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On Finales

So Parks and Recreation ended a few weeks ago bringing an end to a particularly great show that I got into far too late. The finale was especially wonderful, elegantly tying a bow on seven years of stories.

Rather than having some big hoorah, though, the episode has the former Parks Department take on an utterly inconsequential task (getting a swing in a park fixed) before going their separate ways. With the whole season serving as an effective wrap up to the current proceedings, there was no need for there to be a big artificially succinct Final Big Moment. Instead, Parks makes fixing the dumb swing matter by flashing forward with each character to see where they are in the future.

Parks is far from the first; How I Met Your Mother did it in their finale first year. I’ve talked about my many qualms with it narratively, but it was a structurally solid technique. We got some closure on characters and know what Ted ended up doing, even if it went against everything that’d been built up thus far. But Parks goes further and arguably does it better by going to several different spots in the future for each main character (and even some lesser ones). We find out many of the key points events happens to them in the years afterwards. Some of their bigger decisions are prefaced with vignettes showing off key character moments and their growth. At the end of it all there’s this strong sense of resolution.

If anything, Parks errs on telling us almost too much. It seems nearly as if we know everything that happens to these characters in the future. Little is left to the imagination, we know Andy and April have kids, we know Ron ends up happily in charge of a National Park, and we know that either Leslie or Ben became president. By the time the finale ends we’re left knowing that we’ve heard just about all the stories there is to tell about these people.

Which makes me wonder what we want out of a finale to a show. There’s something fun about an ending that implies the adventure continues: look at Serenity (effectively the finale to Firefly) which has since spawned a couple comics, or even Chuck which remains open-ended enough for more to happen. But an ending like Lost’s which firmly closes the door on anything else isn’t bad either. So what makes an ending satisfying?

I think closure is what really matters. The ending of Serenity left a few balls up in the air while still resolving some subplots, like Simon and Kaylee’s romance and what happened to River. But even though we knew Mal wasn’t quite out of the woods and that the crew as a whole were a little worse for the wear, we’ve got this sense of finality. This adventure is over; even if there’s more to come, for now the major issues are resolved.

What’s important is that the ending fits the story. Firefly’s works so well because the show has always been bittersweet. Lost is fundamentally mythic and Chuck was always about a romance and family. Parks’ fits because the show’s format has always been a little meta, so showing what happens ten to forty years down the line isn’t out of place. Lost couldn’t have Parks’ ending and it couldn’t be the other way round either.

It’s hard to get endings right. Don Quixote’s ending allowed for some guy to write a sequel, so when Cervantes wrote an actual sequel he had Don Quixote die at the end so no one would write another allowing him to have the final word on his knight errant. How I Met Your Mother undid (at least) a season’s worth of character development with its finale so even though we knew what happened to the characters we felt a little cheated out of our investment. Parks and Recreation had its cake and ate it too; we know that things work out for everyone in their own way, and we’re okay with that. We’re invited to fill in the blanks (is Leslie or Ben president?), but we’re told things are alright. And that’s good enough.

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Mother Met

I wasn’t a fan of the How I Met Your Mother finale that aired on Monday. Now, I usually like finales; I love the ending of Lost and I do like how Chuck ended. Though both are controversial in their own right, they felt emotionally honest and true to the show. The problem with How I Met Your Mother’s “Last Forever” was that for what it was trying to do, it felt unearned.

And if you haven’t seen it yet: SPOILERS

My main complaint is, of course, Ted and Robin getting together at the very end. Why is this such a big issue? Because it undoes a season’s worth of work. That’s the primary problem with the finale: it backtracks. What have we spent most of the past season doing? Just about every episode’s pursued either a ‘Ted-gets-over-Robin-so-he-can-meet-the-eponymous-mother’ or ‘Barney-and-Robin-get-over-issues-and-recommit-to-each-other’ plot in some form or another. The penultimate episode (finally) wrapped up both arcs; Ted was over Robin, Barney and Robin were married.

Undoing the latter within the first fifteen-odd minutes of the finale and undo the former in the last three not only feels cheap but doesn’t mesh well with, y’know, everything else. It feels like a gut punch to anyone who spent those hours with the show.

Sure, people get divorced in real life, but the issues with Barney and Robin is, again, the year we spent confirming that they should be together, only to see a single fight a couple years in the future that led to them deciding they shouldn’t be together. It was handled so abruptly that it’s unmerited. If they were to pursue this route, they would have to spend more time on it. It’d been such a long time coming; both Barney and Robin had to get over commitment issues over the years to get here. To have it undone so quickly was a shame.

With that, How I Met Your Mother has been a show that lets its characters change. Barney spent the past couple seasons leaving his womanizing ways. It was a huge change for one of the pillars of the show, but it worked. Though him regressing post-Robin does show signs of rock bottom, it feels like a huge slap to the face of the last couple years (and 31’s baby, though sweet, also feels shoehorned and raises additional questions [does he have custody, is he settling down with 31, etc])

Finally, the mother. My biggest concern with the finale (and this season) was that we wouldn’t be sold on her relationship with Ted, wouldn’t get that catharsis. And with so much of the finale spending time with the other couples (despite both being pretty much wrapped up in the prior episode), I felt like we were running out of time. But the scene under the umbrella where they meet (Tracy!) was wonderful and the train moving past would have made the perfect ending. Because right then, I was sold on the mother, I was sold on Ted and Tracy. Even if she died, it’d make for a pleasant, bittersweet ending.

To have it end with Ted going after Robin, though, made the mother seem like an obstacle along his way to Robin. Suddenly the mother didn’t matter. And that felt dishonest, that felt untrue to the Ted from the beginning and the Ted we got to know. It happened too quickly (though it was six years in the plot, it was barely a cut for us) to feel earned. It felt cheap, and made the show feel cheap.

All that said, I have the utmost respect for Carter Bays and Craig Thomas. They shot the bit with the kids nearly a decade ago and stuck with it (though editing could have changed the ending); they stuck with their original idea through it all. They stuck to their guns and told the ending they’d wanted to tell all along. I do think they got screwed by the network, though in basically the opposite way that Firefly did: the show went on too long. I feel like the twist would have worked better three or four (or even more) years ago, or even if they hadn’t built up Tracy so much. But still, to pull a twist that big on this sort of show? That takes balls.

I guess your reaction to this ending depends on why you’re watching it. To call back to Lost for a second, I watched it for the characters, not the mysteries, and loved the finale. With How I Met Your Mother, I watched it because I wanted to see Ted meet the mother. I guess if your investment was anywhere but there, the ending would have landed better.

In any case, I would have been alright with the finale were it not for those last three minutes. For me, it ended with the train.

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