6 TV Finales That Were Widely Misunderstood
With the exception of those soap operas that will outlive our grandchildren, most TV shows eventually come to an end. Final episodes tend to be polarizing; you either love them, or you vow to one day toss their creators into the fires of Mount Doom. The thing is, if you look back at those episodes with a cool head, you might realize that the critical consensus had it all backwards. So before we all realize reality only exists within a snow globe, here are some alternate views on the most famous (and infamous) TV finales ever.
Breaking Bad -- A Child-Poisoning Psycho Becomes A Superhero
Unless you had a relative who got half their face blown off in a senior living home explosion, chances are you loved Breaking Bad. As for the finale, the critics embraced it like a lost puppy that had just found its way home:
The last episode served to provide emotional closure for beloved protagonist Walter White -- you know, that guy who poisons kids and casually watches women choke to death. Which raises a question: Do we want this guy to get a happy ending?
The ending works out so incredibly well for Walt that people have theorized that it's a fantasy, or even that he's dead and becomes a ghost (which would at least explain his ability to Patrick Swayze his way into people's homes). The episode is basically nothing but Walt running through his bucket list of vengeance, and we're rooting for him the whole way, even when he terrifies his ex-friends whom he ( falsely) blames for his misfortunes.
Walt then visits Skyler -- again, almost materializing out of thin air -- and admits to her that he didn't cook meth for his family. He did it because he "liked it."
Which feels like a big moment, but it's not really enough. Walt's such a jerk that he can't even muster an apology for years of lying and making his family the target of a murderous fried chicken restaurateur. For some reason, though, this is good enough for Skyler, who then lets Walt have a tender moment with their baby. You know, the one he once abducted. Even Ted Danson and Steve Guttenberg couldn't make this not creepy.
Then comes the show's big moment: Walt has to save Jesse, which involves fighting Nazis. Even if you hate Walt, between him and Nazis ... it's kind of obvious that only AMC fans that are actual Nazis are going vote against Walt. So once again, Walt is unequivocally triumphant.
One reviewer at Salon points out that while the creators talked about the show as the "transformation from Mr. Chips to Scarface," Tony Montana actually got his comeuppance. Walt, on the other hand, gets to go out completely on his own terms. He's practically smiling as he dies before the police can arrest him.
Walt martyrs himself and escapes punishment, which is a big problem if you think his transgressions were beyond the point of redemption. Of course, if you believe he then wakes up on the set of Malcolm In The Middle, a lot of these problems go away.
Friends -- Ross Ruins Rachel's Career, While Monica Wrecks Joey And Chandler's Friendship
People seemingly loved the Friends finale, either because they thought it was a good capper to the beloved sitcom or because everything pre-Joey seems like Faulkner in comparison.
The finale finds Rachel leaving New York for a dream fashion job in Paris, and Ross suddenly remembering that the only reason people ever liked him was that he was in love with her, so he asks her to stay with him. Ross never suggests he could go with her to Paris; he only wants Rachel to abandon this promising career opportunity and go back to unemployment. The finale wants us to root for Rachel to torpedo her professional life and stay with Ross, who treats her like garbage. To make matters worse, the reason they broke up in the first place was Ross' crazed jealousy that she was working with a man. So Ross' desire to have Rachel back romantically is also tied into his desire to have her reject her career ambitions -- which, in case you didn't realize, is terrible.
In the end, she gives up the job for Ross, who's just so inept at everything that he can't even go 30 seconds without making a joke about the time he cheated on her. Class act, that Ross.
Meanwhile, Monica and Chandler adopt twins and move away from the city ... despite the fact that they both work in the city, all their friends live in the city, and they pay practically nothing in rent. In the episode's most problematic bit of symbolism, the second half of the finale finds Chandler and Joey having to break open their Foosball table because a baby chick crawled inside. It seems the actors' paychecks were so costly at this point that having a small bird crawl into some gaming equipment was the biggest setpiece they could afford.
They can't break the table, because it's a symbol of their years of friendship and youth. So Monica steps in and gleefully demolishes it.
So the message they're sending here is that women and families will literally break apart your friendships. In the world of Friends, apparently you can't get married, have kids, and retain your friendships from your 20s; you have to move far away and metaphorically destroy them. If they did a reunion show, it'd be Joey and Chandler awkwardly pretending they didn't see each other at the mall.
Seinfeld -- The Last Episode Is A Brilliant Existential Allegory
A lot of people really hated the Seinfeld finale, as evidenced by this moment from David Letterman's own last episode in which Jerry Seinfeld's soul seemingly breaks in half:
But unlike the rest of the series, the finale isn't about nothing; it's about death. They aren't even subtle about it. The episode begins with the gang aboard a crashing plane, confronting their own mortality:
And from a meta perspective, these characters are about to die, because their show is ending. Then, at the last minute, the plane rights itself and lands in a small town straight out of The Twilight Zone. In keeping with the cosmic otherworldliness of this town, the four friends are immediately confronted with a moral quandary: help a guy being mugged, or do nothing but make snarky comments. Being New Yorkers, they go for the latter.
The gang is then arrested and put on trial for failing to be "Good Samaritans" -- meaning that the subject of the trial is the very worthiness of their souls. Interestingly, the judge's name is Art Vandelay, George's go-to pseudonym for his elaborate deceptions. This isn't just a throwaway joke; it's a sign that this trial isn't a random bit of happenstance. It's the Universe reflecting these characters' moral ineptitude back at them. Their disregard for humanity has been made manifest and is here to judge them, and those who have been wronged throughout the show's wacky adventures state their cases.
Like Saint Peter at the Pearly Gates, Vandelay is judging the characters for their behavior throughout their televised lives. Aside from when How I Met Your Mother ended and caused viewers to abandon any belief in a higher power, how many sitcoms have dared to delve into existential themes like this? Some have even pointed to literary masterpieces such as Camus' The Stranger and Kafka's The Trial as possible influences on the ending.
But then, instead of passing peacefully into the metaphorical afterlife, the characters are found guilty and jailed in a kind of TV purgatory. In an amazingly depressing final note, the first line from the very first episode ...
... becomes the (next-to) last line of the finale.
Meaning that these characters have exhausted the superficial manner by which they've led their lives. There's nothing left. They will either need to begin a search for substantive meaning, or they are doomed to get caught in an endless spiral of empty repetition. And Newman's probably the Devil or something. We're still working on that.
Mad Men -- The Final Scene Renders Don's Journey Of Self-Discovery Pointless
Mad Men is undoubtedly one of the greatest TV shows of all time, and for sure the greatest TV show to feature a lawnmower running over a man's foot at an office party. Critics loved the last episode almost as much as the Sterling Cooper gang loved guzzling whiskey and napping during work hours:
The finale finds Don Draper in the middle of an existential crisis. After conversations with his daughter, dying ex-wife, and best friend / former protegee don't really evoke any meaningful change, Don gets dragged to a support group, where he ends up hugging it out with a random dude.
In the end, we see Don meditating on a hilltop ... but then he smiles, either because he's had a brilliant idea or he's thinking about that time Pete Campbell fell down the stairs. It's the former, since we then cut to the famous "I'd Like To Buy The World A Coke" commercial:
The implication here is that Don took the goodwill and earnestness of the hippie movement that embraced him in a moment of need, then repackaged it as a way to sell brown sugar water -- and this is supposed to be a good thing. At a speaking engagement days after the finale, the show's creator, Matthew Weiner, praised the Coke ad for its racial progressiveness, saying "it's the best ad ever made, and it comes from a very good place." They even handed out free Coke bottles to the audience, before presumably breaking into a singalong.
The problem is that Don's flaws were always presented as a living embodiment of the duplicitous nature of advertising. He had all of the superficial components of a happy life, but was riddled with misery and vice. We loved watching Don Draper because he's the victim of himself. The opening titles feature a figure helplessly plunging through an abyss of commercialism:
It always sort of seemed like if Don were to grow as a character, it would be accompanied by a rejection of the advertising industry. Instead, Don used a bunch of peace-loving hippies to help promote a corporation that would later dole out the largest settlement in a racial discrimination lawsuit, (allegedly) cause a drought in India, and get boycotted for (allegedly) hiring militias to murder people. So thanks a lot, Don Draper.
The Sopranos -- Tony Didn't Die, But Will Simply Be A Jerk Forever
It was one of the most talked-about endings of all time. Tony Soprano is in a diner with his family, when all of a sudden the image cuts to black. What happened? Was Tony killed? Did the cable go out? Did an extra accidentally wander in front of the camera?
But what if that final moment was about something else entirely? The black screen plays out for like ten seconds. Maybe this isn't merely to mess with the audience. It's communicating that Tony's story isn't necessarily over, but we're not invited to watch anymore. It's less about what happened to Tony, and more to do with why the show won't have any audience anymore. Why is that?
Well, one of the most important structural elements people overlook when discussing the ending is Tony's therapy. Tony's journey with self-analysis is essentially what bookends the show. The very first scene of the first episode is Tony arriving at Dr. Melfi's office ...
... and crucially, the penultimate episode finds Tony being thrown out of the office and telling Dr. Melfi off.
This framing device underscores the reason this particular period of time in Tony's life is the time we spend with him on the show. The Sopranos takes place within a window during which Tony had the potential for change and self-analysis. And in case you didn't notice, Tony didn't blossom into a beautiful flower, as evidenced by, say, the time he roughed up his suicidal son for crying. With his therapy at an end and his family's lives ruined, Tony is going to continue being awful -- or die, it doesn't really matter. Because the show hasn't been following Tony. It's been following Tony's capacity for growth. Once that has been effectively eradicated, the show is over. He will keep lying to himself and his family. Nothing to see here, folks, just another violent philanderer who lacks self-reflection. It cuts to black as if the video feed to his psyche has been severed. Or someone shot him in the head, it's hard to say.
OK, Here's A Go-For-Broke Defense Of The Lost Finale
The Lost finale has plenty of detractors. George R.R. Martin famously hated it, and when Breaking Bad's last episode aired, jerks Tweet-bombed Lost showrunner Damon Lindelof to say "That's how it's done."
The most common complaint is that the finale didn't answer any of the show's mysteries. But as we've pointed out, they did. You just had to watch the actual show. Which lots of the finale's viewers didn't. Based on the ratings, around a third of the final episode's audience likely hadn't watched Lost in years, but were curious to see if the Island would be revealed to be a computer game being played by Hitler or something.
Also, despite the fact that people are still confused about this, the characters weren't dead the whole time. Those eerie shots of the original plane crash's empty wreckage they showed during the end credits?
Yeah, those were thrown in by the network as a "visual aid" to transition from the show into the nightly news, with no input from the actual writers. They mean nothing.
Now, the characters were dead during the final season's "Flash Sideways" sequences, which were set in a bizarre magical purgatory that had nothing to do with the show's established mythology ... or did it? The last moment of the finale finds the characters being absorbed in a white Hallmark-y glowing light:
The same kind of light has been used throughout the show to represent the Island's electromagnetic energy, like when Desmond blows up the Hatch. Hell, the "heart" of the Island is seemingly half urine, half white light. So what if this dimension the characters find themselves in isn't separate from the Island's powers? Throughout the show, a lot of stuff people wanted magically appeared on the Island, be it a horse, or food, or even a ton of smuggled heroin. Wish fulfillment seemed to be the Island's ultimate power.
Now, the sideways universe only appeared in the last season, after Juliet detonated a nuke from inside a pocket of that energy. She was trying desperately to create an alternate timeline where the plane never crashed.
Her last words? "It worked." So the result of that action was a false reality created by the Island wherein Juliet and everyone else is granted their innermost desires. The finale may be sappy, but when you boil it down, it's a pretty dark sci-fi story. Our beloved characters have to reject their personal fantasies and abandon a false reality to embrace their own deaths. Of course, this all played out in a church, which kind of felt like the TV equivalent of answering your doorbell and having a Jesus pamphlet shoved in your face.
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