Spoiler warning: Do not read if you don’t want to know the end to every major dramatic series of the past ten years.
Last night on the series finale of Sons of Anarchy, viewers were treated to a familiar scene: the main character, debts all but settled, welcoming death with open arms through some dangerous act. As Jax Teller plows into an oncoming truck, he joined a collection of other dramatic leads who have met similarly unpleasant fates on their respective series finales. On Lost, Jack Shephard bled to death as he watches his friends finally escape the island. On Breaking Bad, Walter White smiled as he shuffled off the coil after massacring his rivals. On Boardwalk Empire, Nucky Thompson gazed at the town he helped build as an old acquaintance shoots him in the face. It felt like not only were these characters being put out of their misery, but the viewer as well, the gun pointed directly at the screen. Bang! Goodbye audience.
Each of these main characters spent their final hours on television revisiting old friends and tying up loose ends and each had nowhere for the character to go but the grave. The narrative train had come to the end of the line. Which is why it feels a bit hollow to see yet another great character play out the string, hit all the right dramatic beats, and die in a moment of heightened emotion. It’s not that Jax Teller had much of a real future waiting for him (he’d already lived quite a while for a violent biker gang member), but a main character’s death now feels like inevitability for prestige television dramas. Among the honored dead: Omar from The Wire, Bill from True Blood, and, well, everyone from Six Feet Under.
The great exception to the rule is the granddaddy of the current crop of great dramas on television, The Sopranos. After escaping a mob battle relatively unscathed, Tony sat down for a meal with his family, still on top, still breathing. Or did he? Something about the diner wasn't right. Who was the patron in the USA hat? What about the nervous guy at the counter? What were the two men choosing tracks at the jukebox up to? We’ll never know. The ending is a famous cut to black. Tony Soprano is Schrodinger's Cat (look it up), both living and dead. The story went on offscreen.
What TheSopranos did is prove that the narrative is the show itself, that the only finality of any program is that last black screen. The death of a main character, the resolution of all loose ends, is not a requisite for the end of a show – the only thing that really needs to happen is for that show to end. Of course, by not killing off the main character, shows can be brought back in worse and worse iterations, as the undead Jack Bauer of 24 proves.
Leaving the protagonist alive at the end of a show has now become rare and that’s led to wariness with regards to series finales, the idea that no death could be equal to our expectations (Breaking Bad came close, but no cigar). With all the prestige dramas now being given classy multiple-season send-offs, a downward spiral, and ultimately redemption, has become commonplace. Perhaps these shows would be better served by a swift cancelation than a carefully choreographed end? Maybe we need more Deadwood’s and Freaks and Geeks, shows left mercifully perfect in their brevity.
Photos by James Minchin / FX