Seinfeld, Game of Thrones, The Sopranos, and How to End a TV Show

I am just barely old enough to remember the mid-1990s, which was the last point in time when most people did not consider television a high-art medium. That changed with a handful of television shows, among them Seinfeld, The Simpsons, and The Larry Sanders Show, comedies whose genius, their wit and insight and humanity, became difficult for thinking people to ignore. Then around 2000 there was an explosion of great drama: The Sopranos, The Wire, Deadwood, basically everything on HBO and then a few years later AMC and FX got in the game and we had a widely acknowledged Golden Era of hour-long tv dramas about white men who were never happy enough. Just as that wave of antihero stuff began to fade, we got GOT, Game of Thrones, the epic fantasy series that, finally, wasn’t just another show about a white male antihero; rather, it was a show about many white male and female antiheroes. (There were brown people; they were servants and soldiers of the white people. It was…problematic.)

Anyway, that’s the extremely simplified arc of “prestige” television, i.e. television that aspires to artistic excellence, over the last 20 years.

One problem with expecting tv shows to be great art was that, unlike pretty much every other art form, there were no rules or even expectations about how tv shows had to end. The Simpsons is actually still airing, which seems like a mistake from an artistic standpoint. A few shows, like Arrested Development and Deadwood, were just too artsy to generate a profit, so they stopped when the money ran out and came back when their audience caught up with them in the streaming era. In a few cases, the creative types felt like the show had run its course and decided to end things at a date certain, and the network wanted to stretch it out, so we got Final Season parts 1 and 2 of Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and Game of Thrones, which were immensely frustrating and a blatant money grab and we tolerated it because what else could we do, refuse to watch the last half season of the show on principle? In retrospect, that would’ve been the right move as to Game of Thrones, but not the others. (By the way, Mad Men is the greatest television show of all time.)

So when it came time to end these shows, there was this inherent tension between several competing motives:

  1. The showrunners had strong ideas of where the show should go to cement its artistic legacy.

  2. Everyone else involved in the show’s production may want to say a fond farewell, invite guest stars back on, and relive the show’s glory years, like a big family reunion. After all, have to remember that some of these shows were in production for over 10 years, meaning that literally hundreds of people could spend a major portion of their working lives doing nothing but the show. The impetus, even for artistically driven showrunners, to cast and crew happy should not be underestimated.

  3. The fans had strong ideas about what the characters deserved and how the show “should” end. Generally, fans want the main characters to have happy endings that are consistent enough in tone and plot as to be believable within the reality of the show.

It’s worth noting that many of the “bad” finales in recent years are probably bad because the showrunners had trouble managing those competing tensions. Showrunners may or may not have a good understanding of what makes their show good and may or may not act on that understanding. (Mad Men, The Sopranos: yes. Game of Thrones: no.) Pleasing the producers, actors, crew members, ok great, but irrelevant at best to the art of it. And fans? Most of the fans were and are idiots. Take The Sopranos: it was a show about many things, but the headline plots saw mobster Tony Soprano trying to navigate mafia dealings while also raising his kids in suburban New Jersey and struggling with mental illness. Many of its fans watched the show to see the super cool mafia stuff, like the occasional gruesome execution. They watched Tony, saw the things he did and their effect on society, but because the show’s writers executed a well-known playbook to secure viewer empathy with evil characters (and executed it brilliantly), many viewers forgot that you could empathize with Tony without sympathizing with him or even wanting him to be punished. In other words, you were supposed to find Tony compelling, and that was supposed to really, really bother you, because he was fucking evil. But if you let the compelling plot points overwhelm you, and you didn’t remember to pause and ask yourself “is this right? is this ok? Would I have the fortitude to resist Tony’s intimidation or, perhaps more difficult, his help?” then you just ended up rooting for relative good guys to win and relative bad guys to be punished. Which a lot of people did. And which a lot of people do, in real life. Donald Trump is our president.

So fuck all that. We’re talking art. The essence of art is that it communicates something essential about human life. Like the ending of any work of art, a television finale episode should continue to communicate, and if possible accentuate and distill, whatever it is that the show has been telling us about human life that has made it compelling to watch all along, and leave us with something a little more to think about after.

The ending of The Sopranos is pretty famous: Tony seems to have won a mob war, and his family and his crew are doing well, but there are any number of people definitely still out to get him. He takes his family to a diner for dinner. There are many visual and audio cues that something momentous is about to happen, and arguably hints that he’s about to get whacked. Then the screen goes black.

It was a really great ending. It was immensely frustrating, because of all the cues: you wanted to know what happened next. Did someone murder Tony and his family? If not, why were we even watching them eat dinner in a diner? What was the point?

That was the point. You were supposed to think about what the show had cued you up to think about, and why you responded to those cues the way you did, and what that says about you. The show was saying, hey, don’t lose sight of what this show has actually been about all these years. If it hadn’t ended that way—if it had ended with Tony triumphant in mob rule, or even with Tony and his family getting murdered or indicted, the legacy of The Sopranos would have been, “it was a cool tv show about the rise and fall of a mafia family, led by a fun gangster who was in therapy.” Instead, the legacy of the show is that it’s a great work of art about storytelling and good and evil and the role of us, the audience, in creating the morality of our times.

Game of Thrones went a different direction. In its first few seasons, it was an intensely plot-driven show about numerous claimants to a monarchy in a world where magic definitely existed but couldn’t really be controlled. The show cued the audience to believe that some characters were “good” or “bad” based on their adherence to moral values, but also demonstrated that whether a character gained or stayed in power in the short term had nothing to do with their moral values and everything to do with combinations of political and military skills. This in itself was a pretty compelling point about human life, and there were some very troubling parallels to the real world of today.

One character, Daenerys Targaryen (sometimes called Dany…fantasy genre names, ugh) was cued by the show early on as a “good” person, because she was vaguely feminist and anti-slavery and gave pretty good speeches about “breaking the wheel” of evil or something. This seemed to make a lot of fans forget, over the years, that Dany’s goal in life was to re-build a hereditary monarchy by invading a foreign country.

Game of Thrones had many complicated plots, so there’s the “finale” but also the “ending” which encompassed several of the final episodes. During the ending, many of the characters began making decisions that made no sense in the world of the show. Characters that previously spent months on long journeys across an entire continent would re-cross the same span in a single episode that implied the passage of mere days. Characters established as shrewd operators made obvious, stupid errors and were summarily killed. We see entire armies destroyed in minutes due to incredibly obvious tactical blundering, but then a few episodes later there appear to be tens of thousands of surviving soldiers. I could go on, but not without getting into detail, and holy hell are there plenty of thinkpieces about this. Anyway.

In the final two episodes, Dany finally attacks King’s Landing, the largest city in the continent and the seat of her royal forbears. The opposition forces are quickly overwhelmed and surrender. Rather than accept their surrender, Dany chooses to use her dragon to burn the city to the ground, killing many civilians. Afterward, she promises her armies that they’ll do the same all across the continent, implying that she’s going to kill a lot of civilians whether they accept her rule or not, simply because they didn’t embrace it before she established military dominance and now must be punished. The show explicitly portrays Dany as having gone mad with power (an interpretation seconded by the showrunners, lest we give them credit for nuance). One of Dany’s lieutenants (her former lover and an irritatingly “good” character) kills her, and the survivors form a new monarchy in a series of final scenes that—again, not going into detail, there’s been a lot written about this—really make no sense.

The crux of the finale, the burning of King’s Landing by the “Mad Queen” and the aftermath of that act, is everything the Sopranos finale is not. It gave us an unequivocal moral and factual perspective, that perspective was facile, and it cemented the legacy of Game of Thrones as a plot-driven popcorn drama, not a work of art. It was all the more frustrating because there was an obvious corollary between Dany’s actions and a number of real-world events, for instance the bombing of Dresden, Germany by the Allies during the Second World War. Although most people in retrospect think Dresden was a moral travesty and perhaps even a tactical error, it was a logically justifiable tactical move: Dresden may have been a civilian target, but the German government had not fully surrendered, and neither had Japan, and so arguably its utter destruction was necessary to prevent more active resistance to invading forces and regime change. But Game of Thrones at the end of its run had no room for that level of nuance: Dany bombed the city, that means she’s crazy, gotta kill her. The show’s early season gave us reason to hope for more than that, and we were disappointed. It’s hard to imagine anyone in ten years caring about or re-watching Game of Thrones, any more than anyone today watches Dynasty.

Which brings us to Seinfeld. Seinfeld famously called itself a show about nothing, but no serious person believes that. Seinfeld was a comedy of manners, a show about social tics and etiquette and the very petty machinations of middle class Jews in New York in the 1990s. Every episode involved each of its central four characters scheming in different ways, with all of the schemes dovetailing elegantly at the end of the episode, usually with everyone involved getting screwed and learning nothing. It could be a cruel and nihilistic show, and was also very funny.

In the Seinfeld finale, the show’s four central characters are about to get a deal to make a tv show about themselves (fulfilling a long-running show-within-a-show plotline that was never terribly important). They are taking a private jet on a celebratory trip to Paris when through their own idiocy they’re forced to land in a Massachusetts town. There, they accidentally videotape themselves witnessing, and laughing at, a carjacking. They are arrested under a “Good Samaritan” law that makes it a crime to fail to assist a person in need. At their trial, many former guest stars of the show provide character evidence against them, recounting the ways the cast has screwed over every person they interacted with. They’re sentenced to a year in prison, which they begin serving together.

The Seinfeld finale was partly a clip show (the character evidence in the trial is a series of clips of past episodes), which requires some context because good television shows don’t do them anymore. Before the Golden Era, network comedies about once a year would do a show that was just best-of clips from other episodes of the show. Because the shows were given annual budgets, if they did one clip show out of the 23 or so episodes it was filming that year, they could bump every other episode’s budget by 5% and give the crew a break for a week. Perhaps more importantly, we didn’t have youtube yet, so if you wanted to just see all the best punchlines and slapstick from your favorite show thrown together into a supercut, the clip show was the only way to do it.

A partial clip show finale episode made sense at that time. For one thing, because there was no streaming or binge-watching, the only way most people could watch old tv shows was in syndication, and syndicated episodes might be out of order or at least difficult to view in order. That meant that, other than daytime soap operas, basically nothing on tv had tightly wound, linear plots, because that kind of plotting was extremely difficult to follow even for devoted fans and rendered the show incomprehensible to everyone else because if you didn’t start at the beginning you had no idea what was going on (see: The Wire, Arrested Development). Moreover, because there was no need for a linear plot conclusion (as is sometimes appropriate and nearly always demanded by fans), the show could focus on the other purposes of a finale—satisfying the show’s creators’ artistic ambitions, and giving a farewell to cast and crew.

By most accounts, the Seinfeld finale satisfied its creators Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld. They weren’t aiming high, they just wanted a fond and appropriate farewell for the show, and that is what they believe they provided. And most of what I’ve read from the show’s cast and guest stars is that they were happy to all be together to say goodbye and celebrate the show (the courtroom scenes show dozens of familiar guest stars all together; it’s a bit weird and awesome to have not just the cast but almost everyone who’s ever been on the show all in the same room in the same scene, and apparently those present felt the same way).

But the Seinfeld finale is widely hated, even 20 years later, and it’s worth talking about why.

I will tell you what bothers me about it, which I don’t expect bothers most people. The Seinfeld finale is an example of everything that is wrong with television portrayals of the legal system. Yes, I get that the “trial” is a metaphor. But come on:

  • The “Good Samaritan” law is blatantly unconstitutional. There is no such law anywhere in the country, and for good reason. The entire premise is insane: the characters see an armed man hijacking a car, what are they supposed to do, try to beat him up and get shot for their trouble? Call the police—the very policeman who shows up five seconds after the event—having obviously been close enough to also witness it—and then rather than chasing the hijacker, arrests four people for not doing the job of a policeman? I cannot get over this.

  • The case goes to trial immediately. There is no bail hearing, no discovery, no nothing. What world do they live in. Trial would be held like sixteen months after this.

  • “Character evidence” of the kind portrayed here is so, so inadmissible. YOU CANNOT BE PUT IN PRISON FOR BEING A DICK. You can be put in prison for pretty much any reason if you’re black or brown, but we at least have to dress up a fancy justification for it, and being a dick isn’t one of those.

  • The woman goes to jail in the same cell as the men. Sweetie, no.

Sigh.

Anyway, what bothered most people, aside from some that just didn’t like the clip show aspect of it, was one of two things: (1) that it was underwhelming in general, just not big or funny enough, and (2) it forced viewers to contend with the fact that the show was about four terrible people doing awful things in the world.

You can see where the first complaint comes from. Seinfeld was the most popular show in America, and even non-fans watched the finale, expecting something totally amazing—and the episode is not huge. There are no particularly inspired jokes. If your criticism is that it’s simply not very funny, then ok, but that’s comedy for you. (Personally, whether I found an episode of Seinfeld to be funny or just horribly irritating or depressing always depended on my mood when it came on. Since I usually watched the syndicated episodes at 6 p.m. while cooking and/or waiting for dinner, it was basically, did I have a bad day at school or work, am I really hungry, if yes to either, I should not watch Seinfeld because I’ll freak out.) The trial aspect of it is fairly dramatic by Seinfeld’s standards, but ultimately it’s just an episode where the cast goes somewhere, acts like jerks, gets punished for it, and ends up back in a room talking about shirts. The same could be said for almost any episode of the show, and there are 180 episodes. But wouldn’t anything else have been a betrayal of all that Seinfeld stood for? What did you want, George to be happily married and move to Cape Cod, and Elaine to write a bestselling novel? This was a show about middle class people leading lives of hilariously loud desperation. From one episode to the next, they learned nothing, gained nothing, loved nothing, hugged no one (famously, the showrunners’ motto was “no hugging, no learning”). If anything at all serious or permanent had happened to the characters, it would’ve been fucking awful.

(Conversely, though, I’m not alone in thinking that the finale could’ve been better if it was even less of an event, just a random episode full of throwaway Jerry’s girlfriends, Kramer pursuing some quirky business idea, and so on. In a way, it would have been very compelling for the last episode to be just terrifically anti-dramatic and even anti-funny, for the show to just truly fade into nothingness and then stop. I wonder if Seinfeld and David considered that route; I’m sure the network would have balked.)

The second complaint is pretty valid. After all, the Seinfeld finale is doing in a much more obvious (you might say clunky) way something similar to what the Sopranos finale would do 10 years later: forcing the viewer to confront the fact that these characters that they’ve found so compelling over the years, that they may have occasionally rooted for, were, if not evil, then certainly problematic. There’s certainly an argument to be made that the trial and judgment were unnecessary and heavy-handed: there were of course people watching Seinfeld exactly because they knew the characters were so morally awful, and who knew that the characters’ moral awfulness was part of (but not all of) what made them so compelling and funny, and so focusing the finale on that one aspect of the show just felt like a moral lesson that nobody needed, that distracted from the show’s true genius.

Of course, this complaint is only compelling if you view the trial as a sort of neutral and fair arbiter of the characters, rather than an extension of the dysfunctional society in which the characters lived. Otherwise it’s hard to read it as Larry David wanting to teach viewers a moral lesson. And I think we’re not supposed to see the trial as neutral: this is not Law and Order, this is Kafka.

The subtext of Seinfeld during its run was not that the characters were awful people; and in fact I would posit that they are only occasionally awful. Rather, they are moderately ordinary people who blow ordinary social interactions and minor neuroses out of proportion in ways that expose the awfulness of society. The finale exposes them for their awfulness, but it sure doesn’t make society look great either: the trial itself is a farce (notwithstanding my legalistic complaints above, but certainly when you include them—and there’s even a prominent character, the lawyer Jackie Chiles, who observes all this), the law in question is idiotic, and the “character evidence” against the defendants is extraordinarily one-sided and unfair even if you posit that the evidence would be admissible in the first place. But everything that happens makes sense by the societal logic of the show.

The Seinfeld finale is not Seinfeld hammering viewers with the idea that its characters are bad people. It is an accentuation of the show’s premise that society lives by uncountable, largely unwritten rules that are at best barely compatible with human emotions and eccentricities, and that as a result society is prone to small-scale meltdown at any time. Sometimes you win (they get a tv show and fly on a private jet!) and sometimes you lose—whether you get convicted on bullshit charges, or you’re poisoned by the adhesive on your fiancee’s cheap wedding invitation envelopes. Frankly, I think Seinfeld came as close as it possibly could to reminding us that fuck it, we’re all going to die. In the meantime, what’s so bad about being stuck in a room with your three best friends, talking about shirts?