Sticking the Landing: The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, and Why Finales Matter by Donald McCarthy

Big honking spoilers ahead for The Sopranos, The Shield, Breaking Bad, The Wire, and LOST. 

Before Breaking Bad’s finale I must have read at least five articles, such as this one, on how the finale wouldn’t really matter in regards to the show’s legacy. I agree that a series finale doesn’t make or break a show, it is still important in terms of a show’s legacy. A bad ending leaves the viewer with a sour note and means the creator did not figure out a way to properly wrap up the story and character arcs. There’s no question it is more difficult to pull off an ending for a television show than it is for any other medium (except, perhaps, an ongoing book series such as A Song of Ice and Fire, and even in that case George R. R. Martin doesn’t have to worry about catering to a network and relying on hundreds of other people to nail the episode down); it has years of episodes to wrap up, especially if it’s a serialized drama. For instance, people criticize the ending of Seinfeld, but the show’s rank as one of the top comedies never suffered. Expectations were high for a really funny episode, but beyond being letdown on that front, people still eagerly watch the previous nine seasons in syndication. No one’s ever said that nine years of their lives were wasted because the finale of Seinfeld didn’t make them laugh enough.

The trend of high expectations to ending a drama began most obviously with The Sopranos. As one of the first dramas to end on its own terms (for two previous instances, check out The Prisoner and M*A*S*H, the former of which I won’t spoil since it’s ending is not common knowledge), The Sopranos did not go out as people expected, leading many to declare the show had given the middle finger to its fans. I watched The Sopranos as a whole a few months after it ended and knew what to expect in the finale. That may well have colored my view, as I enjoyed the hell out of it and to this day think the show had a perfect ending; I even appreciate it more with each rewatch.

The Sopranos finale works because it pushes forward all the themes it explored over its six seasons. The critique of capitalism is right in the title, “Made in America,” which points out that American society itself is what’s allowed Tony Soprano and his ilk to prosper. The fates of AJ and Meadow both show how we are willing to throw away our liberal ideals if something nice is waved in front of us; Meadow does it out of some bullshit family loyalty and AJ does it for money and fun. The scene between Uncle Junior and Tony shows us how Tony’s quest for power may well lead to nothing; Junior was similarly obsessed with power but ends up suffering from dementia inside a decrepit nursing home. When Tony tells him that Junior and his brother used to run North Jersey, Junior replies, “Oh, that’s nice.” Beyond even the thematic relevance, the scene is damn tragic and on rewatch, when you’re not tensing up, waiting for the world to end, the tragedy hits even harder.

The cut to black ending dominated conversation in the wake of the finale with a number of writers saying they loved it (Ronald D. Moore of Battlestar Galactica, Lindelof and Cuse of LOST, Vince Gilligan of Breaking Bad) and many critics (Alan Sepinwall, Matt Zoller Seitz) saying the same. Others, well, not so much. Many of the fans lamented the lack of a violent war between New York and New Jersey, feeling that creator David Chase had promised them one, what with the buildup over the past few episodes. There’s some legitimacy to this as the idea of a war between New York and New Jersey had been hanging over much of the season and the penultimate episode, “The Blue Comet,” was very bloody. Come the finale, a large portion of the audience expected a lot more.

But a bloodbath or full-out mob war would be a dishonest ending for The Sopranos. It would be as if M*A*S*H ended with half the characters committing suicide together or if The West Wing ended with President Bartlet dropping a nuke on the Middle East. The Sopranos was definitely interested in the effects of violence, but at no point was The Sopranos an action show. Some people wanted it to be, but that doesn’t make it so. During the drama’s tenure, the writers repeatedly mentioned that fans would complain that there wasn’t enough violence for them yet at no point did the writers up the ante. David Chase had a very specific vision so why would people think he’d abandon it right at the end, the moment when he could make his statement one last time?

Plus, it’s not as if the finale had no violence or tension. I find it to be one of the show’s most tense episodes and I’m not going to forget the scene where Phil Leotrado is shot in the head and then crushed by his own car’s tire.

Had the episode ended in a normal fashion, with a slow fade out, the viewers wanting violence may have been less angry. It might not have been what they wanted but it would’ve played out in the way many Sopranos episodes do. Didn’t happen. No, David Chase had to do that cut to black.

It’s worth watching the scene again before reading on. Keep an eye on the direction, how Chase builds the tension, informing you a big event is about to go down. Maybe that happens, maybe that doesn’t. We never get to see, because Chase yanks the show away from us mid-scene.


The show couldn’t have ended any better. Surprisingly, this has become the consensus more and more. Critics such as Maureen Ryan, who were ambivalent originally, came around on the ending. Some fans who were initially furious began to say, “Hey, maybe there was something to that.” Retrospectives concerning the show always take time to point out the ending and how it remained very true to the show and also put previous seasons in a slightly different light. Go to any television website that has an article on The Sopranos’ finale and you’ll see fans talking up a storm about what it means, what Chase intended, if Tony is dead or not (I used to have an opinion but now I don’t think it matters either way).

 

Appreciation has grown over the years because the finale is true to the series. Chase was always interested in how Tony said he wanted to change but never quite did. Events in the show, such as his shooting at the hands of Uncle Junior, kept telling him he needed to adjust his life. It becomes appropriate then that his journey is yanked away all at once. He was offered the chance to redeem himself repeatedly, to change his ways, but he refused and eventually lost the opportunity. His arc ended. The show ended. Tony refused to learn. It’s almost a dare to the audience. Did the audience get this? Perhaps not immediately, perhaps not intellectually, but the initial furor says that emotionally it did make an impact.

The Sopranos ending, if nothing else, went out on a daring note that nevertheless fit in amongst the show’s previous narrative choices. The reevaluation it has gone under and the constant conversations it’s started speak to its quality even if it isn’t an ending that pleases everyone (and there’s no such ending that would).

The Shield, Shawn Ryan’s drama about corrupt cops, ended just as honestly as The Sopranos, but in a remarkably different way, one that immediately satisfied both viewers and critics and continues to do so until this day. Vic Mackey, our corrupt protagonist, meets an unusual but fitting end. He doesn’t end up dead or in jail, the two endings most people figured he’d have to see, but instead he was essentially chained to a desk. His family was gone, he ratted on his partner, and the man who was once his best friend killed himself after killing his child and wife. Vic “got away with it” but still felt the consequences of the past three years of his life. The Shield was always interested in how one corrupt action can lead to an avalanche of hell and the final season, and the finale specifically, play this out to its natural conclusion with everything for Vic Mackey’s Strike Team turning to ashes. None of the members of the team get a happy ending, but none of them get an expected ending, either, keeping in common with The Shield’s continual knack for surprising viewers.

The Shield had a reputation for intensity that The Sopranos did not, yet The Shield’s finale had a slightly slower pace than usual and more ambiguity than the norm. Why did this end up working out instead of fans feeling betrayed? Well, the show slowed down the pacing so it could have longer scenes, such as the agonizing interrogation scene between Vic and Claudette Wyms where she reads him Shane’s incomplete suicide note as he does his best to show no emotion. Actress CCH Pounder’s reading of Shane’s line “I wish I’d never met him” is utterly phenomenal. Seven seasons of a relationship between two cops is paid off in that one line. Then, to pile it on, Wyms lays out just what type of cop Vic is: “All those busts. All those confessions you got in this room, illegal or otherwise. All the drugs you got off the street tonight for ICE. You must be very proud of yourself. This is what the hero left on his way out the door.”

The Shield began not even a year after the 9/11 terror attacks and its storylines were always shadowed by those events because the core question of The Shield was: how far are we willing to go to be safe? The finale doesn’t provide a cut and dry answer to where the line is, but it sure says that we can, and have, gone too far at times. In the pilot episode, Claudette describes Vic as “Al Capone with a badge” which proves to be true again and again all the way up to the end. Vic gets shit done. No doubt. He gets criminals off the street and behind bars. He also ruins the lives of innocent people by going too far and by letting his lack of ethical boundaries infect others around him. The finale completes this idea which is the primary reason The Shield’s ending is looked upon as top tier. Personally, I consider it the best ending to any television show, beating out The Sopranos and LOST (about which more in a bit). It packs a punch with character, story, and idea. There’s no doubt that The Shield sticking the landing helps make it a high caliber show and is one of the main reasons it’s remembered so fondly.

As Breaking Bad drew to its conclusion, I saw many compare it to The Shield in intensity and Shawn Ryan retweeted one person saying that if anyone wanted a new show after Breaking Bad then The Shield should be next up on the list. I agree with that completely, but The Shield is actually a better show than Breaking Bad and it ended a lot more honestly than Breaking Bad did.

I’m not saying Breaking Bad had a terrible ending. It didn’t. The final episode had some standout moments. Walter White admitting to his wife he went into crime for himself because he felt alive is a remarkable, moving moment. Walter’s almost ghostlike presence throughout the episode is haunting and tragic. The last fifteen minutes, though, yikes. I know not everyone feels this way, but I felt like I was suddenly watching another show, something more action hero oriented. Breaking Bad never felt like an anti-hero show in the way that The Shield did or the way that Justified currently does. At no point did I think creator Vince Gilligan particularly wanted us to like Walt and by the last two seasons it becomes apparent that he wanted us to damn him.

What the finale gives us is a totally different idea with Walt coming across more as Dirty Harry. In Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry we knew Harry was a questionable guy but the psycho he was going up against was just so much worse that we sided with Harry and gave his questionable actions, if not a pass, a less intense look. It’s the same with Walt. He’s going up against Neo-Nazis which stacks the deck so heavily in Walt’s favor and leaves out any sense of nuance, any possibility to question the morality of his actions. For a show that constantly wanted the audience to question Walt’s motives and his selfishness, the finale gives us a pretty safe ride. Walt even appears to find some peace with Jesse Pinkman, a younger kid he had an abusive relationship with, a kid whose girlfriend he let die, and a kid whose death he ordered not long before. I’m fine with a story not going in a direction I wanted, but this felt like dishonest, easy storytelling from a show that (usually) never went down such a path.

I find it hard to believe that a year from now people are going to be passionately talking about the way Breaking Bad ended in the way they discuss The Shield or The Sopranos. The sudden change in tone and philosophy in the very last episode definitely left me questioning Breaking Bad’s ultimate tale a little. Did Gilligan slip up or did he have a completely different idea of what his show was about than most did? The show is by no means ruined. It’s still an excellent drama that I’d recommend, but I wouldn’t be recommending it as strongly as I would some other dramas that had stronger endings, that really packed a punch.

The ending of a story is where you get to make your statement one last time. Breaking Bad seemed to miss the boat on that one and it definitely makes the last episode feel like a weak epilogue that wasn’t really needed. If the show had ended with the third to last episode, “Ozymandias,” with Walt on the run and his family in ruins then we’d have a stronger, more provocative ending. Instead we got an ending that felt safe and a little too much like a pat on the back telling us everything is all right.

When compared with the intensity and emotion of The Shield’s finale, Breaking Bad’s ending seems particularly weak. Perhaps it’s unfair to compare Breaking Bad’s “Felina” with The Shield’s “Family Meeting,” an episode many critics contend to be one of the best episodes of any show, but it is the closest comparison and Breaking Bad’s ending feels like a missed opportunity.

This is not to say that endings have to be explosive. The last episode of The Wire features very little in terms of shock but The Wire was about the decay of the American city and it was honest to that vision right through the end, with our last image being that of Baltimore. I don’t think too many fans of The Wire count “-30-“ as its best episode but The Wire was never structured in a way that called for explosive endings. For the story of The Wire, the last episode was absolutely perfect. It wrapped up some story arcs while leaving others to our imagination and it once again pointed out the decay of America, while also instilling some hope that maybe, just maybe, if we do something soon, things could be changed. If The Wire ended with huge plot twists, with McNulty eating his gun, with Omar blowing up an entire gang of drug dealers, then what we’d be watching might be exciting, but it wouldn’t be The Wire anymore; it’d be something cheaper and the drama that many consider to be the best ever aired would not fare as well in hindsight.

If you want an example of such a case, let’s look at what is probably the most controversial finale of all time: LOST’s “The End.”

Do you remember the outcry? I sure do. People cried out, “Six years ruined! No mysteries answered! They were dead all along!” None of which was true, by the way, (they were not dead all along and the questions were answered, just not blatantly) but we’ll get to that in just a second. I’m a huge fan of “The End.” I twice had to wipe tears off my glasses during the episode just so I could see the screen. When I finished watching it, the first words out of my mouth were, “That was beautiful.” A lot of people disagree. A lot. So let’s give them a fair shake.

If people went into “The End” expecting to see a power point presentation that explained all the mysteries of the Island, they were going to be disappointed. If people expected scientific answers to how the Island worked, they were going to be disappointed. If people expected the flash sideways to be an alternate reality where all the answers lay, they were going to be disappointed.

Now, some of this is the show’s fault. As much as I love the finale, the flash sideways in season six were not as needed as they first appeared to be and I can understand people being frustrated with that (although you must be made of stone not to be moved when they regain their memories in the finale). I can understand that some folks might not like a more metaphysical ending, as well (although, I’d argue the seeds of such an ending were there right from the start).

What it nonsense is the idea that the ending was somehow a cop out. No, the ending followed through on LOST’s main idea that Jack laid out in the first season: if people don’t learn to live together then they’re going to die alone. The show constantly came back to that idea again and again and the finale brings home the idea in a bittersweet way that is the most moving thing I’ve ever seen on film. In the flash sideways (be it an afterlife, a last second dying experience the survivors share, it doesn’t really matter), Jack fixes Locke’s legs, leading Locke to remember what happened on the Island. He turns to Jack and says, “I hope that somebody does for you what you just did for me.” Throughout LOST, Locke and Jack battled over ideologies until Locke’s death. For them to reconcile here, for Jack to “save” Locke, is a summation of everything LOST was about: we live in a society and we need to help one another even if we don’t always get along.

For me, this was perfect and emotionally honest. On rewatch, I think those who were initially disappointed will find that the finale actually holds up quite well and is foreshadowed from early on, all the way back to season one. I have a feeling that LOST’s ending will see the reevaluation that The Sopranos’ did within the next five years.

Endings do matter –it’s the author’s final chance to make a statement. They may not be what makes or breaks a story, but let’s not kid ourselves here. A great ending will make a story that much more special. A weak ending will make a story shine just a little less. For me, Breaking Bad and Battlestar Galactica take a little hit due to endings that miss the mark while The Sopranos, The Shield, and LOST all remain in my top slots because they ended in a way that made a powerful, moving statement. That’s something all dramas should aim for.


Donald McCarthy is a teacher and writer. His fiction has appeared with KZine, Cover of Darkness, and The Washington Pastime. His non-fiction has been featured in The Progressive Populist, Screen Spy, and AOL Patch News. And here, too, but that was probably obvious. His twitter is @donaldtmccarthy and his website is donaldmccarthy.com.