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Why So Many People Watch Finales

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Think Pieces | May 26, 2015 |

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Think Pieces | May 26, 2015 |

Mad Men ended last week, and although I haven’t seen a single episode of the show, that’s mostly because I vastly prefer the book series. Much deeper, a lot more room to stretch out the details of the characters and explore their inner thoughts. Plus, from what I’ve heard, a lot of the changes were just inexplicable and completely unnecessary. For instance (spoilers), how can Don Draper not end up being DB Cooper? That’s pretty much what everything in the entire book series builds towards, and to change it is just cowardly, in this reviewer’s ever so humble opinion.

But here’s the thing, legion of people who have never seen an episode tuned in to see the finale. Fifty percent more people watched the finale then watched the next highest rated episode of the season. Its ratings spiked from the penultimate episode’s 1.87 million to 3.29 million for the finale, for an almost doubling in a single week. This isn’t new of course. This happens with just about every show’s finale, and ones that are cultural milestones even more so. It’s a rich get richer sort of world of ratings when it comes to finales.

Remember the Seinfeld finale? So many people watched that, that the Super Bowl cried for four years. Mash? 125 million people watched the finale on February 28th, 1983, for a show that averaged about 18 million per episode. On that cold Monday night, one in 800 of every human being who has ever lived tuned into that show.

Why do we do it? Why do we have an obsession with watching the finales of shows that statistically speaking most of us have never seen worth bothering to watch up to that point?

There’s the easy answer of watercooler talk, of course. The bigger an event, the more people will be talking about it the next day, and so the more likely we are to watch it, and thus spiraling upwards until everyone and their pet mongoose are watching. I think that’s part of it, but not all of it by any stretch.

But come on, most of us are misanthropes anyway and wouldn’t be caught dead watching what our coworkers are talking about anyway. Hell, I haven’t worked in an office (other than an unfortunate four month stint that filled a gap) for nine years. And I still feel that exact same urge and need, despite the fact that the cat really doesn’t care of I’m talking about Mad Men or the color of his stool.

We like watching endings. It’s like cheating, skipping to the last page of the book to see what happens. It’s the impulse when assigned a book in school to read the intro and the conclusion and wing it on the rest. The journey is where all the joy is, sure. But sometimes you just don’t care about a particular journey, and so there’s no reason not to take the short cut and get the easy high of watching the pilot and finale and winging it from there.

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Steven Lloyd Wilson is the sci-fi and history editor. You can email him here or follow him on Twitter.