The series finale of “How I Met Your Mother” went over like a lead balloon, joining such finale fiascoes as “Lost,” “The Sopranos,” “Dexter” and “Seinfeld.” The higher the stakes and more beloved the show, it seems, the harder it is to achieve a satisfactory conclusion.
This is an issue of considerable concern to “Mad Men” fans as the series enters its final season. How will Matt Weiner wrap up Don Draper’s story? Many fans predict that Don and the 1960s will both expire at the same time, a guess that’s not particularly far-fetched since the guy’s already a walking heart attack.
The way a TV series departs the realm of original programming for the afterlife of syndication and boxed DVD sales is a matter of some emotional importance to fans. A bad ending can leave a sour taste that retrospectively taints everything that went before. It makes fans wonder if they and the showrunners had really been on the same page all along.
Of course most TV shows don’t have to worry about this problem because they go to the big cancellation bin in the sky before they’ve been around long enough for anyone to care. And for the first several decades of television history, wrapping up a television series with a special concluding episode was the last thing on anyone’s mind. Most series were comprised of independent, unconnected episodes that didn’t provide a narrative arc over the course of the series. Consequently, there was nothing to wrap up – the show simply stopped offering new episodes. And since the networks usually didn’t decide until the end of the season whether to bring back a show back for another year, there was rarely an opportunity to produce a series finale anyway. This happened most recently with “Deadwood,” which went off the air without any narrative conclusion.
Usually it’s only the longest-running and most-beloved shows that get their own special event conclusion. And history has shown this can be a mixed bag. A really great ending needs to sum up the overriding ethos of the series and provide a good explication of what the program has been about. Sometimes it’s not even apparent until the last couple of episodes that a series has been “about” anything other than jokes or drama, but usually the impending void does tend to concentrate the mind of the writers and they come up with something.
Of course trying to sum up a series can backfire. In the case of “How I Met Your Mother,” the problem seems to be that the creators had a vision for how they wanted the series to end from day one, but because they couldn’t artfully get back to that ending nine years later they just tacked it on in a way that undercut most of the storyline of the last few seasons. In “Lost,” the problem was the exact opposite. The creators had no idea how the series would end when they launched the show and struggled to come up with an ending that was both imaginative and comprehensible.
Shows like “Lost,” “Under the Dome,” “Revolution” and “The Walking Dead,” which consist of one long narrative story, present the networks with special challenges because in contrast to episodic shows like “CSI” or “Law and Order,” they cry out for some kind of resolution. But as long as their ratings are good, the networks keep renewing them instead of bringing them to a natural conclusion. Unfortunately, in too many cases viewers have lost interest by the time the shows are wrapped up (does anyone remember the series finales for “All in the Family” or “Dallas”?) That’s why the producers of “Mad Men” and “Justified” were smart to announce their end dates well before they had squeezed all the creative juices out of those shows. They are able to end on their own terms.
So how will “Mad Men” end? The most common way to end a series is to introduce a crucial change to the premise of the show. In a show about kids, the kids will grow up: “Leave it to Beaver” ended with the oldest son going off to college, which was also the concluding event in “Family Ties” and “The Cosby Show.” In the “M*A*S*H” finale, Hawkeye returns to the States. Chandler and Monica move to the suburbs in “Friends,” and in “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” everyone except Ted Baxter got fired. For “Mad Men” to take this route, Don would need to do something way out of character, like quitting advertising altogether, or Peggy would have to take over the agency.
Another way to end a series is to let the characters go on more or less as before. In “Cheers,” Sam and Diane do NOT run away together, and Sam ends up back at the Cheers bar. In “24,” Jack Bauer kills his final terrorist and reconciles with his daughter, but there’s nothing to prevent him from going back to CTU (and indeed, it looks like the show is returning after all.) If “Mad Men” were to take this approach, Don remain an ad executive — maybe at Sterling Cooper, maybe not — but he would finally wrestle his demons to the ground and become a better father, husband, friend and colleague.
I don’t know what Matt Weiner has up his sleeve, and I wouldn’t even begin to speculate. This has been a show with so many head fakes and feints that I’m pretty confident it will be something we’ve never thought of. And as long as it doesn’t undercut the previous 90 episodes that went before it, I’ll be happy with that.