How much can a great ending save a mediocre (or worse) season?

Tonight, the finale to Sons of Anarchy‘s third season airs on FX. It’s a 90 minute episode that, as you can see, showrunner Kurt Sutter has been hyping on Twitter. The last two Sons finales have been pretty damn great, as have the other extended episodes of the series so I should be filled with a substantial amount of excitement for this one as well.

The problem with that formula is that while I have enjoyed season three of the series, it has its issues. Big ones. Ones that have been discussed ad nauseum by critics and even Sutter himself on a few occasions this season. The general take on season three of Sons is not as positive as the beloved season two and if it weren’t for the really awesome last few episodes, I think folks would probably be even more irate or bored or annoyed or whatever at this point.

But I’m not here to really discuss the divisive season as a whole. Instead, I’m more interested in that question that I posed in the headline: How much can a great ending save a mediocre-to-bad season of television? In recent weeks as Sons episodes have gotten better, it seems like we are putting a lot of hope in the finale to pull it all together and alleviate some of the frustrations from the middle of the season. Sutter and company have definitely been working with a different kind of pacing this season and if the trend of the last few episodes continues, the finale should be insane. And even in an uneven season, there have been great moments so I have tons of confidence that Sons of Anarchy sticks the landing in such a way that redefines the whole season.

But by how much? Does a really, really great finale totally wipe away the issues? How about just a really great finale? Or just a damn good one?

There should be value in the enjoyment of individual episodes, whether you’re watching them week-to-week or on DVD, but finales obviously have the extra “oomph” to them because, well, they’re finales. However, the extra “oomph” should only go so far, right? There are definitely a few different factors in play here.

It seems like it is much easier to evaluate how a presumedbad ending alters a good series, as we’ve seen tons of fan outrage in the aftermath of the Lostand Battlestar Galactica series finales. Those cases might also be easier to identify because they’re series finales instead of season finales, but I think the point still holds. It is presumably easier to point out major flaws with an ending and discuss how they retroactively destroy some of the work the previous episodes have done than it is to swallow the bad taste from poor episodes when a finale is really good. Heck, perhaps it’s just that being critical is a much easier thing than being supportively pessimistic.

From my vantage point, there also appears to be a difference in how serial and more procedural-y series can be affected by a great finale following a whole lot of messy episodes. For example, a series like House can pull things together in one really great final episode and it doesn’t necessarily impact the overall value of the season as the Sons finale could. The House season six finale is definitely one of my favorite episodes of the series, but it doesn’t really nullify the mess that came before it, even if it tried really, really hard to do so. Whereas, with a serialized program like True Blood, any ending to season three couldn’t have really changed my mind that the season was one giant mess. And thankfully, the finale was perhaps the biggest mess of them all, so it only confirmed my criticisms. But in a serialized framework, if you try to write to an ending like Sutter has been accused of doing this season, that ending better be damn good, especially if the road there has been one bumpy ride.

And yet, that’s where we are with Sons. I know there is not some sort of mathematical formula (outside of the A.V. Club’s TV Club grades, which I guess, we could use as a barometer — will the finale raise the overall GPA of this season?) to determine the value of a great finale, but even if the Sons finale pulls everything together, does it really matter? Those of us who have had problems with the season clearly want a good finale, but in my personal opinion, I’m not sure the finale can really erase the issues with pacing and control that defined the middle part of the season.

Moreover, is a great finale perhaps a better indicator for the following season instead of the current one? If the bad taste of this season of Sons can be removed just a little bit, I will certainly be in a better place for next season, even if it doesn’t get rid of all the issues I have with this current one. I might not want to go back and watch S3 on DVD — even if it supposedly will play better, but that’s always the rhetoric — but I certainly won’t be willing to abandon the series either.

The question I posed isn’t really one I can answer, and I don’t think I really came much closer to finding an answer in this post full of ramblings. If you have any suggestions, throw them out below.


3 responses to “How much can a great ending save a mediocre (or worse) season?”

  1. I don’t watch SoA, but in general, sticking the landing in a heavily-serialized show can demonstrate how a build-up has mattered. One good example is s5 of The Wire, which many fans had problems with, but most love the finale – which depends on the build-up of s5 as a whole. For a series that conceives of a season as a full unit, a killer finale can completely validate the ride if it explains away or justifies earlier flaws. No idea if that will be accomplished in SoA, but the critical buzz is that the strength of the finale is more in how it sets up s4 than redeems s3.


  2. […] watching “NS,” I had heard the buzz: this was a “return to form.” However, as Cory Barker wrote about earlier, the degree to which a solid finale (which “NS” arguably is) can overwrite previous […]


  3. […] set the tone for a series and they have to work on some level to hook the audience into the story. I’ve written before about how the greatness of one individual episode (like a finale) cannot recti…, but I also think the opposite is true. A season’s worth of problems does not discount an […]


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