With the round of season finales out of the way for all the major broadcast television series, I’ve been thinking about which finales were the most effective and why. You know, because I have absolutely nothing to do with my life during the summer — or any time for that matter.
Anyway, what is most interesting to me is that the two finales that stick out the most to me both made a decision in how their story was going to be told. Whereas most season finales are about cliffhangers, shocking moments and plot development, two finales chose to tell stories almost entirely based on emotional recall and connection. Yes, both episodes included some shockers or movement in major plot pieces, but instead of relying on the dispersal of “answers” or action, they offered up efforts fully designed to make the audience remember certain previous series moments — moments that would make them feel.
Before I bury the lead too much here, I of course am talking about the finales of Supernatural (“Swan Song”) and Lost (“The End”).
Now that I can be less vague, I go back to my above statements. Supernatural did offer a resolution to its apocalypse story. Lost did offer a resolution to the flash-sideways universe. But instead of explicitly showing certain developments that would make the resolutions seem more clear on a basic level, both episodes were chock-full of finely edited clips from previous episodes and seasons that served as emotional anchors for not only the characters, but the fans as well. And though the two series were certainly different in the sheer amount of answers or actions they could have shown audiences in their respective finales, both skewed more towards emotional efficacy than nuts and bolts “THIS IS WHAT THIS IS. PLOT DEVELOPMENT!” At the beginning of season five, if you told fans of Supernatural that the finale’s epic battle between Michael and Lucifer would last less than two minutes and include no physical contact, while the episode would include at least double that amount of time in footage from previous episodes, they’d be enraged. But “Swan Song” was nearly universally loved. At the beginning of season six, if you told fans of Lost that the climax of the flash-sideways story would be that it was an afterlife waiting room and its reveal would be led into by countless clips from previous episodes, they’d be enraged. But “The End” was near–well, let’s say the people who love it, really love it.
Thus, it seems that both series’ showrunners, Eric Kripke for Supernatural, Cuse and Lindelof for Lost, decided to eschew the mechanizations of answers or set-pieces so that they could give the fans a sense of emotional closure. This is especially important because one finale is a series ender and the other is really a would-be series ender (Kripke always had a five-year plan and is more or less leaving the series on a day-to-day level after “Swan Song”). But I’ll get to that in a few graphs. The whole point of this post is to ask a question I’ve been asking myself since the respective episodes aired: Are these finales (and thus this approach) a cop-out/cheat/manipulative approach that tricks the audience into positively responding to it while ignoring their shortcomings in terms of answers (in the case of Lost) or action (in the case of Supernatural)?
The fan in me says no. In my comments about both finales, I’ve noted the dedication and emphasis on the characters and how the respective finales nailed those moments just about as well as they could have. The montages of happy moments between Sam and Dean and the history of the car’s best moments made me smile/nearly cry in “Swan Song.” The remembering scenes for each character on Lost was one of the highlights of “The End.” Both episodes included lots of tears, hugging and discussion about love. It all hooked me in.
The wannbe critic in me says maybe. Fans waited six years for certain answers and although Lost never promised any of them, to not even attempt to answer them and then cry, “it’s all about the characters!” has to be disheartening for certain fans. Fans also waited all season to see the climax of the Lucifer-Michael fight and to have them just sarcastically quip for awhile until Dean runs in for the mushy stuff could have been read as a cheap alternative to all the hype building to that point. One could argue that both finales served as glorified clip shows. I don’t subscribe to either of those views, but one has to wonder if placing emotional heft into a place where most assumed something else would be is at least a marginal betrayal to the audience. And what could this mean for future finales? Television series definitely go for the emotional gut punch on countless occasions, but rarely is so much based on emotional triggers like those seen in “Swan Song” and “The End.” Will more series forget plot and focus solely on making the audience feel the most? Does this already happen anyway and we’re just analyzing it more because it’s the end and should-be end of two mythologically heavy efforts?
There’s more territory to mine here. I’m wondering how my and others’ response to these episodes is shaped by the programs’ genre. If Supernatural or Lost were straight drama series all about romantic entanglements or heartfelt monologues and only those things, I cannot imagine anyone would complain about the endings. But because they’re highly serialized sci-fi-tinged series with packets of intense action, the expectations, and ultimately the fan response, is different. Again, I’m not here to suggest that the people behind these two series didn’t have the right to subvert those expectations because in the end, their show is their show and pandering to what a fan group wants is never a good thing.
I noted above that I wanted to discuss why I think the fact that these two episodes are series — or at least makeshift, should-be — finales is important to this conversation. It is in that vein that I believe the decision to trade certain elements for emotional resonance matters the most. For a departing (and again, should-be) departing series, the most important thing should be to provide some sort of closure for the characters and in some ways, for the fans. And even though pop culture discussions will always frame Lost as a mystery- and mythology-centric series, the die-hard fans will remember the characters. Some might not be able to admit it right now, but in 15, 20 years, we’ll remember Ben Linus, James Ford, John Locke, Claire Littleton and Sayid Jarrah for the people they were, not the situations they found themselves in. If the fans are going to remember the series in that way anyway, why not use the finale as a way to put a button on all those characters and give them an emotionally lasting send-off? Supernatural‘s situation is different because A.) it’s never been as popular and B.) it’s coming back for another season, but the rule remains the same. Fans watch for Sam and Dean, not for the apocalypse.
One final major point before I open this discussion up to you: Interestingly, both of these episodes featured endings that could be read as messages to the fans as well. Lost‘s mantra of let go and Supernatural‘s Chuck voice-over about the struggle to find an ending and placating all people are fairly clear instances of the show runners talking to their rabid fans. So what does it say about the writers behind both series that they gave fans a resolution that’s mostly emotional and then more or less spoke to them within the episode? Is it the ultimate fan service or the ultimate execution of control?
The answers, I think, are not clear. But this storytelling approach needs to be discussed further, free from the emotional glow that the two episodes profiled here provided us.