Destroy All Monsters: Breaking Lost And The Infancy Of Series Finales

Columnist; Toronto, Canada (@tederick)
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Destroy All Monsters: Breaking Lost And The Infancy Of Series Finales

Spoilers for Breaking Bad.

The Lost haters came out in dull, predictable force within moments of the final image of Breaking Bad's last episode, which unmistakably mirrored one of the last images of Lost's torturously criticized finale. Granted, the Lost haters would have come out in force, regardless - three and a half years later, they continue to believe themselves "owed" something that the Lost finale didn't supply, and given any finale (or any episode of television, or tweet, or piece of trash on the street) that they assess to have "done it better than Lost did it," they'll say so.

The similarities between "Felina" (Breaking Bad's finale, written and directed by showrunner Vince Gilligan) and "The End" (Lost's closer, written by showrunners/whipping puppets Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse) didn't end with the crane shot of Walt lying prone in his final resting place. Like "The End," "Felina" was safe and predictable, successful on its own terms without adding anything significant to the larger mythology, and with its grand finale largely taking place in an ancillary location recently introduced (Jack's bunker), which was not sentimentally relevant to the series as a whole.

The Breaking Bad finale has been called a satisfying ending in most quarters, but leaves a taste of fan service in the mouth nonetheless, almost to the point where, when Walt tackled Jesse to spare him from the hail of bullets, I half-expected Walt to look Jesse seriously in the eye as they both lay face-to-face on the floor, and intone solemnly: "Yeah bitch. Machine guns."

"Felina" is not terrifically representative of the high points of the show as a whole, and for the most part, was not remarkable. Breaking Bad gets away with this, though, because it has so brilliantly spent all the capital in advance of its finale: over the course of the past seven episodes we've been given the signature monologues and set pieces that will define the conclusion of Breaking Bad throughout its legacy. (The true climax of the series took place, appropriately enough, in the most sentimentally relevant location for the series as a whole - To'hajiilee, New Mexico.) "Felina" was just a tidying up, and felt like it; even last week's episode (which others have called part one of a two-part denouement, of which "Felina" is the second) had more to say about the arc of Walter White than "Felina."

But nonetheless, Breaking Bad will go down in history as having "done it right," finale-wise. "Felina" certainly won't contribute anything significant to the conversation, positively or negatively, like the Lost finale did; rightly or wrongly, the sheer quantity of online snark pointed at Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse on Sunday night demonstrates what a gargantuan footprint "The End" left in the popular culture - and, I'd argue, on this nascent iteration of television storytelling itself.

The Lost finale is one of two major final episodes that have loomed over the entire medium throughout this decade (the first decade, arguably, where we can really begin to take serialized television drama seriously as an art form). Lost, or so the story goes, has given us an empirical example of how not to stick the landing; and in many ways, this is a fair assessment. The creators of Lost entered into a devil's bargain with their own mythology, and the reaction to the finale was simply the check coming up due. If you build a series' momentum around wildly fanciful mysteries and telescopic changes in scope, then you owe something to those mysteries in the final hour. The mysteries, in Lost's case, were the thing that made the show the show. No matter how tidily you clean up the emotional destinies of the principal characters, your audience will feel rooked if you don't deliver the thing that makes the show the show. This applies across the board for television, as far as I can tell.

If Lost is one elephant in the series finale room, the other must be the Sopranos finale, which also got mentioned a lot in conjunction to the Breaking Bad closer, and almost as derisively as Lost. The final, truncated scene in "Made in America," written and directed by Sopranos showrunner David Chase, was as daring an aesthetic and conceptual trick as has ever been played on television - or, at least, since St. Elsewhere - yet has also been cited as an example of a series fucking over its viewers.

(Vince Gilligan might have quietly advanced his own marker in the "what happened?" sweepstakes on the Sopranos finale, in Walt's scene with Gretchen and Elliot in "Felina." Walt describes how the couple will be suddenly assassinated if they fail to make good on their pledge to get Walt's money to Flynn - just a pop, and "Darkness!" Cue the Journey song.)

If all this proves anything, it's simply that the whole notion of ending a television series is far more in its infancy than the medium itself, and is struggling to catch up. In my lifetime, I've seen it done successfully only twice. Star Trek: The Next Generation used time travel in its final hour to visit the beginning and the ending of the crew's association with one another, creating a neat adventure that closed all of the emotional loops; Six Feet Under stayed true to its mission statement by giving us the ultimate Emmy Death Montage, starring our heroes.

Neither episode, notably, could be accused of being the outcome of some gargantuan, unseen "plan" that fore-wrote a whole mythology before a single episode of their series aired, as some fans seem to demand. (I sincerely doubt such things have ever existed, or could ever exist.) Those examples were, quite simply, final episodes: their series were coming to an end, and with a bit of advance warning, the showrunners put together emotionally appropriate closers.

In the post-Sopranos world - the "TV is novelistic" world - audiences demand a finale that is the conclusion of a throughline that began with the premiere, like landing a 747 that has just flown across the Pacific in a graceful parabolic arc. Showrunners are hard-pressed to deliver, but this is endemic to the nature of the medium. Television series, for at least the first fifty years, were generally designed to run forever, or as long as the ratings held up. This idea of serial story arcs with an end following their beginnings and middles is relatively new. Even soap operas, the most serialized storytelling the medium has ever seen, aren't designed to end, but rather to metastasize endlessly.

People jump all over Chris Carter for dribbling away The X Files' final seasons, never allowing that Carter's job in creating the show in the first place was to engineer a framework that could be repeated indefinitely. Every week, Mulder and Scully had to discover, and solve, a supernatural mystery. That Carter threw larger, serialized mystery arcs into that framework to fuel the machine was a legitimate innovation that made a major impact on all of television; that he ran out of ideas around the middle of Season Six is, y'know, kind of forgiveable. If he hadn't done what he did, there never would have been a Breaking Bad, for reasons far above Vince Gilligan's involvement in both shows.

I think we owe it to ourselves to be kinder to all experiments with the form. Some work, some don't, but without them, we don't get the forward movement that has created the heyday we're currently in. Lost changed the game as much as The X Files did, and its cumulative benefit to the medium vastly displaces the weaknesses in its series finale; The Sopranos changed the game entirely, but people continue to bicker about whether the hard cut in "Made in America" was genius or a cheap trick. Television is a horribly fickle medium anyway, and few of its works get to go through the mill of telling a complete story in the first place. To so mercilessly unravel the final components of what are ultimately near-decade enterprises in creative storytelling and vision is silly and astonishingly reductive. But at least we're finally getting to the point where we can call the thing an art form in the first place, bloody-knuckled disagreements about what makes it great notwithstanding.

Destroy All Monsters is a weekly column on Hollywood and pop culture.

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Corey PierceOctober 2, 2013 10:31 AM

Good article.

I'm in the middle of a Battlestar Galactica series rewatch and enjoying the journey once again. That show's finale was similarly trashed like Lost because of a few of the mysteries turning out disappointing or left vague, specifically the "What is Kara?" thread.

Using your "what makes the show the show" line, I think you can much more easily write off people who hated that finale. What makes the show the show in BSG, beyond the characters, is getting to a final destination where they can settle. They did just that and beyond. All the other spritual mumbo jumbo is and always was a means to that end, part of the road map to that destination.

Todd BrownOctober 2, 2013 4:33 PM

I am very much one of those that hates on The X Files and think it does deserve to be held to a slightly different standard. Why? Because a) The overarching mythology had a clear and discernable end point (eventually they had to confront the aliens) and b) the failure to get there wasn't because Carter ran out of ideas but because he got in a money fight with David Duchovney and rather than saying "Okay, we're done at this point," [i.e. when Duchovney's contract was up] and aiming to stick the landing as best he could he opted instead to shit on the whole endeavor and stretch out as many extra episodes and as much extra syndication money as he could before the audience turned on him. Carter didn't just get an ending wrong, he fundamentally disrespected his entire creation to make a few extra bucks.

Ard VijnOctober 2, 2013 4:43 PM

A series that consistently built along its own carefully planned storyline over 60 episodes, kept true to its ideas and ideals, developed and grew its characters until nobody was black or white, upped the stakes consistently, and absolutely nailed its ending in an epic way?

Ladies and gentlemen, I present AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER (LEGEND OF AANG).

EugeneRushmoreOctober 2, 2013 8:11 PM

i would have been satisfied with the finale being the episode
before last. walt sitting alone at the bar, drink in hand, when
the grey matter piece airs. those burning eyes, with the gruff
look. the cops arrive, but he's already gone. queue theme
music with slide guitar, but with a dark tone. cut to black. at
that moment i got the wickedest chills down my spine. though
i guess all good things must come to an end. including the
legend of heisenberg. no hint of any future developments.
mr. white is dead, end of story. and though i enjoyed the
show till the end, i did feel season five was the weakest in
comparison to one through four. something was off with the
remaining episodes following the break. they had to wrap
things up, while the race to the climax felt rushed, and left
me wishing for something more. but then again, i've been
a fan since the beginning, so of course i'm complaining. it
will be interesting to see what bryan cranston does next,
the guy is a talented actor. from "malcolm in the middle"
to "breaking bad", what a leap. ( long live the blue meth )

davebaxterOctober 3, 2013 2:54 AM

In total agreement here. No matter that Carter had to spin the wheels for a long, long time, whenever the time finally did come for an ending, he had full control over how to end it. And he not. He literally ended the show on a cliffhanger. That's not just the winds of fate confounding an otherwise creative mind, that's the creator simply excusing himself and not trying.

I would have at least have expected a TWIN PEAKS style attempt from him - end the show on a cliffhanger but with a plan to make a series of films to pick up where the show leaves off. Sadly, the first TP film was such a bomb, that that's where it ended. But it was planned to conclude across a number of such films.

RawBeardOctober 3, 2013 8:34 AM

Personally for me, I was a big fan of Lost but by the end I found I was only watching it to see how it finished. Lost for me, varied in it's quality and story arcs and felt like a show that (no pun intended) lost it's way.

Where as Breaking Bad has always been for me at least consistently great and it's ending suited the show.

dx_xbOctober 3, 2013 9:28 AM

Walt died supine

Mr. CavinOctober 3, 2013 9:29 AM


Hiroaki JohnsonOctober 3, 2013 11:33 AM

I have big hopes for Korra.