(If you’re a Justified fan and haven’t watched the series finale, please do so before reading this. If you aren’t a Justified fan, what’s wrong with you? Go get the Season 1 DVDs immediately. Your public library is a good place to check.)
It’s depressingly rare for TV series to reach a truly satisfying ending. Why is it so difficult to stick the landing in this kind of long form storytelling? Twenty-four hours later, why am I still giddy with joy at the Justified series finale? J and I were trying to remember the last time we enjoyed the end of a TV series as much as we do this, and we came to the conclusion it predates our joint TV viewing days. (For ease of discussion, let’s put that at 2000). In that time, the TV shows we have watched together that have concluded fall into one of three categories:
1) shows with fine but unremarkable endings (Veronica Mars, Firefly)
2) shows with actively bad endings (Battlestar Galactica)
3) shows we bailed on (a long list)
3b) shows we’re happy we bailed on, because it sounds like the ending was horrible (How I Met Your Mother)
But now we can add another category:
4) shows that ended precisely as they should have (Justified)
“We dug coal together.”
For anyone who is still reading but hasn’t seen the show, a quick overview. Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) was born and raised in Harlan County, Kentucky, and he left home and made good. Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins) is also a Harlan boy, but he didn’t leave home and he made bad. Raylan, a U.S. Marshal, returns to Kentucky in the Pilot to arrest Boyd, but what makes their relationship so special is not simply that they grew up together, but that before Raylan left and Boyd became a criminal, they dug coal together. As in lamp on your hardhat, going down a mine shaft, digging coal. It takes little imagination (especially as portrayed by two actors with arguably the best chemistry on TV) to see that this fact creates an unbreakable bond. For six seasons Raylan tries to arrest Boyd on charges ranging from drug trafficking to bank robbery and murder, but every interaction between the men is underpinned by the fact that they dug coal together. So when the series ends with Raylan visiting Boyd in prison and the line, “We dug coal together,” it’s impossible to ask for a more satisfying resolution to six wonderful years of storytelling.
So why do so many series fail to end even half so aptly? It seems to me, it’s all about knowing where you’re going from the outset. Justified clearly had this ending in mind when it began, and it left the air when this ending was still a possibility. Many shows begin life not knowing where they are headed. BSG leaps to mind, which is ironic since the point of the show was getting somewhere (Earth) very specific. (From what I’ve heard, this is the failing of Lost, which makes me pleased to have never started that show.) But many shows are victims of their own success and continue beyond their planned, and fitting, conclusion. How I Met Your Mother provides a sad example, and I feel joy every time I hear mention of the ending that I broke up with the show in Season 6 or 7. (I honestly can’t remember which.) And I fear this is precisely the fate awaiting The Vampire Diaries. That show is the story of Elena Gilbert and the Salvatore brothers, and I’m not seeing how the series can manage a satisfying conclusion with Nina Dobrev, the actress who plays Elena Gilbert, leaving at the close of this season.
And as so often happens, as I picked apart why I am so pleased with the Justified finale, I started thinking about what I can learn and apply to my own writing. J and I write virtually all our stories in the same universe, but most are individual stories and not continuing series. Even J’s six book chronicle of a seductress and spy is one long story, so TV storytelling doesn’t seem especially useful in this regard. But there is an exception: my Oleg Omdahl books. I’ve written two novels so far in this series, have specifics for two more mapped out, and general ideas for several more beyond that. As a detective series, Oleg Omdahl can continue as long as I have interesting cases for him to investigate. While I am particular about the continuity of these books, and the characters grow and change, they are standalone narratives, so I can write five or fifty novels. Still, some day, it must end.
I have no idea how, though.
Justified has made me see that my series has no hope of a satisfying ending if I do not lay the foundation at the beginning. So when I return to Oleg Omdahl revisions, I am going to give serious thought to where I want him to end. As I see it now, he could end up dead, alone and at peace, alone and miserable, or with one of three women. Whichever it is, I need the reader to be able to pick book one back up and say “Why, yes, the series had to end precisely as it did because of how it began.” I want to write a series that can only end with “We dug coal together.”
(For more on the Justified series finale, let me recommend Alan Sepiwall’s review and other writings about the show.)