Dropping the final curtain on a beloved series is a television ritual that can be hard to get right. When a finale isn’t done to fans’ satisfaction, it can give rise to bafflement and dismay, as arguably happened with recent high-profile series such as “Lost” and “The Sopranos.” Now and then, though, a show pulls off a final episode that is applauded and embraced, for the most part, by fans and critics alike. This season, it happened with two shows: “Friday Night Lights” and “Big Love.” Both series lasted five years and ended with plenty of advance notice, giving their writing teams a full season to craft a resounding finish. If you don’t want to know what happened in the finales, don’t keep reading. Here’s a look at what each show aimed for.
FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS (DirecTV/NBC)
Core dilemma: This heartland series was always about more than a small-town Texas football team and its supporters. It was about perseverance, the ties of community and the struggle of everyday people to do the right thing. At its core was the successful but realistically portrayed marriage between high school coach Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler) and his guidance counselor wife, Tami (Connie Britton). “For the finale, I wanted to give them a real dilemma, something that felt worthy of what these two actors bring to the characters,” says executive producer and head writer Jason Katims. He settled on Tami, who had long followed her husband from town to town, getting a dream job offer in Philadelphia that, if she accepts, would force the couple to either split up or relocate, just as Coach Taylor is achieving his own dreams.
Buy-in factor: Did this dilemma generate real suspense and emotion? Until the last few minutes, viewers couldn’t tell which way the story would turn. During a key scene in a restaurant, the Taylors’ daughter Julie (Aimee Teegarden) tries to convince her parents she’s mature enough to marry her longtime (and long estranged) sweetheart, Matt (Zach Gilford). “When Eric starts talking about marriage, it shines a light on the irony that he’s not really there for his own wife in the way that he’s preaching,” says Katims. Upset, Tami steps outside the restaurant to compose herself. Eric comes out and holds her, but still won’t change his mind. “You really believe the struggle, and to me that’s what makes the story line so satisfying,” says Katims, who credits the actors with committing fully to the dilemma. “You feel you’re looking in on a key moment in their relationship.”
Bookends: The writers set the finale during the Christmas holidays, when it made sense for some of the departed characters to return home. They also found a bookend for the way Coach Taylor was introduced. “We started the pilot on the coach’s back as he’s walking onto the field in this new place,” Katims says. “I always had an image of him leaving this place at the end, because that’s true to what happens in these guys’ lives. It felt like a poetic ending.”
Artful dodging: Two cliché scenes are inevitable in wrapping up a football saga — the coach will give a last locker room speech, and the team will play a final, high-stakes game. The “Friday Night Lights” finale builds to both of these moments but scores points for how gracefully it both fulfills and sidesteps them.
Memorable transition: The final game, in which the underdog East Dillon Lions compete for the state championship, culminates in a last-minute, Hail Mary pass thrown by quarterback Vince (Michael B. Jordan), which spins past the stadium lights in slow motion as key characters in the stands watch it arc over their heads. When it comes down, we’re on another football field, in another place and time. Perhaps not since a bone was flung into the sky by an ape-man and match-cut to an orbiting spacecraft in “2001: A Space Odyssey” has a spinning object yielded so tantalizing a transition. The device shifts the “Friday Night Lights” finale into the future, where quick images hint at a new life for Eric and Tami, and what will become of other characters we care about. “I felt a great sense of responsibility to our fans and supporters to deliver a satisfying ending that would service as many of the characters as we possibly could,” Katims says.
BIG LOVE (HBO)
Landing the story: The creators of “Big Love,” Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer, had an especially complex story to wrap up, about Bill Hendricks (Bill Paxton), a polygamist Mormon who’s been elected a Utah state senator, his three wives — Barb, Nicki and Margene (Jeanne Tripplehorn, Chloe Sevigny, Ginnifer Goodwin, respectively) — and the tangled branches of their plural family tree. Given that violence and controversy had dogged Bill since his election, a certain outcome felt inevitable. “Will came up with two key beats: Bill is shot, and we go on with the wives holding the family together,” says Olsen. “It was intuitive, and seemed to capture profound emotional truth. We never deviated from it.”
But while some fans interpreted the demise of patriarchal Bill as a boon for the women, the creators saw it differently. “We always thought this was a family that worked, and Bill was a crucial part of it,” says Scheffer. Adds Olsen: “We wanted our guy to go out a hero, albeit a compromised one. His most meaningful accomplishment was that he had forged a family. And what’s the best test of that? That the family endured after he was gone.”
Surprise twist: The inevitability of Bill’s murder is offset by the identity of the shooter — not Alby (Matt Ross), who had previously tried to assassinate him, but Carl (Carlos Jacott), an unemployed and unhinged neighbor. Says Olsen: “At first, we thought it was going to be Alby. But it was [HBO programming president] Michael Lombardo’s feeling that that would be too predictable. Once we decided who it would be, we did a lot of defending and protecting of our choice. We didn’t want viewers to say, oh, we know where they’re going with this.”
Epiphany: During Bill’s Easter Sunday sermon at his church before an overflow crowd, he experiences a transcendent hallucination in which he sees the pioneers of the Mormon faith arrayed before him, including Emma Smith (wife of Mormon church founder Joseph Smith), who smiles and nods her approval. That vision, says Olsen, was Bill “pushing through the dogma and recognizing that it was the heart that ought to be driving some religious choices, not the other way around, through his recognition of this eternal family that he’s a part of.” After he’s shot, during his last moments of life, Bill asks Barb to give him a blessing, meaning he’s finally accepted her call to the priesthood.
Wrap-up: In an epilogue set 11 months later, Barb has just performed a baptism that has reunited family members. She tells them, “We’re strong. We’ve been forged. We endure.” The ghost of Bill watches his wives embrace. Says Olsen of the writing team: “We all intellectually respected what was done with the ending of ‘The Sopranos,’ but none of us thought it was emotionally satisfying. We wanted to give our fans a deeply satisfying ending, with a successful completion of journeys for the characters they cared about.” Adds Scheffer: “It was a Valentine to our fans for being with our show. We had that very strongly in mind for the whole season.”