Television

In Defense of Calling It a Finalé Even Though It's Not Over

With Mad Men now wrapped up until spring 2015, it's time we stop resisting the trend of this new television practice. It ain't over, but it's still a finalé.

"Joan, Peggy and Dawn go for a drink and end up laughing and gossiping about the men in the office."

"Pete is freaked out by life in California: It's always sunny, he works for Ted, who gives him props for his work and never yells, he occasionally hangs out with Megan, who is super nice and cheerful, he even gets a tan. He is so used to misery that he can't take it and wants to get back to New York."

"Paul Kinsey finally finishes his novel. It's a best-selling roman à clef."

"Sally discovers second wave feminism."

All of those predictions come from a Tumblr titled "Mad Men Season 7 Predictions". Clearly, each has its share of snark, and it's obvious that such premonition is not intended to be taken entirely seriously. Photos and gifs accompany those words on the site, and while none of the phrases are nearly as funny as the writers think they are, a word to the wise: Don't let that notion deter you. Any fan of the series could get lost in that thing for hours on end. (Wink. And wink.)

The seventh season of the flagship AMC series -- and predictions centering around how it might end -- is the topic of discussion these days because no more than a couple weeks ago, its mid-season finalé aired. For those counting, this would be the final episode of the first half of the final season. Not the season finalé. Not the series finalé. But the finalé of the first section of the final season. Or, for traditionalists, let's call it episode seven, season seven.

Got all that?

Jeff Jensen at Entertainment Weekly did, and he subsequently felt inclined to slip in a shot at the mid-season-finalé practice a little more than halfway through his final recap of the final half-season:

"Speaking of the intermission that is upon us: I hate it," he wrote. "It’s not just that the season has me hooked and I want the next chapters now. I don’t think Mad Men’s approach to scaling seasons -- every episode a finely crafted gem unto itself; slowly emerging big picture narratives -- works well in the split season format."

And this was where he should have stopped. But he didn't.

"Mad Men 7A doesn’t leave me with the same satisfaction that, say, the first half of Breaking Bad’s final season gave me," he continued, "the kind of satisfaction that makes a many-month break tolerable and stokes anticipation for what’s left. I’m ready for this story to end. Now. In truth, I’ve been ready since the end of last season, after Don’s powerful if exhausting downward spiral toward rock bottom. I love this show, but I’m burned out on it, too. I think about waiting until 2015 to see the rest of this season and feel cranky and tired, not amped." ("'Mad Men' at mid-season: So much right stuff, yet feeling lost in space", 26 May 2014)

Sounds like more of an issue with the series than it does the decision to break things up, no? You could forgive the scribe for being all Don Draper-ed out -- I've heard many former fans of the show cop to such an issue multiple times over the last two or three years -- but saying that Breaking Bad's mid-season finalé was satisfying while Mad Men's was not?

Huh?

Both series clearly treated these designated episodes as a typical season finalé. Both series left uncertainty for the future of the show's characters. Both series successfully turned the narrative toward what ultimately has to be the final stretch of the show's episodes. Both series brought the drama. Both series left more questions than answers. And by god, in the name of the late great Bert Cooper, both series held nothing back when it came to the task of fueling the anticipation for how, exactly, not only the midway point would play out, but how the rest of the story might turn out, as well.

So, again: Huh?

The art of the mid-season finalé has grown in popularity in recent years as the aforementioned AMC series, along with The Walking Dead and a handful of others from different networks, look to capitalize on the demand for some of the most popular television shows around. It's an easy way to stretch out the relevance of said series, detractors argue, and therefore the practice should be dismissed as nothing more than a money-grab.

If the minds behind the story truly cared about their fans (whatever that even means anymore), they wouldn't make us wait. It's all fueled by greed. Jon Hamm and Bryan Cranston don't really need to another pull another paycheck from their career-defining roles at this point, now do they?

Call me naïve, but I disagree. And as it turns out, Remy Carreiro from TV Overmind, does, too:

"Wait, mid-seasonal finalés are a thing now? Yes. Yes, they are," Carreiro wrote in December. "Many of the highest rated and best shows on TV do it now. But don’t think it is lazy TV making. The fact of the matter is, the shows you get 22 episodes of every season spend about a tenth as much per episode as the shows that take a break. Plus, the break ups the demand. It is a brilliant business move, actually...

Think about the shows that do it. The Walking Dead. Game of Thrones. These are shows that have insanely high budgets, and if they ran full seasons, straight through, they would run out of money. I also want to point out that the shows that take breaks often result in better TV. Would you compare a good episode of Game of Thrones to a good episode of Two and a Half Men? Exactly my point." ("Why Some Shows Have Mid-Season Finalés Now (Yet Never Did Before)", 17 December 2013)

Mine, too.

Hey, as far as I'm concerned, a world with one more year of new Mad Men episodes on the horizon is far better than a world with zero more years of new Mad Men episodes on the horizon. I mean, shoot: To think that a world in which new Mad Men episodes will cease to exist is coming sooner rather than later, anyway, well, yikes. How will I live?!

No, but seriously. I can't quite grasp the backlash aimed at splitting a television season into two parts, especially when that season also happens to be the show's last, and especially when the distance between the two sets of episodes stretches so far that it actually feels as though an entire new season has started.

Actually, such is why any outcry against the approach seems silly from a consumer standpoint. Why do we care what they call it? Why should it matter if we as viewers view the final 16 episodes of Breaking Bad as "Season 5" and "Season 6", even if AMC and Vince Gilligan are forced to use the phrases "Season 5A" and "Season 5B" whenever they talk about the episodes in public?

The network heads can worry about semantics all they want; to us, those first eight featured a story arc and the last eight featured a story arc. As viewers, what was there not to love? And exactly how much did it affect our perception of the narrative's trajectory?

If anything, the break in action only furthered the suspense. Consider Hank's revelatory find at the end of Breaking Bad's season 5 mid-season finalé in 2012. Would the development have had nearly the same impact on the viewer's psyche if the repercussions of him finding that book were resolved the very next week? Doubtful. Splitting the "season" in half, however, afforded fans months to concoct theories about what impact his bathroom break would have on the way the series might end.

The notion that the mid-season finalé was at the heart of any perceived impatience quickly faded after the credits rolled and in its place came the normal inquiries any of us would have when the end of any television season commences and we yearn to see what's next. Rarely did we hear or say things like, "Boy, I can't wait for season 5B to begin" or "I can't judge season 5A yet because I need to see 5B before I draw any conclusions."

Rather, it was a constant stream of, "How is Walt going to deal with this?" or "Those final eight episodes are going to be nuts!" The entire notion of it being only mid-way through the season had little if nothing to do with the common perception. The inherent drama and plot twists that marked the end of the specific set of episodes, on the other hand, did.

Which leads us back to the core reason why the art of the mid-season finalé works in the first place: Showrunners approach them like they are a proper finalé, anyway. When asked about what viewers could expect in anticipation of Mad Men's recent halfway point, creator Matthew Weiner stated in various interviews that he was going to treat the episode as though it was any other finalé. As in, there would be resolution. As in, there would be a tangible story arc that would conclude. As in, there would be outstanding questions ready to confront next year.

As in, the episode would provide an ending. A finalé. An adequate way to step out of the spotlight, if only for a few months.

Say what you want about how unnecessary it might be to throw a break into the middle of a television series' run, but any issues taken with the approach fall almost entirely on the consumer and not the provider. The whole thing is a matter of impression, a matter of judgment. Do you choose to view it as a long break that splits a single story in half? Or do you choose to view it as simply just another extension of the overall narrative?

The minds involved with writing these things have clearly done their best to create the most accessible, logical and convenient atmosphere around the mid-season finalé as it is, providing cohesive beginnings and dramatic endings for those of us who enjoy a touch of thrill or development with our occasional storytelling conclusions. If they -- through contractual obligations or maybe even sheer good will -- have to appease network executives by categorizing the move the way they do, there's no obvious reason we as fans must view it as such.

Or, in other words, the operative word in this case isn't "mid-season"; it's "finalé".

Plus, there's this:

"Besides the ratings play, the split season also gives AMC and Mad Men two last chances to garner those elusive Emmy wins for the cast both this year and in 2015," Deadline's Dominic Patten wrote May 27. "During its first four seasons, Mad Men won the Outstanding Drama Series category four times consecutively and snagged writing wins but despite multiple nominations, actors, including series lead Jon Hamm, have never taken home the prize." ("‘Mad Men’ Finalé “Set In Stone”, Matthew Weiner Says; No Spinoffs Planned", by Dominic Patten, Deadline, 27 May 2014)

Scoff all you want at awards talk, but if the mid-season split means it will give the much-deserving players in the series an additional shot at finally bringing home that elusive Emmy... well, Matthew Weiner and AMC can run one episode a year, as far as I'm concerned, as long as it means those guys might actually take home a trophy. I mean, come on. The fact that Elisabeth Moss and Jon Hamm haven't won anything for their roles yet is an indictment on awards shows everywhere.

But I digress. As the mid-season finalé practice becomes more and more common for television series on most every walk of network, it's about time we stop resisting the trend. If it works as a viable business practice for networks, who are we as fans to criticize the executives behind the networks and series, if it helps them produce a product we so eagerly enjoy? Embracing it in the modern day seems like the only logically acceptable option.

And that's OK, really. Because the longer we can stretch stories past their initially perceived extinction date, the longer fans of the series can revel in the plot turns and story twists that help make up the type of programs worth watching in the first place.

Besides, after seeing how things went down during Mad Men's first final season finalé, I'm really left with only one reasonable question to ask: Who's willing to throw together a Mad Men Season 7B Predictions Tumblr sometime between now and spring 2015?

Splash image: Don Draper (John Hamm) in season 7 of Mad Men


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