Game of Thrones, the most popular shows in the history of premium cable, will air its finale next month.
It will be the most anticipated series finale since The Sopranos, and arguably the most anticipated finale in the history of the small screen. Fans are experiencing a variety of emotions: anxiousness, nervousness, excitement, fear. But every fan is wondering the same thing they’ve been wondering for years: how will it end?
For eight seasons we’ve been trying to piece together the ending of Game of Thrones. We’ve been trying to explain the mysterious White Walkers and why they’re marching south now. We’ll finally get answers to most, if not all, of the questions we’ve had since we first met these characters in Winterfell many years ago.
The finale is one of the most important moments for any show. A bad finale can taint the legacy of everything that went before it, while a great finale can help fans forget some of the blunders a show had leading up to the ending. No matter what happens, we’ll never forget the final moments we’re about to spend in Westeros.
So what makes a great finale? Is it the action? The drama? The fate of the characters we’ve grown to love over the years? I’ve come up with three key ingredients that make for a satisfying series finale, based on previous finales we’ve seen of some big-name shows.
When a television show ends for good, you’re saying goodbye to characters that you’ve grown to know and love, or hate, over the years. It’s important for the writers to keep in mind that a finale is the last time we’ll get to see these characters. Some characters aren’t lucky enough to make it to the finale, but it’s crucial to say goodbye to the characters that do in a satisfying way.
The Sopranos spent most of the finale focusing on Tony and his real family, but it also delivered some memorable shots of the remaining secondary characters. While just about every other member of Tony’s crime family has bitten the bullet at this point, Paulie Walnuts remained standing, only to reluctantly be given command of the cursed Aprile crew. This implies that Paulie’s fate is sealed, but it also leaves us with arguably the greatest final show of a character in a finale ever.
The final season of The Wire is considered by most to be its weakest, but the finale wasn’t about wrapping up the storylines of the season. It’s main goal was to show us the end of each character’s journey, and how their journey impacts the city of Baltimore as a whole. We catch a final glimpse of just about every remaining character: McNulty, Freeman, Bunk, Bubbles, Michael, Marlo, Dukie, and even Prez, who we hadn’t seen since season four. Every character’s last moment, whether it was heartbreaking or heartwarming, served as a perfect culmination for their stories. The Wire’s main character was always Baltimore, but they did a fantastic job of making us care about the people who lived in it.
It’s likely that Game of Thrones will end the season with a much smaller roster of characters than it will start with. Nailing the death scenes of the characters who don’t survive will be crucial, but giving us a satisfying moment for the characters that do survive the show might be even more crucial. Jon Snow, Daenerys Targaryen, Arya Stark, and the Lannister siblings are among the most iconic characters in television history. We’ll never forget the final time we see them on screen. Let’s hope their final moments are satisfying.
Finishing the Journey
The most obvious purpose of a finale is to wrap-up the series that came before it in a logical and satisfying way. We like when a finale surprises us, but sometimes the safest route is fine. Fans were able to predict every beat of the Breaking Bad finale before it aired. That’s fine. Sometimes the most predictable route is the one that makes the most sense for the story.
It’s why the Dexter finale was so infuriating. A show about a serial killer hiding in plain sight by working in a police department had one logical outcome: the police department finds out. It didn’t matter if Dexter was able to get away or if they caught him, but there had to be some kind of manhunt.
Breaking Bad knew that the show had to give us Hank finding out Heisenberg’s true identity at some point. Hank didn’t have to win in the end, but there had to be some kind of chess-match between him and Walt, and it played out beautifully.
Dexter set itself up for the final season with a great penultimate season, which culminated in one of the cops discovering Dexter, ending up on his killing-table, and Dexter’s sister (also a cop) having to decide whether she chose her brother or her morality. No matter what her choice was, this could have worked in a series finale, but it also could have worked as a build towards a final-season manhunt against Dexter. Instead, what came after was nobody in the force discovering that Dexter and his sister murdered their captain, his sister dying of cardiac arrest, and Dexter driving his boat into a hurricane (!) only to wind up as a lumberjack in Oregon and making the whole show – every victim, every time he avoided trouble, every time he left a bread crumb that somebody else in law enforcement discovered – a shaggy dog story. Dexter basically became the manual on how to not end a television show.
A good series finale needs to provide some kind of payoff to everything that came before it. It may not satisfy everybody, but as long as the final run consisted of characters doing things that made sense for the characters, it can be forgiven. Whether it provides closure or leaves us to guess what happens next, we just need the ending to feel earned.
The Leftovers is a great example of giving fans a payoff on the central story of the series. The show revolves around 2% of the world’s population disappearing, and both the characters and fans alike spend the entire series trying to piece together the who, what, where, and why of the situation, with the show refusing to give us the answers we desired. Even the lyrics to the show’s theme song begged us to “let the mystery be.” But the show’s final moment involves Nora, whose entire family disappears during the sudden departure, tell Kevin, her love interest, a story of how she went to the other side and discovered those who departed. We won’t see this happening. We don’t even know if she was telling the truth. But Kevin chooses to believe her, and we, the viewers, can choose whether we want to believe her as well. In a show that felt impossible to end on a satisfying note, The Leftovers was able to stick the landing with a perfect ten.
Out of the three ingredients for a great finale, I have the most faith in Game of Thrones to figure this one out. George R.R. Martin gave the showrunners the outline to the ending of his epic saga, and you have to think they’ve been building to this finale since the start of the show. It would be hard at this point to come up with a completely illogical finish. Even if we don’t enjoy how it ends, we should be able to understand how and why it ended the way it will. As long as it doesn’t end with Jon Snow becoming a spice trader in Qarth.
When you think back on a show you love, what’s the one big moment that comes to mind?
Think about Breaking Bad. It’s a show made of big moments. But when you think back on the most significant moments in the series, how many do you have to sift through to remember from the finale? Ozymandias is the emotional climax of the series, and the last two episodes felt like an epilogue. A crowd-pleasing and satisfying epilogue to be sure, but not the most pivotal moment in the show by a longshot. The show’s best beats came long before Walter White left New Hampshire.
Think about The Sopranos next. No matter how many incredible moments preceded it, the most memorable moment in the series is the Soprano family eating onion rings at a diner while listening to Journey before smash-cutting to a black screen filled with silence. Love it or hate it, The Sopranos finale is iconic. It’s the first thing anyone thinks about when they mention the show anymore. The scene is still dissected and debated today!
Even Dexter, for all its faults, gave us a moment to remember in the finale. It was a stupid moment, no doubt, but anyone who sat through eight seasons of Dexter will never forget the sight of a lumberjack staring into the camera.
A truly great series finale gives us a moment we’ll never forget. It’s not always the first thing you think of when you look back on a show, but it has to be one of them. And it doesn’t always have to be tense, or overly-dramatic, or even very climactic. Mad Men’s signature moment came right in the middle of its run during Don and Peggy’s showdown in The Suitcase, but Don Draper meditating on the California shore is an unforgettable image. A great finale has to give us a moment to remember.
A recent example of a drama show truly delivering on the moment is The Americans. The series finale served as the show’s climax in both an emotional and plot-driven way. The show’s main conflict was resolved in a face-off in a parking garage, which felt like it would be the finale’s big moment, until we were blindsided by an unforgettable montage set to U2’s “With or Without You”, the moment that always comes to mind now when I look back on the series.
For Game of Thrones, we’ll never forget the final shot of the Iron Throne. No matter who, if anyone, is sitting on the throne the final time we see it, we’ll never forget that image. It’s a moment that will make or break the legacy of the show. Game of Thrones has all the pieces in place to give us a satisfying finish in all three of these categories. Almost every central character will start the season in the same place, the storyline is reaching its climax, and we know exactly what moment we’re expecting from the finale. Let’s hope they can pull it off.
In the meantime, here are three shows that have pulled off each of these categories in perfect fashion.
Final Goodbyes: The final montage gives us one last glimpse of each of the show’s main characters, with each shot a fitting send off for the Sterling-Cooper crew.
Finishing the Journey: Both Don and Peggy had perfect conclusions to their respective stories. Peggy, who struggled to find happiness outside of her work, realized it was right under her nose the whole time. And Don, who struggled to come to grips with who he really was and how he could better himself, seemingly has a breakthrough during a monologue about refrigerators.
The Moment: As we mentioned, Don’s meditation session followed by a smash-cut to Coca-Cola’s famous ‘Hilltop’ ad.
Final Goodbyes: We saw the conclusions of just about everyone’s stories. Some were uplifting, some were heartbreaking, but every one of them was fitting.
Finishing the Journey: All our characters changed, but nothing actually changed. While that doesn’t exactly sound like a satisfying payoff to five seasons in Baltimore, there could not have been a more fitting way for this series to end.
The Moment: Like Mad Men, the show’s most iconic moments came earlier in the series, but the final shots of Michael, Dukie, and Bubbles quickly come to mind when I look back.
Final Goodbyes: The final scene between Kevin and Nora is unforgettable, but the finale also gave us a nice send off for Matt and, oddly enough, Laurie.
Finishing the Journey: As I mentioned above, they didn’t let the mystery be.
The Moment: The show’s final moments remain one of the most satisfying scenes in the entire series. Rarely does the strategy “tell, don’t show” work in television, but Nora’s description of the other side gave us so much emotion along with the perfect amount of ambiguity.
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