Thoughts on 'Game of Thrones,' 'Mad Men' and 'The Killing' Season Finales
Advice, praise and a defense for three important dramas at the end.
Sometimes in TV Land it’s hard to think about endings when they are scattered across the calendar and there are so many beginnings to screw up your head. Yes, the broadcast networks have ended their regular seasons -- right? And a bunch of great cable series are about to end, or have ended, just as a new batch begins. Remember when, ahem, certain people argued that a year-round television schedule would be awesome?
Be careful what you wish for.
But there are three shows in particular that need to be discussed as they come to an end (or have ended).
Game Of Thrones (HBO): There may be a perfectly good reason why there have been only 10 episodes each in the first two seasons. One of those reasons is probably money, since Game of Thrones looks damned expensive. But here’s something more than a plea from someone who loves the series – here’s some essential advice: Change the structure. Now. There should be 13 episodes a season for Game of Thrones – 12 if various people need appeasing. The reason for the increase is not greed, though that plays a part, but doing right by the story and doing even better by HBO’s golden reputation.
See, HBO has arguably one of the top three shows on television with Thrones. I would make the argument for Mad Men and Breaking Bad being the other two, with a few more just a notch below and some (like Homeland) being too new to gauge for longstanding greatness.
In any case, Game of Thrones is HBO’s best series. Yes, better than Boardwalk Empire. Completely different from Girls, etc. The series has accomplished something extremely rare. It has satiated the die-hard fans of George R.R. Martin, whose books are the basis of the series. And at the same time, they’ve lured in millions of people who haven’t read the books but adore the series on its own and can’t seem to get enough of the story. And therein lies the problem. People who have read the book might quibble here and there about what shortcuts and even new directions the series is taking to tell this immense, character-filled story, but they absolutely agree that depicting said immenseness will take a long time. If HBO would add three episodes to each forthcoming season, it could ease the worries of fans who are watching for shortcuts that, in fact, cut too much, or the importance of scenes/stories that have to be abandoned in order to form a 10-episode story arc.
It’s true that many of us only think HBO is printing money – we’ve been spoiled by those epic miniseries that seem to cost hundreds of millions of dollars. Or the channel’s notable devotion to brilliant but not-very-popular series. It takes money to do those things, just as it will take money to add more episodes to Game Of Thrones. But if ever there was an investment that made sense every which way you look at it (and the basics are financially and artistically), then extending the coming seasons of Thrones is it.
Your move, HBO.
Mad Men (AMC): Sunday is the season finale and there seems to be no end to how much people want to talk about it (for the good and the bad reasons). For a show that is essentially a niche hit, it’s amazing how it dominates the zeitgeist. The Joan Situation is still getting talked about. People find all kinds of ways to look at things – like how Don’s not wanting to leave Lane strung up had something to do with his own brother’s suicide (by hanging), even though Don never witnessed Adam’s death. It’s not that looking for things that aren’t there is a wasted pastime – like The Sopranos before it, this is one hell of a show to dissect. If I had more time and motivation I’d write a piece about the importance of windows (and elevators) in this season. Starting from the first episode, there’s been specific, intentional framing of window scenes both at SCDP and at Don and Megan’s apartment. Somebody get on that. Take the elevator.
But before Sunday’s finale, I think something should be noted. Despite a few spotty episodes and what seems to be more obvious thematic elements and less subtlety overall, this has been a pretty amazing season of Mad Men. It’s not the best, of course, but neither is it a stumble. What we’re watching is an exceptional achievement. So few truly great series have made it to Season 5 without some kind of subpar season, a prolonged drop in quality (that most recover from, of course). But Mad Men? We’re one episode away from a lock on five consecutively brilliant seasons. I doubt the finale can leave a bitter enough taste to ruin what has come before it.
And this success didn’t come without a whole lot of risk. The season is very Megan-centric, which could have gone either way. There wasn’t enough Peggy. There’s still so much to wrap up about Pete’s increasing disillusionment in his personal life as compared to his triumphant professional life. The LSD episode had the potential to be horrible, but was pulled off with élan. We need more about the personal life of Ken Cosgrove and his sci-fi writing. I thought we would have hit the Mother’s Little Helper phase with Betty by now. The mystery of Ginsberg remains unexplained.
So the successes of Season 5 came not by coasting and giving viewers what they wanted (though Matthew Weiner may have done that more in this season than ever before) but with real efforts at growth. Not all of them have been successful – the Fat Betty thing may have put the writers into a corner. I still believe the Lane storylines were superfluous as well. But taken as a whole, you have to admire how long Mad Men has defied the odds and continued to perform at the highest level of quality, even into the fifth season. Feel free to name another series that has achieved that.
The Killing (AMC): Anyone with a computer is aware of the backlash some fans and most critics had to the first season of The Killing, with its endless red-herrings and detours and the unsatisfying conclusion where we not only don’t find out who killed Rosie Larsen, but seemed an unbearably long, long way from that point. Showrunner Veena Sud compounded the problem by dismissing the backlash, only to have it grow so feverish AMC pushed to announce exactly when the killer would be revealed in Season 2, which ends Sunday. That’s quite the hole to dig yourself. By saying the killer is revealed in the last episode, you take away much of the drama. Not to mention, for those who trudged through Season 1, the idea that they’d have to wait until the final episode seemed daunting and not worth it (as reflected in the substantial ratings drop).
But something interesting has happened along the way. By taking the central question out of the equation – who killed Rosie Larsen? – it allowed the excellent work of the actors on the series to shine through. Watching The Killing this season has been a real pleasure because Mireille Enos, Joel Kinnaman, Bill Campbell, Brent Sexton and the other actors in the cast have absolutely nailed it Meaning, if you watch The Killing for the acting and not the mystery, it’s been a fine season.
Now, does this mean Sud and her writers will learn the lesson well enough to craft something in Season 3 that’s both a compelling mystery and excellent platform for the actors? Who knows? But for all the grief given to The Killing – and I’ve added a ton to the pile – coming back to it in Season 2 after swearing not to was one of the better decisions this year.
Now, bring on Sunday already.