“Tarnished Forever”: Why Don’t Great TV Shows End Well?

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If Sunday night’s Line of Duty was truly the last of all time, it feels like the whole schedule has been tarnished by its finale.

Because that’s what happens with TV shows. Think about Game of Thrones. Think how rapturous it has been for years, and how everything was undone by the abject impertinence of its last episode. Think about Dexter and how a once very successful series became a laughing stock as the credits roll. Think about Lost and how a divisive finale sent Damon Lindelof into such funk that his next show ended up being an explicit meditation on the depressive nature of grief. Screw up the landing and everything will go to hell.

What makes this more cruel is that you will always screw up the landing. Almost 13 million people watched Line of Duty on Sunday. No one alive could create an ending to a series – let alone a series powered by dozens of daring twists – that has satisfied 13 million people. So why bother? The show belongs to Jed Mercurio, not to us; if he wanted to see him with a shrug and a waffle, that’s his prerogative.

This does not mean that shows cannot find good endings. Fleabag, for example, ended in the best possible way, with a farewell nod to the camera that had hung by his side no matter what. It was a perfect closing moment. Then again, Fleabag was only 12 episodes long and not based on some gigantic mystery. Expectations were lower, so the final mattered less.

The same goes for Mad Men. It aired much longer than Fleabag, but a retrospective exploration of the emptiness of the American Dream will never put people on the edge of their seats like a deliberately mainstream thriller. And Mad Men has probably my favorite finale of any TV show – using a formal leap of presentation, a rewrite of history, and a level of cynicism that still takes your breath away six years later.

Still, Mercurio should be happy to learn that a final isn’t always eternal. Ending a show with a thematically subtle anticlimax rather than a definitive burst of action may alienate viewers in the short term, but it also provides a platform for discussion that could last for years. The Sopranos were a perfect example. When a seemingly dead-end dinner scene ended in a sudden blackout, people immediately voiced their displeasure. It seemed like a Dexter level embarrassment.

But then people discovered layers of meaning that, in the days when they expected a boom-pow ending, they missed. They saw all of the show’s main themes – family, aggression, paranoia – in a microcosm. The more you watch the final scene of The Sopranos, the more you find to enjoy, in that it’s all too easy to get lost in a rabbit hole of blackout online blow-by-blow.

That the same can be said of the line of duty is anyone’s guess. Perhaps in the years to come people will find new depth in Ted Hastings’ flabby confession and sow the seeds for a critical reassessment. Maybe they won’t. Or maybe there will be a series in seven to two years, and this will all just be a weird little twist. Honestly, who knows?

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