The final act of any successful drama tends to follow a formula: A climactic confrontation resolves the tension built in the first two acts, the action falls as we learn how the players grew from the experience, and finally, the curtain drops. With the advent of TV and film, the viewer lost the dropping curtain, but today’s culture also seems to have a noticeable loss of appreciation for the finality that curtain once symbolized.
From Seinfeld to The Sopranos, it’s difficult to name a single high-profile series finale in recent memory that a great number of otherwise satisfied fans didn’t greet with a collective groan. The most recent representatives of this phenomenon are the finales of AMC’s Breaking Bad and HBO’s True Detective. The two series, which were embraced by critics and fans alike, both brought their respective story arcs to definitive conclusions and faced considerable criticism, despite taking nearly opposite approaches. (Warning: Spoilers ahead!)
Breaking Bad presented a fairly comprehensive conclusion, carefully tying up loose ends from the final season as well as seasons past. The bad guys get what was coming to them. Jesse speeds off to freedom from his life as a meth cook. Walter collapses in a pool of his own blood, surrounded by the tools that consumed and eventually destroyed his life. Curtain drops.
“Was the ‘Breaking Bad’ ending too neat?” Salon’s Prachi Gupta wondered. Hitflix’s Alan Sepinwall called the finale “cathartic” and “definitive” but asked, “Was it ultimately too neat?”
When the curtain drops on True Detective, in contrast, viewers are left with lingering questions. Marty and Rust track down and stop Dora Lange’s killer, but ends are deliberately left loose. Other perpetrators remain free. The two heroes utter what amounts to a secular version of the Serenity Prayer and accept that they will never be able to bring everyone to justice.
“A huge letdown,” proclaimed The Week’s Scott Melow. The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum lamented the show’s loose ends. “No involvement of Marty’s father-in-law,” Nussbaum complained. “No payoff on the Goth daughter angle; no payoff on a lot of things.”
It’s as if Goldilocks skipped the porridge and went binge-watching in the bears’ living room. This one’s too neat. … This one’s not neat enough. …
While high expectations can partially account for America’s oft-bitter relationship with finales, it is also the natural consequence of current storytelling trends.
The PT Barnum-attributed maxim of “always leave them wanting more” has long been considered sage advice for the aspiring entertainer, but today, it has become the guiding principle for the entire entertainment industrial complex. Production studios have learned that the best way to guarantee repeat customers is to feed them a steady stream of familiar characters and concepts. Consequently, TV programming and films meant for a wide audience are almost always produced with an eye toward the next installment. If we look at the top-grossing domestic films of the past decade, every single one has either been or set up a sequel. This was the case for only half of the top-grossing films of the preceding three decades, before which—going all the way back to 1915’s Birth of a Nation—only a handful of top-grossing films ever saw sequels.
This change has naturally precipitated a shift in storytelling, specifically in the value that the storyteller places on the final act. Whereas its value was once found in its ability to satisfy the viewer’s need for closure, it is now found in its ability to generate more anticipation. This is the final act to which we have increasingly grown accustomed.
Endings that follow the recent trend, of course, are not universally bad, but they have almost certainly warped our expectations. If storytelling is an endless conveyor belt, then closure is a foreign concept. We increasingly define the experience, not by what it gives us, but by of what it deprives us. In this light, we would have been just as disappointed by Breaking Bad if Walter White had died in the penultimate episode and just as let down by True Detective if Marty and Rust had rushed off to continue on the trail of the remaining Carcosa cult members.
If there is any truth to Truman Capote’s observation that “life is a moderately good play with a badly written third act,” then a satisfying ending is key to the escape we seek through storytelling. If we train ourselves to see things only for what they portend, we lose sight of what they actually are, and the satisfaction of the conclusion will continue to evade us.
Nick Rizzuto is the Supervising Producer of Real News on TheBlaze TV.