Very light spoilers for many shows below. Buyer beware!
In this new golden age of TV—the age that runs roughly from the premiere of The Sopranos to today—finding closure has sometimes been difficult. Occasionally, as with Arrested Development and Deadwood, closure comes prematurely, abruptly forced on the shows by network decree. Sometimes the endings are simply terrible, as we'll see below.
But sometimes we get lucky and the show runners nail it. Here are three examples of great finales (and two examples of awful finishes).
1. The Sopranos
I'm well aware that this will be a controversial choice, as there are still people who are bitter about David Chase's choosing to abruptly cut to black as Tony sits there, waiting for his family. But I've thought it was brilliant since day one. The whole final stretch of episodes was an exercise in closure: the plot lines of Christopher and Uncle Junior and Phil Leotardo and AJ and Meadow had all drawn to a close, in one way or another. Tony was at the top of his game, master of all he surveyed. And yet, sitting in that diner, surrounded by strangers, with looming threats—the FBI, antagonistic mobsters, civilians looking for revenge—all around, he can't be calm. Every time the front door of the diner opens and the bell above it dings, he looks up. He's forced to look up. He will live the rest of his life this way, be it five seconds or five decades in length. People are obsessed with knowing if Tony lived or died. I'm not sure why. What does it matter: This is how he will spend the rest of his days. In fear. Always looking around the corner. Always checking exits and entrances for danger.
2. The Shield
The Shield is a show I routinely put in the top tier of the new golden age of television. Indeed, I've gone so far as to compare it to The Sopranos, when I'm feeling particularly feisty. This invariably drives a certain subset of people insane (especially when they hear what I leave out of that top tier, which you'll see below). But it cracks my top five in large part because its last season is a tour de force: a gripping, thrilling, tormenting ride in which Detective Vic Mackey faces down his one-time best friend and fellow crooked cop, Shane Vendrell. "Because the series had built for years to this showdown … and because it had managed to stay so consistent throughout its run, The Shield is not only lacking a sore-thumb season; it’s the only one of the great millennial dramas whose last season many fans would be likely to name as the show’s best," Alan Sepinwall wrote of the show in The Revolution Was Televised. For this consistency—and the shattering excellence of that final season—I feel no shame putting The Shield right near the top of the new golden age of television.
3. Breaking Bad
I'm on record as saying that Breaking Bad doesn't crack my personal list of the great dramas of our time. But after this last run of 8 (16, really) episodes, I'm forced to revise that opinion. It sneaks in. I still find much of Walt's behavior ridiculous. "Evil Walt" was a plot device—and a poor one at that.
But this stretch of episodes has forced me to revise this opinion. The conclusion has been so relentlessly good—so gripping, so taut—that I'm going to bump it up to number five on my list of the best shows.* I'm sure Vince Gilligan and company are thrilled by my beneficence. (More thoughts from me on the finale here.)
Now, as promised, two shows with finales that did not live up to expectations and, frankly, ruined much of what came before:
1. The Wire
Save your outrage, nerds. The Wire‘s fifth season is an embarrassment and totally ruins what it had going for it beforehand, namely its feeling of verisimilitude, realness. From David Simon's score settling in the newsroom to the fictional serial murderer concocted by Jimmy McNulty, the whole thing reeked of self-indulgent BS. A Washington City Paper review noted the show was "thudding to a close, stuck in a stereotypically TV-like world it's heroically avoided until now." Brett Martin in his book Difficult Men suggested there was simply no one with enough power to check Simon's self-destructive impulses: "In season five, there may have been nobody in The Wire writers' room with enough power to say ‘Yeah, but' to Simon." The Wire‘s collapse was all the more disappointing because it had been proceeded by one of the single greatest seasons of TV in the medium's history. Oh well. Being in the second tier of great TV shows is no real shame, is it?**
The problem with Lost is that it was going to live or die by its payoff. If you tantalize people with mysteries they're going to be disappointed when you don't do a decent job of explaining what they have seen over the last six years. Combined with that annoying "flash-sideways" structure in the last season, the failure to reward people who stuck with the show for seven seasons with something satisfying really diminished this good, but frustrating, program.
*Top Five TV Shows of the New Golden Age: The Sopranos, The Shield, Deadwood, Arrested Development, and Breaking Bad. There's another tier right below that features the likes of The Wire and Battlestar Galactica and Lost.
**Outraged Wire fanboys: Please direct all complaints to Biff Diddle, the WFB's public editor.