Warning: The following article contains strong opinions about The Walking Dead intended to engender discussion. Also, there SPOILERS. You've been warned.
The Walking Dead ended its fourth season on Sunday to mixed critical reaction. For a season that spent most of its back-eight episodes meandering from survivor to survivor, the group's cliffhanger reunion at Terminus felt significant simply by virtue of something having happened. A film student with a spare weekend and Final Cut could likely edit all the exhausted head stabbing we'd been through down to a brisk, tightly paced four hours ... which makes the season finale all the more intriguing.
Because it wasn't really - nor should it have been - an actual finale.
By any measure, the arrival at Terminus might very well have come in the middle of any other season, a product of well-executed plotting. It only felt like a finale relative to all that came (or rather, hadn't come) before. And in the critically heralded "Golden Age of Television" in which we now, supposedly, reside, it begs an important question: "What constitutes a quality season finale?"
Much attention is paid to season sendoffs, and in truth only a handful of series have ever ended their run on a universally beloved note. But with seasons shortening into abbreviated 10-episode arcs or splitting into two eight-hour segments, where and how creators are capping their seasons is more important now than it's ever been. The go-to cliffhanger has been the low-hanging fruit for decades, like cathode catnip for impatient audiences. Then again, the day after Walking Dead gathered its cast in a cannibal hot-box, three of them signed onboard as regulars for series five. Panic averted. Casting announcements, adaptations, social media spoilers and a near-constant stream of interviews has virtually gutted the impact of a solid cliffhanger.
Because great finales are not about plot.
It's a mistake to imagine that stuff happening is reason enough to keep to watching after a half-year hiatus. In any good series, plot should never not be unfolding. Obstacles should be damn near omnipresent. Too often, the bigger-is-better approach finds a series culminating in some dramatic event only to resolve itself six months later and return unscathed to business as usual. Procedural dramas like CSI, Criminal Minds and Castle are the most common offenders, often by design, ending their seasons with events just slightly more suspenseful than any given episode that came before.
Even when they're terrific, though, cliffhangers aren't necessarily functional. Take Sherlock's jaw-dropping season-two conclusion, a startling twist that left viewers in suspense for more than year, posing seemingly impossible questions that were cleanly resolved midway through the following episode. The show's brilliance, however, was in focusing more on how the titular detective did what he did than its outcome. Or, look at The X-Files' season-four meditation on lost faith, "Gethsemane," in which we're asked to believe that the show's protagonist had committed suicide. The show ran five more seasons with Fox Mulder fighting his monster of the week by episode 5.2.
There are, however, rare exceptions like the season-one cliffhanger from The West Wing. A presidential assassination attempt saw the series back on its episodic track six months and a few hours later. But the emotional reverberations of that event haunted its characters throughout the following season and were never simply discarded for the sake of narrative convenience.
In the end, if you're saving your best plot device for the final episode, quite frankly, you're doing it wrong. Announcing an actor's emotional departure or framing your show around a formula simply undercuts whatever suspense you were attempting to generate. It's an older model applied to more modern series in a way that rings as false as the outward façade of Terminus. Why?
Because great finales are entirely about change.
Think back to some of the big water-cooler moments of the last decade of television. The S2 ender of Lost and the discovery of the hatch. The S3 finale of Breaking Bad and Walt's apparent victory over Gus. Last season's conclusion of Hannibal, an episode in which the show's hero -- not its villain -- finds himself behind bars. Or, more whimsically, Matt Smith's regeneration into Peter Capaldi on Doctor Who.
Each of these are examples of a finale that was less about "what if" and more about "what next," closing moments that positioned each show on a pivot point between the old and the new. In the spoiler era, a character's mortality is often less interesting than their trajectory; something occurring is often less intriguing than something transforming. And in the case where the transformation fails, where a great finale leads to a less-than-perfect storyline -- think the time-jumping twist of Alias' second season, or Heroes' lead character stuck in feudal Japan -- the results are at least more interesting.
Even the highly lauded series based on (or constructed like) novels -- Game of Thrones, The Wire, Justified -- frame each season as a single narrative arc. Designed around specific stories, conflicts and characters, their finales often feel like final chapters. Their conclusions are, in themselves, a kind of suspense, a washing of the slate that implies that whatever's in store for next season will be something wholly unique.
It's not about who lives and who dies -- at least, not entirely. It's about what changes and why. Or better yet, how. It's why Carol's controversial, kid-killing episode of The Walking Dead was the most talked-about of the season. It's why Rick's blood-covered expression in the finale's opening moments would have worked better as its last. Imagine if the group had converged at Terminus earlier in the episode; imagine that Rick had cannibalized a cannibal in order to protect his son, savagely tearing flesh, no better or worse than just another walker. Imagine a final shot that announced, "The man you know is no longer the same man." That's a moment that would leave us hungry to find out what happens next.