Tag Archives: Season Finale

Present and Past: “The Phantom” and Mad Men Season 5 in Review

“The Phantom”

June 10th, 2012

“This may be our last chance.”

I was having a conversation with some friends the other night, and we were discussing the character of Paul Kinsey. My colleague Alyx expressed an affection for Paul, but admitted that the character simply wasn’t talented enough to meet his aspirations, directly alluding to the character’s return this season. However, while she was aware of what was happening this season (albeit through reading weekly reviews as opposed to actually watching it), the other friends at the table were at least a season behind, which meant that we didn’t get a chance to continue the conversation.

I found myself returning to it watching “The Phantom.” Paul Kinsey got left behind by the narrative, becoming a symbol of the consequences of the development Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce agency and eventually returning as a man chasing dreams of love and fame without the means to achieve either. But while Paul is in a pitiable situation, off to Los Angeles on Harry’s dime with nothing but a terrible Star Trek spec script to his name, are we exactly meant to pity him?

Or is our pity instead for Lane Pryce, the man who had the means for success but did everything he could to sabotage it? He’s the man who got swept up in this agency when he could have instead been sent to India, who was given this opportunity to be a name partner long before he could have dreamed, and yet he ends his life a broken man whose choice to hide his shame and suppress his desire to life the live before him results in his end. Is it a greater shame to lose the life you want to lead and aspire to something greater, or to live the life you want to lead while denying yourself the pleasures and thrills that come with it?

Of course, it’s hard to avoid the specter of Lane’s death (especially compared to Paul’s futile journey to Los Angeles), and “The Phantom” could in fact refer to his empty chair at the partners meeting (which the camera lingers on). But on a larger level, this season of Mad Men has been (for me) an investigation of those moments that give us a tinge of doubt, those moments that won’t leave our minds except with the help of electroshock therapy, and those moments that make us ask ourselves when our last chance might be. In other words, it’s about the characters treating their own lives like we treat the show they’re a part of: just as we look back to piece things together, to ponder over narrative moments and psychological motivations, so too has Mad Men’s cast of characters taken to viewing their actions as matters of cause and effect.

It’s a dangerous game for them to play, and it results in a finale that is not quite subtle in its thematic material. My notes for the episode are filled with lines and details that scream out to be applied to the characters’ storylines as the season comes to an end. After sitting out much of the season, I could easily spend hours poring over those notes and pulling out every thematic thread, but I want to focus on a single question: what does it take for us to be able to turn the present into the past, to forget something or someone? It’s a question that drives much of the season, calling attention to the weight of what happened in a season light on plot but heavy on consequences, and a season that builds rather impressive momentum for a show entering its sixth season.

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Season Finale: Game of Thrones – “Valar Morghulis”

“Valar Morghulis”

June 3rd, 2012

“You’re not the man you’re pretending to be. Not yet.”

Last season, Game of Thrones ended its penultimate episode with a shocking moment. With the swing of a sword, Eddard Stark was dead, and the ecosystem of the series had changed forever. The finale, “Fire and Blood” was largely left to pick up the narrative pieces that were left behind, selling viewers on a show without its lead. As a result, last season’s finale became about journeys forward: Tyrion’s journey as the King’s Hand, Robb’s journey as King in the North, Dany’s journey as the Mother of Dragons, Arya’s journey back north with Yoren, Bran’s journey as the Lord of Winterfell, and Jon Snow’s journey beyond the Wall with the Night’s Watch.

By comparison, “Valar Morghulis” has a greater burden to resolve ongoing storylines, with more of the season’s climax left to be explored given the contained explosiveness of last week’s “Blackwater.” While any simplistic analysis of the season’s narrative would identify the battle in Blackwater Bay as the season’s climax, the disjointed nature of the various journeys means that each character has been headed towards their own climaxes which were promptly delayed by last week’s events. Dany is still looking for her dragons, Jon is still a captive of the Wildlings, Arya is on the run from Harrenhal, and Bran remains hidden in his own home as Theon reigns over Winterfell. And these are only the storylines that we could identify most cleanly, as we could also consider Jaime and Brienne’s journey, or Robb’s relationship with Talisa, or any number of other threads that “Valar Morghulis” is expected to contend with.

For the most part, however, “Valar Morghulis” follows the example of last year’s finale, largely focusing on pivoting towards future storylines. This is not to say that it is anti-climactic, with Dany’s storyline in particular reaching a strong conclusion and the final moments of the episode delivering the equivalent thrill to last season’s reveal of Dany walking out of the fire with her dragons around her. Indeed, both episodes also spent a lot of time with characters taking stock of what has happened, settling on a course for the future, and then largely disappearing as other storylines took over.

The difference, though, is that there is something more substantial to take stock of. These characters are all older, mostly wiser, and each more clearly placed on a particular path. If last season’s finale was designed to solidify that these characters are not simply meant to live normal lives, consigned to a life at the heart of this conflict whether or not they choose that life, “Valar Morghulis” was about how that experience has changed them, and how the beginnings of their journey will prepare them for what’s to come.

It may be the same structure, in other words, but the result is a stronger finale, and a good burst of momentum into a third season.

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Season Finale: Justified – “Slaughterhouse”

“Slaughterhouse”

April 10th, 2012

While I haven’t exactly had the chance to write about Justified this season, I haven’t exactly been silent on the subject: my good friend David Chen at /Film has been hosting the JustifiedCast all season, and I had the pleasure of joining him a few times over the course of the season, including in a mid-season interview with Graham Yost.

However, those conversations tended to be fairly episodic, and my general line in terms of broader thematic work was a “Wait and see” attitude that there isn’t enough time to expand on within a podcast setting. Now that we’ve reached the end of the season, however, I want to return to those larger questions I put off in earlier editions of the JustifiedCast, in part because I feel like “Slaughterhouse” rewarded my patience by embracing the tensions that had been creating some degree of dissonance throughout the season itself. This was not a cohesive season, but that did not keep it from coming to a meaningful conclusion, a fact that says something quite profound about the value of narrative play in the face of audience expectation and anticipation.

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Defying Definition: Louie, Finales, and the Pleasure of the Multitudinal

Defying Definition: Louie Season 2

September 10th, 2011

I haven’t written about Louie all season, which makes me one of the only people who hasn’t done so.

Sometimes when this happens I’ll go into the archives and find vast collections of half-written reviews sitting in my “Drafts” section, like all of those failed attempts to discuss How to Make it In America last summer that never got past “Hey, isn’t that theme song awesome?”

However, there are no half-written drafts for Louie, despite the show pretty easily cementing itself as the best comedy of the summer (and probably the second best drama as well), and in tagging this post I discovered I’ve never written a post specifically about Louie. Admittedly, I fell a few weeks behind at least twice over the course of the season, which made the idea of covering it weekly all but impossible (despite the fact that I actually had screeners for the first four episodes). That being said, I do think that this is symptomatic more than it is causal, as I never really felt a particular need to be “caught up.”

While internet chatter created a great deal of temptation, the fact that episodes piled up on my DVR is not a point of disinterest but rather a lack of motivation. Without any sort of serialized element that could be spoiled, and without any continuity that would convince me to catch up on more than one episode on a time, I sort of developed my own pace, stopping and starting wherever I saw fit. Individual episodes proved more engrossing, but immediately turning on the next episode seemed unnecessary. There were logical stopping points, and so I stopped, often for longer than I had initially intended.

However, I was caught up in time for tonight’s season finale, and I do want to write at least a little bit about the show given that the second season has been pretty tremendous. Specifically, I’m interested in the ways in which the show’s lack of “continuity” creates some particularly interesting questions when it comes to a finale. Within television genres, only sitcoms are really exempt from any form of continuity when it comes to finales, and even they often angle towards ongoing storylines or future developments in a finale in this day and age. Considering the finale raises questions about the generic qualities of the series and the formal debate ongoing regarding its structure, which in turn leads into a comparison of my own and a discussion of comparisons in general, which as a whole represents the collective impact of Louie‘s season and finale: there’s a heck of a lot to talk about.

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Hiding Behind the Brand: How The Killing Threatens the Future of AMC

I haven’t seen the first season finale of AMC’s The Killing.

In fact, I haven’t seen the last five episodes of the show’s first season – I fell behind a few weeks ago, struggled to find the motivation to continue, and then traveled away from my DVR before I could get around to catching up.

Accordingly, this is not a piece about the emerging debate regarding the show’s first season finale, which has sharply divided the show’s viewers (and created some extremely strong reactions from some television critics, with Maureen Ryan’s being the most pointed). While it is quite possible that I will some day watch those final five episodes of the season, and that I will have an opinion regarding the show’s finale (which I’ve willfully spoiled for myself) at that time, this piece is not about the finale.

What I’m interested in is the way that this response reflects on larger questions of brand identity that are unquestionably caught up in this response to The Killing. This weekend, I read a piece on AMC’s growing dominance at the Emmy Awards at The Hollywood Reporter in which Sud was quoted quite extensively as she waxed poetic on the freedom of the AMC model. Her first quote was perhaps the one that stuck out most, as she notes that the AMC approach is perhaps best defined by the following: “Always assume that your audience is smarter than you are.”

Given how often I felt The Killing insulted my intelligence as a viewer, this quote struck me as odd. And then I read the rest of her quotes in the article, and discovered the same issue: when she was only spouting a series of platitudes regarding the genius of the AMC brand that we hear from other writers (including a Breaking Bad writer in the same piece), I could take none of them at face value given the fact that The Killing has done little to earn them. In a climate in which The Killing has squandered nearly all of its critical goodwill, Sud’s comments were charmlessly naive, and this was before she made many similar comments in defense of the season finale.

I have nothing against Sud personally, and I think she is entitled to her opinion that her show wasn’t a failure. However, so long as her defense of the show is being framed in the same terms of the AMC brand, the network has a serious problem on their hands. This is a network that feeds off of critical attention, and that has been very protective of its brand identity, but it now finds itself becoming represented by a showrunner who has none of the credentials or the evidence to back up her rhetoric.

It’s a scenario that risks turning AMC into just another brand hiding behind rhetorical statements of superiority, and which should be creating some big questions within the network’s executive structure as they head into an important period for their future development.

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Season Finale: Game of Thrones – “Fire and Blood”

“Fire and Blood”

June 19th, 2011

“There you will see what life is worth when all the rest is gone.”

Earlier this week, I rewatched last week’s penultimate episode, “Baelor,” with my brother who was seeing it for the first time. Generally, I’ve been watching Game of Thrones alone, and any interaction with other viewers has been done online (or, if done in person, was done with people who I had previously interacted with online). For the first time, I was sitting in the same room as another viewer as we watched the show, and the experience made clear what I had known from the beginning but had never seen quite so clearly visible: Game of Thrones is a show that every single viewer likely considers differently.

It is not just that we can separate between readers and non-readers, although that is certainly the most obvious distinction to be made. Rather, we need to also consider questions of genre, gender, sexual content, race, and other qualities which have been called into question over the course of the season: regardless of whether I individually had concerns with the show’s use of fantasy, or its sexposition, or the Othering of the Dothraki, the fact is that those concerns existed, and have created a divisive response even among those who generally like the show.

In a piece earlier this week, friend of the blog Cory Barker wrote about his ambivalence towards the series, and kept trying to find reasons for it within the text. While his process was enlightening, he couldn’t find the silver bullet: there was no one part of the show that was creating a lack of an emotional connection. How we view the series can be defined by issues like genre which are inherent to the text itself, or issues like viewing patterns which are entirely extratextual but can define one’s experience with the text. My brother, for example, watched the season on a staggered schedule of short marathons, while my parents watched it on a weekly basis; as a result, they remembered different things, retaining different parts of the show that were highlighted by their personal experience with the text.

I raise all of these points because after a season of open interpretation, at least for those who hadn’t read the books, there is something almost prescriptive about “Fire and Blood.” While “Baelor” delivered a fatal twist, and suggested a certain degree of carnage to come in the weeks ahead, “Fire and Blood” steps back to serve as a more traditional denouement, laying out the various threads which will be followed into a second season. Rightly treating the fate of Ned Stark as the season’s climax, it seeks to explore the scenario that Mirri Maz Duur lays out to Dany early in the episode: what is the worth of each of these characters and these storylines in light of recent events? It’s a moment where the show actually has to step forward and proclaim its identity in order to convince the skeptics that this is a show worth watching, and to convince the believers that their faith has not been misplaced as the show transitions into the next stage of its narrative.

“Fire and Blood” doesn’t beat around the bush: it shows its hand from its bloody opening to its fiery conclusion, laying out a pretty detailed framework for what the second season of the show will look like. However, it never feels like an artificial framework, and that sense of interpretation never disappears even as the storyline becomes less open-ended. Serving as a fitting bookend to what I personally feel was a very strong first season, “Fire and Blood” reinforces central themes and delivers on what matters most: reminding us why these characters are following the path they’re on, and informing us why we want to follow that path next season.

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Season Finale: Glee – “New York”

“New York”

May 24th, 2011

“Make one…in your mind.”

As Rachel and Kurt stand on stage at the Gershwin Theater in New Your City, with the land of Oz behind them, Kurt suggests that they take this opportunity to belt out the closing song from Wicked, “For Good.” When Rachel remarks that there isn’t an orchestra, Kurt says the above line, and “New York” begins to fall into place.

Glee’s competition episodes have always felt like they’re sort of off in their own world, a world where show choirs earn standing ovations and where all of the season’s troubles can melt away through the sheer power of song. There was this giddy look on Naya Rivera’s face right before New Directions broke into “Light Up The World” that sells the kind of euphoria that being up on that stage can inspire, and these episodes have been among Glee’s strongest largely because of the emotional pull that the performances can inspire.

Nationals is the largest competition that the show has done so far, but its scale is not demonstrated in the number of songs or the seriousness of the competition. Instead, “New York” turns the euphoria up to 11, transforming the trip to the Big Apple into a glimpse of the dreams that seem so close yet so far away. Up until the moment where New Directions finally makes their way to that stage, this episode is like one long dream sequence, a world where original songs are written and rehearsed in a day, where musical idols are casually encountered, and where Gershwin Theater employees are willing to give two high school kids from Ohio some unsupervised time in a Broadway theater.

And “New York” would have damaged the show irrevocably if it hadn’t shattered that dream as it does. By returning back to the reality of Lima at episode’s end, Brad Falchuk makes it clear that the dreams present in this episode are unattainable, perhaps downright imaginary depending on how far you think the show is willing to stretch its own reality. However, in the spirit of the show and in a decision I don’t entirely hate, he also emphasizes that there’s room for dreams in Lima, Ohio.

At least until a year from now, when the dreams will contend with reality once more.

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Season Finale: Parks and Recreation – “The Bubble”/”Lil’ Sebastian”

“The Bubble”/”Lil’ Sebastian”

May 19th, 2011

It’s unfortunate that I haven’t been able to review Parks and Recreation more regularly this season: while I had screeners for the first six episodes, anything after that proved difficult since so much of my Thursday evenings was spent watching and writing about The Office for The A.V. Club. Obviously, given my affection for the show, I always watched it as soon as possible, and have felt that the third season has been a strong continuation of the momentum gained during a stellar second season.

However, I find myself in the position of being more critical of the show than I’ve been all year in regards to “The Bubble” and “Lil’ Sebastian,” two very funny episodes that felt rushed from a plot perspective. Even as someone who has been on board with Ben and Leslie’s relationship this season, something about its presence in these episodes gave me pause. Everything just felt like it was moving too quickly, and in a way which was considerably more transparent than the rote, yet still fairly passive, romantic chemistry that has been building throughout the season.

Which is not to say that my opinion of the show has diminished (it has not), or that these were bad episodes (they were very good); It’s simply that this particular season finale got a bit lost in the plot, never quite able to focus on telling the kinds of stories I feel the show is most effective at telling.

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Season Finale: How I Met Your Mother – “Challenge Accepted”

“Challenge Accepted”

May 16th, 2011

Considering that this entire season of How I Met Your Mother has been built around an absolutely terrible metaphor, I think it’s only fair that we try to consider what exact challenge this season of the series was accepting, precisely.

If it was to create the most overdone metaphor possible and threaten the series’ narrative integrity in the process, then they have certainly met the challenge: the longer the Arcadian story was dragged out, the more it became clear that it was one of those circumstances where the idea of using the building as a central tenet of the season was introduced with no conception of its limitations. Did it make sense on some level? Absolutely – the idea of allowing Ted an opportunity to design a building, and for that to conflict with a budding relationship, is solid. There was just never anything else: no other point of chemistry, no other narrative momentum, and no way of tapping into something more profound than just another stopgap relationship on the way to the Mother. It was a story about how a building was like a relationship, and how a season was about a building, and how a series has become boiled down to a single question more than ever before.

“Challenge Accepted” attempts to own this on some level, playing with how random events can lead Ted to make serious relationship decisions, but to say it doesn’t live up to the challenge would be an understatement. While there are parts of this episode which could work, there is nothing to build up to them: everything is predicated on a building and a relationship that never properly developed, and it reinforces that the problem with Zoey was never Jennifer Morrison but rather the context in which she was introduced. It is a simple creative failure, a season marred by an ill-advised plotline that they drag out until the bitter end and attempt to turn into something meaningful through temporal trickery, some shoe-horned nostalgia, and an emotionally meaningful yet utterly contrived B-Story.

And that’s no way to suggest that you’re up to the challenge of paying it all off in the seasons to come.

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Season Finale: Fringe – “The Day We Died”

“The Day We Died”

May 6th, 2011

While I intended on writing something following the Fringe finale all week, I expected it to be a piece about how my general distance from the series made the finale less satisfying than it may have been for its hardcore fans. As the anticipation has been building online, I found myself with absolutely no investment in the series or its characters: while John Noble continues to give a really tremendous performance, the entire back end of the season has squandered a lot of the engagement I had with the series. I wasn’t looking forward to explaining why, to be honest: I don’t think there’s a simple answer, and I don’t exactly wear my inability to be a “fan” of this show as some sort of badge of honor.

However, it turns out that my lack of attachment is maybe the only thing keeping me from feeling outright ripped off by this awkward, poorly written, and yet unquestionably ballsy finale. In the final moments of “The Day We Died,” the show throws a hail mary that is designed to have fans both panicking and frantically revisiting previous episodes to discover either a loophole or some sort of reasoning for such a drastic turn of events.

For me, meanwhile, it’s the one breath of life in an episode which created too many problems for itself to properly tap into any of the pathos introduced earlier in the season, returning instead to vague generalities mapped onto poorly defined MacGuffins of little import or value. And, thankfully, I didn’t care enough to be outraged about it.

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