Contributors|Why TV Finales Matter (And Why They Are So Hard to Get Right)
By Theresa Rebeck
Ms. Rebeck is a playwright, television writer and novelist.
The ending of “Succession” is upon us. So how to end this bitter masterpiece?
Do they shoot forward in time, stealing a page from the legendary finale of “Six Feet Under”? Maybe offer a glimpse of the future with that handsome sociopath and potential president they have put in power? Or just cut to black before someone assassinates Kendall? (I’m someone who actually liked the ending of “The Sopranos.”)
Possible but not probable. None of those options feel quite right.
That’s the thing about a good ending: It has to be both ineffable and organic. And unfortunately, a wrong-footed ending can virtually ruin an otherwise brilliant piece of art. The greatness of the astonishing “Game of Thrones” was severely undercut by too many missteps in its final episodes. Jaime goes back to Cersei and a house falls on them? The sublime and beloved Daenerys goes bonkers and burns down King’s Landing? Bran gets the throne? What we want from an ending is a grand “amen,” such as we got from “Breaking Bad.” But “Game of Thrones” was more of a “huh?”
I’ve thought about endings a lot because I have to write them. While I usually have a vague idea of an ending when I start writing a play, I don’t want everything set in stone. If you don’t map the story out too ruthlessly, it will reveal itself to you in the writing — and there is often a secret subject, something both surprising and inevitable that your mind was holding on to, that ultimately presents itself. Something perfect, like an angel crashing through the ceiling. Or “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.” Or the fact that there really is a cabal of devil worshipers living in the Dakota on the Upper West Side. Those are great endings.
The ending should grow out of everything that came before, but also be different from everything that came before. A great ending can be about transformation, in which our central character escapes, or finds true love, or discovers a profound truth and achieves inner wisdom (as in “Mad Men,” except the profound truth was about Coca-Cola). Or it can be about justice, which rains down on those who deserve it and ruins those who don’t. (See every superhero movie.) Or its opposite, the idea that justice has abandoned everyone. (See “The Godfather.”) A good ending can involve a soft, mournful loss of hope. (See Chekhov.) It can celebrate the restored and renewed order that a marriage can provide to a disordered world. (See Shakespeare.) Or it can resolve with the notion that marriage is actually not going to solve anything. (Again, see Shakespeare.)
At its best, a sublimely written ending will raise everything that came before into the realm of timeless wisdom: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past,” as the narrator of “The Great Gatsby” concludes.
Television offers different challenges — and not just because the viewers will sit and stew for a week (or more) obsessing about how it all might end. Television is built differently from other kinds of drama, so naturally it ends differently, too.
You start with a pilot episode, which may or may not make it to air, and then you inchworm yourself through a first season. At that point the ending is so far off it’s hard to take the idea of it seriously. After all, if no one watches, you’ll just be canceled anyway. So you’re not trying to imagine the ending — you’re trying to avoid it.
That’s why truly great endings are especially hard to come by in television. TV shows are not about the ending; they’re about the middle. They’re about how long you can keep that show on the air. When you have a hit, generally no one is in a big hurry to get to the ending, which is why phrases like “jump the shark” have entered the lexicon. The middle is where television thrives.
For me, the ending of Season 2 of “Succession,” when Kendall betrayed his father, Logan, to the world and threatened to bring the whole house of cards down on everyone’s head, was perhaps the series’s most spectacular moment. That whisper of a smile from Logan as he watched the catastrophe was mysterious, glorious and human. Did he secretly want Kendall to grab the reins? Perhaps so. It was undeniably great television. Then Logan went ahead and destroyed Kendall all over again in Season 3. And the show went back to the starting gate. There’s a kind of circularity in TV that’s inherent in the form. This is why so many shows end in what can only be called “the group hug.” “Mary Tyler Moore” did it; “The Office” did it; “Seinfeld” did an incarcerated version of it.
I suspect that we are not getting a group hug out of “Succession.”
As endings go, “Succession” is a special case, and not just because the creator Jesse Armstrong chose not only how to end the show, but also when. (He’s said it has “been kind of present” in his mind from the very beginning.) With “Succession,” the ending has always been built right into the title.
My bold prediction? I can tell you what won’t happen: Logan won’t come back to life. The children won’t sell the company to someone who shows up suddenly from China with a better offer. It won’t turn on a deus ex machina that shows up because nobody knew how to land the damn plane so they just brought in something from nowhere and that’s the end.
As for what will happen, I feel confident in promising this: The ending of “Succession” will fulfill the story and not betray the spirit of what has come before. Its creators have proved over four seasons that they’re better than that.
That’s why I’ll be tuning in. I can’t wait to see how it ends.
Theresa Rebeck is a playwright, television writer and novelist. Her most recent play on Broadway was “Bernhardt/Hamlet,” and she is the creator of the TV show “Smash.”