It’s the time of year when television seasons are concluding, which always gets me thinking about storytelling — endings, specifically. The best dramatic TV season finales perform several critical functions: they pull out the narrative stops by bringing together disparate story threads in interesting and meaningful ways … they often build intrigue or cliffhangers for the season to come … and most important — at least for folks like me, who love plot-driven stories — they dazzle by deftly paying off the narrative buildup experienced so far.
Great season finales, like the third acts of all great stories, deliver the goods. They do so because they’re obligated to do so; weeks (or in some cases, multiple seasons) of smartly-created narrative have inexorably brought the audience to this flashpoint of suspense, emotional tension and physical action. This is where writers must Deliver The Goods. To present anything less is an unforgivable Writer Crime — a violation of the faith the audience has invested in the narrative so far.
And yet, at least in some of the series I’ve watched this season, Delivering The Goods wasn’t on the to-do list. I have yet to see the series finale of Lost, though the grapevine suggests its destination may not have been worthy of the six-season journey. The season finale of the narratively-troubled V (which I watch) finally shoved the story into a compelling, action-driven direction — but did so only in the last five minutes of the episode. I’m not even waiting for the season finale of the new Doctor Who; I’ve dropped the series because the storytelling is flabby, and its protagonist fails to inspire childlike wonder within me — a key ingredient for that show’s success, and why it has wowed me in seasons past.
And then there’s the recent Season Five finale of the horror/thriller show Supernatural — a program I absolutely love. I’m going to deep geek on Supernatural here, and serve up epic-level spoilers about its finale for the rest of this post. My purpose is to illustrate why writers must always Deliver The Goods in their show-stopping finales. If you’re a fan and haven’t watched the episode, you might want to come back when you have. For everyone else, consider this a What Not To Wear for storytellers.
Supernatural is an incredible TV show. It’s about two brothers who cruise the United States in a muscle car and slay monsters. That unapologetic, brass-knuckled premise immediately sold me on the concept years ago, but it’s an awfully good character-driven show too, which helps. This show knows precisely what it is, and celebrates it.
Like most genre shows, Supernatural’s first few seasons were dominated by Monster Of The Week episodes (which are easy gateways to snag new viewers; essential when you’re a new property), with vague allusions of greater machinations (hopefully to pay off in future seasons). However, things changed in Seasons Three and Four: all those niggling plot threads began to coalesce, propelling the show’s Winchester brothers toward the endtimes itself — Armageddon, in the here and now, with mission-critical roles for each of them. Very very cool.
I won’t say this ultra-arc and buildup to Season Five’s finale wasn’t the most agonizing wait in TV history — that goes to Lost; Losties are masochists, which they’ll gleefully admit — but Supernatural fans have patiently waited for more than two seasons, pining to see the prophesied Earth-rending devastation as viewed from Sam and Dean Winchester’s ringside seats. We endured episode after episode of Big Talk About The Stakes and Terrible Hints Of The Battle To Come.
And finally, a few weeks back, the finale arrived. Who farted?
There were some wonderful character moments (as manufactured at the last-possible-second as some of them were), and when Satan snaps his fingers and makes an Angel of the Lord explode in a mist of blood and pulp … well, that’s unspeakably badass. Shattering a longtime supporting character’s neck was equally horrific and resonant. (What can I say? I like my stories peppered with shock and violence.)
But dude. When you yammer on for two seasons about the Apocalypse, show me the Apocalypse. Deliver The Goods.
That didn’t happen. Viewers were presented with a less-satisfying … but initially, perfectly acceptable … ending of Sam Winchester (possessed by Satan) and his half-brother (possessed by the archangel Michael) plummeting into Hell itself. This had the promise of delivering an emotionally satisfying and a visually stunning ending in which we would see Hell’s horrific landscape, and bear witness to the triumphant recapture of Satan’s unholy essence, imprisoned back where he belongs.
But we didn’t get to see any of that. Instead, we were treated to the sight of two dudes falling into a hole…
…and then the angel who was turned to pulp-mulch with a snap of Satan’s finger is miraculously resurrected…
…and then the longtime ally whose neck had been shattered is miraculously resurrected…
…and, by episode’s end, it appears the status quo has been reestablished in even more ways through even more miraculous resurrections. (Or some other mojo that’ll be quickly explained next season.)
Perhaps I have snobbishly high standards, but when you rev me up for two seasons, you gotta deliver something more than two dudes pulling a Skywalker Noooooooo, leaping down a big-ass vortex — and then showing all other meaningful sacrifices disappearing in a puff of deus ex machina smoke. I was dutifully drooling like Pavlov’s dog; Supernatural’s storytellers tugged me along for years, training me to expect this finale. I became a True Believer, teased to zealotry from extended foreshadowing and buildup.
I’m all for plot twists and defying audience expectations, but ending a stellar five-year run with a sigh makes me sigh. It makes me wonder what all that talky-talk gumflapping for the past two seasons was all about. If I can’t go all the way with the prom queen, at least let me get to second base. (Narratively speaking, of course.)
This Supernatural season finale represents a storytelling failure — a Writer Crime — because we tale-tellers are slaves to the story, not the other way around. Here’s an instance of a story’s climax that had all the foreshadowing of an epic confrontation, and was warped into a well-intentioned, but ultimately unsatisfying, conclusion. When you yammer on for two seasons about the Apocalypse, show me the Apocalypse, ya know?
You Writer Unboxed readers are clever people, so I know you’re receiving what I’m transmitting. A remarkable buildup means nothing without a worthy ending. Don’t commit the unforgivable. Your follow-through is paramount. Delivering The Goods is mission-critical.
Are you doing everything you can to ensure your story’s destination is worthy of the journey? By sharing examples and information, we can all improve our show-stopping finales. Sound off in the comments with any tips you’ve discovered, or challenges you’re facing.