TV Finales: On-Demand Endings
Casey McCormick / McGill University


House of Cards season one teaser

When Netflix released a full season of House of Cards in 2013, the online streaming company paved the way for a major shift in how TV gets made and watched. Of course, this was not the first time that TV viewers had access to the entirety of a season (or even series): on-demand technologies such as VHS, DVD, PVR, and streaming, had made TV compilation relatively common by 2013. But it was the first time that a series had been crafted with this method of distribution in mind, and the first time that the initial release of a series took the form of a full-season “dump.” Such on-demand native programming is becoming increasingly common, with Netflix’s $5 billion investment in original programming in 2016, and several other online distribution companies (e.g. Amazon, Hulu, CraveTV) all producing their own series—and in almost every case, releasing entire seasons at once.

Letterkenny Promo

Letterkenny is the flagship series of CraveTV, a Canadian video on demand (VOD) service

The full-season dump model departs from the traditional industry logic of offering viewers a slow drip of content, hyping appointment viewing, and using distribution gaps and hiatuses to generate anticipation and demand for more “product.” These financial imperatives trickle down into the formal structures of television, affecting plot and character pacing, season and episode length, and expectations regarding narrative resolution. Before on-demand technologies, viewers were at the whim of programming schedules, and TV series could wield that narrative power in delightful and/or frustrating ways. Indeed, one of the recurring themes in accounts of on-demand technologies center on the idea of increased viewer control over when and how we watch content. While I agree with the fact that VOD shifts the power dynamics of media consumption, we need to interrogate more fully the repercussions of this shift—particularly when it comes to understanding our narrative desires. Therefore, I’m interested in two questions: how do on-demand native series take advantage of their distribution format to tell stories in new ways? And how does on-demand viewing change our experience of serial television, especially with regard to endings?

Stranger Things on Netflix

Stranger Things utilizes chapter-based naming and variable running times in its eight-episode first season

In 2015, TV critic Todd VanDerWerff wrote about how “Netflix thinks more in terms of seasons than episodes,” quoting chief content officer Ted Sarandos’ claim that “The first season of Bloodline is the pilot.” TV critic Alan Sepinwall has bemoaned such storytelling structures, arguing that many of these series have “no interest in differentiating one episode from the next, and just offe[r] up 13 amorphous hours of… stuff.” Sepinwall’s criticism is rooted in a deep loyalty to the television medium and an aversion to TV positioning itself as “like” literature or film. VanDerWerff, on the other hand, recognizes the Netflix model as a “new art form” that will “require a fair amount of trial and error.” The proliferation of Netflix original programming over the past two years has certainly given creators the opportunity to experiment with this storytelling form, and so the growing library of Netflix originals invites us to think about what I’m calling “Netflix poetics,” a specific set of tools and tactics for creating meaning in televisual narrative. [ ((These changes in TV poetics are not limited to Netflix, or even to on-demand native series. As Sepinwall points out: “More and more […] dramas are being structured for marathon viewing, rather than the weekly schedule in which they originally air.” In Complex TV, Jason Mittell argues that “Compiling a serial allows viewers to see a series differently, enabling us to perceive aesthetic values traditionally used for discrete cultural works to ongoing narratives” and VanDerWerff notes that binge-viewing “changes everything” about our relationship to a series. In the context of this article, I’m using “Netflix poetics” to describe features of Netflix original series, though I believe that this poetic structure extends to all series that are put into on-demand context.))]

In addition to variations in episode and season structures, Netflix poetics include thematic and stylistic consistencies across programming genres. In my experience of watching *a lot* of Netflix originals, I’ve found that they tend to be particularly metafictional, or self-conscious about storytelling. Many include narrators (Narcos, Jessica Jones), some of whom are able to break the fourth wall (House of Cards, A Series of Unfortunate Events), while others emphasize storytelling-as-such (The OA, Bloodline). Several Netflix originals also feature addiction plots, which, as I’ve argued elsewhere, can be understood as thematizations of the binge-viewing process. Stylistically, Netflix originals share similarities with what many have called “quality TV,” such as higher production values, darker colour palettes, and more “cinematic” camera work. In addition, these series typically assume a dedicated viewer who watches each episode closely, so they do away with many of the recapping strategies typical of broadcast TV, and they don’t use cliffhangers to manufacture hype. Fuller House and The Ranch notwithstanding, Netflix original series seem to be attempting to offer stories that aren’t often told on television.

“That’s Not How the Story Goes,” the closing musical number to season one of Netflix’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, emphasizes how the the show is resisting conventional narrative tropes

So, how do Netflix poetics change our relationship to endings? In my previous Flow article, I discussed a pervasive ambivalence that we feel with regards to the ends of TV series. I was speaking particularly about series finales, but that ambivalence is often present in relation to season and even episode endings as well. While there have been relatively few series finales of on-demand native shows (itself a phenomenon in need of more attention), we can still draw some conclusions about the effect of Netflix poetics on our experience of endings.

When we reach the end of an episode on Netflix, the infamous “auto-play” function begins a countdown that gives us roughly 15 seconds to decide whether or not to keep watching. Auto-play is one of the ways that Netflix subverts the power of endings, instantly reminding us that there is more to be watched. Recently, Netflix has extended the reach of the auto-play function, so the closure (or lack thereof) of a season finale is immediately undercut by the start of the next season—if it exists. Anticipation has traditionally served as the central component of TV storytelling, but on-demand viewing limits the opportunities for a series to capitalize on this emotion. When a full season or series is available on Netflix, we control the temporality of endings: we can race to the finale, milk a season for all its worth, or skip right to the final episode. But even as we gain more control over viewing time, we are often so lured by the joys of narrative immersion that we give ourselves over to the addictive flow of a particular series. We binge because we can, but also because it feels good.

Jessica Jones Finale House of Cards Ch 27 Netflix addiction

Jessica Jones, “AKA Smile” (2015) | House of Cards, “Chapter 27” (2015) | Essenpreis’ Netflix Addiction

On-demand contexts like Netflix divorce endings from the paratextual hype and social buzz that accompanies most season and series finales. Sometimes, as a result of auto-play functions, we may not even realize that we’ve reached a finale. Most discussions about series finales position these episodes as “cultural spectacle[s],” emphasizing the social nature of endings and communal experiences of closure and finality. [ ((Joanne Morreale (2000), “Sitcoms Say Goodbye: The Cultural Spectacle of Seinfeld’s Last Episode.” Journal of Popular Film and Television. 28.3. 108-15.))] While we certainly do sometimes watch Netflix with our partners and friends, the ability to personalize viewing temporalities means that, more often than not, Netflixing is a solitary act. We still discuss and share our experiences of a series with others, which is why I disagree with accounts claiming that on-demand viewing diminishes the social nature of television, but there’s no doubt that these technologies change the value and meaning of finales.

As I noted above, very few Netflix originals have ended their series runs. [ ((Hemlock Grove ended after 3 seasons (a planned finale), and Marco Polo was cancelled after two (unplanned). ))] Once we get a proper sample size, it will be interesting to see how Netflix series finales stack up against a history of TV endings. As for season finales, Netflix originals strike a balance between utilizing traditional closural gestures—answering season-spanning questions, setting up the conditions for subsequent seasons—and maintaining stylistic loyalty to the rest of the series. In other words, Netflix season finales don’t tend to stand apart from other episodes to the same extent that cable and broadcast finales do, and so the special pressures of finale storytelling come more from the viewer’s ingrained expectations than from structural narrative imperatives. Personally, I’ve found Netflix season finales less disappointing overall, but nonetheless underwhelming. I’m rarely angered by them, but I’m rarely satisfied. It seems that on-demand viewing emphasizes a drive towards finality by encouraging binge-viewing, but Netflix original series have yet to solve the problem of what it means to make a “good” finale.

Hemlock Grove Finale

Hemlock Grove, “Brian’s Song” (2015), resorts to a common series finale trope

Image Credits:

1. Author’s screen grab
2. Letterkenny is the flagship series of CraveTV, a Canadian video on demand (VOD) service3
3. Author’s screen grab
4. Author’s screen grab
5. Author’s screen grab
6. Kiersten Essenpreis’ Netflix Addiction
7. Author’s screen grab

Please feel free to comment.

TV Finales: Breaking Up is Hard to Do
Casey J. McCormick / McGill University


The Obamas’ final day in the White House

Last week, President Barack Obama delivered his Farewell Address, and many viewers expressed emotional reactions to the broadcast via social media. I was fascinated by the number of tweets comparing the event to watching the finale of a fictional TV series. While some of these comments were clearly sarcastic, in many cases, the comparison between this political address and fictional finales expressed a deep emotional experience — one of loss, heartbreak, and grief. Similarly, the above comic strip uses a familiar TV finale trope (turning out the lights on an empty sitcom set) to convey the existential darkness of a Drumpf America. This response to #ObamaFarewell shows that our engagement with longform storytelling can impact how we structure other parts of our lives — in particular, how we resist endings and manage loss.

Friends Finale The Mary Tyler Moore Show Finale description of image

Friends, “The Last One, Part 2” (2004) | The Mary Tyler Moore Show, “The Last Show” (1977) |
The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, “I, Done, Part 2” (1996)

The numbers show that audiences care about TV endings. Super Bowls (“finales” of the NFL season) and series finales of fiction-based programming make up the vast majority of most-watched TV broadcasts in US history. [ ((For the most part, these are instances of planned finales, in which TV creators know that an episode will be the series’ last. In this article, when I refer to “finales,” I’m referring to planned finales. ))] Even floundering or failing shows often see an increase in viewership for their series finales, with viewers who have otherwise divested themselves from a show tuning in just to see how things turn out. And popular shows usually see an uptick in live viewership, highlighting our desire to experience finality as a viewing community and, more practically, to avoid spoilers. Meanwhile, finales are some of the most criticized episodes of TV, with “disappointment” and “anger” being two of the dominant responses to this category of episode. Over the past few years, I’ve been working on a dissertation project that examines TV finales from historical, formal, and experiential perspectives. Here, I’d like to share some of the key points from my research regarding why finales matter, and how audiences express an ambivalence regarding the ends of longform TV storytelling.

In 1957, a review of The Nat King Cole Show finale stated: “From now on six thirty pm will seem strange until we come to realize other programs can be good.” [ ((The Chicago Defender, 28 December 1957. ))] This quote demonstrates that finales have been important for most of TV history. Even in the case of musical variety shows, talk shows, and episodic shows like sitcoms or procedurals, “the end” is fundamental to our viewing experiences. [ ((Perhaps the biggest exception to this rule would be soap operas, which thrive on their ability not to end. ))] But as TV storytelling has become increasingly complex and serialized, finales have taken on a more significant role — for many shows, finales are often the terrain upon which a series fails or succeeds, and these episodes can spark intense emotions — positive and negative — in TV viewers.

Structurally, TV finales tend to: be longer than the series’ average episode, include flashbacks and/or flashforwards, and feature a marriage, death, or change in vocational status for one or more main characters. It rarely behooves creators to close off a storyworld completely, so most finales attempt to strike a balance between closure and openness to satisfy viewers but keep the storyworld malleable, setting up potential spinoffs and/or inviting fan engagement. The patterns that emerge in analyzing TV finales across a wide range of genres suggest that we are aware of similarities across texts, and these conventions create expectations about what TV closure should be. Jason Mittell writes of the pressure on long-arc serials to “stick the landing” in series finales, but I am equally interested in the pressures we feel as viewers when confronted with the end of a beloved series. [ ((Complex TV: The Poetics of Contemporary Television Storytelling. NYU Press, 2015. Pg. 322 ))]

Mash-up of promos for Fringe’s final season demonstrates the paratextual hype leading up to the finale

Our ambivalence towards TV endings goes something like this: we want our questions answered, we want to feel a sense of closure, of satisfaction, but we also don’t want the story to be over. We want the world to continue to exist — in particular, we want the characters that we’ve grown to love to keep on existing. But we also enjoy being surprised, even shocked, by a significant death or major plot twist. Our attachment to a TV narrative comes through its characters, so killing someone off is an easy way to garner an emotional reaction and instill closure. In a series focusing more on a single character than an ensemble, killing the main character also generates closure through synecdoche (e.g. Tony Soprano’s death = the death of The Sopranos). Meanwhile, “twists,” at their best, offer a thought-provoking surprise; at their worst, they betray the entire storyworld and undermine the potential for satisfying closure. Indeed, some of the most controversial finales are considered so because of dubious plot twists.

Battlestar Galactica St. Elsewhere Finale

“Daybreak, Part 3” (2009), the finale of Battlestar Galactica, contains a massive temporal jump that angered many fans. In “The Last One” (1988), St. Elsewhere reveals that the show’s six seasons have been taking place in the imagination of autistic child, Tommy Westphall

Responses to finales vary based on our individual experiences with a particular show, or with TV more generally. They vary based on our social, religious, and political beliefs. And they vary based on our specific circumstances of viewing (for example, someone who binge-watches vs. someone who dedicates years of incremental viewing time). But when we really care about a show, the conflicting desires for closure and openness and the intensity of emotion when we reach the conclusion emerge as common denominators in our experience of TV finales.

There was a fascinating trend in the Tweets comparing #ObamaFarewell to fictional finales: people claiming that they weren’t watching the address, just as they couldn’t bring themselves to watch the finales of much TV fiction. Casual polling revealed that this practice is far more common than I’d imagined: on Facebook and Twitter, I received dozens of testimonials from people who deliberately resist finales out of the desire to end a series on their own terms, to spare themselves disappointment at a lackluster finale, or because they just find the experience of finales too sad. This resistance to TV endings is evidence of the power of finales and our ambivalent attitude towards closure and finality. In many ways, our attachment to a TV series feels like a romantic relationship: we invest time and energy, go through ups and downs, threaten to quit, get sucked back in…lather, rinse, repeat. But like any relationship, breaking up with a TV series is hard to do — especially when you’re the one getting dumped.

Image Credits:
1. Cartoon of the Obamas’ final day in the White House
2. Friends, “The Last One, Part 2” (2004)
3. The Mary Tyler Moore Show, “The Last Show” (1977)
4. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, “I, Done, Part 2″ (1996)
5. “Lay Down Your Burdens, Part 3” (2009), the finale of Battlestar Galactica, contains a massive temporal jump that angered many fans
6. In “The Last One” (1988), St. Elsewhere reveals that the show’s six seasons have been taking place in the imagination of autistic child, Tommy Westphall

Please feel free to comment.

TV Finales: Rethinking the Cliffhanger
Casey McCormick / McGill University

Lost in Space

Lost in Space, “The Reluctant Stowaway” (1965)

Tune in next week! To be continued. Next time on…

Anticipation is built into TV’s economic and formal structures. Keeping viewers invested in a storyworld goes hand in hand with maintaining ratings and enticing advertisers. Season finales are at the core of this ethos – they generate extra levels of hype, which usually translates into larger viewership. Furthermore, season finales produce the conditions for heightened anticipation during a show’s hiatus. With an increasingly competitive TV marketplace, gaps between episodes and seasons often involve a slow drip of paratextual information [ (( My work on paratexts here and elsewhere builds on Jonathan Gray’s Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers, and other Media Paratexts. New York: NYU Press, 2010. ))] from producers and fans, such as teaser images, promos, interviews, trailers, and spoilers, all designed to optimize anticipation. In short, the economic imperatives of the TV industry dictate that season finales must thrive on the ability to perpetuate narrative interest – not satisfy it. [ (( Jason Mittell writes that “the [American TV] industry equates success with an infinite middle and relegates endings to failures” (321). Complex TV: The Poetics of Contemporary Television Storytelling. New York: NYU Press, 2015. I am indebted to this book’s chapter on series finales. ))]

AMC AMC promo for s06 finale

AMC promotion for the Season 6 finale of The Walking Dead

When I sat down to watch “Last Day on Earth,” The Walking Dead‘s sixth season finale, the day after its initial airing, I knew that it would end on a cliffhanger. I’d opened Facebook and Twitter and had seen no “RIP _____” posts, no crying emoji next to a character’s name, and no vague headlines with ominous photos. In this case, the lack of spoilers was the spoiler. So I was not at all surprised when Negan, the newly arrived villain, raised his barbed-wire baseball bat, and the camera switched to an unknown POV, then faded to black as the mystery victim suffered a brutal beating.


The Walking Dead “Last Day on Earth” (2016)

Like many other season-ending cliffhangers in TV history, this episode spawned anger, frustration, and a whole lot of anticipation. Despite the fact that viewers overwhelmingly hated “Last Day on Earth,” anger has not prevented them from engaging in diverse methods of “forensic fandom.” Dozens of recaps, shot-by-shot visual analyses, and audio dissections of the scene, as well as websites compiling production information and videos analyzing promotional materials, are dedicated to answering one question: Who did Negan kill? By the time you read this article, we will all know the answer. But I’m not so much interested in the answer as I am in how this cliffhanger seemed to fail on the level of narrative but was so successful on the level of hype. “Last Day on Earth” demonstrates the significance of TV finales, particularly in a traditional (i.e. incremental) TV distribution model. [ (( In a simultaneous distribution model (like that of Netflix original series), finales take on different characteristics. ))]

As key sites of anticipation, finales are essential to how we structure our experiences of televisual storytelling. [ (( In Complex TV, Mittell reserves the term “finale” for what he considers a series’ “conclusion with a going-away party” (pg 322). I use “finale” in a more general sense, as I argue that season and series finales throughout history and across genres share similar narrative toolkits. ))] Even before the prevalence of complex serial TV, finales have stood apart from other episodes in a season; the expectation of higher ratings places pressure on shows to offer something special to their audiences. For sitcoms and procedural shows, that might mean a notable guest star, a big event like a wedding or graduation, or the departure of a main character. For serial dramas, it usually means a major confrontation between opposing forces and some kind of game-changing revelation. [ (( Greg Smith, “Caught between Cliffhanger and Closure: Potential Cancellation and the TV Season Ending” (paper presented at the Society for Cinema & Media Studies conference, 2011). ))] In some cases, that revelation leads to a cliffhanger, a dire moment that distills narrative momentum into a single question: Who…? How…? Why…?

People Magazine Cover, 1980

Despite similarities in their patterns of hype, “Who did Negan kill?” is the inverse of “Who Shot JR?”

In “A House Divided,” Dallas’s famous season three cliffhanger, the question of “who shot JR?” gave audiences a mystery to solve; they could consider each character’s motivations and build a case based on narrative evidence. Meanwhile, the Negan cliffhanger does not leave us with a question that we can logically parse out – the apparent randomness of Negan’s brutality is, in fact, the point of the character, and one of the key themes of TWD. While even a literal “cliff-hanger” leaves some room for audiences to consider the strengths of a character in peril and the specificities of the situation in an attempt to calculate said character’s odds of survival, TWD gave us a cliffhanger with no narratively motivated mystery to ponder: it’s pure anticipation for the sake of anticipation.

The failure of this cliffhanger is compounded by other problems with TWD’s season six storytelling. Before the season began, viewers knew that Negan would arrive in the finale. Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s casting as the infamous villain was announced in November 2015, confirming the character’s debut as the telos of the season. Red herrings and circuitous plotting throughout the first 15 episodes resulted in frustration for many viewers, but the promise of Negan and his iconic baseball bat kept us on the hook. The fact that Negan’s arrival was common knowledge meant that, come finale time, the climactic scene contained no real “revelation” or new information to process. In addition, TWD is known for featuring significant deaths in its season (and mid-season) finales, so the cliffhanger betrayed the series’ established logic of storytelling flow. One reading of the final scene would be that when Negan turns his bat on the viewer, he is punishing audiences for their obsession with spoilery moments, perhaps suggesting that some modes of fandom miss the point. But as many viewers have noted, the effect of the scene was not the feeling of shock and excitement that Kirkman claims as the goal, but rather of anger and resentment: “fucking cliffhangers, man.”


Cliffhangers can sometimes cause anger and resentment

The cliffhanger has an inconsistent reputation – on the one hand, it is considered a cheap trick and is historically tied to the economic motivations of serial storytelling, enticing consumers to buy more narrative. [ (( Jennifer Hayward, Consuming Pleasures: Active Audiences and Serial Fictions from Dickens to Soap Opera. Lexington: U P of Kentucky, 1997. ))] On the other hand, the cliffhanger is a signature element of many “quality” TV series, deploying seriality in the service of narrative complexity. Cliffhangers done right are excellent vehicles for active fandom; they encourage viewers to engage with storyworlds through discussion, debate, and close reading. But “Last Day on Earth” manufactures a “water cooler” topic that necessarily removes fans from the storyworld: the best evidence to build a case for any particular victim would have to come solely from the paratextual realm, based on an actor’s recent haircut, fan favoritism, or adaptation politics. As a lover of storytelling, I see this kind of cliffhanger as a narrative failure; but there’s no denying that it generated an intense response that has resonated through popular media and will likely be converted into financial gains for AMC.

So maybe calling “Last Day on Earth” a failure is unfair and inaccurate. TV experience has always been defined by the intermingling of textual and paratextual signifiers, and the feedback loop between producers and consumers is more transparent than ever thanks to social media. The response to this cliffhanger is indicative of how active fans transcend narrative boundaries, and how the process of production becomes part of the story. But it also reveals the continued pressure on cable and broadcast networks to sacrifice storytelling merit on the altar of ratings. [UPDATE: AMC just released a 3-minute “sneak peek” of the season seven premiere. With 2.5 million views in less than 48 hours, this crucial scene placed out of context once again prioritizes hype at the story’s expense.]

In Volume 23, Issue 3, I’ll discuss the unique circumstances of series finales and explain our love/hate relationship with narrative closure. Stay tuned!

Image Credits:

1. Lost in Space, “The Reluctant Stowaway” (1965)
2. AMC promotion for the Season 6 finale of The Walking Dead
3. The Walking Dead “Last Day on Earth” (2016)
4. Despite similarities in their patterns of hype, “Who did Negan kill?” is the inverse of “Who Shot JR?”
5. Author’s screen grab