How important is an ending? It's the note we leave a symphony on, the final chapter in a novel; and on TV, it's the last hour (or half-hour) in a season or series. There's always pressure to deliver, bring the plot together and to a satisfying close — or in the case of a season finale, tee up the next season.
But the main question viewers are left with: is the journey enough, or is it all about the destination?
Game of Thrones' finale, "The Winds of Winter," came at the end of an extremely problematic season which emphasized shock, awe and plot over character development. But the finale was still superb, in large part because of the season that came before it.
In the episode, Cersei (Lena Headey) finally took her vengeance on the strictly religious High Sparrow (Jonathan Pryce) by blowing him up — and several more of her rivals — in a massive explosion. The stunning opening sequence was helped along by a gorgeously composed, new score by Ramin Djawadi, and expert direction by Miguel Sapochnik. But it was also the end of nine hours of build-up on the part of showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, who also wrote the episode.
Similarly, Arya's (Maisie Williams) journey over the course of the season, from an angry young girl to a deadly assassin often felt like filler... How many episodes did she spend hitting people with sticks, exactly? But the payoff, where the youngest Stark sister feeds Walder Frey (David Bradley) — the man who killed her brother and mother three seasons earlier — his own children, in a pie, before ultimately slitting his throat with an orgasmic expression on her face was easily one of the most satisfying moments in the history of television.
This is not hyperbole. It was. Deal with it.
And finally, a quieter moment where prospective queen Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) officially made Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) her most trusted advisor was extraordinarily emotional. For six seasons, all Tyrion has wanted was the approval of someone he respected, for an authority figure to say he was good at what he does. Dany gave him that, and tears filled our eyes.
But were the nine-ish hours before this worth that final hour?
On the opposite end of the spectrum is Penny Dreadful, which concluded a exhilarating, often experimental season with a surprise series finale that left fans divided.
Ostensibly, Penny Dreadful was the story of Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) and her literal battle with demons (as well as her figurative one with inner demons). For three seasons, we've watched her stalked and coveted by both Lucifer and Dracula (in the show's mythology, the uber-vamp is also a fallen angel). With one bullet from her true love Ethan Chandler's (Josh Hartnett) gun, she was killed... and the conflict ended.
Except, Penny Dreadful wasn't Vanessa's story. Not really. Her battle was the inciting incident for the plot, and the reason the group of monster hunters in the show got together; but Penny Dreadful was ultimately an ensemble show.
Curiously, this conflict between what Penny Dreadful was according to its creators, and what the show actually turned out to be was showcased in the final few episodes, which kept Vanessa nearly entirely offscreen. Instead the final hours focused on a group trying to track her down and save her from Dracula's bloody grip. New characters like sassy New York psychiatrist Dr. Seward (Patti Lupone) and basically-a-video-game-vampire-hunter Catriona Hartedgan (Perdita Weeks) got more screen time than Vanessa. Don't get me wrong, they were delightful to watch; but if the point was to tell Vanessa's story, the finale was a failure.
Whole plotlines never coalesced, as well. An electrifying subplot featuring resurrected former street worker Lily (Billie Piper) building an army of man-killers ultimately petered out and disappeared, never connecting with the main plot (to be fair, it did occasionally parallel the main plot thematically). Similarly, a season-long focus on the newly introduced Henry Jekyll (Shazad Latif) and his transformative serum ended with him announcing he had gained his family's traditional title: Lord Hyde.
That's it. That was the payoff. Like Chekhov said, "If you introduce Jekyll and his serum in the first act, that's not how you end the story." I may be paraphrasing.
At the same time, the rest of the season was a glorious thrill ride. There's the aforementioned Lily plotline, which was bloody, terrifying, and said more about toxic masculinity in the Victorian era than most TV shows set in modern times. Dracula was also a superb foil for our heroes due to Christian Carmago's performance, seductively paying off the promise of the character's introduction — something that had been teased since the pilot episode.
Ethan's story was gorgeously filmed, as he traveled with a semi-reformed witch (Sarah Greene) across the American West in search of his estranged father. Series creator John Logan also neatly paralleled Ethan's flirtation and ultimate rejection of the darkness inside him (he's a werewolf, natch) with Vanessa's own descent into darkness via vampire bite.
That's not even touching on the fourth episode "A Blade of Grass," which flashed back to Vanessa's time in an insane asylum. The episode almost entirely took place in one room, and was essentially a one-act play featuring Green and fellow cast member Rory Kinnear, playing multiple roles. It was easily the best episode the show has ever broadcast, and arguably one of the best single episodes of television broadcast this decade.
This is not hyperbole. It was. Deal with it.
Given all this, does the fizzled finale retroactively taint the rest of the season; and given the nature of the episode as surprise series finale, the entire run of the show?
Here's my very unsatisfying answer, in the case of both Game of Thrones and Penny Dreadful: it depends. What it depends on is the structure of each show, both on an individual episode and season basis.
For Game of Thrones, the show has always been less about the individual episode than the overall journey of each season. I've discussed this before on TVGuide.com, but Thrones often employs the "Westerosi News" style of storytelling, where we check in with each character for five minutes and then move on.
The exception is usually writer Bryan Cogman's episodes, which always seem to have more thematic resonance than your regular episode of Thrones. But often it feels like you're watching a bunch of shows (it's time for Arya's Stick Whackin' Spectacular!) spread over 10 weeks.
The other exception is "The Winds of Winter," which wasn't just a payoff to six seasons of television, but a standalone event in its own right. It brought multiple storylines to fruition, while structuring the episode entirely differently than any episode before. New music, new filming techniques... It was episode that was distinctly Game of Thrones, while moving the show into new territory.
"Winds of Winter" was a superb hour-plus of television, and retroactively justified a number of choices made throughout the season. I'd argue that a lot of Season 6 of Game of Thrones was more surfacey and fun than the moody, dark seasons that preceded it; but "Winds of Winter" brought everything crashing down and tied the season up nicely. It was clear there was always a plan in place, and by bringing back the cost of our characters' decisions (something that was sorely lacking this year), it clarified numerous themes and plot points throughout the previous nine episodes.
Penny Dreadful was the opposite of Thrones. Each hour of the show served the larger story of the season, but was structured towards the individual episode, down to a massive cliffhanger at the end of each "chapter."
That's probably why when it comes to Penny Dreadful Season 3, though the finale flatlined, it didn't take away from the previous eight episodes. Lily's arc was still heartbreaking, Ethan's epic, and Vanessa's tragic. Logan and company didn't stick the landing, but everything that came before worked swimmingly — and to be fair, large chunks of the finale were sensationally filmed, with exciting action and some lovely character moments.
There's a third option, one offered by the second season of Starz's Outlander. The time travel drama was a reliable workhorse all season long, focused squarely on the central relationship between Jamie (Sam Heughan) and Claire Fraser (Caitriona Balfe). Sure, there were epic battles as the duo tried to change Scottish history. Sure, there were betrayals and twists. And yes, the finale ended on a thrilling cliffhanger that handily set up Season 3 (coming soon to a TV near you).
But Outlander never lost its laser focus on the main duo. Every episode, every action, every plot was focused around the emotional journey of Jamie and Claire as they were pulled apart, and ultimately came back together. Outlander is a time travel story, and an epic tale of Europe in the 1700's, full of political intrigue and courtroom shenanigans; but at the end of the day it's really about a couple who is in love. That's it.
When a show as consistently delivers as Outlander did all season long, the pressure isn't entirely off the finale, but it's certainly lessened. If showrunner Ronald D. Moore had Jamie or Claire do something wildly out of character — Claire spent half the episode cooking and eating Jamie, for example — sure, it would have been a disaster. But as is, Outlander didn't have the epic high of Game of Thrones, or the letdown of Penny Dreadful.
Perhaps credit this to how Outlander splits the difference between Penny Dreadful and Game of Thrones' approach to storytelling (and also credit how all three pull from the structure of novels, whether as adaptation or inspiration). The time travel tale does tell one large over-arching story per season; but it also aims to make the show work episode by episode. You can adequately judge it as a whole, and by its pieces.
But what this all comes down to is that an ending shouldn't retroactively destroy anything that came before. Those episodes and plotlines still exist as is, even if the ending is complicated, or doesn't work. A finale can only elevate characters and plots to their most heightened points, offering an explanation or justification for them. We, as a society, tend to focus on the bad and let it consume us; but the positive is still there. Let the good finales lift their shows up; and leave the bad to the wayside.
And meanwhile, let the consistent performers like Outlander just keep delivering, time and again.