Soon after the “Breaking Bad” series finale aired, some of the reaction on social media, in blog comments and even in reviews themselves went something like this: “See, David Chase, that’s how you do a finale.”
So, yes, the endings of “Breaking Bad” and Chase’s “The Sopranos” could hardly be more different. Sunday’s (Sept. 29) “Bad” finale left little doubt about where its characters stand as the final credits rolled, in keeping with creator Vince Gilligan‘s frequently stated belief that his story needed a definitive ending. Which it did — a show that begins with a man getting a terminal cancer diagnosis does not exactly lend itself to open-ended resolution.
“The Sopranos,” on the other hand? Part of what Chase had been saying throughout the series was that despite all that Tony (James Gandolfini) went through over the course of the series, he never really changed that much. His life continued, certainly by the end without a number of the people who had been part of it over the years, but the core of it — Carmela (Edie Falco) and the kids, his home in the Jersey suburbs, his other Family — went on. A lot of people read the black screen ending as Chase’s way of saying that would continue, even as many others argued — at times in exhaustive detail — that the blank screen indicated Tony’s death.
What seemed to bother people, both in the moment and now six-plus years later, was that Chase left his ending so open to extrapolation at all. Because of the way we watch TV series — and in particular, serialized dramas — we often come to final episodes with outsize expectations that they will not only answer any remaining story questions but also hit the precise emotional notes for us as viewers as well as for its characters. That’s an awful lot to ask of an hour or two of TV. That any show sticks its landing can be considered a minor miracle.
And as such, there’s no “right” way to go about it. All that preceded the “Breaking Bad” finale argued forcefully for the type of ending Gilligan gave the show (whether it was satisfying is another question still, as seen in debates across the Internet Sunday night and Monday, but no one is arguing it was vague). So did “The Shield” — which similarly sort of demanded comeuppance for its antihero-turned-outright villain Vic Mackey — in 2008.
“Six Feet Under” was a show largely concerned with death, so its final sequence — a montage of scenes from each character’s future, punctuated by the date of each of their deaths — was the perfect note on which to end.
Other shows, though, don’t demand that kind of closure. “The Wire” wrapped up its major stories in its final episode but also showed that little about the broken institutions that drove those stories had changed. “ER” gave John Carter and its final set of regulars a series of grace notes, but also introduced a new crop of interns who would be there for the next rounds of trauma cases and quirky patients.
Even “Six Feet Under” got to have its life-goes-on cake while eating the definite-ending goodies too. As a family-centered show with few lingering plot questions by the end, much of what precedes that beautiful final scene is a life-goes-on denouement: Ruth moves to Topanga with Sarah and Bettina; David and Keith buy the house and take over the mortuary business; Claire loses a chance at a job in New York but decides to try her luck there anyway. Even without the amazing last minutes, it would have worked pretty well.
Then there’s “Lost,” which was the first huge finale of the social-media era and arguably the least loved among recent series enders. The show punted a few plot points (who was in the other outrigger?), and the pool-of-light story and revelation of what the sideways universe truly was were, let’s just say, not what most fans had envisioned. Yet it provided wonderful, resonant moments of emotion for its characters, which was what sucked so many people in to begin with.
Arguing whether one sort of finale is objectively “better” than another is probably pointless — I liked both the “Breaking Bad” and “Sopranos” endings quite a bit, and each served the shows that came before them very well. Whether you prefer one style over another is of course up to you. But there’s room for all kinds.