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Book Excerpt: "Complex TV: The Poetics of Contemporary Television Storytelling" by Jason Mittell

Jason Mittell’s new book, Complex TV: The Poetics of Contemporary Television Storytelling (NYU Press, 2015), explores how serial television tells stories, focusing on the recent trend of increased narrative complexity found within many contemporary programs. With analyses of innovative 21st century series like "Breaking Bad," "The Wire," "LOST," "Veronica Mars," "Curb Your Enthusiasm," "Dexter," "Homeland," "Louie," "Battlestar Galactica," and "Homeland," Mittell considers issues like authorship, characterization, melodrama, and transmedia tie-ins.

This excerpt from the book discusses the role of endings in serial television, with an analysis of the much-discussed but still controversial finale of "The Sopranos." The finale is still in the news eight years after the fact, as David Chase’s recently offered a detailed explanation of how he constructed the final scene—while still refusing to answer the lingering question of Tony’s possible death (despite a falsely reported claim that Chase confirmed that Tony lived last year). hosted its own discussion of the finale and its significance two years ago. “Don’t stop” indeed…

Every television series begins, but not all of them end—or at least not all series conclude. Endings are not quite a parallel part of the narrative frame to beginnings, a distinction that carries over linguistically. Begin is solely a verb, needing to be transformed into the noun beginning, while end and ending work as both nouns and verbs—in this chapter, I explore the dual meanings of end as both “the final part of something” and “a goal or result that one seeks to achieve.” In the case of serial television, the ending is often the ends, or the ultimate target that a series extends toward, at an unplanned future date. We can learn much about how complex serials work by considering how they strive toward their final episodes and what happens when they manage to reach them….

Every series that is no longer in production has a final episode, but actual finales are quite rare for American television series, with a range of other, much more common techniques of ending. The most prevalent form of ending is the stoppage, an abrupt, unplanned end to a series when the network pulls the plug midseason (usually in the series’s first season). A stoppage is always extratextually motivated, usually when a network loses faith in a series’s ratings or potential for growth or sometimes when a personnel issue with a creator or cast member creates a crisis, resulting in a premature cessation of a series without narratively motivated closure or finality. Fox’s 2005 series Reunion is a good example of the perils of stoppage, with an abrupt cancellation after the airing of nine episodes that left the central murder mystery unresolved. Fox executives were asked to explain the planned resolution in press interviews to satisfy fans’ demands, but they refused to fully reveal what would have happened because the writers still had not decided how to resolve the open-ended set of possibilities. This unresolved enigma became a cautionary example for both network executives and fans about the dangers of complex serialization, as the fear of a premature stoppage might create reluctance among viewers in sampling a new serial, worried that it might be canceled without closure or even sufficient narrative development.

The next category in this spectrum of closure is the wrap-up, a series ending that is neither fully arbitrary nor completely planned. Typically, wrap-ups come at the end of a season, when producers have come to a natural stopping point but without planned series finality. For programs with seasons that are crafted with a planned unity and internal structure, such as Veronica Mars, each season’s end could serve as the series wrap-up, but none offer a clearly conclusive end to the story—the fact that season 3’s final episode was the last of the series was not narratively motivated, as a teaser was even shot for a potential fourth season, set in the FBI academy, and years later a feature film was produced to continue the story, disregarding the FBI plotline as noncanonical. Cable programs with shorter seasons often treat every season finale as a potential series wrap-up, as single-season programs such as Terriers and Rubicon both ended with a degree of closure but not outright finality. On such series, the majority of a season’s episodes have typically been written before the series begins to air, so a single season of 10–13 episodes is treated as a narrative unit with a possible wrap-up but with enough open-ended threads that potential renewal feels desirable and motivated. As Greg Smith describes such seasons, they wrap up with “punctuation marks” of climactic narrative events and partial resolution but with “game changers” that set up the possibility for a new narrative direction if the series gets renewed.[1]

Less common still is the conclusion, when a program’s producers are able to craft a final episode knowing that it will be the end. Sometimes a conclusion is planned in advance by the producers, and sometimes it is thrust on them—compare Joss Whedon’s pair of programs, with Buffy’s seventh season planned as its last from the season’s beginning, while Angel was canceled in midseason, leaving Whedon to rework the final set of episodes to offer a somewhat rushed last-minute conclusion. For the single-season series Last Resort, the producers were told that it would be canceled with enough lead time to make a final episode with a good deal of narrative finality, while Pushing Daisies was merely able to tack on a concluding epilogue to the season-ending episode upon notice of cancellation. Conclusions offer a sense of finality and resolution, following the centuries-old assumption that well-crafted stories need to end; however, such resolutions are comparatively rare for American television; the industry equates success with an infinite middle and relegates endings to failures. This tension between narrative and economic impulses can create conflicts, as with Lost’s challenges in early season 3, as the producers reflected that they were forced to “tap-dance” to delay narrative progress without a sense of when they could start implementing their planned endgame—midway through the season, they negotiated an unprecedented specified end date three seasons into the future, allowing them to plan toward an eventual finale and craft a noninfinite middle for the remaining seasons.[2]

There are a few variations on these possibilities. One is a cessation, which is a stoppage or wrap-up without a definite finality that it will be the end of the series. It is fairly common for a series to go on hiatus midseason, leaving its narrative future in limbo until it either returns to the air or disappears from next year’s schedule. Less common is the series that wraps up at the end of the season but is left ambiguously uncertain about future return; the most high-profile example of such a cessation is Deadwood, which was denied its planned final fourth season, morphing into unmade-for-TV movies that were long discussed as if they might someday be produced. A cessation is lodged at the crosshairs intersecting creativity and commerce, as storytelling progress is held in check by the bottom line of profitability, leaving the narrative world in a state of perpetual limbo and awaiting a possible return.

The inverse of a cessation is a resurrection, when an already concluded series returns, either on television or in another medium. Some programs are resurrected after being cut short through cancellation after stoppages or wrap-ups, as with Firefly being reborn as the feature film Serenity, while other series return postconclusion as ongoing comics, as with Whedon’s other programs Buffy and Angel—in all of these instances, the motivation seems to be having more stories left to tell and the freedom to tell them differently in another medium. Commercial imperatives can also override creative goals when a series is resurrected despite the wishes of the producers, as with Scrubs’s return for a ninth season despite the conclusiveness of season 8’s episode “My Finale.” A series can also hover in between cessation and resurrection, as wrapped-up programs such as Arrested Development and Veronica Mars had been frequently discussed as spawning feature films for years after their cancellations, but it was not until 2013 that both were resurrected, with the former getting a fourth season on Netflix and the latter leveraging Kickstarter to produce a feature film.

Finally, we have the finale, which is a conclusion with a going-away party. Finales are defined more by their surrounding discourse and hype than any inherent properties of the narrative itself, as they feature conclusions that are widely anticipated and framed as endings to a beloved (or at least high-rated) series. Finales are not thrust on creators but emerge out of the planning process of crafting an ongoing serial, and thus the resulting discourses center around authorial presence and the challenges of successfully ending a series. Such conclusions are often presented embedded within a set of paratexts, with high-profile press features and interviews, televised specials offering retrospectives, and the promise of eventual DVD extras that will add even more weight to the final episode. Such discursive prominence of finales raises the narrative stakes of anticipation and expectation for viewers, and thus finales frequently produce disappointment and backlash when they inevitably fail to please everyone.

As with most aspects of American television, public awareness of industry practices of ratings, scheduling, and seasonal renewal or cancellation has grown more prominent in the Internet era, as fans can track the potential futures of their favorite programs as well as consume hype around a planned finale. The knowledge of a series’s upcoming finale recasts fans’ expectations for the final season and potentially serves to overshadow the various ways fans have engaged throughout a long-running season, with the enormous weight of needing to “stick the landing” for a final conclusive episode. Three high-profile finales and their corresponding final seasons provide key insights into some of the strategies of conclusion that complex television uses to come to an end and the ways that viewers engage with such endings: The Wire, Lost, and The Sopranos.

For both Lost and The Wire, the atypical storylines and structures of their final seasons are best appreciated as reflections in their own narrative mirrors. But why do serials seem to embrace the meta so often in their final seasons? In part, creators seem to become hostages to their own storyworlds, so embedded in the process of storytelling that they feel the need to use fiction as an outlet to explore their own processes of letting go of their narratives, as well as to offer closing arguments for the relevance and missions of their programs. This connects to the role of hype in promoting finales and generally fueling ongoing serial narrative—unlike stand-alone fictional forms such as films or novels, the creative processes of serial television occur in parallel with viewers’ and critics’ reaction. Hype and reception discourses help shape expectations for both viewers and creators, and thus the pressure to stick the landing seems to matter more for an ongoing serial. The metafictional finale is a key example of how producers come to terms with the ends of their storyworlds as shaped by years of cultural circulation and conversation that are unique to the serial form. And no finale generated more conversation and debate than the landmark HBO series The Sopranos.

He’s Dead to Me: Debating the Ending of The Sopranos

On June 10, 2007, The Sopranos legendarily ended with a scene of Tony’s immediate family eating in a diner and listening to the Journey song “Don’t Stop Believin’,” before cutting to a silent black screen for 10 seconds preceding its final credits. This edit is a narrative special effect played in reverse, an antispectacle offering a moment of spectacular storytelling. If traditional special effects push screen and sound systems to their limits, this cut to black suggested technological failure, inviting many viewers to surmise that their cable had gotten disconnected or their televisions had died at the least opportune moment. This moment of dead air was certainly the most analyzed and debated edit in the program’s history and one of the most contentious endings in television history. Looking at the sequence and the debates it inspired helps explain the functions of finales and The Sopranos’s role in contemporary television storytelling.

As a whole, The Sopranos is less immersed in the culture of forensic fandom and online television debate than many other programs discussed in this book. In large part, this stems from its casual attitude toward serial plotting; as discussed in chapter 1, the series embraces more episodic plots than most prime time serials and often allows itself to pursue digressions and fantasy sequences in lieu of narrative enigmas, mysteries, or even plot-driven curiosity questions. More than most complex television series, The Sopranos invites interpretation for theme or symbolism but not the mysteries, structural games, or serial builds toward narrative climaxes that typify many comparable dramas with more robust online fan bases. Thus it is quite surprising that the last scene in the entire series prompted such an outpouring of forensic fandom trying to discern what it meant in terms of both basic narrative comprehension and thematic significance. And appropriately as this book’s conclusive case study, the analysis takes us back to the most basic concept of narrative analysis that was discussed in the introduction: the distinction between story and narrative discourse.

Much of the motivation to understand the finale was driven by the episode’s status as a highly hyped finale, with viewers knowing full well that the series was ending and thus expecting a conclusive sense of finality or at least some closure, rather than the ambiguous and open-ended cut to black that “Made in America” delivered. It was not surprising that the final scene took place over a family meal, as the first three season of The Sopranos similarly concluded with somewhat anticlimactic moments of familial dining; what was surprising was that rather than fading to black or offering a memorable final image, the only violence portrayed was to the typical formal devices of television editing, as the midmoment cut to silent blackness felt like a violation of the medium’s norms and expectations. Since serial storytelling thrives on the gaps between episodes to encourage conversation and interpretation, the lack of a next chapter after such an unusual moment encouraged viewers to fill the lack of forthcoming storytelling and authorial explanation with their own speculations and analyses. Even though the final season of The Sopranos did not embrace metastorytelling as much as Lost and The Wire did, this final moment encouraged viewers to reassess how the narrative had led to this point and what it might mean at the level of both story and discourse.

Viewers developed a range of explanations to make sense of this unconventional ending. The most immediate reaction seems to have been an assumption of technical failure, such as broken televisions or disconnected cable; while obviously incorrect, this is also a justified reaction, as such an extreme violation of media norms leads people to assume that it was some sort of error, not a choice to intentionally break the rules. Of course, it is an intentional edit, not an arbitrary one, occurring precisely as Tony looks up to see Meadow entering the diner (presumably) and as the Journey song offers the lyrics “don’t stop” one last time. Notably, creator David Chase wanted to end the episode with 30 seconds of blackness, eliminating all credits until the final HBO bumper, but both HBO and the Directors Guild vetoed the idea of forgoing closing credits. Instead, the 10 seconds of black served as enough of a gap to create technological panic among viewers but without eliminating all vestiges of a normal episode ending. Chase’s desire to extend the black screen does suggest that the blackness signifies something, not just demarcating the end of the story—a distinction that becomes crucial for subsequent debates over the ending.

Once a viewer realizes that the black screen is not a technical glitch but an artistic choice, the key question in order to make sense of The Sopranos’s ending is whether the cut to black signifies anything within the storyworld itself or just at the level of storytelling. There is no doubt that it is significant at the level of narrative discourse, signaling the end of the program’s active narration and manifesting an absence of audio and visual information to cue viewers that there will be no more storytelling to come. This absence is so provocatively asserted that it needs to be understood and analyzed as a shot itself, a presence of nothingness rather than a default null state lacking content and form. In the abrupt shift from Tony to blackness, from Steve Perry’s singing voice to silence, nothing happens overtly at the level of story; however, at the level of storytelling, this “nothing” happens actively and insistently—we notice this nothingness, with the sequence rubbing our noses in the interminable gap between images of Tony and the first credit. So what does the nothingness mean?

Following ideas explored in chapter 3, we might attribute this moment to a distinct message from David Chase, or at least our notion of Chase as the text’s inferred authorial function, to his viewers: many took the ending as a direct attack on viewers’ desire for closure, justice, or a moral message, providing instead a lack of a conclusion out of a spiteful contempt for norms of narrative pleasure and television viewing expectations. Although Chase has been oblique in discussing the finale, he has vehemently denied that he would use his final moment to be contemptuous or audacious toward the audience but rather has insisted that his goal was always to “entertain them.” Nonetheless, the choice to violate the norms and expectations of television storytelling was interpreted by many people as an audacious and aggressive “screw you” to viewers and their preconceived notions of closure, rather than providing what fans had come to expect throughout the series.

A variant on the reading of the abrupt cut as an act of aggression against fans is to frame it as a rupture to viewing norms, not out of contempt for viewers but to get them to feel the ending as a sudden demise through the episode’s sudden cessation. As critic Matt Zoller Seitz sums up this position, “The lack of resolution—the absolute and deliberate failure, or more accurately, refusal, to end this thing—was exactly right. It felt more violent, more disturbing, more unfair than even the most savage murders Chase has depicted over the course of six seasons, because the victim was us. He ended the series by whacking the viewer.” Under this interpretation, any concluding moment in a story is as arbitrary as the next. There is always more story to tell, and any conclusive ending is an illusion; thus the decision to end in the midst of the diner sequence is as valid as any other: abrupt and jarring but ultimately no less conclusive than any other arbitrary “resolution.” In other words, it is a way of stopping, but not ending, the story, via an abrupt end to the storytelling. Taken to a broader level, this is a bold critique of the arbitrary structures of serial narration and a refusal to comply with the medium’s expectations and norms, a skeptical attitude toward television that The Sopranos consistently offered. The ending’s arbitrariness stems from how the narrative stoppage is not connected to any event in the storyworld, as the scene is framed as uneventful despite the sense of menace and danger produced by taut editing coupled with viewers’ expectations that the final moment is pending. The key action is at the level of narrative discourse, where the violent act is committed at the cost of viewers’ knowledge and comprehension—Tony’s story could continue in a wide range of possibilities, but we are not able to experience it anymore after we are “whacked.” It is an act of aggressively ambiguous storytelling, refusing any clarity or motivation concerning what happens subsequently in the story.

Of course, another widespread interpretation does argue that the cut to black is motivated by story events: namely, that we are witnessing Tony’s death from his point of view. This analysis has been promoted by many viewers, most notably in copious detail by the pseudonymous “Master of Sopranos” in his epic forensic fan blog called “Definitive Explanation of ‘The End.’” In more than 45,000 words, Master of Sopranos attempts to prove, without any ambiguity, that “Tony’s death is the only ending that makes sense.” This argument relies primarily on formal analysis of continuity editing to suggest that the cut to black is Tony’s point of view upon being shot in the diner, supported by thematic and symbolic markers found throughout the episode and numerous cues earlier in the season that frame death as a surprise absence, such as Bobby’s twice-repeated line “You probably don’t even hear it when it happens.” The argument is so detailed and well supported that it is hard to imagine reading it and not being convinced that if there is a story motivation for the final edit, it is only explicable as Tony’s final moments of life.

The reason why the debate continues years after the episode aired is because some people find the attempt to be so “definitive” in an explication to be working against the ambiguity that Chase seems to have designed as the finale’s legacy—as the critic Todd VanDerWerff suggests, accepting this interpretation “robs the mystery out of a series that was always replete with it, and it forces things that could mean many things to mean only one thing.” The series as a whole embraces ambiguity and openness to thematic interpretation and occasionally a lack of narrative clarity as to what precisely happened, so attempting to be definitive does seem counter to its intrinsic norms. However, the final moments of any finale are clearly atypical, as a conclusion always begs further reflection, contemplation, and, in the case of such ambiguity, analytical interpretation. There is no doubt that the final sequence is designed to be nonobvious in its meaning; the lingering question is whether it can be read as obliquely suggesting a conclusive set of narrative events (Tony’s death) or must remain openly ambiguous with the cut to black belonging solely to the level of narrative discourse.

Personally, I do interpret the final sequence as portraying Tony’s death, although not with the “definitive” weight that some forensic fans insist on, but with the oblique presentation adding to its narrative effect. For advocates of ambiguity, such as VanDerWerff and Seitz, the moral ethos of The Sopranos points away from the rendering of a final death. Seitz writes, “Chase spent eight years railing against films and TV shows about violent criminals that absolved viewers of feelings of guilt and complicity by showing the hero being led away in handcuffs or shot down in the street. Why would he then reverse course in the final moments of the final episode and kill Tony? And if what we were looking at was indeed a killing of that specific character, why was it presented in an arty, confusing way?”[3] However, I contend that the scene’s oblique narrative form of presenting Tony’s murder works to avoid this moral conundrum by distancing viewers from such emotional reactions, which Chase clearly worked to avoid.

The “arty, confusing” presentation avoids the trap that Seitz articulates: if we saw Tony’s death, we could absolve ourselves from years of witnessing his atrocities and even revel in the blood lust as a sense of retribution. If we saw Tony’s body, some viewers might feel moral superiority over the fallen criminal, while others might experience grief for our protagonist or pity for his family witnessing the assassination—but none of these emotional responses fit with the ambiguous attitude the series had fostered toward the main character. Instead, we feel no emotional reactions to Tony’s death because we do not even realize that it happens until after analytic reflection and analysis. We arrive at the realization of his death at an analytic distance so that we are not emotionally tied up in the storyworld: we are not present in the diner with the family and thus do not experience their moment of loss. We have already had a moment of mourning, but the grief is over the loss of the series, not the character. Viewers experience The Sopranos as less morally ambiguous than the character of Tony Soprano, and thus we can feel grief and loss over the end of the series without either being complicit in or feeling moralistically superior toward Tony’s crimes.

The abrupt termination of the series and Tony’s life distances us from the storyworld by keeping us at the meta level of narrative discourse, and it is there that we experience the five stages of grief: we deny the ending by blaming it on the cable company; we grow angry at Chase for denying us closure; we bargain by seeking out clues and rational explanations; we become depressed that there is no clear answer forthcoming; we accept the inevitable that the series has ended and that life (and television) must go on. Our emotions are focused at the level of the inferred author Chase and his storytelling, not Tony and his story. This is Chase’s ultimate victory, as he managed to kill off his hero without allowing the audience to fall into any conventional emotional traps, but still create a visceral and engaged emotional reaction to the finale.

Or perhaps he did not, and Tony’s story continued after the storytelling stopped. The risk of The Sopranos’s experimental ending was that it teased the possibility that conclusions do not matter, that they are arbitrary and ambiguous rather than final and conclusive—HBO threw a party for the series finale, but the guest of honor disappeared before the celebratory toast. Some viewers embraced that openness and refusal to conclude, while others sought a sense of narrative clarity amid the ambiguity. Either way, the finale highlights the degree to which endings matter in serial television, serving as the lasting image (or lack thereof) that will be remembered and discussed long after the rest of the series fades from memory.

Jason Mittell is Professor of Film & Media Culture and American Studies at Middlebury College, Vermont. He is the author of Genre and Television: From Cop Shows to Cartoons in American Culture (Routledge, 2004), Television and American Culture (Oxford University Press, 2009), Complex TV: The Poetics of Contemporary Television Storytelling, and co-editor with Ethan Thompson of How to Watch Television (NYU Press, 2013). He writes the blog Just TV.

Copyright 2015 by Jason Mittell. Excerpted with permission of New York University Press.

[1] Greg M. Smith, “Caught between Cliffhanger and Closure: Potential Cancellation and the TV Season Ending” (paper presented at the Society for Cinema & Media Studies conference, New Orleans, Louisiana, 2011).

[2] Personal interview with Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof, March 23, 2010.

[3] Matt Zoller Seitz,“The Sopranos,” Sight & Sound 23:9, September 2013, 112.

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