Endings are difficult, especially in an art form designed to produce weekly adventures that can continue in the same format for an indefinite period of time.
Not all TV shows are lucky enough to get a designated series finale, as many are cancelled unexpectedly or at short notice, leaving a season finale to act as their de facto conclusion. For those lucky enough to have the time and notice to prepare a proper conclusion to their story, the pressure is on to make that final episode meaningful, emotional and memorable, preferably for the right reasons. Afterwards, if you’re lucky, that finale will be celebrated for years as a fitting tribute to a show people loved.
With all that focus on the finale, it’s easy to forget about the handful of episodes that precede it. This is especially true of the penultimate episode, which gets little attention and often fewer viewers. Parks And Recreation’s recent series finale, for example, drew in 4.15 million viewers, where its penultimate episode, “Two Funerals,” drew a lower-side-of-average 2.47 million. The West Wing’s finale drew 10.11 million viewers to the penultimate episode’s 7.94, The X-Files’ finale drew 13 million viewers to the penultimate episode’s 10.4 million, while among the really big hitters, the Cheers finale pulled in 80.4 million viewers to the previous episode’s 29.5 million, and Friends’ finale drew in 52.46 million to the previous episode’s 24.51 million.
Writing, directing and producing a penultimate episode of a long-running show is, then, something of a thankless task, with everyone’s focus on the (usually showrunner-written) finale. So what do you do with it? The most common solution is simply to continue to work on the arc plot that will drive the finale. This goes not just for serialized shows, or shows with a specific arc and designated end point (like How I Met Your Mother), but even for some usually much more episodic shows. Friends, for example, used its penultimate episode, “The One With Rachel’s Going-Away Party,” to bring the series full circle; having started the pilot with Rachel’s sudden appearance in Central Perk and her introductions or re-introductions to the other main characters, the penultimate episode focuses on Rachel saying goodbye to each of them and telling them how much they’ve meant to her. It’s chiefly memorable, however, for setting up the conclusion to the long-running saga of Ross and Rachel in the series finale.
Shows that mix up Monsters of the Week with serialized stories will most often focus on the arc plot in the penultimate episode as they build up to the finale, with their last Monster of the Week story appearing somewhere in the final season. Stargate SG-1‘s last more or less stand-alone episode, for example, was Season Ten Episode 18, Family Ties. Sometimes the final season of such a show will become increasingly serialized and may phase out Monsters of the Week quite early in the final season, such as Buffy The Vampire Slayer, whose last non-arc-plot-based episode was Season Seven Episode 13, The Killer In Me, though the last really stand-alone episode is Episode 6, “Him.”
Sometimes the elements of the arc plot that form the focus of the penultimate episode will be geared towards providing closure on secondary characters in advance of the finale focusing on the primary characters. This is most obvious in Fringe’s penultimate episode “Liberty,” which is the only episode in Season Five to feature the Red Universe characters, giving the audience one last glimpse of the Other Side that had dominated the show for so long, and the characters left there. Others are less obvious but perform a similar function, as True Blood’s “Love Is To Die,” which gives heroine Sookie Stackhouse’s brother Jason his happy ending. In some cases, even major characters who have been at the heart of the show may see their story rounded off in the penultimate episode, leaving more space for others in the finale – for example, Dr Melfi, a major character in The Sopranos since the pilot, makes her final appearance in the show’s penultimate episode “The Blue Comet,” while The West Wing’s penultimate episode, “Institutional Memory,” focused on what the future would look like for White House Chief of Staff and former Press Secretary CJ Cregg.
It’s always hard to say goodbye to a beloved show and in some cases, the penultimate episode can be used to sow the seeds for a spin-off. When Star Trek: The Next Generation finished, not content simply to continue with the already-running Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, producers hope to use the penultimate episode to set up Star Trek: Voyager by having Ensign Ro defect to the Maquis. The plan backfired a little when Michelle Forbes declined the offer to become a Star Trek series regular for the second time, but the episode still establishes more about the Maquis and their place in the world, building on their introduction in “Deep Space Nine,” and the recent Starfleet defector Ro refers to is probably intended to be Voyager’s Chakotay. M*A*S*H’s penultimate episode “As Time Goes By,” leading in to the most-watched TV finale of all time, combined a farewell to secondary and departed characters, a retrospective on the show, setting up the plot for the finale and a backdoor pilot all in one, as it introduced the character of Soon-Lee Han while showing the team making a time capsule referring to their time in Korea.
Just occasionally, though, the creative team will use a penultimate episode to do something a little more out there. With only the finale left to go, and that set up in advance, sometimes a penultimate episode is used to do something that can only be done when the end is in sight. It becomes possible to play with audience expectations in new ways, because all bets are off in terms of plot development and regular characters – for example, the UK’s Life On Mars’ penultimate episode strongly suggested Gene Hunt might be guilty of murder, knowing that, with the series coming to an end, the audience would consider the possibility much more seriously in this episode than they would have earlier on
In other cases, a series will just let loose and have some fun in its penultimate episode, in a way that would have made the audience’s willing suspension of disbelief difficult in the long run, but can just about work as a last laugh before the credits roll. Quantum Leap’s entire final season had stretched the limits of the series’ set-up more than ever before, especially in the third to last episode “The Leap Between The States,” which was the only one to break the rule that Sam Beckett could only time travel within his own lifetime. The show’s penultimate episode, “Memphis Melody,” had Sam leap into Elvis Presley – while not as rule-breaking as “The Leap Between The States” and no more obviously credulity stretching than his leap into Ruth Westheimer in “Dr. Ruth,” this is the sort of leap that breaks away from the series’ usually more grounded stories and is more interested in having fun than in the problem of the week.
Similarly, The X-Files’ penultimate episode, “Sunshine Days,” toys with the idea of giving Scully solid scientific proof of the paranormal (as in the Life On Mars case, something that could only possibly be done at the end of the show) but really exists to have some fun with the trappings of The Brady Bunch. Star Trek: Voyager’s penultimate episode, “Renaissance Man,” made more use of having a holographic character than ever before, combining this “end of school” cutting loose with a final moment in the limelight for a beloved breakout character. The Doctor leaps through solid objects and takes on the guise of other people – something that, once done, he might be expected to do more often when it might solve a problem, if the show weren’t coming to an end.
In the end, no one is likely to remember much about a penultimate episode once the curtains close on a show. While there is an enormous amount of pressure surrounding the making and reception of a series finale, like a final exam, a penultimate episode can sometimes come across to viewers more like the last day of school, with everyone having fun getting the most out of the series’ setting, characters and tone while they can. Perhaps that’s why the M*A*S*H production team filmed their last episode early on, and finished their work on the series with “As Time Goes By.” Why end on the exam when you can choose to sign off with the party?