The known unknown
Over the last three weeks, I’ve had the chance to watch and reflect on three very different season finales. There’s the Community finale, which was obviously intended to set up the prophesied sixth season but ended up serving as an unintentional cap on the whole series. There’s the Hannibal finale, which would have worked beautifully—if devastatingly—as the climax of the entire show, but which gets to lay the pieces for at least one more stretch of episodes. And there’s the Mad Men “finale,” really a sort of pause between two halves, which exists only because of AMC’s protracted scheduling arrangements. All, in their own ways, are effective installments of television, and they fall neatly along the spectrum of uncertainty that all shows are forced to navigate. Delivering seven to thirteen hours of narrative under such constraints is a monumental enterprise, analogous to carrying out an extended military operation, but just as war often hinges on luck and good hunches, working on a show requires no small amount of intuition, an ability to live, as Donald Rumsfeld might put it, with the known unknowns. And it’s a skill that the best showrunners seem to internalize, often based on hard experience of renewals and cancellations.
Few series creators have been through as much as Bryan Fuller, for instance, who has seen three separate shows—four, if you count Mockingbird Lane—canceled before their time. As a result, he’s developed an almost inhuman ability to stick to a plan while keeping his options open, and he’s turned into the best man imaginable to pilot a show like Hannibal, which is obliged to plot a tricky course between the canon of the original novels and the vagaries of its own survival. One of the things that makes it such a fascinating series is that it’s periodically required, based both on its source material and the narrative’s internal logic, to blow up its own premise, usually at the end of each season, which requires even more flexibility than usual. Season three is obviously going to be a very different beast in terms of location and trajectory, and last week’s finale serves to wipe the slate clean, giving Fuller and his team a free hand in terms of who returns next year. (As his walkthrough of the finale on The A.V. Club makes clear, even such critical questions as the identity of the second person in that final shot were left up in the air until the very last minute.)
And this kind of ability to modify one’s plan in real time, while making the result seem inevitable, is a crucial prerequisite for running a show, in which so much is out of anyone’s control. This may be why television writers, rather than directors, have always been in the positions of greatest power: it requires a creative personality capable of pulling coherent stories out of cast changes, truncated episode orders, and whatever fresh hell the network can devise. Community wasn’t quite able to pull it off, although it struggled valiantly in the attempt, and if Hannibal has done a better job than most, this may due to a few strokes of good fortune. At least one major plot point this season hinged on a key performer’s schedule, and the survival of certain characters may have less to do with the needs of the narrative than with the availability of particular actors. (Otherwise, when it comes to predicting who lives and who dies, I’d like to think that Fuller will follow Lecter’s own rule: “The world is more interesting with you in it.” I feel the same way about Game of Thones, which isn’t shy about killing off its leads, but only if the dramatic weight gained by one bloody incident offsets the loss from the character’s absence. If you’re fun to watch, you’re more likely to make it.)
The ideal case, of course, is one in which that kind of intuition and flexibility, honed over years of uncertainty, is finally given a fixed goal. In some ways, AMC’s decision to split the last run of Mad Men over two years, while frustrating to viewers like me, may turn out to be better for the show in the long term. If recent seasons have grown ever more sprawling, with the story of its ostensible lead often sidelined in favor of its vast supporting cast, this latest stretch of episodes returned the focus squarely to Don—and to a lesser extent to Peggy—and did wonderful things in the process. I know that some viewers have soured on the show in recent years, as Don became increasingly unlikable, but this season slowly and gracefully inched him back, while giving vivid moments to all of its secondary characters. It’s a deeply satisfying half season of television, but it wouldn’t work nearly as well if it weren’t for the skills that Matthew Weiner and company developed over the years when the show’s fate was less sure. Living with seasons of uncertainty has given Mad Men a level of nimbleness that a show like House of Cards will never have, and I can’t help but hear an echo of this in Don’s lovely exchange with Peggy: “That’s the job.” “What’s the job?” “Living with the not knowing.”