This article includes spoilers about the final season of Love, as well as 30 Rock and Mad Men if you somehow haven’t gotten around to watching those by now.
Series finales. They’re pretty tough. Every show has to do them, but they don’t get a whole lot of practice, because, you know, you only have to do them once and then you’re out of business.
What’s worse, it’s a button on your whole show. Especially now in an age of rewatching, TV is considered a whole package, and if your show is good enough (fingers crossed) eventually someone is likely to watch it all again, in order, and assess it anew with the ending in mind. I had a (incredible) professor in college who would hold up a book every time the class finished reading it and tell us: “now you’re ready to read this book”. The point being that the book cannot be properly read until you know the game its playing. TV shows aren’t exactly the same as books: they have many multiple authors (even if you view the show runner as “the author” they often change before a show ends) and they’re living breathing documents, meant to last longer or shorter depending on audience reaction. Besides that, they can course correct, and chances are the ending when it is finally reached isn’t exactly the ending originally imagined (this is of course true for first drafts of novels as well, though then the author has the benefit of tweaking earlier chapters to adhere to the end and vice versa).
Furthermore, TV shows have to pull off a contradictory task. They need to make the end of a show feel like some sort of conclusion, an apex of everything that came before, while simultaneously suggesting their characters have a future. We want to imagine our favorite characters are going on to an exciting and varied future, but that we won’t miss out too much by never actually seeing that varied future. Basically, TV shows have to say this is the end while also saying this isn’t the end.
Which is all to say that a series finale is a nearly impossible task, and as a result I’m nearly always disappointed in them. Which is, again, often not the show’s fault – it’s a nearly impossible task.
I’ve written about finales before – or, more accurately, I’ve written about Mad Men’s finale before. Twice. But I’ll return to the well again because Mad Men does two things particularly well with its final season. The first is hard to replicate, and I’ve focused on it before: Mad Men is already a show about time going by, about lacking a “final destination”, so it has an easier job than most shows of sidestepping the issue of making its finale a culmination while also a new beginning. But Mad Men makes a second genius choice, which is spreading out its characters’ big finales over a number of episodes. The final-final episode of Mad Men really only focuses on a new beginning for Don and Joan. Characters like Peggy, Pete, Roger and Betty are checked in on, but they’ve already made monumental life decisions in the proceeding three or four episodes. By spacing out the final moments the show allows each character to have an appropriate coda that receives the attention it deserves.
It’s not only Mad Men that takes this approach. There’s a reason final seasons, when structured well, feel a bit like a victory lap or greatest hits. Look at one of the best final seasons of any sitcom: 30 Rock. By concluding long arcs in every episode of season 7 it is able to narrow its focus without ever feeling like things are being dismissed out of hand. It would feel disrespectful to characters like Paul, or Dennis Duffy, or Hazel, or Colleen to go unacknowledged in the final season, but it feels right to give them a send off before the finale so they don’t distract from the conclusion of the the characters we truly care about.
Which finally brings us to the show the article is titled after, Netflix’s Love. I really enjoyed the first two seasons of Love, but the third season left me feeling a little hollow. Admittedly, Love set out with a particularly difficult and ambitious task: it wanted to be both a rom-com, which indulges our fantasies, and a realistic portrayal of a relationship. So already its finale would be forced to at least moderately betray one of those two ambitions. While the show ended up rather pat, I can make my peace with that. I would have liked an ending that more heavily suggested the hardships and drama to come, but at the end of the day I understand why they decided to end with a wedding and to focus pretty narrowly on Gus and Mickey, even at the expense of a real conclusion to Bertie’s storyline (I mean, it ends, but it’s all wrapped up in the periphery of that finale… why not shift all that business an episode earlier?).
My real problem was with Arya’s conclusion, for exactly all the reasons outlined above. Arya is a pretty integral part of the show for the first two seasons, and she still has a number of prominent storylines in season 3. So… why do we see her for the last time as she walks around a building and then ducks back away upon seeing Gus?
Look, realistically she’s a kid and she’s not friends with Gus. He’s an adult, and her teacher, and that’s all their relationship needs to be. But she and Bertie collectively encompass the sins of a bad finale. Arya’s storyline fizzles out: she is given no specific or notable path forward. That’s sad. It could have come three or four episodes before the conclusion, but I wanted a final scene between her and Gus. It could have been her apologizing for not being able to be in his movie, or telling him to fuck off. It could have been her leaving Witchita for a new show, or being fired, or deciding to no longer be a child actor, or signing a new movie deal, or anything. By relegating her to a disappearance we have no way of imagining what her life might hold. For all we know she disappears. There is no ending to this chapter of her life we’ve been privy to. Bertie, on the other hand, has such a compact and successful conclusion our imagination is equally hindered. This does feel like an end for her, but without the promise of a new beginning. She’s treated as if she’s going to be left in stasis forever – which we know isn’t true, but that’s the way the show treats it. By getting exactly what she wants, and getting it easily and completely, she ends up disappearing just as much as Arya does.
Finales are admittedly tough, but it’s something shows can contend with even more now that auteurship is on the rise and series creators are more able to decide when and how to end a show. Apatow was never allowed to finish Freaks & Geeks or Undeclared on his own terms, but after watching him conclude a show maybe that’s a good thing. The image of Lindsay Weir boarding a deadhead bus to parts unknown is iconic for a reason: it feels like the ending of chapter with the promise of more unseen growth to come. Arya and Bertie aren’t given that same dignity.