TV fans are frequently discussing the issue of whether a show is helped by setting a definite end date, and the latest round of discussion has been touched off by the announcement – not unexpected – that Breaking Bad will end after its fifth season. (AMC and Sony settled for a 16 episode final season, which the network will likely split into two separate runs. The production company would probably have been happier with a longer order – say 24 episodes, which would allow them to split the season into two reasonable-sized DVD sets – but it’s better than the shorter order the network was originally talking about.) Vince Gilligan, the creator of the show, said that knowing exactly when they will end the show “will allow us to build our story to a satisfying conclusion.” Darrin Franich in Entertainment Weekly responded with this piece, arguing that an end date can sometimes take away the “improvisation” that is built into a serialized television show, and lead to a mechanical final season where we’re too aware of everything being wrapped up.
In the case of Breaking Bad, although I will almost certainly wind up wishing it had run longer, there’s a very good argument that the show will benefit from an end date. So much of the writers’ energy has to go into finding ways to keep Walt alive or out of prison. With a finite number of episodes remaining, things could finally start falling apart for Walt. They’ll still have to keep him alive as long as they can, but they won’t get to that point where we feel the show is going to drag this out for all time, or that it’s piling contrivance on contrivance in a never-ending attempt to keep the show going. With an end date, we aren’t guaranteed a satisfying ending, but we are prevented from becoming completely cynical about the show: keeping Walt out of trouble for 20 more episodes is different from having him just manage to escape disaster forever.
As to creating a satisfying ending, no, I don’t think an end date helps all that much – or at least, it hasn’t stopped shows like Lost from producing very controversial finales (finales that were satisfying to some viewers, but unsatisfying to others). The feeling you get toward the end of a series, where the writers seem to be rushing to wrap this up, is probably built into the form. The closer we get to the ending, the more the contrivances begin to show, but maybe more importantly, we’re increasingly aware of the fact that certain things will not be addressed. There are things we would like to see the show deal with, characters we would like to see in the spotlight, scenes we were hoping to get. We can still hold out hope to get those things, but by the time the final episode rolls around, it’s clearer that we won’t get them – and when the whole show is over, it leaves behind a sense of what might have been. Can we be happy with a finale even if it doesn’t address every one of our favourite issues? Of course. But the sense of frustration – that we followed it all this time and they didn’t get around to that bit or this character – probably magnifies problems with the final batch of episodes.
Maybe that’s an argument for not announcing the finale date too far in advance: once we know the show is going to end, we have more expectations of the episodes – expecting not only good episodes, but specific types of episodes we want to see before it’s too late. (The second half of the final season of Buffy turned out frustrating for many reasons, but I remember that one specific frustration I had was that, before the show ended, I wanted to see a Xander episode, with some sort of substantial role for the character who had been my favourite since the first season. When Xander’s eye got poked out, I expected that to lead to a story for him – but it really didn’t. And that was an annoyance that would have been less intense if the show hadn’t been likely to end: if I thought there was going to be an eighth season, I could always have assured myself, falsely, that they’d pick it up next year.) But as I said before, if the viewer gets less frustrated that way, he or she also gets more cynical – and then if the show ends too abruptly, the viewer gets angry about that. Probably there’s no way to ensure that we’ll all be watching the final season in a happy frame of mind.
A serialized TV series is often compared to a Victorian novel, a Dickens or Trollope doorstopper published in monthly instalments. So it’s worth remembering that the final instalment of those novels is almost inevitably a disappointment. Actually, these novels (many novels, really, and plays too) have a lot of second-half trouble, where the author has set up all these interesting ideas in the first half of the book, and then has to get around to the mechanical work of making the plots come out right. He let his imagination run wild in the early chapters; resolving the story is about using the rules of dramatic logic and morality to rein in that wild imagination. By the time we reach the last double-length instalment, the mechanics have overwhelmed almost everything. And there’s a sense of sadness about losing the freedom of the early part of the book, where the ending was not fixed and anything was possible. Even if the ending is good, that sense of loss may remain.