The Poetics of Contemporary Television Storytelling by Jason Mittell


1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 [posted 31 July, 2013 – release notes]

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 Every television series begins, but not all of them end—or at least not all series conclude. Endings are quite a different part of the narrative frame than beginnings, a distinction that carries over linguistically. “Begin” is solely a verb, needing to be transformed into the noun “beginning,” while “end” and “ending” both work as nouns and verbs—in this chapter, I explore the dual meanings of “end” as both “the final part of something” and “a goal or result that one seeks to achieve.”[1] In the case of serial television, the ending is often the ends, or the ultimate target that a series extends toward at an unplanned future date. We can learn much about how complex serials work by considering how they strive toward their final episodes, and what happens when they manage to reach them. Similarly, this chapter finishes by reaching the book’s end by exploring the ends of serial criticism as a practice of academic writing to serve as a conclusion.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Every dormant series has a final episode, but actual finales are quite rare for American television series, with a range of other ending techniques that are much more common. The most common form of ending is the stoppage, an abrupt, unplanned end to a series when the network pulls the plug midseason (usually in its first season). A stoppage is always extra-textually motivated, when a network loses faith in a series’s ratings or potential for growth, or a personnel issue with a creator or cast member creates a crisis, resulting a premature cessation of a series with no narratively motivated closure or finality. Fox’s 2005 series Reunion is a good specimen of the perils of stoppage, with an abrupt cancellation after airing nine episodes that left the central murder mystery unresolved. Fox executives were asked to explain the planned resolution in press interviews to satisfy fan demands, but they refused to fully reveal what would have happened because the writers still had a open-ended set of possibilities to explore.[2] This unresolved enigma became a cautionary example for both network executives and fans about the dangers of complex serialization, as the fear of a premature stoppage might create reluctance among viewers in sampling a new serial, worried that it might be cancelled without closure or even sufficient narrative development.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 1 The next category in this spectrum of closure is the wrap-up, a series ending that is neither fully arbitrary nor completely planned. Typically, this is at the end of a season, where producers have come to a natural stopping point but without planned series finality. For programs with seasons that are crafted with a planned unity and internal structure, such as Veronica Mars, each season’s end could serve as the series wrap-up, but none offer a clearly conclusive end to the story—the fact that season three’s final episode was the last of the series was not narratively motivated, as they even shot a pseudo-pilot for a potential fourth season set in the FBI academy and years later produced a feature film to continue the story. Cable programs with shorter seasons often treat every season finale as a potential series wrap-up, as single season programs like Terriers and Rubicon both ended with a degree of closure but not outright finality. Such series typically have written the majority of a season’s episodes before the series begins to air, so they treat a single season of 10-13 episodes as a narrative unit with a possible wrap-up, but enough open-ended threads that potential renewal feels desirable and motivated. As Greg Smith describes them, such seasons wrap-up with “punctuation marks” of climactic narrative events and partial resolution, but with “game changers” that set-up the possibility for a new narrative direction if the series gets renewed.[3]

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Less common still is the conclusion, where a program’s producers are able craft a final episode knowing that it will be the end. Sometimes a conclusion is planned in advance by the producers, and sometimes it is thrust upon them—compare Joss Whedon’s pair of programs, with Buffy’s seventh season planned as its last from the season’s beginning, while Angel was cancelled in February, leaving Whedon to rework the final set of episodes to offer a somewhat rushed last-minute conclusion. Last Resort was a single-season series where the producers were told that it would be cancelled with enough lead time to make a final episode with a good deal of narrative finality, while Pushing Daisies was merely able to tack on a concluding epilogue to the season-ending episode upon notice of cancellation. Conclusions offer a sense of finality and resolution, following the centuries-old assumption that well-crafted stories need to end; however, such resolutions are comparatively rare for American television, where the industry equates success with an infinite middle and relegates endings to failures. This tension between narrative and economic impulses can create conflicts, as with Lost’s challenges in early season three, as the producers reflected that they were forced to “tap dance” to delay narrative progress without a sense of when they could start implementing their planned endgame—midway through the season, they negotiated an unprecedented specified end date three seasons into the future, allowing them to plan toward an eventual finale and craft a non-infinite middle for the remaining seasons.[4]

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 There are a few variations on this spectrum. One is a cessation, which is a stoppage or wrap-up without a definite finality that it will be the end of the series. It’s fairly common for a series to go on hiatus midseason, leaving its narrative future in limbo until it either returns to the air or disappears from next year’s schedule. Less common is the series that wraps-up at the end of the season, but is left ambiguously uncertain about future return; the most high-profile example of such a cessation is Deadwood, which was denied its planned final fourth season, morphing into unmade-for-TV movies that were long discussed as if they might someday be produced. A cessation is lodged at the crosshairs intersecting creativity and commerce, as storytelling progress is held in check by the bottom line of profitability, leaving the narrative world in a state of perpetual limbo awaiting a possible return.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 The inverse of a cessation is a resurrection, where an already concluded series returns, either on television or in another medium. Some programs are resurrected after being cut short through cancellation after stoppages or wrap-ups, as with Firefly being reborn as the feature film Serenity, while other series return post-conclusion as ongoing comics as with Whedon’s other programs Buffy and Angel — in all of these instances, the motivation seems to be driven by having more stories left to tell, and the freedom to tell them differently in another medium. Commercial imperatives can also override creative goals by resurrecting a series over the wishes of the producers, as with Scrubs return for a ninth season despite the conclusiveness of season 8’s episode “My Finale.” A series can also hover in between cessation and resurrection, as wrapped-up programs like Arrested Development and Veronica Mars had been frequently discussed as spawning feature films for years after their cancellations, but it wasn’t until 2013 that both were resurrected, with the former getting a fourth season on Netflix and the latter leveraging Kickstarter to produce a feature film.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 Finally, we have the finale, which is a conclusion with a going-away party. Finales are defined more by their surrounding discourse and hype than any inherent properties of the narrative itself, with conclusions that are widely anticipated and framed as endings to a beloved (or at least high-rated) series. Finales are not thrust upon creators, but emerge out of the planning process of crafting an ongoing serial, and thus the resulting discourses center around authorial presence and the challenges of successfully ending a series. Such conclusions are often presented embedded within a set of paratexts, with high-profile press features and interviews, televised specials offering retrospectives, and the promise of eventual DVD extras that will add even more weight to the final episode. Such discursive prominence of finales raises the narrative stakes of anticipation and expectation for viewers, and thus frequently produce disappointment and backlash when they inevitably fail to please everyone.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 As with most aspects of American television, public awareness of industry practices of ratings, scheduling, and seasonal renewal or cancellation has grown prominently in the internet era, as fans can track the potential futures of their favorite programs as well as consume hype around a planned finale. The knowledge of a series’s upcoming finale recasts fan expectations for the final season, and potentially serves to overshadow the various ways fans have engaged throughout a long-running season, with the enormous weight of needing to “stick the landing” for a final conclusive episode. Three high-profile finales and their corresponding final seasons provide key insights into some of the strategies of conclusion that complex television uses to come to an end, and the ways that viewers engage with such endings: Lost, The Wire, and The Sopranos.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 Preparing for the End: Meta-Storytelling in the Final Seasons of The Wire and Lost

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 Arguably, Lost and The Wire had as much hype and pressure to conclude successfully in their final seasons as any programs in American television history. The pressure on The Wire related to discourses of quality and sophistication—going into its fifth and final season in 2008, it had been hailed by many critics as not only the best series American television had ever produced, but a program that transcended its medium to be considered the contemporary equivalent of a Dickens novel or Greek tragedy. For such aesthetic accolades to be justified, The Wire needed to conclude in a way that met centuries-old standards of narrative unity and tragic endings, as well as paying off creator David Simon’s long-standing claims that the series functioned rhetorically as dissent and made cogent arguments about American social conditions.

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 Few critics would elevate Lost to such timeless standards of cross-media aesthetics or lofty social pronouncements, but its final season bore other burdens that surpassed the norms of the television medium. Many analyses, including this book, argue that Lost functioned as much as a game as a serial narrative, positing questions and puzzles that demanded answers. This framework was reinforced by showrunners Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse’s active public presence that regularly assured fans that every mystery had an answer and they were not making it up as they went along. Throughout the final season, Lost’s hyperactive online fan base generated to-do lists of unanswered questions and even questioned whether new answers might be yet more enigmatic red herrings. Additionally, the end of Lost had been hyped for years through its innovative industrial precedent of negotiating a planned end date, meaning that many viewers had been scanning the horizon for this finale for years of anticipation and hype, knowing full well that the producers had a clear timetable for working toward a satisfying end.

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 In light of these heightened expectations, the final seasons of both Lost and The Wire disappointed many viewers. For Lost fans, too many questions were left unanswered and the series failed to achieve its ludic goals, shifting in the end to a faith-based approach to its narrative enigmas: both offering religious faith as an ultimate thematic conclusion, and asking for viewers’ faith in the series’s creators that the resulting ambiguities were ultimately more satisfying than a litany of explicit answers. The Wire’s final season is seen by most fans and critics as a step down from the heights of seasons three and four, as the series’s hyper-realism is overshadowed by overtly unrealistic tales of fake serial killers and lying newsmen. But the narrative strategies used to conclude both series bear some important similarities and highlight a key technique used in many serial endings: the inward turn toward metafiction. This strategy highlights a series’s own storytelling strategies and frequently offers moments that address the audience more directly than typical within otherwise realist modes of narration. We can see such tendencies play out in previous generations of television finales, typically through trick endings like on St. Elsewhere or Newhart that rip the rug out from our long-standing storyworlds by positing them as a fantasy or dream respectively. Even programs that are less overtly metafictional frequently design their final episodes to culminate with a final act of saying goodbye to offer overt closure for both the characters and the audience, as with M*A*S*H, Mary Tyler Moore, and Cheers.

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 Among contemporary serials, key examples of meta-finales include Arrested Development, Seinfeld, and Six Feet Under. Arrested Development’s final moments (at least in its original Fox airing prior to its 2013 resurrection) payoff the program’s many layers of reflexivity as Maeby pitches her family’s story as a TV series to Ron Howard, the narrator and producer of the actual series; he rejects the pitch, but suggests that it might make a good movie, setting up the unrealized possibilities of cinematic resurrection (but not predicting its actual serialized return via Netflix). On Seinfeld, the main characters are put on trial for their anti-social ways, providing a parade of old characters providing testimony for the years of moral misconduct chronicled on the series, and thus empaneling viewers as a jury to judge the virtue of misanthropic characters we’ve spent years observing and potentially rooting for; the series also offers a circular final moment echoing Jerry’s opening dialogue from the pilot about the location of a shirt button, but now located in a jail cell rather than a diner, providing a narrative special effect for attentive viewers. For Six Feet Under, the powerful final minutes dramatize the program’s underlying themes of mortality and grief by flashing-forward to the deaths of every character—even though it lacks the overt reflexivity of Newhart or Arrested Development, the finale places us in a position to both emotionally engage with the characters’ final moments and reflect on the spectacular storytelling used to witness all of the characters’ deaths. Such balance in attention between the storyworld and the storytelling is typical of the operational aesthetic of contemporary complex serials, and thus it’s not surprising when a series finale exhibits such tendencies.

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 Neither Lost nor The Wire use such overt reflexivity and narrative play, but the metafictional elements within their final seasons might retrospectively reframe some of the final seasons’ disappointments. One strategy that both Lost and The Wire use is what Carlton Cuse refers to as “curtain calls” in a DVD commentary. Having spent years with characters and in a fictional setting, final seasons offer a last chance to check in with the people and places we’ve come to know, whether in the clunky cameos featured in Seinfeld’s final trial, or more artful callbacks gracing Six Feet Under’s final montage. On The Wire, the plot is stretched to provide excuses to deliver single encore scenes for Avon, Prez, Nick Sobatka, Randy, Namond, Bunny Colvin, Poot, and Cutty, as well visiting locales from earlier seasons, like the docks, Edward Tilghman Middle School, and the boxing gym. Callbacks can also be used more subtly as rewards for viewers paying close attention, as with dock worker Johnny Fifty appearing briefly as a homeless man. While such scenes and moments are far from organic to the season’s main storylines or character arcs, the pleasures of recognition and remembrance outweigh the longing for tight plotting for many fans, as many season five viewers highlight such curtain calls as one of the season’s high points.

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 Curtain calls highlight a series’s storytelling mechanics via the operational aesthetic without taking us away from the dramatic pleasures of seeing characters reappear, often with great emotional resonances, as with Randy’s return as a hardened bully. Lost embraces a similar emphasis on returning to past people and places as part of the final season’s thematic emphasis on remembering and letting go. Thus we get a guided tour of the island, returning to locations like the caves, the beach, the Hydra cages, and “New Otherton,” but framed by the characters themselves articulating their memories of such places. These moments are designed to remind us of where we’ve been over the years of the series, as well as offer a bit of closure paralleling the characters’ experiences of coming to terms with their pasts and future fates—we witness characters remembering their past experiences in each locale as a reflected proxy of our own narrative memories.

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 On both The Wire and Lost, many old characters are deceased and thus unavailable for a traditional curtain call. The former uses the genre-appropriate device of a quick montage of crime photos in the opening credits to offer split-second curtain calls for many deceased characters. Mixed in with these photos is a portrait of Officer Ray Cole, a minor character on the series but played by executive producer Robert Colesbury who died during pre-production of the third season; Cole’s continued presence in the credits is both an homage from the producers and a shout-out to knowledgeable viewers who both remember the minor character and know about Colesbury’s major role in the series. Lost takes advantage of its broader generic palette to bring back fallen characters in a variety of ways. Hurley’s inexplicable ability to speak to the dead allows Michael to return as a ghostly cameo on the island, serving as a spectral source of mythological answers concerning the role of whispers and spirits on the island. But the bulk of the dead cameos occur off-island through the season’s new narrative device of the flash-sideways world, as more than 15 previously-dead characters appear in this universe whose relationship to the main storyworld remains mysterious until the finale’s final moments. It is this sideways world where Lost’s final season most directly embraces its brand of metafiction.

18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 For the entire season, the flash sideways stories function as a new mystery for a series already burdened with layered enigmas; however, the sideways mystery is of a different order than the identities of Adam & Eve or the origins of the four-toed statue. For most of season six, the sideways realm poses an epistemological enigma as to what the world is and how it relates to the storyworld where we’ve spent five years, with the most widely held hypothesis being that the detonation of a nuclear bomb on the island at the end of the fifth season created a parallel alternative universe where the island was destroyed in 1977. However, at the end of “The End,” we learn that the sideways realm is actually a transitional afterlife for the characters. As Jack’s dead father Christian explains to him in Lost’s final scene, “This is the place that you all made together, so that you could find one another. The most important part of your life was the time that you spent with these people. That’s why all of you are here. Nobody does it alone Jack. You needed all of them, and they needed you… to remember and to let go.” As an emotional denouement to the series, I and many others found that this resolution worked well to provide closure and help us viewers let go. But as a coherent explanation for what we’d spent the past season watching, it requires a bit more unpacking.

19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0 For most of season six, the sideways stories function as an extended narrative game of “what if?”, giving us a chance to imagine different narrative arcs for our beloved castaways had they never crashed on the island and been swayed by Jacob’s mysterious influence. As discussed in the Transmedia Storytelling chapter, Lost’s transmedia extensions typically operated with a “what is” logic of canon or pseudo-canon, but it is within the series itself that Lost most directly explores the “what if?” impulse via this hypothetical sideways realm. Many of these parallel possibilities are fun hypothetical storyworlds—fans were quick to imagine a spinoff series with Miles & Sawyer as rogue cops as inspired by the episode “Recon”—but it’s not clear how such playful narrative alternatives serve as a means of characters reconciling their pasts and coming together as a community to move onto the afterlife per Christian’s final explanation. Some stories are more thematically relevant than others, as Jack becoming a father as a means to reconcile his own “daddy issues” makes more thematic sense than Kate continuing to be a fugitive on the run, but all provide viewers an opportunity to see a long-beloved character in a somewhat new light, and often playing out fantasy scenarios concerning relationships with other characters, such as Ben Linus serving as a loving mentor for his daughter Alex, whom he sacrificed in the main timeline. As discussed in the Character chapter, even though Lost is most renowned for its elaborate enigmas and ludic plotting, its producers consider its characters and their relationships as the program’s core appeal, and thus it is not surprising that the final season’s narrative innovation prioritized character payoffs over plot coherence.

20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 An unsympathetic reading is that Lost’s sideways storyline is a cheat, designed to mislead the audience into assuming it was a parallel universe in which the island didn’t exist, but revealed in the end to be internally incoherent without resorting to a higher power. The more sympathetic read acknowledges that it is a cheat, but views the payoff as more thematically coherent than as narratively motivated. As viewers, we hope that we got to spend the most important parts of these characters’ lives with them, and want to believe that our connection to them mattered. We also enjoyed spinning theories in search of coherence within a fantasy narrative that often made little sense, and the sideways world was our last opportunity to play such interpretive games. The sideways world is Lost’s embedded metafiction, the rumination on why we enjoyed spending time with these characters, a celebration of the series’s shaggy melange of genre influences and diverting puzzles, and a final delivery system of moments of emotional engagement piercing through its silly but fun pulpy narrative. Looking back from the finale, it becomes clear that the entirety of season six worked to refocus our attention on the characters and away from the mythology, for both the characters themselves and viewers, providing the wish fulfillment of a happy ending and the joy of returning departed friends and reunited relationships without the baggage of the island mysteries. In its closing moments, Christian Shepherd is talking to us viewers, saying this world is what we would make if we imagined new “what if?” tales for our heroes, functioning as a form of embedded fan fiction. The fact that it cheats to let us spend more time with dead characters and spinning wheels on Lostpedia doesn’t matter—and ultimately the purpose of fiction is not to pass a test of logical coherence, but to keep us emotionally engaged and entertained.

21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0 Fans and critics reacted to the hyped Lost finale with a huge range of responses. A vocal contingent decried the overtly sentimental episode, protested the lack of overt answers, and scoffed at the religious cop-out to explain the sideways universe. Critic Emily Nussbaum sums up the disenchantment with the explanation, calling the sideways “a mystical way station, like weak fan fiction with a therapeutic kick,” and accusing the series of becoming too involved with itself:

22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 0 But by the end of its run, Lost, for all its dorm-room chatter about good and evil, had become something different: It was a hit series about the difficulties of finding an ending to a hit series. Cuselof had a deadline for years, which should have allowed them to pace out their puzzle’s solutions. Instead, we got cheesy temple vamping and a bereavement Holodeck. It became a show about placating, even sedating, fans, convincing them that, in the absence of anything coherent or challenging, love was enough.[5]

23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 0 But for many fans, love was enough, especially when peppered with speculative metafiction. The finale used the “what if?” sideways realm to deliver moments that many fans yearned for but the “reality” of the narrative denied: Charlie and Claire reuniting over the birth of Aaron, Sawyer reconnecting with his dead lover Juliet, Ben apologizing to Locke for killing him. In essence, the sideways world is an extended bit of fan service, delivering character confrontations, romantic pleasures, and a sandbox for theoretical speculation as a reminder of what made us love Lost for years, and highlighting how in the end (and “The End”), it wasn’t about resolving the mysteries as much as the time spent watching together. Lost’s ludic, enigma-driven approach to storytelling turned out to be less central than typically thought. Instead, the series was about how flawed people could establish relationships and a community to discover themselves, explore their beliefs, and ultimately make choices that were noble and/or damaging to themselves and others. The mythology was the backdrop for this human drama, and it provided much fun for fans to puzzle out over six seasons; however, ultimately the mysteries of the island were not designed to be answered, but rather to facilitate the character arcs and maximize Lost’s entertainment value.

24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 0 The Wire has other purposes beyond entertainment, setting out to serve as a bit of fictionalized journalism to shine a light on urban conditions that are rarely explored in any medium. The metafiction of The Wire is both more clearly articulated and less likely than on Lost, as the program’s realist ethos and denunciation of self-conscious storytelling techniques would seem to make it an unlikely candidate for any form of reflexivity. Yet the fifth season saw two major intertwined plotlines focusing on the theme of storytelling and the lines between fiction and truth: the lying journalist Scott Templeton and Jimmy McNulty’s fake serial killer. For many critics of the final season, this focus on unrealistic storylines and unlikely scenarios seemed like a distraction from The Wire’s tradition of realist storytelling and social engagement. But through the lens of metafiction, these plotlines reinforce the series’s function as a site of social realism and critique.

25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 0 For McNulty, the big lie of the serial killer is a necessary fiction to gain the attention and resources needed to address the truth of drug boss Marlo Stanfield’s orchestrated mass murder, and we watch as he experiments with various narrative strategies to hook the bosses on his whopper of a tale. For the newsroom storyline, Templeton’s escalating lies are representative of the commercial and editorial pressures that cause journalism to miss the real news and focus on either simplistic or sensational stories, regardless of their social importance or actual relevance. Together, the season asks us to think about the boundary between truth and fiction, and more centrally, questions how we know what we know. It is clear that if we only relied on the Baltimore Sun, we would not know the stories of the how drug dealers organize distribution and exert political influence, how the dockworker’s union fights to sustain itself in the wake of deindustrialization, how a rigged system against urban kids creates casualties out of the most promising students, or how corruption at City Hall jukes the stats for political gain. It is only through the fiction of The Wire that these true stories (or at least stories grounded in larger truths) of Baltimore are told, and we watch the newspaper miss the truths that matter.

26 Leave a comment on paragraph 26 0 Season five asks us to reflect on the process of storytelling and our own culpability in privileging the big lie. In the season’s most meta-moment from its second episode, “Unconfirmed Reports,” the newspaper editors debate how best to tell the story of the city’s failing schools. Heroic editor Gus Haynes argues for a series showing the interconnectedness between institutions rather than just beating up on the schools, saying “I think you need a lot of context to seriously examine anything,” a line that could serve as a mission statement for The Wire itself. But the villainous publisher James Whiting warns against ending up with “an amorphous series detailing society’s ills,” a succinct negative gloss on what some skeptics might say the series amounts to. This meta-commentary extends as McNulty’s serial killer stands in for the sensationalist crime shows that get ratings buzz, with allusions to series like CSI and Dexter peppered throughout the season, while Bunk’s Wire-like “real police work” goes unnoticed and underfunded. Meanwhile Templeton wins awards for his lies while Gus and Alma are demoted for their refusal to play along, a not-so-veiled commentary on The Wire’s lack of Emmys and other industry accolades given to more conventional fictions. The final season portrays the downfalls of gangsters Proposition Joe and Omar Little, while The Sun misses both stories and chooses not to cover their deaths. The season’s most emotionally powerful story, Bubbles’s recovery, is highlighted by the rare act of actual journalism in the form of a long-form narrative feature, but we can only appreciate his triumphant climbing of his sister’s stairs only through the lens of fictional drama.

27 Leave a comment on paragraph 27 0 Thus the unrealistic exaggerations of season five only make sense in the context of the series’s metafictional ruminations on how television drama can serve a journalistic function in today’s media environment. Clearly David Simon is not arguing that this is a good thing, as his background as newspaperman yearns for the good old days of well-staffed newsrooms doggedly pursuing stories. Thus The Wire frames its own journalistic acumen within the realm of farce, mocking the excesses that McNulty and Templeton must go through to create their fictions, while winking at the audience for recognizing the extremities: the only way to get anyone to notice a crime story is to make it stretch beyond credulity, a critique aimed both at newspapers and television fiction. The Wire always was willing to stretch the bounds of credulity for the sake of addressing a larger truth, whether in Stringer’s attempt to run drug meetings via Robert’s Rules of Order or Major Colvin’s outlandishly maverick move in creating Hamsterdam. The series embraces such hyperbole for grand statements, but always ties them to the human costs—the drawn-out sequence of McNulty kidnapping and relocating a disabled homeless man in the metafictionally named “The Dickensian Aspect” is shocking in its extremity, but ultimately demonstrates how much Jimmy and Lester have fallen, dehumanized by their attempts to fight the good fight against an intractable system.

28 Leave a comment on paragraph 28 0 While Lost’s final episode foregrounds its own storytelling mechanics and possibilities, The Wire’s finale avoids breaking its realist frame for anything so overtly metafictional. Yet it still highlights storytelling as a crucial facet of social engagement, offering numerous moments when characters are forced to reckon with their own narrative arcs and the stories that people tell about them. Bubbles learns to accept the newspaper profile that Fletcher wrote about him, allowing it to be published as an act of humility and acceptance on his road to recovery. Daniels sacrifices his police career due to his unwillingness to buy into the fabrications of the “stat game,” drawing the line on what stories he is willing to tell. Marlo attempts to move forward under the new character of a legitimate businessman, but finds that he is unable to break from his corner-based story, falling back into his old patterns. McNulty leaves the police force with a staged wake, with Landsman colorfully retelling his story as “natural police.” And finally the cyclical nature of Baltimore’s institutions and crises sees the same stories being replayed with a new generation of characters, with Sydnor as the new McNulty, Michael taking over Omar’s role, Fletcher getting Gus’s old job, and most tragically, Dukie following in Bubbles’s footsteps. While it never overtly acknowledges its own storytelling mechanics, The Wire clearly is self-consciously concluding and working to offer closure that thematically resonates with its own meditations on storytelling, journalism, and using fiction to portray truths.

29 Leave a comment on paragraph 29 0 For both Lost and The Wire, the atypical storylines and structures of their final seasons are best appreciated as reflections in their own narrative mirrors. But why do serials seem to embrace the meta so often in their final seasons? In part, creators seem to become hostages to their own storyworlds, so embedded in the process of storytelling that they feel the need to use fiction as an outlet to explore their own processes and roles, as well as offering closing arguments for the relevance and missions of their series. This connects to the role of hype in promoting finales and generally fueling ongoing serial narrative—unlike stand-alone fictional forms like films or novels, the creative processes of serial television occur in parallel with viewer and critic reaction. Hype and reception discourses help shape expectations for both viewers and creators, and thus the pressure to stick the landing seems to matter more for an ongoing serial. The metafictional finale is key example of how producers come to terms with the ends of their storyworlds in ways that are shaped by the years of cultural circulation and conversation that are unique to the serial form. And no finale generated more conversation and debate than the landmark HBO series The Sopranos.

30 Leave a comment on paragraph 30 0 He’s Dead to Me: Debating the Ending of The Sopranos

31 Leave a comment on paragraph 31 0 On June 10, 2007, The Sopranos legendarily ended with a scene of Tony’s immediate family eating in a diner and listening to the Journey song “Don’t Stop Believin’,” before cutting to a silent black screen for ten seconds preceding its final credits. This edit is a narrative special effect played in reverse, an anti-spectacle offering a moment of spectacular storytelling. If traditional special effects push screen and sound systems to their limits, this cut-to-black highlighted technology in the opposite direction, triggering a large number of viewers to surmise that their cable had gotten disconnected or their televisions had died at the least opportune moment. This moment of dead air was certainly the most analyzed and debated edit in the program’s history, and one of the most contentious endings in television history. Looking at the sequence and the debates it inspired helps explain the functions of finales and The Sopranos’s role in contemporary television storytelling.

32 Leave a comment on paragraph 32 0 As a whole, The Sopranos is less immersed in the culture of forensic fandom and online television debate than many other programs discussed in this book. In large part, this stems from its casual attitude toward serial plotting; as discussed in the Complexity in Context chapter, the series embraces more episodic plots than most primetime serials, and often allows itself to pursue digressions and fantasy sequences in lieu of narrative enigmas, mysteries, or even plot-driven curiosity questions. More than most series discussed in this book, The Sopranos invites interpretation for theme or symbolism, but not the mysteries, structural games, or builds toward narrative climaxes that typify many comparable dramas with more robust online fan bases. Thus it is quite surprising that the last scene in the entire series prompted such an outpouring of forensic fandom trying to discern what it meant both in terms of basic narrative comprehension and thematic significance. And appropriately as a conclusive case study for this book, the analysis takes us back to the most basic concept of narrative analysis that I discussed in the Introduction: the distinction between story and narrative discourse.

33 Leave a comment on paragraph 33 0 Much of the motivation to understand the finale was driven by the episode’s status as a highly hyped finale, with viewers knowing full well that the series was ending and thus expecting a conclusive sense of finality or at least some closure, rather than the ambiguous and open-ended cut-to-black that “Made in America” delivered. It was not surprising that the final scene took place over a family meal, as the first three season of The Sopranos similarly concluded with somewhat anti-climactic moments of familial dining; what was surprising was that rather than fading to black or offering a memorable final moment, the only violence portrayed was to the typical formal devices of television editing, as the mid-moment cut to silent blackness felt like a violation of the medium’s norms and expectations. Since serial storytelling thrives on the gaps between episodes to encourage conversation and interpretation, the lack of a next chapter after such an unusual moment encouraged viewers to fill the lack of forthcoming storytelling and authorial explanation with their own speculations and analyses. Even though the final season of The Sopranos did not embrace meta-storytelling the way that Lost and The Wire did, this final moment encouraged viewers to reassess how the narrative had led to this point, and what it might mean at the level of both story and discourse.

34 Leave a comment on paragraph 34 0 Viewers developed a range of explanations to make sense of this unconventional ending. The most immediate reaction seems to have been an assumption of technical failure, such as broken televisions or disconnected cable; while obviously incorrect, it is also a justified reaction, as such an extreme violation of media norms leads people to assume that it was some sort of error, not a choice to intentionally break the rules. Of course it is an intentional edit not an arbitrary one, occurring precisely as Tony looks up to see Meadow entering the diner (presumably) and as the Journey song offers the lyrics “Don’t Stop” one last time. Notably, creator David Chase wanted to end the episode with 30 seconds of blackness, eliminating all credits until the final HBO bumper, but both HBO and the Directors’ Guild vetoed the idea of foregoing closing credits.[6] Instead, the 10 seconds of black served as enough of a gap to create technological panic among viewers but without eliminating all vestiges of a normal episode ending. Chase’s desire to extend the black screen does highlight that the blackness does signify something, not just demarcating the end of the story—a distinction that becomes crucial for subsequent debates over the ending.

35 Leave a comment on paragraph 35 0 Once a viewer realizes that the black screen is not a technical glitch but an artistic choice, the key question in order to make sense of The Sopranos’s ending is whether the cut-to-black signifies anything within the storyworld itself, or just at the level of storytelling. There is no doubt that it is significant at the level of narrative discourse, signaling the end of the program’s active narration and manifesting an absence of audio and visual information to cue viewers that there will be no more storytelling to come. This absence is so provocatively asserted that it needs to be understood and analyzed as a shot itself, a presence of nothingness rather than a default null state lacking content and form. In the abrupt shift from Tony to blackness, from Steve Perry’s singing voice to silence, nothing happens overtly at the level of story; however at the level of storytelling, this “nothing” happens actively and insistently—we notice this nothingness, with the sequence rubbing our noses in the interminable gap between images of Tony and the first credit. So what does the nothingness mean?

36 Leave a comment on paragraph 36 0 Following ideas explored in the Authorship chapter, we might attribute this moment a distinct message from David Chase, or at least our notion of Chase as the text’s inferred authorial function, to his viewers: many took the ending as a direct attack on viewers’s desire for closure, justice, or a moral message, providing instead a lack of a conclusion out of a spiteful contempt for norms of narrative pleasure and television viewing expectations. Although Chase has been oblique in discussing the finale, he has vehemently denied that he would use his final moment to be contemptuous or audacious toward the audience, but rather that his goal was always to “entertain them.”[7] Nonetheless, the choice to violate the norms and expectations of television storytelling was interpreted by many as an audacious and aggressive “screw you” against viewers and their preconceived notions of closure, rather than providing what fans had come to expect throughout the series.

37 Leave a comment on paragraph 37 0 A variant on the reading of the abrupt cut as an act of aggression against fans is to frame it as a rupture to viewing norms, not out of contempt for viewers but to get them to feel the ending as a sudden demise, resulting from the sudden cessation of the series. As critic Matt Zoller Seitz sums up this position,

38 Leave a comment on paragraph 38 0 The lack of resolution—the absolute and deliberate failure, or more accurately, refusal, to end this thing—was exactly right. It felt more violent, more disturbing, more unfair than even the most savage murders Chase has depicted over the course of six seasons, because the victim was us. He ended the series by whacking the viewer.[8]

39 Leave a comment on paragraph 39 0 Under this interpretation, any concluding moment in a story is as arbitrary as the next. There is always more story to tell and any conclusive ending is an illusion, so the decision to end in the midst of the diner sequence is as valid as any other: abrupt and jarring, but ultimately no less conclusive than any other arbitrary “resolution.” In other words, it’s a way of stopping, but not ending, the story, via an abrupt end to the storytelling. Taken to a broader level, this is a bold critique of the arbitrary structures of serial narration and a refusal to comply with the medium’s expectations and norms, a skeptical attitude toward television that The Sopranos consistently offered. The ending’s arbitrariness stems from how the narrative stoppage is not connected to any event in the storyworld, as the scene is framed as uneventful despite the sense of menace and danger produced by taught editing coupled with viewer expectations that the final moment is pending. The key action is at the level of narrative discourse, where the violent act is committed at the cost of viewer knowledge and comprehension—Tony’s story could continue in a wide range of possibilities, but we are not able to experience it anymore after we are “whacked.” It is an act of aggressively ambiguous storytelling, refusing any clarity or motivation concerning what happens subsequently in the story.

40 Leave a comment on paragraph 40 0 Of course, another widespread interpretation does argue that the cut-to-black is motivated by story events: namely that we are witnessing Tony’s death from his point-of-view. This analysis has been promoted by many viewers, most notably in copious detail by the pseudonymous “Master of Sopranos” in his epic forensic fan blog called “Definitive Explanation of “The End.”” In more than 45,000 words, The Master of Sopranos attempts to prove, without any ambiguity, that “Tony’s death is the only ending that makes sense.”[9] This argument relies primarily on formal analysis of continuity editing to suggest that the cut-to-black is Tony’s point-of-view upon being shot in the diner, supported by thematic and symbolic markers found throughout the episode, and numerous cues earlier in the season that frame death as a surprise absence, such as Bobby’s twice-repeated line that “You probably don’t even hear it when it happens.” The argument is so detailed and well-supported that it is hard to imagine reading it and not being convinced that if there is a story motivation for the final edit, it is only explicable as Tony’s final moments of life.

41 Leave a comment on paragraph 41 0 The reason why the debate continues years after the episode aired is because some find the attempt to be so “definitive” in an explication as working against the ambiguity that Chase seems to have designed as the finale’s legacy—as critic Todd VanDerWerff suggests, accepting this interpretation “robs the mystery out of a series that was always replete with it, and it forces things that could mean many things to mean only one thing.”[10] The series as a whole embraces ambiguity and openness to thematic interpretation, and occasionally a lack of narrative clarity as to what precisely happened on or offscreen, so attempting to be definitive does seem counter to its intrinsic norms. However, the final moments of a finale are clearly atypical, as a conclusion always begs further reflection, contemplation, and, in the case of such ambiguity, analytical interpretation. There is no doubt that the final sequence is designed to be non-obvious in its meaning; the lingering question is whether it can be read as obliquely suggesting a conclusive set of narrative events (Tony’s death), or must remain openly ambiguous with the cut-to-black belonging solely to the level of narrative discourse?

42 Leave a comment on paragraph 42 0 Personally, I do interpret the final sequence as portraying Tony’s death, although not with the “definitive” weight that some forensic fans insist upon, but with the oblique presentation adding to its narrative affect. For advocates of ambiguity like VanDerWerff and Seitz, the moral ethos of The Sopranos points away from rendering of a final death. Seitz writes, “Chase spent eight years railing against films and TV shows about violent criminals that absolved viewers of feelings of guilt and complicity by showing the hero being led away in handcuffs or shot down in the street. Why would he then reverse course in the final moments of the final episode and kill Tony? And if what we were looking at was indeed a killing of that specific character, why was it presented in an arty, confusing way?”[11] However, I contend that the scene’s oblique narrative form of presenting Tony’s murder works to avoid this moral conundrum by distancing viewers from such emotional reactions that Chase clearly worked to avoid.

43 Leave a comment on paragraph 43 0 The “arty, confusing” presentation avoids the trap that Seitz articulates: if we saw Tony’s death, we could absolve ourselves from years of witnessing his atrocities, and even revel in the blood lust as a sense of retribution. If we saw Tony’s body, some might feel moral superiority over the fallen criminal, while others might experience grief for our protagonist or pity for his family witnessing the assassination—but none of these emotional responses fit with the ambiguous attitude the series had fostered toward the main character. Instead, we feel no emotional reactions to Tony’s death because we do not even realize that it happens until after analytic reflection and analysis. We arrive at the realization of his death at an analytic distance so that we’re not emotionally tied up in the storyworld: we are not present in the diner with the family, and thus do not experience their moment of loss. We’ve already had a moment of mourning, but the grief is over the loss of the series, not the character. Viewers experience The Sopranos (the series itself as an object of affection) as less morally ambiguous than the character of Tony Soprano, and thus we can feel grief and loss over the end of the series without being either complicit in or moralistically superior toward Tony’s crimes.

44 Leave a comment on paragraph 44 0 The abrupt termination of the series and Tony’s life distances us from the storyworld by keeping us at the meta-level of narrative discourse, and it is there that we experience the five stages of grief: we deny the ending by blaming it on the cable company; we grow angry at Chase for denying us closure; we bargain by seeking out clues and rational explanations; we become depressed that there’s no clear answer forthcoming; we accept the inevitable that the series has ended, and life (and television) must go on. Our emotions are focused at the level of Chase and storytelling, not Tony and his story. This is Chase’s ultimate victory, as he managed to kill off his hero without allowing the audience to fall into any conventional emotional traps, but still create a visceral and engaged emotional reaction to the finale.

45 Leave a comment on paragraph 45 0 Or perhaps he didn’t, and Tony’s story continued after the storytelling stopped. The risk of The Sopranos’s experimental ending was that it teased the possibility that conclusions don’t matter, that they are arbitrary and ambiguous rather than final and conclusive—HBO threw a party for the series finale, but the guest of honor disappeared before the celebratory toast. Some viewers embraced that openness and refusal to conclude, while others sought a sense of narrative clarity amongst the ambiguity. Either way, the finale highlights the degree to which endings matter in serial television, serving as the lasting image (or lack thereof) that will be remembered and discussed long after the rest of the series fades from memory.

46 Leave a comment on paragraph 46 0 The Ends of Serial Criticism

47 Leave a comment on paragraph 47 0 Reflecting on ends is quite an appropriate topic for the conclusion of this book, as another example of a serially authored text turning inward upon arriving at its end. As argued above, television creators seem to become hostages to their own storyworlds by the final season, so embedded in the process of storytelling that they feel the need to use fiction as an outlet to explore their own experiences, as well as offering closing arguments to prove the relevance and missions of their series. The metafictional finale is one way that producers come to terms with the ends of their storyworlds that have been shaped by years of cultural circulation and conversation that are distinctive to the serial form. While the conclusion to Complex TV is far less hyped or even noticed than a television finale, I do feel like I’m being held captive by my project, and the only way out is to through the mirror of the meta.

48 Leave a comment on paragraph 48 0 So what are the ends of serial criticism? For most scholars analyzing a media text, typical core research questions are “what does it mean?” and “why does it matter?”. Such analyses explore the political meanings of a text in terms of representations, ideologies, and competing positions on issues of cultural importance. Those textual meanings can be contextualized within the larger cultural field of contemporary capitalism, class struggle, identity categories, and political power to highlight why such moments matter beyond just representations within a television series. As discussed in the Introduction, these are important issues of culture and politics that certainly do matter and deserve their central place in the field of media studies. However, these are not the questions that have motivated my work in Complex TV.

49 Leave a comment on paragraph 49 0 Instead, I have focused on two related but distinct questions: “how does it mean?” and “how does it matter?” To answer the first question, I use historical poetics to understand the formal storytelling techniques employed by television series, placing those choices in the contexts of the industry and creative personnel to understand why meaning-making happens the way it does in these televisual texts. The second question focusses on the cultural circulation of these programs, considering how critics, viewers, and fans continue the signification of serial television beyond the texts themselves—at times, such circulation makes series “matter” in the explicitly material sense, creating paratexts that further the processes of meaning-making. By fusing historical poetics and cultural studies, I have tried to offer a better understanding of how serial television programs work as both aesthetic texts and cultural practices.

50 Leave a comment on paragraph 50 0 For some critics these questions are sufficient, providing ample room to explore issues of form and function that seem to matter for television seriality. However, many media scholars conceive of the field as exclusively dedicated to uncovering meaning and analyzing cultural politics, and thus a project that focuses on the “how” as its end goal is insufficient unless used as a means toward answering other questions. I find myself in the middle of this debate—I am sufficiently interested in the “how” to dedicate this book to studying poetics and practices, but believe that questions of meaning and power are important enough to want them to be part of my scholarly equation. I see the historical poetic approach I have been exploring as both an end to itself and a means to get toward different ends.

51 Leave a comment on paragraph 51 0 So in the book’s final pages, I want to shift goals to consider how we might use some of the ideas I explored in the rest of the book to address questions of power and politics. Thus I’ll shuffle these questions into two new ones: “what does it mean through how it means?” and “why does it matter through how it matters?” In other words, how can we use historical poetics and cultural circulation to better understand questions of meaning and political significance? Uncontroversially, I think that having a more robust account of how television storytelling works should give us a deeper understanding of its meanings and cultural power, but as I will demonstrate, accounting for the formal mechanics and cultural practices of seriality makes politicized textual analysis much more complex.

52 Leave a comment on paragraph 52 0 To explore political interpretation, consider the opening segment of Homeland’s first season finale, “Marine One,” which aired on the premium cable channel Showtime on December 18, 2011. The episode begins with a single-take video testimonial that Sgt. Nick Brody is making to explain why he plans to die as a suicide bomber while killing numerous American politicians and military personnel as part of a conspiracy led by a radical Middle Eastern terrorist. Staring directly into the camera, he says the following:

53 Leave a comment on paragraph 53 0 My name is Nicholas Brody and I’m a sergeant in the United States Marine Corps. I have a wife and two kids, who I love. By the time you watch this, you’ll have read a lot of things about me, about what I’ve done, and so I wanted to explain myself. So that you’ll know the truth. On May 19, 2003, as part of a two-man sniper team serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom, I was taken prisoner by forces loyal to Saddam Hussein. Those forces then sold me to an al-Qaeda commander—Abu Nazir, who was operating a terrorist cell from across the Syrian border, where I was held captive for more than eight years. I was beaten, I was tortured, and I was subjected to long periods of total isolation. People will say I was broken, I was brainwashed. People will say that I was turned into a terrorist, taught to hate my country. I love my country. What I am is a Marine, like my father before me and his father before him, and as a Marine, I swore an oath to defend the United States of America against enemies both foreign and domestic. My action this day is against such domestic enemies: the vice president and members of his national security team, who I know to be liars and war criminals responsible for atrocities they were never held accountable for. This is about justice for 82 children whose deaths were never acknowledged and whose murder is a stain on the soul of this nation.

54 Leave a comment on paragraph 54 0 The video then cuts off as the episode continues in a more conventionally shot and edited scene.

55 Leave a comment on paragraph 55 0 To try to make sense of this sequence, we need to consider it in multiple contexts, as that is certainly how it might be variably consumed. For a few viewers, this may have been the very first episode of Homeland they have seen, making for quite a confusing viewing experience. Assuming that such a novice viewer recognizes it as belonging to a fictional program, the clip is still marked as “authentic” via excessive mediation—visible viewfinder symbols, red “Record” indicator, black-and-white image, and direct address to the camera all connote that this is actuality footage being made within the storyworld. Brody’s tone and emotional intensity convey that he is telling the truth, or at least what he believes to be true. And if true, it is quite a radical political statement: accusing the Vice President of being a war criminal, responsible for mass killing children and covering up their deaths, and claiming that the patriotic duty of a U.S. Marine is to commit an act of violent retribution.

56 Leave a comment on paragraph 56 0 Of course, most viewers saw (or will see) this footage in a broader context following eleven hours of storytelling, stretched out over two months of screen time (or less if consumed after its initial airing). Throughout the season leading up to this moment, we questioned whether Brody had been turned to work for his captors, witnessed his conversion to and faithful practice of Islam, saw via flashback the brutality inflicted upon Brody during his captivity, and eventually discovered his plot to become a suicide bomber against Vice President Walden. Most importantly for this sequence, we witnessed the event that turns him firmly against against his government: a U.S. drone bombing that destroys a school in Syria and kills 82 children, including terrorist leader Abu Nazir’s son Issa, whom Brody had lived with as his teacher and friend. After the attack, Nazir shows Brody the Vice President’s news conference where he denies that any children had been wounded in the bombing, thus inspiring Brody’s act of vengeance. For viewers like myself, this serial context validates Brody’s statements and beliefs such that his video declaration of patriotism through terrorism rings emotionally true in a fashion that seems utterly out of place on commercial American television.

57 Leave a comment on paragraph 57 0 In the context of its original airing in fall 2011, Homeland’s first season marked the first time that many of its viewers had seen the issue of drone strikes debated on American television—press coverage of the issue was quite marginal within U.S. media, growing some in frequency and depth of coverage in late-2011 after one high-profile strike, but it would still remain a specialized “fringe” issue reaching only dedicated news consumers until it became more openly debated in 2013.[12] By dramatizing a drone strike, visualizing the deaths of innocent children, and having a sympathetic, white American character empathize with the victims, Homeland offers dramatic fuel for a dissenting view against American military action that was typically found only on the extreme anti-war left and never on mainstream television.

58 Leave a comment on paragraph 58 0 In this context, what is the political meaning of this clip? As it begins the episode, it is a shocking moment of emotionally motivated outrage, giving legitimacy to the perspectives of terrorists who see themselves as victims of terrorism carried out by the American military. We have come to care about Brody as a character, seeing him as deeply flawed and (despite his denial in the video) broken, but also justified to take extreme action against a corrupt and arguably criminal administration, thus marking this video as a radical statement that viewers are invited to endorse or at least consider as valid. However, the episode continues: Brody leaves the memory card with his confessional video for his terrorist allies, and then carryies out the plan to become a suicide bomber to kill the Vice President, Secretary of Defense, CIA leaders, and numerous other politicians, military personnel, and civil servants within a military bunker. Brody does attempt to trigger the bomb, but it fails; after repairing the bomb in the bathroom, he gets a phone call from his teenage daughter Dana who inspires him to abandon his plan in the name of family, as he realizes what his suicide attack would do to his wife and children. The episode ends with Brody shifting plans to become an agent of Nazir from within the government, rather than violently disrupting it. This development serves the dramatic needs of seriality, as it allows Brody to continue to the next season as well as sustaining the dual espionage and romance plots between Brody and Carrie Mathison, the CIA agent who is convinced that he is a traitor. But it also shifts the terms of Brody’s dissent away from the political and toward the personal, where his familial connection to Dana eclipses his ties to surrogate son Issa. If the opening video frames an act of anti-American violence as the duty of a patriotic Marine, the episode’s conclusion defangs such radicalism to reframe Brody’s dissent as a simpler act of revenge for a loved one’s death, and shifts our allegiance back to Carrie and her unquestionably patriotic pursuit of Brody and Nazir.

59 Leave a comment on paragraph 59 0 But season one is not the only context for this video, as it reappears nine months later (as originally aired) in Homeland’s second season. The video appears in five of that season’s twelve episodes, creating a serialized ripple effect for everyone who watches it. In the season’s second episode, CIA Division Chief Saul Berenson discovers the video hidden among the belongings of a suspect in Beirut, and shows it to Carrie in the next episode, who reacts with flooding emotion as she realizes her discredited accusations against Brody were correct. The fourth episode begins with Saul showing the video to his boss at the CIA, David Estes, to confirm that Brody, who is now a Congressman and likely Vice Presidential candidate, is a traitor. In these reiterations of the video, its meaning transforms from a statement of political dissent into a piece of evidence for American agents fighting terrorism—the sentiments that Brody expresses are irrelevant and not repeated on-screen, as all that matters for the CIA is how it proves that Brody is a traitor who must be stopped. The video’s radical politics are erased as it becomes an object within the investigation, and the drama focuses on how they will catch Brody and what the consequences of his betrayal might be. In Robert Allen’s use of the terms, the video switches from a syntagmatic element that moves the plot forward, to a paradigmatic element to trigger character reactions and emotions—and notably these reactions never consider Brody’s arguments that resisting American military hegemony might be viewed as a form of patriotism.[13] The serial succession of characters viewing the video invokes Homeland’s reflexive impulse as established in early episodes, where viewers saw themselves mirrored in Carrie’s video surveillance of Brody, emphasizing the central role that the act of watching characters watch other characters in their most intimate and unguarded moments plays in Homeland; regular viewers learn that such scenes depicting one character watching another on a screen matter.

60 Leave a comment on paragraph 60 0 The fourth appearance of Brody’s video in the second season is when Brody himself sees it in episode five, “Q & A.” Captured by the CIA and interrogated to learn what he knows, he is forced to watch his own confession after denying any involvement with Abu Nazir or knowledge of Issa; the scene is visualized here via the appropriately meta-representation of surveillance cameras as we watch Carrie in the observation room watch Brody watch himself. Viewing the video serves both as a paradigmatic trigger for Brody’s emotional reaction to his own past actions, and as a plot device to create a compelling procedural game for the rest of the episode to see how Brody and Carrie attempt to out-manipulate each other. This episode completes the video’s depoliticization, as Carrie frames Brody’s betrayal within the realm of the personal, both in his love for Issa and Walden’s individual monstrosity for ordering and covering up the drone strike, but avoids the political debate of whether the United States itself is culpable for such military action and whether it can be seen as noble to resist such American dominance. By the end of the dramatically compelling episode, it is clear that Carrie and her CIA colleagues are the good guys, Brody wants to redeem himself by helping them, and the violence that should be decried are the acts of individual “monsters” like Vice President Walden and Abu Nazir, not the broader military action of drone strikes.

61 Leave a comment on paragraph 61 0 The video’s final appearance (thus far) in the second season finale restores its political function, but reinscribed into dominant hegemony: after an explosion at the CIA building, Al Qaida releases the video to the U.S. media to frame Brody for the attack, marking its radical sentiments as clearly villainous and foreign by disassociating them from the sympathetic character of Brody himself. This disassociation is reinforced as we watch Brody’s family viewing the clip on television, where his daughter Dana’s shock underscores the sense that this is not who Brody is now, if he ever really had been. Brody himself, on the run with Carrie, sees the video on television, reminding viewers of Brody’s current innocence and ultimate refusal to undertake his original plan, while reinforcing that the “real” terrorists are the foreign Arabs who realeased the video, not the white Marine voicing dissent. This is the last we’ve seen of the video so far, but when Homeland returns for its third season, it might generate even more serial iterations to spin out new interpretations and contexts.

62 Leave a comment on paragraph 62 0 So within these broader serial contexts, what is the political meaning of Brody’s video? Is it a radical critique of American military policy, an irrational statement by a grieving and broken man that might later be retracted, or the ventriloquized voice of Arab terrorists speaking through a brainwashed soldier? Each of these interpretations could be correct, depending on when you ask—Homeland’s serial timeframe changes the video’s meaning, even though the video itself remains intact. And this is the challenge of trying to analyze meaning in a serial text: it changes as you watch it, or how it means shapes what it means. Its past is not undone, for despite its later reframing, the initial airing of Brody’s video still conveyed a radical critique that doesn’t fully disappear, either within the storyworld or the minds of viewers. Yet any attempt to account for Homeland’s political meanings must remain open and unfinished until the series concludes, as it has demonstrated a willingness to revisit and revise its politics quite drastically.

63 Leave a comment on paragraph 63 0 This need to wait for an end is not equally true of all series—it seems pretty clear after the first season of The Wire or 24 which side of the political fence each will be pitching its tent, but both do shift over time some concerning particular issues, like gender representations or the role of ethnicity. But for a series like Homeland, whose politics are more ambiguous and thus more in need of interpretation, any analysis before it ends must be contingently grounded only within that moment of storytelling, not an overall perspective. Such a need to wait for finality is not because a conclusion provides ideological closure and thus resolution, but because it simply means that there’s no more time to revise and resubmit its positions.[14]

64 Leave a comment on paragraph 64 0 We can understand these serial instances of political reframing through the concept of articulation, as defined by Stuart Hall as both discursive utterances and politicized connections between distinct elements.[15] In this formation, dominant forms of political ideology are forged by the contingent linking of social practices to cultural meanings, which can frequently shift and transform within new contexts—Brody first articulates a terrorist bombing to American patriotism, then Homeland rearticulates the video to anti-terrorist pursuits and eventually to condemn terrorism and frame Brody as wrongly-accused, solidifying the dominant notion that terrorists are Arab foreigners, not white Marines. Serial articulation depends on the practice of reiteration, where repeating and reframing helps define which linkages are maintained and discarded over the course of a series, highlighting how the political interpretations of any series are always subject to revision and recontextualization.

65 Leave a comment on paragraph 65 0 This mode of altering and revising a political perspective through serial reiterations is not the only way that a meaning can be rearticulated throughout a series. Another important factor is how distance reshapes a narrative event over time. Take another serialized moment critiquing America’s military policies: in the second season Lost episode “One of Them,” we see a flashback to Sayid’s time during the Persian Gulf War. While we have known that he was in the military and functioned as a torturer, in this episode we learn that he was trained, encouraged, and paid to torture by the U.S. Army. When this aired in 2006 as details of American prisoner torture and abuse in Iraq were still coming to light, representing the American military condoning torture was quite controversial and taboo, even more so by the suggestion that such policies dated back to the 1990s. Future episodes of Lost never retracted, contradicted, or revised such political meanings, but simply ignored them: Sayid’s alliances with the U.S. military were never referenced again, and that aspect of his history simply receded into the background over the next 82 episodes. I’m sure that most Lost fans view this bit of narrative history as simply another detail in a vast array of character information, not a lasting political critique that significantly shapes their view of either the series or American military policy, suggesting that serial storytelling can emphasize or ignore particular meanings simply by the amount of attention afforded to them through serial reiterations and articulations.

66 Leave a comment on paragraph 66 0 The Homeland and Lost examples focus on the question of “how does it mean?” as a factor in shaping a program’s politics, where serial poetics impact interpretation. To explore “how does it matter?”, or the ways that a program’s cultural circulation over the course of a series shapes political significance, I’ll return to an issue discussed in the Serial Melodrama chapter: the gender politics of Breaking Bad. As argued in that chapter, focusing our attention on the character of Skyler encourages us to see the underlying melodramatic cues running throughout the series, with Skyler slowly revealing herself to be an abused spouse fearfully trying to protect herself and her kids from her monstrous husband Walt. This perspective comes into focus most clearly in the fifth season, such as in the episode “Fifty-One,” where she fakes a suicide attempt to get her kids out of the house, and cowers from an aggressive, domineering Walt in their bedroom. It is not a stretch to interpret such sequences and story arcs as clearly inviting us to side with Skyler and condemn Walt’s long slide into amorality as destroying any sense of love and compassion her may have once had for his wife.

67 Leave a comment on paragraph 67 0 However, the long arc of Walt’s perspective has inspired a large portion of Breaking Bad’s fans to dislike or even hate Skyler, treating her as the series’s true villain—for one of many instances, a Facebook page called “Fuck Skyler White” has more than 28,000 fans, with posts and comments dripping with violent misogynistic hatred. For such viewers, their Skyler hate seems unwavering in the face of serial rearticulations, prompting vitriolic comments where they seem to be rooting for Walt to abuse Skyler or worse, and even extending such violent fantasies to actress Anna Gunn. Series creator Vince Gilligan has stated his perspective on this issue, calling the internet’s den of Skyler-haters “misogynists, plain and simple,” and suggesting he sees no other way to justify such antipathy toward a character who is often a voice of reason in the face of Walt’s amoral selfishness.[16] I write this with eight remaining episodes waiting to conclude the story and issue moral closure on this conflict—for me, it is hard to imagine Breaking Bad’s final episodes redeeming Walt and blaming Skyler for his crimes, as it has become progressively more apparent how much damage his ego-driven actions have wrought, especially to the family he allegedly was striving to protect. While one contingent of fans will be disappointed in any outcome where Skyler is treated sympathetically or Walt is forced to suffer for his abuse, my own viewing investments yearn both for Walt’s suffering and for the series to articulate enough of a meta-commentary to shame and disgrace those viewers who wanted him to be even more abusive toward Skyler.

68 Leave a comment on paragraph 68 0 But we can’t dismiss anti-Skyler sentiments as simple misreadings, whether driven by misogyny or more rational perspectives, as we must acknowledge that the ways people make meaning around an ongoing serial do matter, even if they seem to be “wrong” by standards of authorial intent, critical analysis, moral judgement, or basic human decency.[17] Hating Skyler is a significant part of Breaking Bad’s cultural circulation, and thus an aspect of its gender politics as articulated, if not textually intended or justified. And no matter how effective the eventual ending might be in shaming Walt and his fans, these cultural practices of hating Skyler still matter, even in the unlikely instance that they were all renounced and deleted from the web at the program’s conclusion. Seriality is comprised by the gaps between episodes, when contingent meanings come to matter in often material ways, and we cannot ignore such in-process interpretations and paratextual traces—such serial practices of articulation, however contingent, are how a series matters, which shapes why it matters.

69 Leave a comment on paragraph 69 0 So what are the gender politics of Breaking Bad? I would never call it a misogynist text, and might even argue that it is a feminist or anti-sexist series critiquing deep-seated assumptions of patriarchy. But whatever intents we might attribute to the series, it is a text that has prompted misogyny, both by attracting such people to its audience and by triggering hateful reactions amongst a significant subset of viewers, and such cultural practices cannot be simply overridden or invalidated by a nuanced textual analysis. I have no firm answers as to what to do with such issues of vastly different interpretations and cultural practices, aside from insisting that we acknowledge them as significant and, in a word, complex.

70 Leave a comment on paragraph 70 0 It is telling that I have left these questions of cultural politics to the end of the book, despite how central they are to the field at large, as it highlights how such analysis is both too easy and too hard. It is fairly easy to interpret a television program using the field’s well-established tools of critical analysis, isolating the particular episodes and moments that best support your argument and opinions without leading to much far-reaching insight besides calling a text ideological and/or progressive. But once you account for how serial television works over time and across various cultural sites, it becomes hard to say anything about a program’s politics with any conviction that is not draped in contingency, partiality, and competing perspectives, leaving me with that most shameful conclusion for an academic: “I don’t know.” That is not to suggest that we not try to understand issues like Homeland’s perspective on patriotism or Breaking Bad’s take on patriarchy, but such questions require us to reframe what we mean by “understanding” itself as a serial endeavor—always in flux, replete with gaps and ellipses, and frustrating in its incompleteness. Writing serial criticism requires the critic to accept such potential shifts and open-ended contingency as part of the terrain, giving up the certainty that is typically asserted in academic arguments.

71 Leave a comment on paragraph 71 0 Ending Serial Criticism

72 Leave a comment on paragraph 72 0 This book is offers no broad arguments about the politics of serial television, but rather focuses on the poetic and cultural practices that comprise the mode and medium of storytelling. Arguably the most significant way that the book is “political” is at the meta-level concerning publishing practices; this is a case of small-scale politics, not looking to overturn capitalism or renounce patriarchy, but to affect a change in how scholarly knowledge circulates. By posting drafts of the book chapters online in serial succession, it allowed more people of all kinds to access it, invited readers to serve as peer reviewers providing feedback on a draft, and hopefully can inspire other scholars to undertake their own innovative publishing projects—and in that way, it seeks to rearticulate the ways that scholarship circulates. The online version of Complex TV is “serial criticism” in two ways: it is a critical work about serial texts, and it is criticism published serially. Keeping with the theme of this chapter, I’ll conclude the book by returning to the meta-level about the ends of this latter aspect of serial criticism.

73 Leave a comment on paragraph 73 0 I began posting the book to MediaCommons Press in March 2012, posting a new chapter every two weeks or so until June, posted the eighth chapter in August, and took an unplanned hiatus until May 2013, when I overcame scheduling overload and writer’s block to complete the ninth chapter. The final chapter was posted at the end of July 2013, marking a conclusion to that part of the serial publication process. However, all academic writing is implicitly serialized, with installments developed for presentations, teaching, articles, and chapters to eventually build up into a larger project, and often continue thereafter into new spinoffs and reiterations. As mentioned in the Introduction, this book was written serially, emerging over the course of ten years of thinking through its ideas, researching various case studies, and presenting parts in various lectures, essays, and blog posts. Gaps between such installments are hopefully productive for authors, incorporating feedback and further reflection into the next iteration, which I certainly tried to do throughout the process. The main difference in my approach was clearly marking each chapter as part of a whole and releasing them openly in succession, allowing anyone who was interested to follow the book’s development as an explicit serial.

74 Leave a comment on paragraph 74 1 I chose to serialize the open-access draft of the book largely in response to Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s experiences publishing her manuscript all at once on MediaCommons Press, as she found the later chapters generated far fewer comments and page views than the early ones. [18] I had hoped that serializing would build momentum and interest rather than having it dwindle, but it fell short of that goal: both page views and comments declined as publishing progressed. But of course the more than 25,000 unique visitors to the site (thus far) surpass the number of people typically browsing an academic book, although I have little way of knowing how much of the book people read, aside from the 40 people or so who have commented. Regardless of the serial release, the open-access publishing of the draft manuscript accomplished the core goal of making the manuscript available to a much wider readership than typical for academic publishing.

75 Leave a comment on paragraph 75 0 A secondary goal for serial publishing was to better understand the serial creative process itself, as I wanted to experience what it is like to have part of a work released while still writing later installments. I had hoped that the feedback from early chapters would help me both revise those parts for final publication, which is distinctly unlike what serial television creators do, and inspire improvements in subsequent chapters, which is more common on television—and both outcomes proved to be true. I also hoped that having chapters circulating when they were ready to be read rather than waiting for the entire book to be done would help gather interest and impact other scholarship, and this has been the most successful part of the process. Chapters of the book-in-progress have been taught in at least seven different courses, ended up on at least one graduate student’s preliminary examinations, and even got cited in The New Yorker.[19] Since writing an academic book is typically a isolated and lonely process, this publicly circulating model has definitely made me feel more like I was part of an ongoing conversation and community.

76 Leave a comment on paragraph 76 1 Writing serially in public requires a degree of flexibility and willingness to make changes to my initial plan. In some cases, this has resulted in “outsourcing” my own analysis to other scholars who have admirably covered issues that I had originally planned to address. Thus in the original proposal, I included a chapter on television temporality—but then had the chance to read Paul Booth’s book Time on TV, which built on some of my early work to tackle some topics I had hoped to address with more detail than I would have managed, and thus I relegated such issues to citing Booth’s work.[20] As I note on the blurb for Booth’s book, it functions as a “pre-emptive sequel” to this project, highlighting how scholarship can work as productive dialogue between academics in a more compressed (and circular) timeframe than traditionally possible via the pace of scholarly publishing. Another chapter similarly got excised within the serial writing and pre-publication process: a chapter on the history of television’s narrative complexity prior to the landmark year of 1999. That chapter would have traced the history of primetime television’s narrative form, looking at key precedents such as the two-parter, the recap, and the cliffhanger as they developed within earlier programs and the critical reactions they triggered. I would have analyzed landmark programs like I Love Lucy, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Gunsmoke, Peyton Place, Soap, Dallas, Hill Street Blues, Cheers, Wiseguy, Twin Peaks, The X-Files, and Seinfeld, as well as interesting failures like Coronet Blue, to show the gradual development of television’s complex narrative strategies, and posit some explanations for why the 2000s saw such an acceleration of storytelling innovation. In retrospect, that is a book in and of itself, so I cut it from the chapter plan before completing the manuscript, while incorporating some of the ideas into various chapters; however the plan for these cut chapters endure in the online versions of the book proposal and introduction. Such accessible in-process writing has the added benefit of providing an open record of how at least one author develops a monograph, offering perspective on academic writing processes that are typically invisible and obscured.

77 Leave a comment on paragraph 77 0 Of course, this also meant that when I ran into trouble, anyone could see it. Had I not been posting chapters online, I probably would have finished writing the book a year earlier, as I could have dedicated the time that I spent formatting the website, responding to comments, and revising old chapters toward finishing the final sections. And my nine-month hiatus felt like a very public failure, letting down a community of readers through my stalled momentum and providing visible evidence of the all-too-common academic missing publishing deadlines. But such failure can be extremely productive, as the chapter I was struggling with transformed radically during my break, shifting from being broadly about Genre to more specifically focused on Serial Melodrama, in reaction to some new scholarship that was only published during my long, dormant winter; had I finished writing it back in 2012, the chapter would not have worked as I think the new version does. The public versioning of the book allows readers to see the improvements that hopefully have occurred through feedback, revisions, and rethinking from the proposal to online drafts to final print manuscript, and hopefully such visibility will lead other scholars and publishers to embrace similar serial and open-access experiments to make the academic publishing ecosystem more transparent, open, and accessible.

78 Leave a comment on paragraph 78 0 So facing the end, and getting appropriately reflexive about my own ends, I’m left wondering how best to conclude the book. I’m tempted to look to my subject matter for inspiration from television finales. I could follow Lost and offer some grand moral statement, or mimic Six Feet Under and flash forward to the future demise of complex television. Or I could ape The Sopranos and cut-off in the middle of a sentence. But instead, I will look for inspiration from the finales of Homeland and Breaking Bad, which as of this writing exist only in the realm of infinite possibilities and potential, dodging the inevitable disappointment of finality by remaining still unfinished. While this book does end, the practice of serial scholarship pauses rather than concludes, as we find ourselves revisiting material, revising arguments, and spinning off in new directions. And thus I’ll end my book with the three sweetest words for a scholar of seriality: to be continued.

79 Leave a comment on paragraph 79 0 Notes

80 Leave a comment on paragraph 80 0 [1] From New Oxford American Dictionary, contained on Macintosh computers.

81 Leave a comment on paragraph 81 0 [2] See http://tvseriesfinale.com/tv-show/reunion/ for details.

82 Leave a comment on paragraph 82 0 [3] Greg M. Smith, “Caught Between Cliffhanger and Closure: Potential Cancellation and the TV Season Ending” (presented at the Society for Cinema & Media Studies, New Orleans, Louisiana, USA, 2011).

83 Leave a comment on paragraph 83 0 [4] Personal interview with Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof, 23 March, 2010.

84 Leave a comment on paragraph 84 0 [5] Emily Nussbaum, “A Disappointed Fan Is Still a Fan: How the Creators of Lost Seduced and Betrayed Their Viewers,” New York Magazine, May 28, 2010.

85 Leave a comment on paragraph 85 0 [6] See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Made_in_America_(The_Sopranos) for reference to Chase’s desire to extend the blackness.

86 Leave a comment on paragraph 86 0 [7] For one of many places where Chase denies showing contempt for viewers, Alan Sepinwall, “David Chase Speaks!,” NJ.com, June 11, 2007.

87 Leave a comment on paragraph 87 0 [8] Matt Zoller Seitz, “The Sopranos Mondays: Season 6, Ep. 21, ‘Made in America,’” Slant Magazine, 11 June 2007.

88 Leave a comment on paragraph 88 0 [9] See http://masterofsopranos.wordpress.com/the-sopranos-definitive-explanation-of-the-end/.

89 Leave a comment on paragraph 89 0 [10] Todd VanDerWerff, “The Sopranos – ‘Made in America’,” The A.V. Club, December 19, 2012.

90 Leave a comment on paragraph 90 0 [11] Matt Zoller Seitz, forthcoming in Sight & Sound.

91 Leave a comment on paragraph 91 0 [12] Tara McKelvey, “Media Coverage of the Drone Program,” Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, February 2013.

92 Leave a comment on paragraph 92 0 [13] Robert C. Allen, Speaking of Soap Operas (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985).

93 Leave a comment on paragraph 93 0 [14] For more on the role of serial narrative and ideological closure, see Laura Stempel Mumford, Love and Ideology in the Afternoon: Soap Opera, Women, and Television Genre (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995).

94 Leave a comment on paragraph 94 0 [15] Lawrence Grossberg, “On Postmodernism and Articulation : An Interview with Stuart Hall,” Journal of Communication Inquiry 10, no. 2 (1986): 45–60.

95 Leave a comment on paragraph 95 0 [16] Quoted in Lane Brown, “In Conversation: Vince Gilligan on the End of Breaking Bad,” Vulture, May 12, 2013.

96 Leave a comment on paragraph 96 0 [17] To be fair, not all Skyler-hating is misogynist; see Kelli Marshall, “I Don’t Like Skyler White, But Probably Not for the Reasons You Think,” MediAcademia, August 7, 2012, for an example of feminist anti-Skyler sentiments.

97 Leave a comment on paragraph 97 0 [18] Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy (NYU Press, 2011).

98 Leave a comment on paragraph 98 0 [19] Emily Nussbaum, “Tune in Next Week,” The New Yorker, July 30, 2012.

99 Leave a comment on paragraph 99 0 [20] Paul Booth, Time on TV: Temporal Displacement and Mashup Television (New York: Peter Lang, 2012).

  • 100 Leave a comment on paragraph 100 0
  • From New Oxford American Dictionary, contained on Macintosh computers.
  • See http://tvseriesfinale.com/tv-show/reunion/ for details.
  • Greg M. Smith, “Caught Between Cliffhanger and Closure: Potential Cancellation and the TV Season Ending” (presented at the Society for Cinema & Media Studies, New Orleans, Louisiana, USA, 2011).
  • Personal interview with Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof, 23 March, 2010.
  • Emily Nussbaum, “A Disappointed Fan Is Still a Fan: How the Creators of Lost Seduced and Betrayed Their Viewers,” New York Magazine, May 28, 2010.
  • See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Made_in_America_(The_Sopranos) for reference to Chase’s desire to extend the blackness.
  • For one of many places where Chase denies showing contempt for viewers, Alan Sepinwall, “David Chase Speaks!,” NJ.com, June 11, 2007.
  • Matt Zoller Seitz, “The Sopranos Mondays: Season 6, Ep. 21, ‘Made in America,’” Slant Magazine, 11 June 2007.
  • See http://masterofsopranos.wordpress.com/the-sopranos-definitive-explanation-of-the-end/.
  • Todd VanDerWerff, “The Sopranos – ‘Made in America’,” The A.V. Club, December 19, 2012.
  • Matt Zoller Seitz, forthcoming in Sight & Sound.
  • Tara McKelvey, “Media Coverage of the Drone Program,” Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, February 2013.
  • Robert C. Allen, Speaking of Soap Operas (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985).
  • For more on the role of serial narrative and ideological closure, see Laura Stempel Mumford, Love and Ideology in the Afternoon: Soap Opera, Women, and Television Genre (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995).
  • Lawrence Grossberg, “On Postmodernism and Articulation : An Interview with Stuart Hall,” Journal of Communication Inquiry 10, no. 2 (1986): 45–60.
  • Quoted in Lane Brown, “In Conversation: Vince Gilligan on the End of Breaking Bad,” Vulture, May 12, 2013.
  • To be fair, not all Skyler-hating is misogynist; see Kelli Marshall, “I Don’t Like Skyler White, But Probably Not for the Reasons You Think,” MediAcademia, August 7, 2012, for an example of feminist anti-Skyler sentiments.
  • Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy (NYU Press, 2011).
  • Emily Nussbaum, “Tune in Next Week,” The New Yorker, July 30, 2012.
  • Paul Booth, Time on TV: Temporal Displacement and Mashup Television (New York: Peter Lang, 2012).
  • Page 18

Source: http://mcpress.media-commons.org/complextelevision/ends/