As we kick off the new year, television shows begin returning from hiatus. And all of our feelings return from hiatus, too. Repost from 4/2/14 about what television can do to us collectively.
Last night on Facebook, I watched an interesting phenomenon unfold before me on my news feed: That of the instant status reaction to a series finale. I always love when this happens (also applicable are season finales and any game changer episode), because the reactions are so varied and colorful in their sameness. There are the people who hate it so violently they just blurt out what happens, and the other people who angrily admonish them in the comments (“Nice spoiler alert, asshole”). There are those who praise it for its perfection or just defensively and defiantly state, “I liked it.” And there are also those who are sort of just checking in to let us know they watched it but, y’know, aren’t sure how to feel about the whole thing just yet.
Last night, on the heels of the How I Met Your Mother finale, there was really only one camp cropping up. While I know the other exists, the majority was leaning heavily towards, “That finale was a piece of shit and I am angry in ways I never thought imaginable.”
And this led me to think about series finales in general, and whether as a whole they are more widely hated than they are loved.
A bit of background: How I Met Your Mother is a show that I have never watched but have been forced to listen to people quote Neil Patrick Harris’ character lines from it for, oh, it feels like a million years. It’s one of those shows, which, when mentioned, I usually responded with a disinterested, “Oh, is that still on?” Personally, I could care less that it ended or even that it existed in the first place, such is my neutrality on the matter. But today, my friend and co-worker gave me a recap of the whole finale and now I concede that, yes, that was a terrible finale. Granted, her recap was dictated to me intermittently between vitriol-laced expletives and wild hand gestures, so the fact that I feel anger about the finale now should be viewed through that lens. What I’m saying is: How I Met Your Mother folks who are angry? I get your pain. I am on your side here.
But back to series finales in general. I polled the Facebook community at large: Name a series finale that you actually thought was good. What resulted was an 82-comment thread that proved that there are good series finales out there. It also demonstrated how varied we can each feel about a particular series finale. There are series finales that seem universally liked and ones that appear pretty universally hated. And series finales that are so polarizing, people may never stop talking about them.
But how does that work?
Demanding a series finale that leaves everyone satisfied is like asking a funeral to have a happy ending. It just won’t happen, unless maybe you’re a sociopath. No one will be happy if the ending is too happy. No one will be happy if the ending is too sad. No one wants it to end predictably. But no one wants it to be a cliffhanger, either. No one wants to accept that a character might die. But you also can’t just have some characters live out their lives after what they’ve done either. It needs to stay true to the story, the integrity of the characters, and the overarching theme of the show. It needs to move you and provide closure. It needs to do a lot of freaking things in not a lot of time and if the show winds up just wrapping things up like a half-eaten Chipotle burrito and tossing it in the back of the metaphorical refrigerator that is the hearts and minds of the fans at home…well then, people will not be pleased.
Series finales demand that the stories for the characters end right. But they also impossibly demand that there is one singular path that will make everyone happy. That years of expectations for millions of people will pay off in a way that every single individual is left satisfied. You want to leave an image in the minds of the audience that this is where this character went. You want people to stand at the water cooler (do people stand near those anymore?) and shake their heads passionately and say, “It couldn’t have been any other way. This was how it had to be.” But more often than not, series finales leave a bitter taste in many people’s mouths. Fans are divided into post-show camps. Writers make the rounds and give interviews and swear, “This is the way we always envisioned this show ending.” People take to fanfiction to right the wrongs done upon them by the writers and producers. We complain in Facebook statuses, slapping a lazy “spoiler alert” before or after our fast, angry, one-minute-has-passed-since-the -conclusion opinion.
Because what we really want is for the series to never end. Or we wanted it to have ended 2 seasons ago, or before they killed that character, or gave this one cancer, or they switched showrunners. What we really want is for the show to have peered inside our individual hearts and produced an ending that is in a lot of ways a reflection of us. When you love something like this, you claim ownership of it in your heart. This is the reason why, throughout the years, when asked who should direct the next Harry Potter film, my answer was always, “Me.” Because as a devoted fan, you’re the only one who knows how it should look, and the only one who could do it right.
And think about it: We spend the time to watch something, because it speaks to us for whatever reason. But in that process of consuming something, we also allow it to define us in a way. One of the ice breaker “get to know you” questions typically asked is, “What is your favorite TV show?” It appears as a field to be filled out in virtually every online profile you can create. It says something about us. We use it superficially on the surface to help describe to other people who we are. And then we take that acquisition and we project it back onto the thing that we watched, so now the relationship between the show and the viewer is more complicated than you would think. It’s the reason people feel frustrated and angry when How I Met Your Mother didn’t end a different way, and why an emotion as strong as betrayal can creep to the surface when we’re really talking about a television show that we could have actively made the decision to stop watching at any point in the series.
So you watch a show and you feel like you emotionally stake claim to it. But there are also millions of other devoted fans who have their own vision for how it’s supposed to be. And sometimes those visions line up and we have these universally “good” finales. But a lot of the time, there are subtle nuances between personal tastes that can make one person love it and another hate it. And when you look at it like that, it’s a wonder that these television shows can unite an entire audience at all. But this is what’s magical about television (and movies). These stories can make us feel something, and not just that, they can make us feel it all collectively. To make us part of a “we.” It’s why people choose Team Edward or Team Jacob. It’s why we amalgamate two characters’ names because we ship them. It’s why fans of Hannibal call themselves “Fannibals,” why women who love Daryl Dixon on The Walking Dead hashtag themselves as “Dixon’s Vixens,” why Lady Gaga formed an entire culture around her fandom simply by calling them “Little Monsters.”
We crave the unity. We want connection. But where we separate is how a story should end. Because finality is unbearable. We have to face finality in our lives all of the time: Breakups. The end of high school or college. Leaving a job. Simple moments fading away. And the ultimate finality of all—death. In media, there is a slighter sense of control, because while we can’t take the helm on how a show might end, we can keep the ending in our mind. So if Ross and Rachel end up together, we can always remember that Friends had a happy ending. And if Walter White dies at the end of Breaking Bad, we can take comfort in knowing that’s exactly how that story needed to end. Betrayal is when we feel that the writers didn’t honor these characters, and the legacy of a show we loved was a disappointing ending that can never be undone.
And that utter finality is why emotions surge higher during a series finale than, say, season 2 episode 11 (although, I don’t know, depending on the show maybe that was a particularly emotional episode for you).
But whether you liked the ending of How I Met Your Mother or you hated it, the important thing is that you emotionally shared an experience with an incredibly large amount of people. People you don’t even know and will never meet. People all over the country, of all ages and races and genders and sexual orientations. Even if you felt something good and someone else felt something bad, you felt it at the same time, over the same thing, at the same moment. And when you stand in awe at that reality, does it really matter what happened in the end? Does it really matter that the mother died?
Yes? Okay, fair enough.