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Against the Cult of “Sticking the Landing”

The ‘Succession’ finale may be great—or it may be deflating. But it likely doesn’t matter either way. A TV show is mostly remembered for what happens before the finale, not during it.

HBO/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Hey, you may have heard, but Succession is ending this week. (And so are Barry and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, by the way.) To mark the occasion, we’re looking at the very idea of TV finales themselves this week: how to get them right, how to pick the perfect song for them, and why they may matter less in the streaming era. And naturally, we’re ranking them. Check back all week to help us celebrate—we like to think of it more like an Irish wake than a funeral.

On Sunday, Succession will end. The supersized finale may be deflating, or it may be magnificent. (Given how good this season has been, anything short of magnificence might qualify as deflating.) Either way, “With Open Eyes” will have an outsized impact on public perceptions of the season and the series as a whole. After the episode airs, Monday morning showrunners will debate whether Succession stuck the landing, and fans’ and critics’ collective verdict could color how the series is discussed and regarded for decades to come.

None of this is unique to Succession. It’s the fate that awaits most multiseason series—especially popular, plot-driven, prestige dramas whose stories revolve around some central question that generates suspense. In Succession’s case, the animating mystery—on a surface level, at least—concerns which of Logan Roy’s children (if any) will inherit his empire. Through 38 episodes, that matter remains unresolved. The 39th episode will either settle it or preclude the possibility of settling it. That alone makes the finale momentous, but the potential import goes well beyond that. Like any series finale, Succession’s last bow will be its creators’ closing statement: one more chance to tie up lingering loose ends, to do justice to long-developed characters, to transport the audience, and to remind the world why the series was worth watching and dissecting. Given what’s typically at stake, the last episode of a series should have an outsized significance.

How outsized, though? I’d argue that finales loom larger than they should in shaping shows’ legacies. Instead of fixating on the landing, we should focus on the flight.

I like Succession, so I’m excited to see what happens to the characters who’ve lived in my imagination and memory for five years. I’m hoping that the series’ last act goes over as well as Kendall’s Living+ presentation. Barring something inconceivable, though, the series’ bona fides are mostly cemented in my mind. Even accounting for the finale’s 90-minute run time, more than 96 percent of Succession has already aired. If you’ve seen the whole series, the enjoyment you’ve derived from it has already been banked. The Sundays you spent in a state of anticipation and, later, engrossed in the TV. The recaps, opinion pieces, and podcasts you consumed. The lines you laughed or cried at. The speculation you engaged in. The watercooler conversations you had. Whether Succession ends the way you always wanted it to—or, better yet, a way you never knew you wanted it to—won’t change what watching it was like.

Of course, the blowback or acclaim that follows a finale often overshadows what watching a show was like for most of its run. In terms of determining a series’ reputation, finales tend to punch way above their weights in screen time—partly, I think, because of a cognitive quirk that psychologists Barbara Fredrickson and Daniel Kahneman identified three decades ago. The “peak-end rule,” as it’s come to be called, describes the somewhat skewed way we remember experiences. What sticks in our minds the most is the way we felt at the emotional peak and at the end of an experience. It’s common for finales to be both the end and the emotional climax, so it’s unsurprising that they cast disproportionately long shadows. If a series that slogged along for a few seasons gets its act together just before the curtain finally falls, the slow-paced parts may be forgiven and forgotten. And if a series that delivered week after week falters at the finish line, its consistent track record might not make the first line of its obit.

The peak-end rule is a combination of recency bias (the tendency for the most recent event to be the best remembered) and duration neglect (the tendency to remember the most intense portion of an experience and discount how long it lasted overall). When it comes to TV shows, though—particularly those that air once a week—duration really matters. The legacy of a series like Succession, whose story has unspooled across more than 40 on-screen hours, can move only so much in a single sitting. “It’s the journey, not the destination,” Lester Freamon said in The Wire’s penultimate episode. That popular sentiment applies pretty well to TV finales: As Jon Hamm told my colleague Alan Siegel this week, “The journey getting there is even more exciting sometimes.”

Traditionally, television wasn’t made with a destination in mind. For much of the medium’s history, its bread-and-butter programs—procedurals, sitcoms, game shows—were designed to last as long as audiences and sponsors would support them. Even in this more auteurist era, the road map to the final credits rolling remains hazy. Some series creators start Season 1 with only the vaguest idea of where they’re going. Even those who have a last scene in mind might not know how to get there—and they may change their minds many times along the way. (Succession’s endgame started to materialize in Jesse Armstrong’s mind during the writing of Season 2, but it wasn’t set in stone until after the filming of this season started.) One of the strengths of TV is its capacity for course corrections—the freedom it affords for its makers to follow their muses and react to what is or isn’t working. In that sense, it seems misguided to over-index on the only installment that doesn’t permit a post-episode pivot. It’s not as if the episodes that precede the closer are all setups for the finale’s punch line. They’re ends themselves, not means to the end.

Some writers say that despite the pressure to not flub the landing, writing an ending is easy; it’s getting there that’s hard. “A good ending is going to be the inevitable result of everything that came before,” the Americans co-showrunner Joel Fields said to Siegel. My personal favorite finale, The Shield’s, falls into that category. As creator Shawn Ryan said last year, “The [finales] that failed usually failed because they tried to do something very different than what their core competency was. … The first thing I said was, ‘We’re just making another episode of The Shield.’” It’s a heck of a last episode, but it follows logically from the first one.

For that reason, successful finales rarely depart from their series’ pasts so starkly that they lead to sweeping reappraisals—they are, Ryan said, “surprising but inevitable.” Just as in gymnastics, a sloppy landing is a symptom of a problem earlier in the program, and a solid landing is a product of an otherwise well-executed routine. To mix my sports metaphors, it’s rare for a so-so show to have a Hall of Fame ending or for an all-time great show to fumble the ball at the goal line. A few finales, including those of St. Elsewhere and The Sopranos, took creative risks that were notable enough to leave a permanent impression. For the most part, though, finales look a lot like the episodes that precede them, only longer and more climactic.

Sports analyst Phil Birnbaum once observed that because “eliminating stupidity is easier than creating brilliance … you gain more by not being stupid, than you do by being smart.” The corollary for finales is that it’s easier to ruin your reputation than it is to burnish it at the buzzer. Only a few finales are so bad that they retroactively tarnish the time it took to watch them. Even fewer are so masterful that they make that investment seem smarter. If a show is mostly a mystery box and the box turns out to be empty, then viewers may feel that they were suckered into spending their time on narrative vaporware. But the best shows have more going for them than the hope of finally finding out what’s going on, and their dialogue, character development, and insight into the human condition don’t depend on perfect endings. A great show really has to try to squander years of TV attachment, and as with Game of Thrones, it typically takes at least a full season for viewers to turn on a favorite. A failed finale alone isn’t enough. (Succession, by contrast, has not only bolstered its audience, but has also drawn stronger reviews with each successive season.)

The peak-end rule and the tyranny of finales extend beyond culture and into The Ringer’s other specialty, sports. Willie Mays is often cited as an example of an athlete who held on too long, because the 42-year-old legend stumbled in the outfield and on the bases in the second game of his swan song, the 1973 World Series. In other words, he didn’t stick the landing, or so the story goes. It’s a largely undeserved slight: For one thing, Mays was a star-level player at age 40 and still a strong hitter at 41; for another, he wasn’t the only player who had trouble in the field, and he drove in the go-ahead run after he fell. Even if we concede that Mays looked his age at the end, though, the stumbles didn’t rob him of his place in the pantheon. That last series is only one of many memories associated with a mention of Mays, and no one would say that playing past the peak of his powers diminished how high his peak was. Similarly, a TV series whose finale flops can still be considered a classic up until that point. Toward the end, Thrones torched its reputation like Drogon laying waste to King’s Landing, but not even the harshest critics of its ending would dispute that in better days, the show delivered some of this century’s best TV viewing.

There’s another, more modern reason not to put too much stock in TV farewells: In the era of rampant reboots, sequels, prequels, and spinoffs, finales seem less final than ever. Futurama, for instance, has had two supposed series finales, and it’s about to be back for more. The more extreme the reception to a finale, the more likely it may be to spawn a successor. If a series ends spectacularly well, it garners the goodwill that can lead to a sequel, prequel, or spinoff. (Breaking Bad begot Better Call Saul, which reframed the original series’ story and extended the timeline of the Albuquerque-verse beyond Breaking Bad.) If a series ends spectacularly poorly, it may get to take a mulligan. (Dexter begot do-over Dexter: New Blood, which in turn fanned the franchise’s embers into spinoff flames.) Why stress about a series’ alleged last act when warmly received “finales” (Arrested Development! Gossip Girl! iCarly?) may be followed by more mediocre revivals or reboots, and maligned finales (How I Met Your Mother! Thrones?) may be followed by spinoffs that attempt to fix their predecessors’ problems?

While I wouldn’t make the case that endings don’t matter anymore, there is good news for those who think we make too much of finales: The peak-end rule’s effects fade with time. When The Ringer’s individual staffers picked their favorite finales in service of a unified ranking, I had a hard time recalling mine. A few classics and clunkers came to mind immediately, but beyond those few, I drew a blank. To fill out my list, I thought about my favorite shows, then refreshed my memory about what went down in their finales. In the long run, the elation or deflation of a finale’s immediate aftermath subsides, and the sum of the series matters more than its last part.

If a pilot fails to land a literal plane, the fact that the flight wasn’t bumpy before then is irrelevant: In all likelihood, no one’s around to remember it. If a TV show’s plot plummets on the final approach or skids off the narrative runway, though, the older episodes are still intact, as is our fondness for them. So get pumped for finales, but don’t hang all your hopes on them. Maybe the real treasure was what we watched along the way.