Monday, June 2, 2014

Series Finales for Anti-Heroes: Can fans ever be Happy?

Within the last year two series about anti-heroes came to and end, one ending was lauded, the other destroyed,  Breaking Bad was the show applauded, Dexter ended with a gut punch to fans.  This will explore the growth of the anti-hero in television, and the possibility of the eventual disappointment fans have because of the nature of the trajectory of an anti-heroes' path.

Before I discuss the ending of the two most recent shows, let's look at the beginning of the anti-hero era with The Sopranos, and it's main gumba Tony Soprano.  The Sopranos created a mobster like no one before, a tough guy who dealt with anxiety and would sit on a therapists couch.  Who could imagine a man like this spilling his guts to a shrink about what unnerves him as a part of his daily routine with his life as a mafioso boss.  The Sopranos is widely known as one of the best television series of all time, but there is one fact that tarnishes it memory, and some would describe it as "that fucking cut to black."

When The Sopranos its last year was on a critical upswing, the show was bumping off main characters as a way to clean house and push the show toward its much anticipated finale.  As I sat in my parents house and television cut to black I remember yelling down to them, "did we we just lose power?"  At the time there was no twitter, and social was not around to fill in the gaps, or weigh in on the matter.  A few moments later the credits rolled.  I remember feeling puzzled, baffled, what was the meaning of the cut to black? Did Tony die?  I will admit I hated the fade to black in its immediacy, but over the years I have had the opportunity to process and have come to the conclusion that it was a genius way to end the show.

Why do I like the ending, how did I come to that conclusion?  Well I think there is no other way to look at the ending than as Tony's demise, if you watch the last sequence carefully it can all be laid out, seen by watching the precise layout of knowing the show, and the framework they constructed the entire series for the death of characters.  The show was also mainly seen through the POV of Tony, and with this cut to black, it could mean the end of his character.  The show gives you deeper things to think about.  Many still hate the ending, its a divisive one, which lays the groundwork for ending a series about an anti-hero.

So what about our two most recent anti heroes?  Let's start with Breaking Bad's Walter White.  Walter White's journey was a ramp up, each season of the show built to the frenzied finale, it was mainly as a year's journey as a man tries to battle cancer, pay for his treatment and find with the drug underworld to control the meth drug trade in his area.  Like the show, the popularity grew year after year with most people finding the show towards the last 2 or 3 seasons.  In an interview with Entertainment Weekly (EW) series creator Vince Gilligan stated that he started crafting the series finale toward the end of season, and that he had several different permutations building to the end with his writers.  When asked about the pressure to create the perfect series finale Gilligan said the following to EW:

"I love it when a TV show or a movie ends well, but having said that, yeah, we may be reaching a point where maybe there’s a little too much pressure put on the ending of a series. Not to name any names, but I could think of TV series dating back to when I was a little kid that perhaps I didn’t love the last episode so much, but that did not ruin my appreciation for the series as a whole. It is possible to put too much pressure on the ending of a series, and it can be counterproductive at best. On the other hand — I’m being a real devil’s advocate when I say I think it’s a healthy thing for any showrunner and his or her staff of writers to work their damndest to make the best possible ending that they can conceive of. The truth is, every showrunner out there does his or her best to make the show from beginning to end as satisfying as possible. So of course they’re going to try to make the best ending they can. We should applaud the ones that stick the landing, so to speak, but the ones that don’t perhaps end as well as they began, so what? It shouldn't dampen our enthusiasm for those shows." (

As a fan of Breaking Bad, there was only one way the show could end, and it for me the series finale was perfection, the arc of Walter White, his family, and his friends seemed complete.  The reason this series finally and the show seem complete is that Gilligan's mind put together a clear path for his anti-hero, like the perfect three act play the journey of Walter White from beginning to end made sense.

Not every anti-heroes' journey can feel so complete.  Let's take a look at Dexter Morgan next.  Dexter started in 2006, and the show was almost an instant hit, and remains to be Showtime's most watched series. Dexter a forensics blood splatter analyst by day, and avenging murder by night, well and day sometimes. Dexter traps and kills people who get away with crimes they should have been punished for.  Based on books this shows creation made a ton of sense, the concept, the cast, all fit perfectly within the first couple of years

Unlike Breaking Bad, the creative minds behind Dexter changed hands a couple of times, so the direction of the show never seemed to give a fully complete understanding of where the show was going to go next.  The last season of the series is proof that the executive producers did not understand the way complete the journey of an anti-hero.  Throughout the last season Dexter battled his origin, this story arc ended poorly with no emotional oomph.  Dexter's serial killer ex then came into town, and there was a subplot with Dexter's sister Deb, her new line of work, and the new villain that made no sense to the build up to a conclusion.  Then there was that series finale with a hurricane, and Dexter dumping his sister's body where he dumped all of this other victims.  Did Dexter feel like Deb was a victim of his revenge?  Possibly, but the show went off the deep, and producers just lost sight of things.  In an interview with EW the producer's stated they had been thinking about the ending, more the last scene, for a few years, which makes sense.  Dexter ending up alone was perfect.  The rest seemed thrown together, and haphazard, as though there was no understanding of the central focus of every episodes in the show.  If you want a good laugh as a Dexter fan read this interview with EW

The anti-heroes' journey is complicated, some have been successful like Walter White, and Tony Soprano, while others fallen flat in the end.  Next year Mad Men will come to an end, will the journey of Don Draper feel complete?  At the finale this past May, it seemed as though Matthew Weiner had put things on the right path. Weiner knows his show and his characters much like Gilligan did.  As more and more shows come to life about anti-heroes there is a lot of pressure to create the perfect ending.  Many people want to watch a "happy ending" but the truth of the matter is that these shows are meant to shed light on the flaws of humanity.  These shows are so prevalent today because people want to see the flaws in others, they want to seek comfort in their own flaws.

As a fan you have to let go, there is no guarantee, that ending will be perfect, I will give fans of Dexter a pass, but when you follow the journey of anti-hero, their ending may dark, complicated, or ambiguous, that's the reason you started the journey.

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