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Succession finale.jpeg

What Makes a Great TV Finale?

By Kayleigh Donaldson | TV | June 13, 2023 |

By Kayleigh Donaldson | TV | June 13, 2023 |

Succession finale.jpeg

Tis the season for series finales. In the past few weeks, we’ve seen some of the most acclaimed shows of the past several years come to an end, and for the most part, their climaxes were met with satisfaction from audiences and critics alike. The end of Succession saw the caustic drama conclude with a firestorm of family fury and crowning of a new king. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel kept fans hooked with its end to Midge and company’s story. Bill Hader’s Barry hammered home its prevailing themes of guilt and unaccountability with the eponymous protagonist’s long-awaited conclusion. While Apple TV+ has not confirmed whether the third season finale for Ted Lasso is the series’ ending, it certainly felt like one with its neatly tied up narrative threads.

It’s a mighty task to try and satisfy every viewer you have. The concerns of your audience, be they ardent devotees or casual visitors, are seldom given as much weight behind the scenes as those of your executives. Unless you’re given an immense amount of creative control, the chances are you’re going to be answering to a hell of a lot of suits. Given that both Succession and Barry are HBO titles released under the tyranny of David Zaslav, their accomplishments feel particularly notable. Then again, the untethered excesses of some showrunners have led to a few small screen disasters.

It’s rare for a show to get to end on its own terms, much less do so with the weight of critics, fans, and your network entirely in your corner. How many of your favourites were unduly cancelled or stayed on the air well past their sell-by date? For some, by the time the series ends, they’ve long lost interest and there’s no true satisfaction in seeing the show, a shadow of its former self, wind up with the tedium of obligation. Who really got amped up for the finale of Bones?

A great finale achieves the goals that the series set for itself. It does not have to answer every minor question it offered throughout the series but enough open doors have to be closed for the audience to feel truly satisfied. When you’ve set up a lot of spinning plates, keeping it all going often becomes a greater priority than offering an end to the madness. Consider Lost. The more mysteries it established, the clearer it became that the showrunners either had no intention of fulfilling their myriad promises or simply got in over their heads. It’s a miracle that show managed to find even a sliver of a conclusion (my dad, to this day, still complains about how much he hated the Lost finale.)

Sometimes, the smartest thing to do is not give the viewers what they want. The Sopranos changed the game with its cut-to-black last shot, but its real power was in the ambiguity of Tony’s end. Does he die? If not, will he eventually die in that manner? When you refuse to leave behind that life, you shouldn’t be surprised to spend the rest of your days paranoid about how you’ll eventually meet your maker. David Chase made it work, but plenty of others couldn’t make lightning strike twice. That ending works because it embodies several seasons’ worth of narrative build-up. This was a world where nothing was sure, where good things seldom happened without immediately being stomped upon. Such a life can only truly be concluded in one way.

It’s through the bad finales that we learn what makes a good one. TV scholars will be studying the last season of Game of Thrones for decades to come, fascinated by how a record-breaking phenomenon could squander every bit of goodwill with a rushed conclusion made by two guys who clearly wanted out of there as soon as possible. Beloved characters with deftly layered motivations became pantomime villains, and events viewers had waited years to watch unfold happened with almost lackadaisical execution. Most of the cast seemed to know they were stuck on a sinking ship and tried to bring some verve to proceedings, but others looked bored stiff. The finale wasn’t helped by the interminable quality of the rest of the season, so it was unlikely that the climax was ever going to pull off the impossible. Still, that didn’t entirely explain the tedious shrug with which it concluded.

A finale, well-executed or otherwise, often exposes the sturdiness of the entire series’ premise. A show like Lost built on the concept of the mystery box will rise or fall based on how truly committed the series was to answering its own questions (and it was, at best, half-hearted.) Give us lessons to be learned and you have to make sure the educational process was worthwhile. That’s why a show like BoJack Horseman had such a successful finale. After several seasons of exploring the true depths of the ‘bad man’ in TV, and whether or not such a person could ever become better, it left us with greater knowledge than we had when the show began. The Good Place is also an excellent example of this, complete with proper closure for its entire main cast.

We’re so used to things ending badly, or prematurely as is too often the case with modern TV. A lot of things receive fulfilling conclusions then are revived to diminishing returns. Other times, we have to accept the cancellation as our climax, taking what we can from an ending that was never supposed to be. A true finale, one of intention and satisfaction, feels rarer in the age of endless content. We often forget that it’s okay for things we love to end. We need them to end, really. A truly great finale promises immense possibilities beyond its final cut-to-black.

What are your favourite TV finales? Let us know in the comments!