his wife Skyler and their son Walt Jr., provokes a physical fight with her that nearly gets him stabbed to death, and kidnaps their baby daughter Holly. In a phone call he knows is being recorded by the authorities, he vents years of spleen at Skyler, partially a performance designed to clear her of any involvement in his crimes, but also an articulation of his worst feelings about her. He drops the baby off at a firehouse and departs for a new life under a new identity, his whole empire reduced to a single barrel full of blood money. We'd seen his rise to power, now we'd seen his fall from grace.
Compare and contrast the moral calamity of that episode to the weird redemption he's afforded in "Felina," the anagrammatic finale. Gaunt and haggard after months of hiding from the law in the New Hampshire hinterlands, Walt nevertheless returns to terrorize and humiliate his old business partners from his post-grad days, who made a fortune as tech giants while he became a mere high school teacher. He figures out a way to pass his loot along to his family without their knowledge and against their will, despite the fact that they'd forcefully rejected ever taking a dime from him again. He gets a moment to apologize to his wife Skyler. He poisons or guns down every single one of his remaining enemies with almost supervillainous skill; the show stacks the deck even further in his favor by making his primary enemies freaking Nazis, the least sympathetic people on the planet. He frees Jesse from captivity, and Jesse somehow forgives him and rides away rather than murdering him on the spot for all the harm he'd done. He dies happy amid the meth lab equipment that meant so much to him.
It's all so neat, so pat, and so weirdly forgiving of its monstrous main character. In a series that never before shied away from showing the horrific consequences of his selfish, violent actions, this level of punch-pulling was unprecedented, and arrived at the worst possible moment — the end.
BEST: Boardwalk Empire (2014)
Wrapping up a TV show about an antiheroic criminal should not be a matter of sending some old-school Hays Code message that Crime Does Not Pay. One look at reality will quickly disabuse any artist of that particular notion, and art should reflect that. But while the world may never see immoral people for what they are, it's nice to get the impression that a showrunner does.
That's how Boardwalk Empire succeeded where Breaking Bad failed. Creator Terence Winter, another Sopranos alum, crafted a show that never quite caught on like its predecessor or many of its peers (Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Game of Thrones) — and man, did people miss out. This sumptuous Prohibition Era period piece, centered on the anything-goes New Jersey town of Atlantic City, was one of the most sensual shows on television: a parade of gorgeous sets and costumes, impeccable music choices, mellifluous voices (seriously, the best-sounding cast on TV, including Michael Stuhlbarg, Jeffrey Wright, Stephen Root and Erik LaRay Harvey) and gem-like performances (among my personal favorites are Paul Sparks' giggly Mickey Doyle and Jack Huston's magisterially sad and scarred World War I vet Richard Harrow).
But it was also all based on a single unforgivable crime. Nucky Thompson, the Atlantic City political fixer and crime boss played with cool reserve by Steve Buscemi, laid the foundation for his career by knowingly handing over a young girl named Gillian Darmody, played by Gretchen Mol as an adult, to his pedophile boss years ago. The damage this did to multiple generations was always there to observe — particularly as Gillian's warped relationships with her abuser, her son and her grandson each took center stage in turn. But they were mostly ancillary to the main action, in which Nucky fought to control his territory against a host of other gangsters, both fictional (Bobby Cannavale's volcanic Gyp Rosetti) and historical (Vincent Piazza's calculating Charlie "Lucky" Luciano).
The final season brought the focus back to Nucky's original sin, and the price Gillian paid for it. It used flashbacks featuring uncanny young lookalikes (Marc Pickering as Nucky and Madeleine Rose Yen as Gillian) to show how he came to sell her out that fateful day on the shore, while tracking the pair's long-brewing downfall decades later. In the final episode, "Eldorado," young Gillian's face flashes before Nucky's eyes just as her grandson, now an adult seeking vengeance against the man who betrayed her, puts a bullet in Thompson's brain. Nothing that happens here will stop Thompson's criminal rivals — most notably Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky — from setting up a syndicate that will enrich them at the cost of countless lives. Crime does pay. But Boardwalk Empire never lost sight of the horror at its heart, and delivered a punishment that fit the crime.
WORST: Lost (2010)
The problem with Lost's finale isn't a matter of answers, or the lack thereof. Yes, showrunners Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse undoubtedly fed fan mania for finding solutions to every single one of the show's mysteries with their constant stream of interviews and behind-the-scenes clips promising pretty much exactly that. (Seriously, these guys appeared on camera together so many times they earned their own celebrity romance-style portmanteau, "Darlton.") But that fervor existed independently of any expectations the show itself set up. Lost was a melange of science fiction, fantasy and occasionally horror, with a touch of conspiracy-thriller thrown in for good measure. Its roots reach back to The X-Files' baroque alien-and-monster mythology, Twin Peaks' tales of the FBI's "blue rose" cases and military monitoring of demonic entities from the sinister Black Lodge, Star Wars' fast-and-loose science-fantasy space opera — even all the way back to the cosmic freak-outs of H.P. Lovecraft and the pulp era.
As science-fiction godhead Arthur C. Clarke famously put it, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic," and what good is magic if you get to see how the trick works? If a Lost viewer considered anything less than a Wikipedia-style summary of the Island, the Others, Jacob, the Man in Black, the Dharma Initiative, synchronicity, time travel and so on a letdown, well, I have some lovely midi-chlorians I'd like to sell them. (Just be happy we found out what was up with the polar bear.) The finale served no shortage of suitably epic imagery — the final throwdown between Jack and his nemesis the Man in Black, now occupying the form of John Locke (that mid-air punch!); the bookend shot of Jack's eye closing as he dies on the Island, just as it once opened the first time he regained consciousness after the plane crash that brought him there. That kind of payoff means way more than finding out who was shooting at the outrigger.
The real issue with the episode is a simpler and more insidious one, foretold by its storybook title "The End": banality. The finale revealed that the "sideways universe" its characters had spent half the final season in was not the result of a new branch in the real world's timeline, but a sort of Purgatory Lite where they could reconnect with their loved ones, accept their past and move on to the next plane of existence. It's corny, college-dorm bullshit-session ecumenicism, perhaps best symbolized by the stained glass window in the magic church that contains the portal to heaven or whatever, which features the symbols of every major religion — as if the Lost writers' room had somehow found the secret that had eluded theologians for millennia.
The thrills and chills and emotional resolutions and, yes, the answers were all subsumed by this preposterous new-agey mysticism — which, by the way, has nothing to do with the characters' adventures on the Island. Even if the magic of the Island comes from the same supernatural source as this otherworld, presumably everyone visits it after they die, whether they visited the Island or not. You and your college roommates, the members of One Direction, the characters from Road House — apparently, any group of deeply connected people will make this stop on their journey through the afterlife. It's simply not a strong enough idea to wrap up the show, let alone bridge the world's religious faiths into one glorious guiding light.
BEST: Battlestar Galactica (2009)
Though it never reached pop-cultural critical mass the way Lost did, Ronald D. Moore's reimagining of the kitschy '70s sci-fi series of the same name was a kindred spirit in how it applied all the tools of modern TV storytelling to genre material driven equally by action, emotion and big ideas. Battlestar, however, was playing with far more politically-loaded material than its contemporary, using its tale of humans on the run from the genocidal robotic race that was once its servants as an allegory for the American political moment. Its pivotal arc — in which the humans took on an occupying Cylon regime the way insurgent forces battled American troops in Iraq — looks more and more daring with each passing year. Add this sense of sociopolitical rigor to the show's long-teased mysteries (What is the Cylons' master plan? Who are the final five humanoid Cylon models lurking among the human refugees?) and a finale that delivered ANSWERS in all caps seemed like even more of a foregone conclusion than Lost's would a year later.
What "Daybreak," its three-hour finale, delivered instead was a collection of the show's most challenging ideas and images to date, in the grandest of all sci-fi traditions. It posited the existence of "God" and "angels" not as all-knowing deities, but as inscrutable creatures with agendas all their own, never to be fully explained or revealed — a concept best summed up in the character of Kara "Starbuck" Thrace, whom "God" brought back from the dead to serve a role in the resolution of her people's quest and then erased her from existence once again, never making it clear to the woman herself who or what or even why she was. It rooted the event that brought about the final apocalyptic confrontation between humans and Cylons in a single all-too-human explosion of anger, when one of the Final Five turns on another over her murder of his human wife many episodes earlier.
Most demanding of all, it ended on a note of cultural surrender and entropy, as humans and Cylons alike jettisoned their spaceships to live out the rest of their days on the planet we now know as Earth. Clearly their society did not survive and laid down no lasting markers of their existence, but so what? Battlestar dared to suggest that the pleasures of community and the promise of peace are more important than tribal survivalism at any price. Frustrated viewers dismissed the supernatural elements as mere "deus ex machina" and fumed about the Twilight Zone-esque coda that showed 21st-century society experimenting with artificial intelligence as if it were some lame luddite warning. But the involvement of "God" is far too complex and morally ambiguous to be either a standard religious allegory or a quick storytelling cheat, and the present-day stinger intended as a sign that our hubris-driven conflicts are cyclical and eternal, unless and until we collectively agree to set them aside. It's a far cry from the step-into-the-light cheese Lost served up. Rather, like Tony's final stop in that diner, it's a meal rich enough to feast on a decade later.
Correction: June 9, 2017