Before we launch into what is now the winter TV season, it’s worth taking a look at two truly exemplary season-ending episodes – the finales of "Walking Dead" and "Homeland."
(Major, major, major spoilers are ahead, both for these shows and "Boardwalk Empire.")
Let’s take "Homeland" first, a show that didn’t kill off any major characters in its season ender. That’s a spoiler right there.
If you watched that episode (teleplay by Alex Gansa & Chip Johannessen; story by Gansa & Howard Gordon) during its first airing, you really didn’t know until the episode’s climax that Sgt. Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis) wasn’t going to die.
He’d obtained his suicide vest in previous episodes and, by ratting out the series’ protagonist, Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes), to her CIA bosses, had effectively removed any threat that she still might have posed.
We’ve seen this a thousand times, right? It’s Bond, it’s Harry Potter, it’s "Mission: Impossible." The question is never whether the protagonist will survive but how they will manage to be victorious. That’s the fun and thrill, when we don’t see the solution the writers have so cleverly devised.
Only in the case of "Homeland," we didn’t know.
American television has progressed to the point where we actually could have a series where both leads could have been sent to oblivion, never to reappear in later seasons. The show would have survived, even if the characters didn’t.
What’s more – American television audiences are now so sophisticated that they know this.
The result is that I was watching a stock thriller situation in a way I had never seen it before – I was watching in total suspense with no certainty of the outcome. (Compare this to the finale of "Boardwalk Empire" – yes, a major character was killed, but it wasn’t Nucky Thompson. The mythology of the show pretty much prevents the possibility of there being a "Boardwalk Empire" without Nucky, whereas the mythology of "Homeland" would survive just fine without either of the current leads.)
I was watching in fascinated awe at what the writers had done, while at the same time, I was equally aware that this could only happen on TV.
Yes, there was a time when American films could tell stories of failure. But even when mainstream films had far greater complexity than they do today, the rules of thrillers were still pretty damn unyielding. "Vertigo" and "Psycho" are the only Hitchcocks I can think of in which the protagonist is destroyed, but even in "Vertigo"'s extreme case, Jimmy Stewart is still standing.
In the end, "Homeland"’s writers (those ampersands mean they were working as two teams) walked back from the precipice. Their footwork was deft – they’ve left things for next season precisely in the state they were this season, without cheating the audience one bit.
If I was disappointed that Brody didn’t blow that roomful of government officials to smithereens, it was because I really didn’t care about a damn one of them. This is "Homeland"’s greatest weakness – while the major antagonists may be rich and supple characters, all the supporting players save Sol (Mandy Patinkin) are craven. (Full disclosure – I’ve written a bit for Mandy and more than a bit for his wife.)
Not so in the case of "Walking Dead," which has chosen to divide its second season into two parts (roughly coinciding with a volume of the collected comics on which it is based).
"Walking Dead" spent the better part of this past demi-season in one place as one child recovered from having been shot and another was missing. Budget is certainly asserting itself here – fewer zombies, a new recurring location – but the result is that the series actually saved itself from endless repetition.
One of the central group was bitten and killed last season, but we didn’t get to know her all that well. Her death was What Had to Be Done.
Not so Sophia’s death at the end of Season 2A. For one thing, we’re talking about a child. It wasn’t just that Carl (Chandler Riggs) had bonded with Sophia (Madison Lintz); the writers made sure that we had spent most of the season searching for her.
Again, filmic convention is that a search like this doesn’t fail. What deepened the final episode (written by Scott M. Gimple) was that an equally significant amount of time had been spent building up characters who saw the walkers as sick (if dangerous) humans rather than monsters.
In the graphic source material (written by Robert Kirkman, who is also a producer of the show), the two storylines were distinct. Sophia is bitten and must be killed. The warehoused walkers escape and must be killed.
Here, the two stories were conflated. The warehoused zombies do not escape from the barn – series regular Shane (Jon Bernthal) leads a Mai-Lai slaughter. (Turning Shane – killed in the comic’s first volume – into Lt. Calley solved "Walking Dead"’s biggest Season 2A problem: what the hell to do with Shane. It also turned an event prompted by accident into one caused by agency.) And then, at the end, out of the barn walks the zombified Sophia.
In any series, an argument put forth by guest cast never has the force of that put forth by the regulars. In the universe of the series, the walkers have no hope of cure.
But the moment Sophia emerges from the barn, we, who have bought our regulars’ view of the world, suddenly wish the opposing view were true. We can’t see Sophia as just another zombie any more than they can. Her death at the hands of Rick (Andrew Lincoln) is inevitable but also tragic. We are way beyond metaphor. This is the stuff of tragedy.
Like the stunning turn-around in "28 Days Later," this is a moment that makes "Walking Dead" bristle with moral ambiguity, suddenly transcending and transforming its genre.
Bring on the next seasons.