Rank(ed) Endings

Vox Day has an article up claiming that Mad Men’s ending is the second-best ending ever – second only to Newheart. I think it might be satire.

First, because from what I read Newheart‘s ending took the generally lame "it’s all a dream" route that St. Elsewhere had. (St. Elsewhere famously ended on the suggestion that the events of the whole series had been the imagination of an autistic boy.) Granted, it was a very cool version of the "it’s all a dream" thing, because the person doing the dreaming was Newhart’s character from his earlier, more serious 1970s show. But it’s still lame, because it was a gimmick – a twist for the sake of a twist without any thematic background. If you’re going to do the "it’s all a dream" twist, then do it the way Buffy did it1: by dropping increasingly-less-subtle hints throughout the show that the whole thing is a fantasy, and also structuring the themes of the show in such a way that the whole thing makes more sense if it’s a fantasy.

Second, because from what I gather, the ending to Mad Men is itself kind of lame. Don Draper ends up hanging out with hippies and possibly writing the I’d like to buy the world a Coke jingle. I think it’s correct to say that the creators of the show pretty much had to have that in mind from the get-go as the ending. That is, after all, the most famous commercial ever, and the one that best sums up our ambigious attitude toward the 60s. Were the 60s really such a game-changer if they’re this easily commodified? It’s been debated ever since. And of course Don Draper was ambigious in the same way – he’s both hip and a throwback all at once. But having something in mind from the get-go as the ending isn’t the same thing as saying that you did a good job getting there. Mad Men always seemed to me to be more about the retro fashion than the social commentary, one of depressingly many examples of cloaking guilty pleasure viewing in pretensions of saying something deep, which is why I stopped watching. Perhaps I should give it a second chance? Point being, "best ending"s can’t stand alone the way "best openings" can – they have to cap off what led up to them competently. I have serious doubts Mad Men did that, but to be fair, I did stop watching after season two, so I’m just guessing here.

Anyway, I don’t know what the rules are here, but if we’re not confining this discussion to American television (and why should we?), and if we’re allowed to pick from obscure titles, then I think Blakes 7 wins this contest hands down. I’ve written in more depth about the particular episode, but here’s a bullet point version of why it’s the best.

  1. The main characters all die (probably)2.
  2. This happens at least in part due to character flaws in two of the main characters that have been highlighted throuhgout the series.
  3. It answers a central thematic question of the series in a realistic way.

As for point (1), it’s difficult to have an ending that’s more final than that. If The Sopranos gets points for probably killing off its main character, then Blakes 7 surely gets points for actually killing off the titual character while probably killing off the character (Avon) who turned out to be the main character. Especially given it was Avon who killed Blake. As for point (2), well, point (1) is meaningless without it. You can’t just slaughter people to end a series, but Blakes 7 didn’t do that. The ending made perfect sense given the arcs of the two characters involved over the course of the series. Blake was always too trusting, and continues to be in Blake, even though he’s trying not to be. Avon was always too suspicious, and continues to be in Blake even though he’s trying not to be. Most interesting of all is the implication that if either character had been more true to himself things might have ended differently: there’s a sense in which Blake is "trying on" suspicion and doing it badly, and Avon "trying on" trust and doing it badly. As with so many Blakes 7 episodes, the series finale Blake upends a lot of genre conventions. Which is the real point – point (3) – that this ending isn’t a shocking gimmick. It’s the logical conclusion of these characters in this universe following this story arc. The central question haunting them throughout the series has been whether they are doing any good, and whether in fact they can do any good? Can a rag-tag band of heroes single-handedly change history? The final episode answers with a decisive, and cold, "no, not really." Blake’s quest was futile all along. Which, interestingly (and probably uniquely to this show), isn’t actually an argument against doing it.

For me, Blakes 7 wins the contest handily. In second place, I’d put Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but only for those of us who buy the "it was all a dream" interpretation. If you’re in the other camp, I’d say the ending was pretty lame.

In third place I’d put Six Feet Under. I realize this contradicts my complaint about Mad Men a bit. I promise to try harder to be consistent.

  1. Yes, yes, I KNOW that Joss Whedon won’t definitively say that the events of Buffy were all a dream, but I don’t see any other way to read that final season; someday I’ll get around to spelling out the case in detail here

  2. There’s some minor ambiguity for everyone who’s not Blake. Blake pretty definitely died. The rest of the crew very probably died – we see them all passed out on the floor, but pointedly without the blood we saw on Blake. Avon probably died, but it’s a little less clear. The logical conclusion of the events we just saw would have him mowed down in a bloodbath, but the episode ends without confirming this.

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