This article comes from Den of Geek UK. It contains spoilers for the Legion, The Deuce, The Affair and Preacher finales.
If a cinema director mangles the ending of their movie it might result in a Razzie or a few ignominious headlines in the trade press, but nothing that won’t eventually blow over (unless the movie they’ve directed is a beloved and long-running sci-fi franchise, in which case all bets are off).
A showrunner, though, bears the weight of years upon their shoulders. Fans may have invested hundreds of hours of their time and attention in characters they’ve come to understand—and quite possible like—better than some of their own friends and relatives. The punishment for wrecking the finale of a beloved TV series is at best life-long opprobrium, and at worst a life on the lam in the show-biz wilderness, perhaps condemned each and every day to pull plugs from islands and chop trees with Dexter.
In fairness, series finales are notoriously difficult to get right, which makes a great ending—one full of synergy and symmetry, profundity and poetry—all the more remarkable when it happens.
Sometimes the great ones are simultaneously neat and open-ended, like The Shield or Breaking Bad (until El Camino came along, at least). Sometimes they experiment with form, truth and the very idea of telling stories, like The Leftovers or Roseanne. Sometimes they’re next-level genius, splintering fans into ever-warring churches of interpretation that guarantee the show religion-like levels of longevity and infamy, like The Sopranos.
And sometimes they’re so unexpectedly beautiful and haunting that they overload your heart, hijack your brain, or leave an indelible mark upon your soul—occasionally all three at once. These are the endings that linger in your consciousness like lucid dreams; that return to your memory out of nowhere like a shot of neat whiskey or a sip of a slow-burning scotch; that can make you feel happy and sad simultaneously, like witnessing your child being born at a loved-one’s wake.
The finale of Sundance’s mesmerising series Rectify, about a man trying to rebuild his life following his release from death-row after serving 18 years for a crime he may or may not have committed, managed to retain something of the mystery and ambiguity that had fuelled its four seasons, but still succeeded in leaving its viewers with an image of hope and promise and redemption so blindingly bright and beautiful that tears were the only acceptable human response.
If finales of this type are like unicorns, then 2019 must have been the year of the unicorn, because a surprisingly high number of small-screen goodbyes have left us feeling misty-eyed, melancholic and beautifully bereft.
Netflix’s Orange Is The New Black and FXX’s You’re The Worst were the first exits of the year to cause a sniffle, but the following four shows—whose endings share a thematic through-line of time and age and love and loss – made heavy hearts swell and sag and soar in ways that will stay with fans forever.
“You should watch The Deuce,” I told my box-set devouring friend. “It’s from David Simon, one of the guys who did The Wire.”
“Is that the porn one?” he asked, his face scrunched up. “Nah, I can live without that one.”
If it’s hard to make audiences care about the plight of fictionalised sex workers and porn stars, imagine how hard it is to make people care about the plight of actual sex workers and porn stars. That’s one of the reasons why The Deuce is such an important piece of storytelling. Audiences have long demonstrated their willingness to empathise with undesirables, anti-heroes and outright villains of all stripes—mob bosses, murderers, drug dealers, drug addicts, corner boys and street fighters —but seldom have they expressed solidarity with sex workers, who remain perhaps the most maligned, marginalized, vulnerable, and victimized members of our societies.
Misogyny and that now ubiquitous term “toxic masculinity” go a long way towards explaining this deadly dichotomy and why historically the voices of women, especially exploited women, have rarely been heard. That being said, David Simon doesn’t allow the men in his piece, even the more brutal ones, to become one-note brutes and bastards. Life on The Deuce can be short and savage for them, too, and some of the men are just as trapped in their tragic lives and roles as the women.
The Deuce brought to life the hardships and tragedies of the pimps, pushers, pornographers, working girls, grifters and grafters hustling down NYC’s 42nd Street in the ’70s and ’80s, set against the backdrop of property booms and busts, police corruption, the AIDS crisis and the evolution of the sex industry, but it also shone a light upon the small victories of friendship, love, tenacity and redemption amid the squalor, crime and violence. There was hope and humanity, even in the dingiest of bars, even in the seediest brothel, even behind the steeliest or deadest of eyes.
While The Wire seemed to conclude that it’s the place—in The Wire’s case, the great churning machine of the American city —that makes people who and what they are, then The Deuce posits that it’s people who make a place. This is strikingly clear in the long sequence that closes out the series, when we jump forward 35 years or so to see the Deuce of the present day: a safer, brighter, cleaner, busier, but somehow much emptier place; a branded, blaring anti-septic echo of its former glory. People don’t stroll anymore: they swarm. They don’t talk. They move too fast to stop.
We follow the now-elderly Vincent Martino (James Franco) as he returns to New York after many decades living away. “The Sidewalks of New York” plays as he wanders through his old stomping ground, greeting the ghosts of the long departed. The hustle and hubbub of his memories makes him smile, and returns a glint to his eyes that’s soon swallowed by sadness. He’s a ghost, too. The world has moved on without him.
In a show replete with suicides, shootings, murders and violence, I certainly didn’t expect to find myself reeling from one of the most poignant, strangely fitting and beautiful TV finales of all time.
Preacher isn’t a show much troubled by accusations of sentimentality. It only tugs at your heart-strings when it’s doing something devious like making you feel sorry for Hitler as he’s being bullied in Hell. Most of the time Preacher keeps the emphasis on slick, kinetically-charged, laugh-out-loud violence; gory and phantasmagorical set-pieces; raven-black humour and larger-than-life characters.
In the end, everything that happened to the preacher Jesse Custer and his rag-tag band of ass-kicking comrades—exploding towns, exploding clones, kidnap, abduction, murder, torture, chasing God, chasing dog, dodging the apocalypse, hunting Hitler, being hounded by Hell’s soldiers, and stealing souls, to name but a few—was entirely the result of God having what we humans would recognize as a mid-life crisis.
The quests, the intrigue, the battle for survival, the layers of bureaucracy, all of it hinted at a deeper meaning that simply wasn’t there. Jesse was only endowed with the cowing power of Genesis because God got sloppy; and the world was only ear-marked for destruction because God was a bored and narcissistic psychopath who didn’t feel like he was being worshipped with enough fervour.
In a cruel world where everything may have happened for a reason, but a really, really awful and depressing one, the only thing that really mattered, the only thing with any hint of weight or truth about it, was the relationship between Jesse, Tulip (Jesse’s fire-ball beau), and Cassidy (Jesse’s vampire best friend cum brother cum frenemy). They loved each other. They hated each other. They couldn’t live without each other.
Literally, in Cassidy’s case.
Many long decades pass after the defeat of God and his Grail. An older, sadder (but physically identical) Cassidy comes to the graves of his old friends, Jesse and Tulip. Though he hadn’t seen them since we, the audience, last saw them, Cassidy knew that their passing from the world marked the end of his; that he didn’t want to live in a world that stretched on forever without them. He ditches his sun-brolly and joins them in the eternal dust.
Somehow, in a pointless world, this final seems to be very much the point.
Much more than unstoppable bullets, penis ears, exploding Jesus’s and Gods in S&M gear, this last sad, sweet and sombre note will be the one that resonates with me for years to come.
Legion is like a highly-stylised music video run amok: a reality-bending orgy of hidden powers, hidden realms, rap battles, time travel, body-jumps, big bad wolves, and kung-fu fighting, delivered in a painfully hip package. Structurally, it’s fragmented, kaleidoscopic and skittish, a deliberate attempt to convey and reflect the labyrinthine inner-workings of super-powerful mutant David’s mind as he’s tugged between truth and fantasy, madness and clarity, hero and villain, pain and suffering by a malevolent mutant parasite that’s been piggy-backing on his consciousness and curdling his perceptions since he was an infant.
Like Preacher, Legion’s narrative ducks and weaves through a hall of smoke and mirrors. Unlike Preacher, which largely leans into the joke and fully embraces its chaotic nihilism, Legion likes to pretend that every twist and turn of its long, confusing, hallucinatory journey is in service of some loftier truth. At times Legion feels like it’s being wilfully weird or preternaturally pretentious to distract from the very simple story at its heart. Which is a shame, because it’s this simple story, brought into much sharper focus in the final season, that gives the series its heart. David wants to love and be loved: by his parents, by his friends, by himself. Anger, vengeance, addiction, regret, mental illness and hijack by evil forces have curdled him to the point where he doesn’t know—where we’re not even sure—if he’s a hero or a villain.
The series ends with David—having conquered time to save both himself and the world—standing over a crib containing his own infant self, next to Syd, the women he once loved and wronged so badly, preparing for the time-line to erase them and remake them in a different reality: without David’s parasite, without each other. It’s hushed. It’s haunting. Like the ending of Chuck, but with the sadness turned up to eleven.
“Be a good boy,” Syd tells him, as they both slowly fade from the world.
The Affair’s starting conceit—switching between the different, and at times clashing, perspectives of Noah (Dominic West) and Alison (Ruth Wilson) as they embarked upon an affair over one summer in the sleepy, sea-side town of Montauk—was by turns inventive, intriguing and maddening. The Affair often muddied the waters of memory to such a degree that the audience was never sure who or what to believe. Was one of the two lovers mistaken in their recollections? Was one of them actively lying?
Each episode in the first season ended with a flash-forward to either Noah or Alison recounting details of their relationship to a detective as part of an ongoing criminal investigation. The precise nature of the crime wasn’t revealed until the finale, by which point the viewers themselves felt like detectives, trying to piece together the truth with only the testimony of unreliable witnesses to go on. This roller-coaster of unreliability and crossed perceptions only picked up speed once Noah wrote a best-selling book about his affair, and almost came de-railed once that book was made into a movie, and the actor playing Noah started dating Noah’s ex-wife Helen (the incredible Maura Tierney).
The show survived beyond its seemingly limited premise by always finding fresh ways to shift focus, expand scope and generate intrigue, especially in exploring Noah’s life-long guilt and the tragic life of Alison Bailey. However, the last thing anybody would have expected from the final episode of The Affair was a beautiful life lesson with philosophical undertones, least of all for Noah Solloway to be the one to deliver a touching coda on a cliff-side through the medium of dance.
Noah: the man whose who-me haughtiness, arrogance, sexual improprieties and skewed sense of righteousness often made it difficult to remember, as the series progressed, that he’d gone to jail to protect his wife and mistress from a culpable homicide charge; that he’d crossed a continent to be near his estranged kids, even though they almost uniformly despised him for the injury he inflicted upon their family.
The Affair’s master stroke was in re-positioning itself as a show not just about truth, lust, love and loss, but about memory, trauma, and identity; about hope, change, and redemption. Are we defined by our memories? Are we trapped by them? Do the tragedies of our past condemn our future? Are loss and sadness contagions powerful enough to cross the generations and infect our children?
All of the characters in the show deal with pain—Noah from his mother’s assisted suicide; Alison and Cole from the death of their young son; Whitney Solloway from the destruction of her parents’ marriage; Joanie from her mother’s violent death— but where, and how, does it stop?
Near the end of the season, Noah and Helen flee an LA brush fire on foot through the doomed wilderness. As the conflagration rips through the city behind them, burning down Noah’s new home and worldly possessions in the process, the estranged couple manage to burn away their shared hurt and anger with the cleansing fire of truth, leaving behind a scorched and fertile earth that’s ripe for re-growth. They reconnect, reconcile and rejoin in Montauk, the very place in which their lives first blew apart. At their daughter’s wedding. It’s a new beginning. A new cycle.
A new hope.
The Affair ends with the message that we can’t be defined by our trauma or mistakes. That wounds heal. That people change. The story closes in the far future, in Montauk, with an elderly Noah dispensing wisdom to a wistful Joanie. He’s now a soft-voiced, humble man who seems to take pleasure in the simple act of living… because he’s worked out the secret of a life well-lived: not success and fame and attention, but love and forgiveness. The only perspective that matters.
He leaves Helen’s graveside, a place he visits every day, to stand alone over-looking the vast expanse of the ocean. The rising tides have slowly eroded Montauk’s coast, just as surely as time itself has eroded him, and will one day sweep away his memories, and all memories of him and the life he once led.
As the camera pans out from the cliff-top, Noah smiles and begins to dance – the dance he choreographed long ago as a gift for his daughter’s wedding—as eternity washes over him.
It reminded me of an old Ojibwe saying that once cropped up in The Sopranos: “Sometimes I go about in pity for myself, but all the while a great wind carries me across the sky.”
2020? Please go easy on my eyes.