What Makes a Perfect Series Finale?

Last night, Big Love signed off after five (uneven) seasons. The way it went out may have some people divided. Just what does the audience want when one of our beloved shows goes off the air for good?

For me, the Big Love finale was sort of ideal. (Oh, and if you haven't figured out there are going to be spoilers in this article discussing the series finale, then you don't deserve a spoiler alert.) The entire final season of a show, we're all thinking about just what the writers are going to do to end it. What is the final message they want to impart? What is the overarching theme that they want to hammer home one more time and leave us with? That's really the insurmountable task that everyone who has to finish a series has to answer.

With this polygamist drama, which was always best when dealing with complicated family dynamics rather than the baroque machinations of Utah's extremist sect, it seemed that a dark final season was working toward the dissolution of this remarkable family. The final episode was emotionally working its way toward that foregone conclusion until Bill had a vision to allow women—namely his wife Barb—to hold the priesthood in his new church. And then he was shot by a neighbor for re-sodding his lawn. Yup, that's how Bill goes out. Not at the hand of mad closet case Albie Grant or some overzealous member of the Mormon Church. He dies for doing something nice to his neighbor.

While it was infuriating, it was classic Big Love, a little unbelievable and out of the blue, but with the eventual emotional resonance that makes it all worthwhile. As we see what life is like for the three women, it restated what I had always felt about the show—it wasn't about Bill at all, but about his wives. All of the events of the final season were really about how women interact with each other, empower themselves, and fight for what they believe in. It makes perfect sense that the show should end with Barb's daughter Sara returning from her movie career California with a child and the three other wives all having everything they wanted—Barb her priesthood, Nikki her position as head of the family, and Margene her freedom to explore.

It makes sense that so many series finales end with a death. For the audience, losing a show is like losing a loved one, and we want to know that all the characters that we enjoyed and invested so much time learning about are going off to a nice farm upstate where they'll have lots of room to play. We want to know what will happen to them—or at least have some indication—so that we don't spend the rest of our days stalking them on Facebook hoping for an update. Yes, a death is a good thing, a nice way to close the book.

A nice tight ending with all of the storylines tied up and all of our characters tucked safely in their beds. And something that is consistent with what we loved—an ending that is like the beginning. That's why Six Feet Under probably has the most ideal ending of any series I've seen. Not only do we get to see the entire life and death of each character, but for a show that began with someone dying each episode, it makes perfect sense it should end with everyone dying. The Wire had a pretty great wrap-up too, with a nice montage letting us know where we left everyone. It wasn't all sunshine and unicorns like Big Love, but we knew where each of the myriad of characters finally stood.

That's the problem so many people had with The Sopranos finale (which I actually enjoyed) was that we were left up in the air about the entire family. We were forced to fill in the blanks, and the television audience is a lazy bunch. They just want to sit and watch and have everything planned out for them, and leaving them with a big heaping pile of black screen and their own imaginations is just too much damn work.

The Lost finale was horrendous in a whole different way. Not only did we not get the answers we were promised from the beginning, it also used the entire last season of the show toward this hokey finale that had nothing to do with the mysterious adventures show we signed on for. We were entranced by the mysteries, riddles, and human stories of the castaways, not singing up for some new age Christian parable.

So, what did you think of Big Love? Did it go out right? What shows have finished successfully and which have tarnished their good reputations with a horrific final chapter? Let us know in the comments.