The Ending Ruined It For Me

Don Draper in Mad Men

AMC's critically-adored Mad Men aired its series finale last night, and the public's response was predictably mixed. Why “predictably?” Because the show has always had many faces, and each of those faces has firmly-entrenched camps of supporters and detractors. However, I'm not here to talk about Mad Men or to analyze the ending (though for what it's worth, I don't think the ending is nearly as vague as some are suggesting). I'm here because I'm seeing some of the same things people said when Lost ended, when The Sopranos ended and when Dexter ended: that the finale “ruined” the show for them.

First of all, let me say that I understand that endings are important. It's always satisfying when a television show sticks the landing and delivers a resonant conclusion. However, I also understand that ending a TV show is an incredibly difficult task. When you write the ending of a novel or a film, you're writing the ending of a story. When you write the final episode of a television show, you're writing the ending to dozens (maybe even hundreds) of stories. Finales – particularly for shows that get the privilege of ending on their own terms – are big events, but they're rarely very good. They often feel out of sync with the rest of the series, because most episodes of television are all about advancing the narrative and finales are about putting an end to things. It's tough. That's not to say that bad finales don't deserve criticism (they certainly do), merely to note that the challenge of ending a multi-season series is different from the challenge of ending a more confined narrative.

Here's the thing: I get it when people say that a bad ending ruined a book or a movie for them, and I get it when people say that a bad ending ruined a particular episode of television for them (for instance, there are those who say the ending of last night's Game of Thrones soured them on the entire episode). However, I don't understand how a weak finale can ruin an entire series for someone, especially when it's a series that has provided countless moments of value along the way. How is all of the dramatic power of The Sopranos taken away by the fact that you aren't certain of Tony Soprano's ultimate fate? How are all of the laughs Parks & Recreation gave you negated by the fact that the last episode was a self-indulgent mess? How are the mysterious pleasures of The X-Files ruined by the fact that the whole thing concluded with a fizzle?

I have mixed feeling on the Mad Men finale (I admire the actual closing scene, but felt that much of it fell into a lot of typical “series finale” traps – too neat, too tidy, too sentimental, too safe, etc.), but even if I had hated it, that wouldn't have changed the fact that the series has more than rewarded the amount of time I've put into it. Matthew Weiner and his creative team have given me nearly 100 hours of thought-provoking, artful, challenging, well-acted television – would I be willing to lose all of that just because I had mixed feelings on the last installment? Would I be willing to say that someone else should skip all of that just because the last installment isn't as strong as it ought to be? Never.

I'm particularly baffled by the cries of “ruined!” when it comes to shows like Mad Men and The Sopranos, which were never promising to solve some grand series-spanning mystery. It's a little more understandable in the case of something like Lost, a sci-fi mystery series which ultimately declined to solve most of its mysteries. Even there, however, the strong moments of the series aren't ruined for me. The fun of the show's first season doesn't just fade away because the finale failed to explain the presence of polar bears on the island. I have little interest in returning to that show, but it's largely because the entirety of the final season is flat and dull, not because the finale fumbles the ball (truth be told, it's one of the season's more watchable episodes). For me, the same applies to ongoing book or film series: the convoluted mythology of the Matrix sequels fails to dilute the effectiveness of The Matrix, the inferior nature of the Hobbit series fails to dampen the power of Lord of the Rings, the messy weirdness of The Last Battle fails to ruin the wonder of Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

As far as I'm concerned, a film series, a book series or a television series isn't a great big pot of stew that can be completely ruined by a bit of raw meat. It's a whole bunch of individual bowls of similar but different stews, one or two of which may not taste as good as the others. That's a clumsy concluding metaphor, but as I said, endings are tough.