Sunday, October 6, 2013

On "Felina", Finales and Epilogues on TV

"Now you're looking for the secret. But you won't find it because of course, you're not really looking. You don't really want to work it out. You want to be fooled." -- Cutter, Prestige
It's now been a week since the last frame of Breaking Bad footage aired on national television and anyone with a mind to it has said their piece online.  With all the hype and expectations now put to rest, I stand by what I said in my pre-finale post (and later argued to the estimable FILM CRIT HULK on Twitter), that wanting can be a lot more enjoyable than having when it comes to series finales.  The quote above from Prestige captures this notion, and the sentiment was also expressed by Joanna Robinson in her podcast review of the finale on The Ones Who Knock.  That is, for all the stylistic triumphs of "Felina", as enjoyable as it was, it didn't really aspire to surprise the audience in any way.  Rather than hit us upside the head like the controversial Sopranos finale or throw a wild monkey wrench in the gears like the groundbreaking St. Elsewhere finale, "Felina" felt more like watching the dominoes fall just as they'd been arranged .  That is, it was less a climax than a series of natural consequences to what came before.

Another way to put it is that "Felina" wasn't a finale at all.  Sure, it's the last episode of the series, but narratively speaking, it's really Breaking Bad's epilogue.  In theory, there shouldn't be anything wrong with that.  In practice, however, there's a tendency now to treat the finale as the be-all, end-all of a series' worth, and to criticize any show that doesn't satisfy the urge to be stunned and amazed by the last shot.  It's a stifling expectation to impose on any story however told, and I think it's time we drop that expectation when it comes to TV shows.

More below the fold with spoilers for Breaking Bad, Justice League Unlimited, Buffy the Vampire Slayer (through season 4), Lost and Stephen King's The Stand.

I'm not the first person to have the observation that "Felina" doesn't really feel like a finale, and it wouldn't surprise me if it becomes conventional wisdom that Breaking Bad's true finale was "Ozymandias."  Josh Cohen wrote a nice piece on this very topic at The Wesleyan Argus:
In both content and form, “Ozymandias” was the series’ climax. From there, a writing staff obsessed with tying up loose ends did so for the next two plus hours: revealing Mr. White’s transition to Mr. Lambert in the New Hampshire wilderness, his motivation to come back home a hollow husk of his former self, and his execution of his final wishes before succumbing to death by his own device. All that brought audiences to the true end of the “Breaking Bad” plotline, but the dramatic arc of the show trended downward through “Granite State” to reach the relatively tidy last rites of “Felina.”
I'd single out specifically the moment when Flynn grabs the knife from his parents as they wrestle on the ground and Walt stands over Flynn and Skylar shouting, "What the hell are you doing? We're a family!" as the climax of the series.  Whatever was destined to happen after that, Walt had lost his family (the purported reason he did all that he did), and there was nothing he could do to make that right.  Series creator Vince Gilligan has called this episode "the best episode we ever had or ever will have." While that doesn't necessarily translate as an endorsement of my theory, I can't help but wonder if the title "Felina" is as much a deliberate anagram of "finale" as it is a clear nod to the Marty Robins song that plays during the opening   In other words, might "Felina" be a subliminal message to the audience that the true finale of the series was placed out of order?

Okay, so maybe that's a little crackpot, but I think it's worth questioning the extreme importance we've assigned "the final episode" as the most important hour for any TV show.  This isn't always the case, of course, nor has it always been the case that TV shows even had a distinct "final episode."  If we can believe Wikipedia, two of the earliest shows with "final episodes" were Howdy Doody and Leave It to Beaver in the 1960s. Over the next few decades, there would occasionally be a notable series finale such as the last episode of The Fugitive (naturally fueled by the resolution of the series-long search for the one-armed man), to M*A*S*H, to Dallas, usually punctuating the end of highly serialized dramas.

By the late 1990s, however, the expectations of a strong "series finale" crept up on non-serialized shows like Seinfeld.  While the hype surrounding a show like The Fugitive (which was built around a central conflict) makes perfect sense, why the hell was there so much hype around the final episode of Seinfeld?  Did we really expect that Jerry would give up his OCD-level fixations? Or that any of the characters would grow up in a meaningful way?

Yet, at this point, we've grown accustomed to treating the final episode as the pinnacle, the true test of whether a show was worth watching in the first place.  If you think I'm exaggerating, here is that very sentiment nearly verbatim from a recent review of "Felina" by Brian Moylan posted on
Now the finale is not just a rewarding destination for hardcore fans but something that could stop future viewers from even starting out on the journey. While it had a great run through the middle of the series, I would counsel new viewers against starting “Lost” because the ending is so disappointing.
That is a troubling conclusion to reach, but also an unsurprising one given our obsessive fixation on "spoilers" these days.  People can trash M. Night Shyamalan all they want for his over-reliance on "twist endings", but I'd say he's the natural product of a culture that puts "spoilers" on such a high pedestal that it seems nothing is so important as remaining "spoiler free" (even at the expense of the author's intentions, as I've discussed recently here).

Yet surely we can judge a story by more than how it ends and - more specifically - whether the ending manages to surprise us somehow.  Moylan's comment above is directed at Lost, which undoubtedly has one of the most controversial, divisive endings of recent memory.  It's also true, though, that in the instance, Lost billed itself and built its fan base explicitly around the many mystery of the islands. In that context, the ending (which concentrated on a plot line concerning purgatory that barely touched on the main plot of the show) arguably invited all the criticism it received by refusing to address any of the major questions surrounding the island ... depending on your point of view, that is.  In any event, not every show is built around a central mystery (or mysteries), and surely there are great stories out there worth telling even if the ending is lacking.

The ending of Stephen King's apocalyptic novel The Stand immediately jumped to my mind as I read Moylan's and others' review of "Felina."  Whereas I found "Felina" merely entertaining as an hour of television, the climactic scene of The Stand is as stupid as stupid gets.  Put briefly, two emissaries from the "good" survivors of the global plague are trapped in cages and about to be torn to pieces by pick-up trucks (oh, it's gruesome) at the behest of the demonic leader of the "evil" survivors.  Out of nowhere, a pyromaniac sycophant of the demonic leader drives up with a live nuclear warhead, and then, literally out of nowhere, a glowing hand emerges -- a deus ex machina if one ever existed -- and grabs hold of the warhead.  The glowing hand of God triggers the warhead, thus destroying the "evil" survivors in a mushroom cloud.  The end.  (Well, more or less ...)

When I read that ending as a teenager, I could not have imagined a worse, more anti-climatic ending.  And yet I found myself picking the book up, over and over again, and flipping to random pages to revisit the many, many passages that I loved out of that book.  I've recommended it to others.  I may just re-read it again some day.  Honestly, why would I let a shitty ending take away from the joys of the other 1,000+ pages that I loved then and love now?

Television obviously has a problem that books do not, forced into 45-minute blocks with commercial breaks and other studio demands.  That said, there's no reason that we have to perpetuate yet another pigeon-holing expectation on Vince Gilligan and other creators by holding up the finale as the final arbiter on whether a show is worthy of praise or scorn.  I suspect future retrospectives on Breaking Bad will pay little attention to "Felina", particularly in comparison to the triumph that is "Ozymandias."  Hopefully, if we're lucky, other shows will take a cue from Vince Gilligan and tinker with their own story structure, and perhaps we the audience will also adjust our own expectations of what a show can (or should) be.

The precedent is out there.  The brilliant cartoon series Justice League Unlimited very cleverly dropped an episode called "Epilogue" at the end of its second season, well before the climatic "Destroyer" episode in the next season.  In "Epilogue", the story abruptly jumps into the future as told by the spin-off series Batman Beyond, adding a coda to the season-long conflict between the Justice League and the government-led Cadmus organization.  The episode serves primarily to underscore certain themes of the show and it can easily be taken out of order without losing any of the main plot threads.  Likewise, season four of Buffy the Vampire Slayer ends with "Restless", which takes place entirely in a series of interconnected dreams with only the loosest connection to the conflict that preceded it.  Like "Epilogue", "Restless" says a great deal about each of the main characters (and also foreshadows at a major plot development to come in season 5), but if you considered either episode the "finale" and judged it on that basis, they'd seem horribly anti-climatic.

While it isn't so clearly the case that "Granite State" and "Felina" could be removed from the series the way you might remove "Epilogue" from JLU or "Restless" from Buffy without doing much damage to the narrative overall, it is the case that de-emphasizing the all-encompassing importance of the series finale will free up TV shows to experiment with story structure.  With all the possibilities that modern day technology provides, from Netflix to DVD extras to webisodes, why would we continue to insist that TV shows wrap up all their loose ends in the exact same hour-long format used by every other show out there?  Why not let them take a couple of episodes to wrap things up after the "series finale"?  Why not let them have an epilogue?

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