Stephen Arnell

All’s well that ends well: TV’s most satisfying finales

All's well that ends well: TV's most satisfying finales
Jon Hamm as Don Draper in AMC's Mad Men (Image: Michael Yarish)
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As national irritation continues to simmer over what many viewers felt was the disappointing denouement to BBC1’s hit police drama Line of Duty, here's a look at ten shows that bowed out on a more satisfying note.

A good ending is comparatively rare, as the tendency in TV is to squeeze every last drop out of a hit series until audiences are in terminal decline; witness AMC’s The Walking Dead, which continues to limp on.

In contrast to shows that drag on beyond their natural lives, many felt that Game of Thrones’ final 8th season was a rush job, prompted by the desire of showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss to cash-in with deals for Star Wars movies and their own series.

Here are the shows that, in my opinion, got it right:

Vikings (Amazon Prime, 2013-20)

Although the last two seasons of Vikings lacked the charismatic perma-smirking presence of Travis Fimmel’s Ragnar Lothbrok, the final sixth run brought the show to a gratifying conclusion, one which contrasts well with GoT.

After multiple wars, exciting adventures in foreign climes, some excruciating torture scenes, frequent bed-hopping, betrayals and touches of Nordic mysticism, the story of Lothbrok’s brood and their lovers, friends and enemies came to an end with the 89th episode.

My favourite part of the final show was the decision of Ragnar’s second eldest (and least crazed) son Ubbe (Jordan Patrick Smith) to settle down in Vinland (North America) with his family, unhinged shipwright Floki and the welcoming local skrælings (Native Americans).

Forsaking ‘opening up’ the fertile area to trade and mineral exploitation, Ubbe proceeds to lead an eco-friendly life, in tune with the elements.

Which we presume works out well until the next tranche of Europeans turn up in the vicinity around five hundred years later

Fleabag (BBC iPlayer, Amazon Prime, 2016-19)

It might sound heartless to fans of the show, but I was kind of glad when it ended after just twelve short episodes. From the hilarious heights of the first season, the second took itself a good deal more seriously, aiming for (in my eyes) a ‘dramedy’ feel.

Fleabag concludes on an enigmatic note, with a fox appearing at the bus stop where Fleabag parts ways with the hot priest. She tells the fox, 'he went that way' and then the fox hotfoots it in the direction of the departing Hot Priest.

Does the fox symbolise her desire to follow Scott? Is the creature a representation of her old self? or is the fox a metaphor for the cleric’s struggle with celibacy?

It's possibly even an allusion to the medieval literary character Reynard the Fox, where ‘courtly love’, wit, satire and cheerful amorality all feature, finding a mirror in Fleabag herself?

One for the ages, no doubt.

The Man in the High Castle (Amazon Prime, 2015-19)

Frank Spotnitz took sci-fi author Philip K Dick’s 1962 novel as the starting point for his exploration of a multiverse where, in the chief scenario, the Axis Powers won WWII.

By the mid 1960s, the Nazis have discovered other Earths in which they lost the conflict, prompting a decision to conquer these alternate worlds, setting the final season up nicely.

Although the storylines occasionally dragged across the show’s 40 episodes (4 seasons), I kept watching as TMITHC would usually manage throw you a loop or two, especially when Rufus Sewell’s scheming Reichsmarschall John Smith was in the mix.

The show ends on a positive note, with the portal open and the inhabitants of these presumably more pleasant Earths coming to the aid of those fighting the collapsing Nazi/Japanese regimes.

Penny Dreadful (Amazon Rent/Buy, Now TV, 2014-16)

In many ways, John (Skyfall) Logan’s Penny Dreadful is what the flop movie The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003) should have been - i.e. a dark but entertaining mash-up of Victorian (and earlier) public domain characters from 19th-century British fiction.

These included Dr Henry Jekyll (Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde) Victor Frankenstein and the monster from Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Mina Harker, Abraham Van Helsing, Seward, Renfield, and Count Dracula (Bram Stoker's Dracula) and Dorian Gray from Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Plus witches, de Sade’s unfortunate waif Justine and a werewolf or two.

A strong cast enter into the Grand Guignol spirit of the piece, especially Timothy Dalton as Sir Malcolm Murray, a Quatermain-esque character, a role similar to his current turn as Niles Caulder/ the Chief in Doom Patrol (Starz, 2019-).

Logan ended the final third season on a note of semi-finality, but not without the prospect of a return by some of the surviving characters.

2020 saw Logan’s spin-off Penny Dreadful: City of Angels, set in 1930s Los Angeles with unrelated protagonists. The show was cancelled after a single season.

Justified (Amazon Prime, All4 2010-15)

Showrunner Graham Yost took Elmore Leonard’s enigmatic lawman Raylon Givens as the lead character for the six-season critical smash that was Justified.

A note-perfect performance by Timothy (Deadwood) Olyphant anchored the show, one which combined dark humour, social insights (crime, drugs, and poverty in the Appalachian Mountains of eastern Kentucky), romantic entanglements and nerve-shredding stand-offs.

Across the series run Givens faced a rogue’s gallery of villains, including his own father Arlo (Raymond J Barry), Sam Elliott’s weed king Avery Markham, Neal McDonough as the sadistic Robert Quarles, shady motor home dweller Wynn Duffy (Jere Burns) and last but not least, his best friend/love rival/career criminal Boyd Crowder, played by a gleefully scenery-chewing Walton Goggins.

The final episode ties up many loose strings, but in an organic way, unlike the dire conclusion of Game of Thrones.

Givens was played by the considerably less magnetic James Le Gros in the TV movie Pronto (1997, based on the Leonard novel of the same name); oddly enough he also turned up in Justified as wretched drug addict/alcoholic/criminal Wade Messer.

If you enjoyed Justified, I recommend that you check out two other shows with a similar vibe: Banshee (Cinemax, 2013-16) and Hap & Leonard (Amazon Prime, 2016-18).

Mad Men (Amazon Prime, 2007-15)

One of the surprising things about Matthew Weiner’s 1960s Madison Avenue advertising drama Mad Men is just how long the show went on for; 8 years, the best part of a decade. The show itself covers the period from March 1960 to November 1970, so it makes sense. I confess I dipped in and out of Mad Men over the years, cherry-picking the episodes I wished to follow, but returned to the fold for the last two seasons, eager to see how Don Draper/Dick Whitman’s tortured story ends. And as we know, he ends up inventing the ‘I’d like to buy the world a Coke’ commercial/slogan after a therapy session at the California commune he was skulking in. A striking and very effective way to sign out.

Utopia (original version Amazon Prime, YouTube, 2013-14)

The planned release of an engineered ‘Russian Flu’ virus to cull overpopulation is the dramatic lever of Dennis Kelly’s (The Third Day) Channel 4 series Utopia.

Not an easy watch in these times, as the failure of Amazon Prime’s recent remake will attest; unlike the renewed popularity of Steven Soderberg’s more hopeful Contagion (2011), where the virus was at least not the product of human design.

Kelly’s hyper-violent series is a surreal journey, with eye-popping comic book style visuals and a pair of sinister ‘Network’ assassins in the shape of Full English scarfing Arby (Neil Maskell) and yellow-suited Lee, played by Paul Ready, best known as genial doofus Kevin from BBC2’s Motherland.

Kelly felt that the show could have continued, but when C4 decided to cancel Utopia the writer created a suitably head-scratching finale to the series.

Spooks (BBC iPlayer, 2002-2011)

In some ways the long-running spy drama Spooks was overshadowed by the notorious scene in the second episode, where presumed lead Helen Flynn (Lisa Faulkner) was murdered by having her head plunged into a deep fat fryer.

The series continued its not-so-merry way over 10 seasons (86 episodes), delivering solid espionage thrills for the most part and providing reliable ratings for BBC1’s Sunday evening schedule.

Most felt that Spooks ended on the appropriate note, with a cameo from former co-lead character Tom Quinn (Matthew Macfadyen) and the door left open for a possible comeback.

No revival as yet, but a spin-off movie, Spooks: The Greater Good was released in 2015, with Peter Firth returning as Section D boss Harry Pearce and Kit (Game of Thrones) Harrington providing the eye candy.

For some reason best known to themselves (secret service recruitment?) the BBC decided to get down with kids by commissioning the short-lived BBC3 show Spooks: Code 9, which was given a well-deserved critical mauling.

Spooks was re-named MI-5 in the United States, for obvious reasons.

Rome (Amazon Buy, 2005-07)

Budgetary constraints on the part of the BBC led to this four or five-season series being compressed into just two.

Doubtless the Corporation had better things to spend their money on at the time, such as the salaries of Jonathan Ross and Chris Evans. Or yet another Casualty spin-off

The telescoped final season comes to a close after the Battle of Actium and suicides of Mark Anthony (James Purefoy) and Cleopatra (Lyndsey Marshal) where Octavian stages his triumph in Rome.

There’s then a poignant moment when Anthony’s former lover (and mother of Octavian) Julia (Polly Walker) and ex-wife/sister of Octavian Octavia (Kerry Condon) catch sight of what looks like either the dynast’s actual corpse or his sad effigy being led through as part of the parade

Inspector Morse: The Remorseful Day (BritBox, 1987-2000)

An elegiac and sad ending to the long-running detective drama, made all the more so (excuse the pun) in the knowledge that John Thaw passed away at age 60 just over a year after his final episode was broadcast in October 2000.

The story is pretty thin gruel compared to some of the other Morse TV movies, concerning itself with the murder of a purported nymphomaniac in Oxford, but Morse’s fatal heart attack at the end and the foreshadowing of his death throughout the episode makes The Remorseful Day a moving watch.

13.7 million people tuned into see Thaw’s last appearance as Morse, a million more than the final (?) episode of Line of Duty.