By Darren Franich
Updated March 13, 2014 at 10:00 PM EDT
Credit: HBO
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Entertainment Geekly is a weekly column that examines pop culture through a geek lens and simultaneously examines contemporary geek culture through a pop lens. So many lenses! This week there are two columns inspired by True Detective, partially because True Detective was a thought-provoking TV show which deserves a significant amount of thoughtful analysis, but mainly because I missed a column last week. Today: A consideration of where the show’s ending fits into the pantheon. Tomorrow: A meditation on the show’s meaning, or lack thereof. Spoilers follow.

True Detective only ran for eight episodes, but the final episode carried series-finale weight and expectation. Maybe it’s because the show dominated the Sunday-drama chatter during a cold hibernating winter. History will record that True Detective filled the dead air between Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones. (History will also record that House of Cards filled the dead air between True Detective episode 4 and True Detective episode 5.) Maybe it’s because the show always carried itself like an eight-season serial crammed into a miniseries: The characters aged across the decades, and they had the kind of deep-dive psychological conversations that give so many foreign action movies a bigger-on-the-inside body mass.

I’m not sure there’s really a consensus on the True Detective finale. Our TV critic Jeff Jensen liked it; I was underwhelmed; your opinions may vary. Although it only ran for a couple of months, the final hour of the show was a prime example of a very specific kind of ending: The closing act of a massive years-long epic-sized symbol-laden that had to answer a whole host of lingering questions, some of which were left unanswered, possibly because the creators didn’t have an answer or didn’t even know there was a question. (Martin’s daughter was such a Cindy.)

Endings are hard. And in this era of long-running serials — sagas that play out for years across multiple movies, seasons, volumes, videogames, or comic book series — there’s a sense that most people find endings incredibly disappointing. At the same time, it’s not like there’s exactly a playbook for creators looking to end their years-long epic ensemble symbol-laden passion project. Lost, Battlestar Galactica, and Fringe all spent their final act drowning in ambient mythology — and I say that as someone who would rank all three of those shows very high in my “Best of the Millenium” list. Each show made its name as a thoughtful, digressive riff on sci-fi/fantasy tropes, by specifically being the kind of show that didn’t need to feature the kind of big action sequences that marred their series finales.

There’s a certain segment of the gaming population that still hasn’t gotten over the conclusion of the Mass Effect trilogy. I kind of loved that ending, but it undeniably fell victim to what you might call the Matrix problem: An eleventh-hour introduction of brand-new mythology. (The narratives of Mass Effect and The Matrix are the equivalent of carefully constructed 3D chess games; their endings are a chessboard picked up and bashed into your face.)

And I’ll stump for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows any day — I can never disown a book that I literally read between 2 AM and noon on the day it was released — but it ends with a disappointingly familiar sequence of fan service, C-list fatalities, and good absurdly triumphant. (J.K. Rowling is much smarter than we are, and even she has some problems with the ending.) All of these endings have a roughly similar sequence where lead characters have A Long Conversation about the meaning of the story that preceded it, an impossible load-bearing exchange often conducted on some higher mystical plane: Dumbledore and Harry, Head Six and Head Baltar, the Architect and the Oracle, Jack and Christian.

But let’s flip-side this equation. What are the indisputable endings? What epic conclusion to a long-running TV show/graphic novel sequence/movie sagas/videogame sequences that weren’t ultimately disappointing for a significant portion of their audience? And what can we learn from those endings? Below is a first draft towards an Ending Canon — and I’ll try to keep all plot particulars vague, although as a spoiler skeptic I would also point out that all the works below are great even if you know how they end.

Lord of the Rings: To be clear: the books, not the movies. And the difference between the two is telling. Even die-hard fans of the film series moan about the final half-hour of sun-dappled teary-eyed hugs. But Tolkien wrapped up his thousand-page odyssey with a classic bit of endgame anticlimax: “The Scouring of the Shire” sequence is an unsettling epilogue, suggesting vividly that the protagonists can’t go home again because “home” isn’t really there anymore. It’s an important set-up for the final departure for the Grey Havens, and it gives the book’s conclusion a powerful melancholy that Jackson’s hyperkinetic adaptation can’t quite match. Lesson: A bittersweet aftertaste can add considerable strength to a basically happy ending.

Star Trek: The Next Generation: It’s almost unfair to mention the second Trek on this list, since its finale has an impossible-yet-perfect conceit that is predicated on the presence of a beyond-godlike being. Recurrent in-show commentator/nemesis Q sends Picard on a past-present-future journey that brings the show back to its roots and sends it forward in time — a split structure that lets the show meditate on itself in macrocosm (what have we been on about, exactly?) and microcosm (what would Picard look like with a beard?). But I think the sheer mad ambition of “All Good Things” should serve as an inspiration to other shows. Like, this is an hour of television that features a proto-Tree of Life examination of the beginnings of life on earth, which if nothing else is way more interesting than an hour about how Dexter became a lumberjack. Lesson: Series-finale flashbacks are okay, series-finale flashforwards can be great, but mixing flashbacks and flashforwards might be just perfect.

Watchmen and From Hell: Alan Moore serves as a direct or indirect inspiration for practically everyone who’s ever picked up a comic book in the last quarter-century. (True Detective writer Nic Pizzolatto is an avowed fan.) His two masterpieces are both built on mysteries, although a typical mystery is a “whodunit,” and Watchmen is really more of a “howdunit” and From Hell is a “whydunit.” I’d argue that both endings work specifically because they take place after the final action has happened. There’s no last-big-battle plot — “We have to destroy the Cylons/Locke/the Observers!” Instead, both works are laser-focused on the final decisions made by the characters. Lesson: Consider shifting the final Big Action Scene to the penultimate episode, giving the remaining characters time to breathe in the series finale.

The Bourne Ultimatum: There’s a certain branch of perfect endings which return their saga back to the beginning, and there’s another branch of perfect endings that aren’t really endings — or which suggest that the protagonist’s final fate is to never have a final fate, to always stay on the move. Matt Damon’s spy series is a combination of those two species. Ultimatum doesn’t leave Bourne in a particularly good place — this is not a hugs-and-smiles conclusion — but it does give the character a sense of ultimate triumph. (Bourne Legacy already half-ruined that triumph, but Bourne Legacy was also just a bad dream we had that we never have to talk about again.) Lesson: Happy endings are less impressive than triumphant endings.

God of War 3: Curiously similar to The Bourne Ultimatum. The whole God of War franchise is a model of narrative economy. Kratos is angry; he wants to kill everyone; and over three games he does, culminating in a threequel where the plot is basically a laundry list of gods to kill. The final scene comes thisclose to the Matrix problem — there is a Higher Power Being who says lots of Inscrutable Mystical Things, one of which involves invoking “hope” as a painfully concrete concept — but that’s immediately erased by the final act the game asks of you. Put it this way: If your goal is to kill everything, what do you do when there’s nobody left to kill? Lesson: If your main character is a death-obsessed nihilist, it might actually be bolder to not end with him rediscovering his love for humanity. (Looking at you, Suddenly Spiritual Rust Cohle!)

Y: The Last Man and Ex Machina: Brian K. Vaughan’s pair of Great American Post-Millenium Comics didn’t have much in common. Y was a long road-trip adventure; Ex Machina rarely ever left the five boroughs of New York. But they both wrapped up with penultimate-issue deathblow twists that led into flashforward-tragedy epilogues. Y has, for my money, one of the most perfect conclusions for anything ever. But Ex Machina might actually be tougher — it retroactively alters our whole understanding of the comic’s run. Lesson: If you’re going to end your series by showing the passage of time, keep in mind that time heals all wounds but also, inevitably, will take everything away.

Friday Night Lights:Somehow managed to service multiple generations of FNL casts, paying off a couple dozen character arcs. Superficially similar to The Wire‘s ending, but without the “Character Stares At His City Experiencing An Epiphany” staginess. Lesson: Friday Night Lights was a once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon that should not have worked and yet generally worked perfectly. The only real lesson to take away from its finale is that we ought to pass Friday Night Lights onto our children and our children’s children.

Forever Knight: A random Canadian vampire show with a heart of dark romanticism. The series hasn’t aged well, but it’s worth watching a dozen episodes and then skipping ahead to the finale. Lesson: Unhappy endings aren’t necessarily better, but they can retroactively make campy entertainment look shockingly profound.

The Asterisk Bunch: The Prisoner, The Sopranos, and The Dark Tower: Asterisked for all sorts of reasons, not least because I know lots of people either dislike or utterly despise these endings. To recap, for the newcomers: The Prisoner‘s finale is crazy; The Sopranos finale is arguably not an ending; The Dark Tower is all of the above, plus metafiction. To me, though, they’re all in a separate and worthwhile category: Endings about endings, or the lack thereof. The Prisoner throws out all the questions that lingered around the center of the show and argues that people wouldn’t really want to hear the answers. The Sopranos suggests that nothing ever really ends, even as everything is ending. The Dark Tower ends its quest narrative by revealing that the journey might actually be the destination. All of these endings are vaguely disappointing — and they all encourage lots of online theorizing, lots of it fun and most of it almost certainly not what the creators intended — but they also stick with you. Lesson: There’s a tendency in bad endings to overexplain. (“The light is winning.”) There is honor in being willfully obtuse.

What would you add to the list of un-disappointing endings? The Chronicles of Prydain? Rocky Balboa? Does anyone want to stump for Mockingjay?

Episode Recaps

True Detective

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