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The Art of Saying Goodbye

Two words strike fear into the hearts of even the most accomplished TV writers: series finale. We asked the masterminds behind 10 iconic shows to relive the highs and lows of crafting the perfect farewell.

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Breaking Bad, Bryan Cranston
Frank Ockenfels 3/AMC

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You know what they say: You have only one chance to make a last impression. The finale of a TV show isn’t just the conclusion of a journey — it’s a pop culture event, a daunting high-wire act, that critical moment in which a show can burnish or bungle its legacy. With How I Met Your Mother having just signed off in polarizing fashion, we thought we’d explore the phenomenon. How do the writers of a show satisfy their creative vision as well as fans? What goes into making what is often the most scrutinized episode of a series? Is there simply too much attention and pressure placed on finales these days? We spoke with the men and women who have faced down the challenge of wrapping up TV’s most beloved shows to glean insight into this tricky feat of storytelling. (We’re unclear about the statute of limitations on this stuff, so:  Spoiler alert!) Let’s venture into the Land of the Last by beginning at the end.

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You know what they say: You have only one chance to make a last impression. The finale of a TV show isn’t just the conclusion of a journey — it’s a pop culture event, a daunting high-wire act, that critical moment in which a show can burnish or bungle its legacy. With How I Met Your Mother having just signed off in polarizing fashion, we thought we’d explore the phenomenon. How do the writers of a show satisfy their creative vision as well as fans? What goes into making what is often the most scrutinized episode of a series? Is there simply too much attention and pressure placed on finales these days? We spoke with the men and women who have faced down the challenge of wrapping up TV’s most beloved shows to glean insight into this tricky feat of storytelling. (We’re unclear about the statute of limitations on this stuff, so: Spoiler ‘alert!) Let’s venture into the Land of the Last by beginning at the end.

Part One: Cracking the Story
Your series will self-destruct in 22 to 44 minutes. Your mission: Make the best episode of your life.

David Crane, Friends
The only thing we absolutely knew from very early on was that we had to get Ross and Rachel’ together. We had dicked the audience around for 10 years with their ”will they or won’t they,” and we didn’t see any advantage in frustrating them.

Marta Kauffman, Friends
My rabbi would stop me when I would drop my kids off at Hebrew school saying, ”When are they going to get together?” It was everywhere. I don’t think this was about making people happy as much as what’s going to be satisfying for us as well.

Jason Katims, Friday Night Lights
The one thing that was really great was that we knew very early on when the series was coming to the end. That helped us in shaping what that last episode was going to be. We started at the beginning of season 5 planting seeds and ideas that would all lead to this final episode.

Carlton Cuse, Lost
There was this sort of grand plan that we had — the idea that the show would start with Jack’s eye opening and it would end with Jack’s eyes closing, which by implication meant that ‘Jack had to die . That was a hugely significant choice because we couldn’t think of a finale that we’d seen where the main character had died.

Kevin Williamson, Dawson’s Creek
I had stepped away from the show. So Warner Bros. called Greg Berlanti up knowing we were friends and said, ”See if you can talk Kevin into doing the finale.” I went to lunch with Jordan [Levin], president of The WB, and they had the conceit: Why don’t we do five years in the future? They were like, ”Let’s push ahead and show how everyone ended up.” I thought about it, and I went, ”Okay. That frees me up. That allows me to tell a new story.”

Shawn Ryan, The Shield
I had an image in mind. I liked the idea of them being stuck in some kind of bureaucratic purgatory in a suit. I had no idea how we were going to arrive there.

Chris Carter, The X-Files
We didn’t really think exactly about how it would end until we were forced to because there was just too much work to do with a broadcast schedule.

Tina Fey, 30 Rock
There were some things that we knew and had even come up before the finale. We knew we wanted Kenneth to inherit NBC and we knew at some point that we wanted Liz to adopt children- or a child. Originally it was going to be this child that Kenneth fathered by accident at the Beijing Olympics — this blond-haired Asian kid who looked like Kenneth. And then we backed off of that.

Greg Daniels, The Office
The idea of having a reunion for the main characters in some form was an idea from early on. The part about Dwight’s wedding came a while later. Obviously, [we thought] it would be great to have [Steve Carell as Michael Scott] — it wouldn’t have been a big finale without him.

Katims The one thing that I did always feel would be right about the ending of the show was the idea of Coach and Tami leaving Dillon. My thought was that was the life of football coaches — they have a series of different jobs at different schools. What started the series was him coming to Dillon and it was his first year as a coach there, and I thought leaving would be where we would get to at the end.

Vince Gilligan, Breaking Bad
We really had boxed ourselves into a certain number of corners well in advance of the ending. Out of cockiness or stupidity, 16 episodes from the end, we had Walter White show up in a beard, long hair, and a new set of glasses, buying an M60 machine gun in a Denny’s parking lot. We didn’t really know how we were going to get to that story point — we didn’t even know what that meant or what Walt was going to use that machine gun for. That led to a great many dark nights of the soul, many days in the writers’ room where I was like, ”We’re never going to get there.” The question always came up: ”What the hell do you need a gun that big for?”

Diane English, Murphy Brown
I never had in mind a way that I was going to end it. It was in my contract that whether I was still executive-producing the show or not, I had right of first refusal to write the final episode. So when Candice [Bergen] decided that she would go forward with a season 10 if I came on board, I said I would if we could shake things up a bit, because I wasn’t really very pleased with how the series was evolving, and I wanted to get back to our roots and tackle a serious subject. We got permission from CBS to do the breast-cancer story line, and then that started to dictate how we were going to end this thing. I know a lot of people were afraid that she was going to die. But we were a comedy series, so no, we didn’t do that. [Laughs]

Ryan We were breaking the story of how we wanted to end the show just as the final bunch of Sopranos’ episodes were airing. So my biggest fear was, are they going to do something similar, beating us to the punch, essentially. But they went in a completely different direction, so we didn’t have to change anything.

Williamson When I first wrote it, I was absolutely convinced it had to end with Dawson and Joey together. It was a two-hour finale, and when I wrote the second hour, that’s where I was headed. I wasn’t able to sleep, something was rubbing me the wrong way. To me, Dawson and Joey are soul mates. And then I kept thinking, one thing I’ve learned in my life is that my soul mate isn’t necessarily my romantic love. So I was trying to put that in place with Dawson and Joey professing their forever to each other. And then we revealed that she chose her romantic love, which was Pacey.

Crane We did talk about, with Ross and Rachel, a gray area of where they aren’t together, but we hint there’s a sense that they might be down the road. But we thought, ”No, if we’re going to do it, let’s do it.”

Katims A lot of times you do hedge your bets and say, ”Okay, let’s shoot everything and then we can kind of figure out what we want to do in the editing room,” but that [final] sequence was so designed and [what] we really wanted.

Fey We thought we knew what we wanted to do with Jack and that was to be mayor of New York, but it didn’t work out with the timing of the real world.

Robert Carlock, 30 Rock
We even went down that path a little bit. We did a story the previous season that was intended to set that up. But if the finale was of Jack on his campaign or in his mayor office, who was going to talk to him? How was he going to talk to Tracy?

Gilligan We had an idea for the longest time that Walt was going to break into the downtown jail in Albuquerque and just shoot the s– out of the jail with this M60 machine gun and rescue Jesse. Of course, we kept asking ourselves, ”Well, how bad is Walt going to be at the end here? Is he going to kill a bunch of upstanding, law-abiding jail guards? What the hell kind of ending is that?” And then we had some version of it where he’s going to shoot up a prison bus.

Cuse We actually attempted on a number of occasions to shoehorn in things like who’s in the outrigger, and we found ourselves doing all these sorts of narrative backflips. There was no way to sustain a mystery show for 121 episodes of television and tie up every loose end.

English There were a lot of versions of the end. It’s: Yes, she’s going to leave and go on and do something else. Then: Do we flash-forward and see what that is? Does she stay? Is that not even part of the story line? It’s daunting.

Ryan I had one alternate ending, which was Vic died doing something heroic as a police officer and the department spun him as this fallen hero even though we knew he had wreaked a lot of damage along the way. That was a potential ending that we talked about at length.

Gilligan At one point, we talked about killing off every major character, and one particularly dark week along the way we talked about killing everybody — having some sort of Wild Bunch bloodbath of an ending. But you live with those ideas for a while and you think, ”What do we need to kill all these characters for?” Just because an ending is dramatic or perhaps overly dramatic does not ensure that it will be satisfying.

Crane The essence of the show leads you to an organic conclusion. Friends started as the time in your life when your friends are your family, so what’s at the heart of the episode is really six friends going off in different directions.

Williamson I just remember Michelle Williamsl [whose character Jen dies in the finale] was a little scared and nervous. She goes, ”Well, what if we do a reunion show? What if we do a movie or something?” I’m like, ”Well, then you’ll be a ghost.” [Laughs]

Ryan There are a lot of traps of finales that I’ve noticed. When I was writing The Shield, I went back and watched as many classic finales as I could. The biggest mistake I always noticed was they make a different show for the finale than they made leading up to then. I think Seinfeld was a classic example of that. Their finale was an hour-and-a-half parade of former guest stars rather than its own story.

Fey We watched a lot of classic TV finales in the writers’ room leading up to it at lunch or a break. And as the weeks got closer and closer to ours, it got more emotional. I remember [writer] Tracey Wigfield was crying when they wheeled Frasier’s dad’s chair out of the apartment. One of the things we learned from them was that it’s okay to give your characters an opportunity to actually say goodbye to each other in the body of that episode. You don’t have to worry if that’s cheesy.

Carlock That led to Tracy pretending to act out in sort of an old-fashioned way when the secret was that he didn’t want to, didn’t know how to say goodbye to everybody. That scene at the strip club — that’s our version of Frasier’s dad’s chair being wheeled out.

Part Two: The Pressure Builds
Fans. Critics. The network. How do you please everyone — including yourself?

English I was on the CBS Radford lot. I ran into Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld, and they were working on their Series Finale too, and we just looked at each other and we went, ”It’s misery, right?” ”Yeah.” [Laughs]

Daniels We didn’t tell [NBC] about Steve [returning] . The line producer was a little nervous about it — I think he was afraid he was going to lose his job — but we shot the Steve stuff and we kept it out of the dailies and we didn’t tell them about it. At the table reading, we gave all of the Steve Carell lines to Creed.

English George Clooney was on the lot doing ER. He walks onto the set [to shoot his guest spot in the Murphy finale], and Candice looks at him and he says, ”So, how’s it going this week?” And she just burst into tears. [Laughs] Everybody was on edge. People were either crying or yelling. It was crazy.

Katims The one thing that I really felt was this responsibility to the fans of the show. We felt like we wanted to do everything that we could to make this ending feel satisfying to the fans and make it feel like it lived up to everything that the show was.

Cuse Also simultaneously there’s this death of this family of people that you’ve worked with for six years, so there’s this whole other level of emotional stuff going on. You’re writing a show in which you’re ending the journey of these characters but you’re also ending the journey of, in our case, the 425 people who made Lost . It was emotionally overwhelming and tears were shed on numerous occasions in the making of the finale.

Carter It was really strange that I wasn’t going to be doing that job anymore. I worked 11.5 months a year. For me, it was 10 years because it took me about a year to get the show off the ground, and all of a sudden you’re not going to do that anymore.

Kauffman I think [the pressure] is fair. You have spent 10 years with characters you’ve invited in your home while naked and ironing. It’s a very intimate experience, the one you have with the characters on your TV set, and even more now that people watch on their computers and lie in bed with it. I feel like it’s fair for the audience to want to feel a sense of satisfaction.

Crane If any showrunner is complaining that people care too much, they’re in the wrong business. ”It’s unfair how much they care about my show!” Oh, that’s a high-class problem!

Ryan In some ways, we were unlucky that our show preceded Twitter culture because I think ‘The Shield is a show that Twitter really could have helped. At the same time, when it came to trying to be pure about the finale, it was nice we weren’t in the Twitter generation in that I had limited access to viewer feedback.

Williamson Back in 2003, we barely had Dawson’s Desktop, it was just new and cutting-edge on our AOL dial-up…. Twitter sort of elevates everyone’s angst to some degree. Everyone’s got a blog. Everyone’s hate-watching everything. Everyone’s gotten just snarky, snarky, snarky. So you just have to go with it. That’s a part of the process now.

English Now, God, I don’t know how you do a Series Finale when everybody’s weighing in on Twitter. People use social media to promote their shows, and the flip side of that is the audience feels invested enough that they can speak to you directly and tell you, ”I liked that,” ”I didn’t like that.” Do you listen to all of it? Do you filter it out?

Fey I think we had a tremendous obligation to write an ending that would be satisfying to fans — but we didn’t solicit suggestions.

Carlock We talked to both of [the fans] and they disagreed, so we thought, ”Well, this doesn’t help!” We had a falling-out.

Fey Most people don’t know that it is Statler’ ‘and Waldorf who are the only 30 Rock fans.

Part Three: Living with the Legacy
It’s over! You can finally move on! Except for the fact that fans will never let go. So get used to it.

Williamson So many people have come up to me like, ”I can’t believe it wasn’t Dawson and Joey’.” And I go, ”But it was. They sat there by the pier and said, ‘You and me, always.”’ He wrote a TV show, The Creek, about Dawson and Joey. In his Spielbergian head, he got the girl.

Cuse We stand by the finale that we wrote. It was the version of the story we wanted to tell and I think a lot of people found it enjoyable. It was inevitable that some people wouldn’t, and I made my peace with that before we even wrote it…. I feel like if you enjoyed the 119 hours that preceded the finale of Lost, is that whole experience ruined by the fact that you might not agree with everything that we did in the finale? I would hope not!

Williamson I felt like in a lot of ways, [the Dawson’s finale] was kind of safe because I did let all my characters — with the exception of Jen, who died — end up in a beautiful place.

English I don’t think we nailed it. I don’t think it was perfect. But you do what you got to do in the time you have to do it.

Gilligan The truth is, every showrunner out there does his or her best to make the show from beginning to end as satisfying as possible, so of course they’re going to try to make the best ending they can. We should applaud the ones that stick the landing, so to speak, but the ones that don’t perhaps end as well as they began, so what? It shouldn’t dampen our enthusiasm for those shows.

Cuse I can’t say that the ending of a story is always the best part of the story, and yet there’s sort of this implicit idea that the finale is somehow supposed to be the mind-blowing best episode of a show. For both Damon [Lindelof] and me, [season 4’s] ”The Constant” is our favorite episode.

Ryan I was concerned with the show’s legacy from the beginning…. I constantly thought about my children someday watching this show. When we started making the show, I had a 2-year-old and we were pregnant with our second child. Last November, my 14-year-old daughter said she wanted to start watching The Shield, and so I started watching every episode of the show with her and we finished in February and it lived up to my every hope. I always tried to the best of my ability to make it stand the test of time, and so when you’re getting to the final stages of it, I think the ending really matters. If you screw up the ending, that will affect the way people perceive the entire show.

Cuse A lot of people joke with me that subliminally the reason I [went on to exec-produce] Bates Motel was that there was a pretty clear ending to that story. We know what’s going to happen and it’s actually kind of a relief.

English You try to think of it as just another episode. But that never works. ‘It just isn’t.

The Cast Of Creators
The writers behind 10 of TV’s most seminal series, and how they bid farewell

Diane English, Murphy Brown, 1988-98
The Ending
Murphy informs her colleagues in the bullpen that she has decided not to retire after an under-anesthesia interview with God — and a cancer-free diagnosis.

Chris Carter, The X-Files, 1993-2002
The Ending
Fox Mulder is on trial for murder, and his defense summarizes nine years of alien-invasion conspiracy mythology. He escapes with Dana Scully, never giving up their quest for the out-there truth.

David Crane And Marta Kauffman, Friends, 1994-2004
The Ending
With Ross and Rachel reunited for good, and Monica and Chandler moving to the burbs with their twins(!), the gang closes the door to the apartment one last time.

Kevin Williamson, Dawson’s Creek, 1998-2003
The EndingFlashing five years into the future, Jen dies, Joey winds up with Pacey, Dawson is making a Creek-like show…and lands a meeting with Steven Spielberg.

Shawn Ryan, The Shield, 2002-08
The Ending
Having cut an immunity deal, Vic doesn’t meet as nasty a fate as his ex-partners, but does lose his family to witness protection and discovers his own hell: a desk job.

Carlton Cuse, Lost, 2004-10
The Ending
Jack saves the Island and persuades Hurley to become its guardian, then dies. Some castaways escape, but everyone is eventually reunited in a pan-faith afterlife.

Greg Daniels, The Office, 2005-13
The Ending
One year after the doc airs, everyone gathers for Dwight and Angela’s wedding, where Michael is the surprise best man.

Jason Katims, Friday Night Lights, 2006-11
The Ending
East Dillon wins the state championship, Julie and Matt get engaged, and Coach Taylor agrees to move to Philadelphia, where Tami has scored a shiny new job as a college dean. Oh, and Texas is forever.

Tina Fey And Robert Carlock, 30 Rock, 2006-13
The Ending
Stay-at-home mom Liz Lemon turns back to work, Jack becomes CEO of GE, and an unaging Kenneth, who’s been running NBC, listens to Liz’s great-granddaughter pitch him a show about Liz’s life and times at TGS.

Vince Gilligan, Breaking Bad, 2008-13
The Ending
Walt frees Jesse from the neo-Nazis who’ve been holding him as a meth-making slave but takes a fatal bullet in the shoot-out, expiring peacefully in the makeshift meth lab just before the cops arrive.

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