Preparing for The End: Metafiction in the Final Seasons of The Wire and Lost

13Mar11

I’m in New Orleans for the annual conference of the Society for Cinema & Media Studies. I’m actually blogging the conference for the society’s new official website, an experiment in covering a conference from the ground from the perspective of four participants – you need to login to read the blogs, but if you’re not an SCMS member, you can register for a guest account to get short-term access.

One of the points I’ve made on the blog is that the old model of presenting research papers may not be the most effective use of the face-to-face conference model, in large part because it’s hard to retain information once the “conference blur” starts. So I encourage everyone to post their papers online – mine is posted below. My panel was with my friends Christine Becker, Sean O’Sullivan, and Greg Smith – last year we spoke about TV pilots, so this year we aptly covered the “Functions of Finales.” I hope the other excellent papers will turn up online soon, but in the meantime, here’s mine on the final seasons of Lost and The Wire.  As always, comments are appreciated.

“Preparing for the End: Metafiction in the Final Seasons of The Wire and Lost

As the lead-off hitter for the panel, I wanted to start the discussion with a few broad notes about the phenomenon of television series finales. At last year’s SCMS, our panel on television pilots was united by focusing on the beginning of a series — even though we all used different terms and categories, there was generally a uniform sense of what a pilot was and how it worked. But just by surveying the titles of our papers this year, you can see that endings are much more divergent in form and function than beginnings; thus for ease of understanding, I want to start by offering a taxonomy of television series endings, laying out a number of categories that my panel-mates will certainly complicate & contest.

It’s important to note that actual finales are quite rare for American television series. Much more common is the stoppage, an abrupt, unplanned end to a show 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 show’s ratings or potential for growth (or perhaps the star has a drug-fueled meltdown and starts making anti-semitic insults about the producer) 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 9 episodes leaving the central murder mystery unresolved — this unfinished business became the cautionary example for both network executives and fans about the dangers of complex serialization.

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 shows 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 show’s last did not turn it into a planned finale, as they even shot a pseudo-pilot for a potential fourth season set in the FBI academy. Cable shows with shorter seasons often treat every season finale as a potential series wrap-up, as recent single season shows like Terriers and Rubicon both ended with a degree of closure but not outright finality.

Less common still is the conclusion, where a show’s producers are able craft a final episode knowing that it will be the end. Sometimes conclusions are planned in advance by the producers, and sometimes they are thrust upon them—compare Joss Whedon’s pair of shows, with Buffy season 7 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 rushed last-minute conclusion. 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 second-act and relegates endings to failures.

There are a few variations on this spectrum. One is a cessation, which is a stoppage or wrap-up without a definite finality. It’s fairly common for a show 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 this type of cessation is Deadwood, which was denied a planned final fourth season, morphing into unmade-for-TV movies that are still 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.

The inverse of a cessation is a resurrection, where an already concluded series returns, either on television or in another medium. Some shows 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 as ongoing comics as with Whedon’s other shows 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 returning 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 shows like Arrested Development and Veronica Mars are often discussed as spawning feature films, but neither has actually entered into production to resuscitate the dormant shows… yet.

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. The discursive importance of finales raise the stakes for the narrative, and thus frequently produce disappointment and backlash when they inevitably fail to please everyone. All of these facets will prove important in my discussion of Lost and The Wire.

Arguably, Lost and The Wire had as much hype and pressure to “stick the landing” in their final seasons as any shows 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 offered, 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 show functioned rhetorically as dissent and made cogent arguments about American social conditions.

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 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 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 the answers that were given were yet another red herring. Additionally, the end of Lost had been hyped for years, as one of the show’s most innovative industrial precedents was negotiating a planned end date midway through season 3 so that the producers could roll out their endgame according to plan.

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 show 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 answer and asking for our faith in the show’s creators that the resulting ambiguities were more satisfying than a litany of explicit answers. The Wire’s final season is generally seen as a step down from the heights of seasons three and four, as the show’s hyper-realism is dismissed for overtly unrealistic tales of fake serial killers and lying newsmen. Even for those of us who enjoyed both final seasons, they still seem like a let-down from both shows’ earlier peaks.

But today I would like to argue that 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 the show’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. Even shows that are less overtly metafictional frequently design their final episodes to culminate with a final act of saying goodbye that addresses both the characters and the audience, as with M*A*S*H, Mary Tyler Moore, and Cheers.

Among contemporary serials, key examples of meta-finales are Arrested Development and Six Feet Under. In the former, the final moments payoff the layers of reflexivity as Maeby pitches her family’s story as a TV series to Ron Howard, the actual show’s narrator and producer – he rejects it, but suggests that it might make a good movie, setting up the as-of-yet unrealized possibilities of cinematic resurrection. For Six Feet Under, the powerful final minutes dramatize the show’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 create our final moments. 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 that a show’s final moments exhibit such tendencies.

Neither Lost nor The Wire use such overt reflexivity and narrative play, but I believe that highlighting the metafictional elements within their final seasons can help us appreciate how each series approached its conclusion and offer some retrospective reframing of some of the final seasons’ disappointments. One strategy that both Lost and The Wire used in similar ways is what Carlton Cuse referred 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. Thus on The Wire, the plot is stretched to provide excuses to deliver single scenes with Avon, Prez, Nick Sobatka, Randy, Namond, and Cutty, as well visiting locales of earlier seasons, like the docks, Edward Tighlman 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 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 most season five viewers I’ve spoken with highlight such curtain calls as one of the season’s assets.

Curtain calls highlight a show’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 places like the caves, the beach, the Hydra cages, and New Otherton, but framed by the characters themselves articulating their memories of such locales. These moments are designed to remind us of where we’ve been over the years of the show, as well as offer a bit of closure paralleling the characters’ experiences of coming to terms with their fates.

On both The Wire and Lost, many past 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 Wallace, D’Angelo, Stringer, Bodie, and Frank. Lost takes advantage of its broader generic palette to bring back the dead 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 over 15 characters who died in previous years appear in this universe whose status of existence remains mysterious until the finale’s final moments. It is this sideways world where Lost’s final season most directly embraces its mode of metafiction.

For the entire season, the flash sideways stories function as a new mystery for a show 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 6, 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. At the end of “The End,” we learn that the sideways is a form of transitional afterlife. As Jack’s father Christian explains to him, “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 let go. But as a coherent explanation for what we’d spent the past season watching, it requires a bit more unpacking.

For most of season 6, 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. Many of these parallel possibilities are fun – fans were quick to imagine a spinoff series with Miles & Sawyer as rogue cops – 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. The unsympathetic reading is that the sideways storyline is a cheat, designed to mislead the audience into thinking that the sideways was a parallel universe where the island was blown-up in 1977, but revealed in the end to be internally incoherent without resorting to a higher power.

The more sympathetic read acknowledges that it’s 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 with them mattered. We also loved to spin theories in search of coherence within a fantasy narrative that often didn’t make much 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 show’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. In its closing moments, Christian Shepherd is talking to us, saying this is what we would make if we imagined new “what if?” tales for our heroes. In essence, the sideways world is an extended bit of fan service, delivering action thrills, 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. 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 engaged and entertained.

The Wire has other purposes beyond entertainment, setting out to serve as a bit of fictional journalism to shine a light on the urban condition that is rarely explored in any medium. The metafiction of The Wire is both more clearly articulated and less likely, as the show’s realist ethos and denunciation of self-conscious storytelling techniques would seem to make it an unlikely candidate for any form of reflexivity. Yet season 5 saw two major intertwined plotlines focusing on the theme of storytelling and the lines between fiction and truth: the lying journalist Scott Templeton and 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 show’s function as a site of social realism.

For McNulty, the big lie of the serial killer is a necessary fiction to gain attention and resources needed to address the truth of Marlo’s orchestrated mass murder. For the newsroom storyline, Templeton’s escalating lies are representative of the commercial and editorial pressures that are causing journalism to miss the real news and focus on either simplistic or sensational stories. Together, the season asks us to think about the boundary between truth and fiction, and more centrally, ask how we know what we know. It’s clear that we would not know the stories of the Barksdale Crew, the dockworker’s union politics, a rigged system against urban kids, or corruption at City Hall if we only relied on the Baltimore Sun. It is only through the fiction of The Wire that the true stories of Baltimore are told.

Season 5 asks us to reflect on the storytelling process and our own culpability in privileging the big lie. In the season’s most meta-moment (from its second episode), the newspaper editors debate how best to tell the story of the city’s failing schools. The heroic Gus 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 boss Whiting warns against ending up with “an amorphous series detailing society’s ills,” a succinct negative gloss on what some might say the show amounts to. The meta-commentary extends as McNulty’s serial killer stands in for the sensationalist crime shows that get ratings buzz, while Bunk’s Wire-like real police work goes unnoticed. 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 accolades. The season’s most powerful story, Bubbles’s recovery, is highlighted by the rare act of actual journalism, but we can only appreciate his triumphant stair climbing only through the lens of fictional drama.

Thus the unrealistic elements of season 5 only make sense in the context of the show’s metafictional ruminations on how television drama can serve a journalistic function in today’s media environment. For both Lost and The Wire, the atypical storylines and structures of their final seasons are best appreciated as reflections in the narrative mirror. But why do such serials seem to embrace the meta so often in their final seasons? In a way, creators 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 that seems like a fine place to end.



12 Responses to “Preparing for The End: Metafiction in the Final Seasons of The Wire and Lost”

  1. 1 Frank Kelleter

    Jason, I really like this piece. We shortly talked about it in New Orleans but perhaps I can try to clarify one of the points I was trying to make. Something that fascinates me about serial forms is, indeed, their meta-intelligence. It seems to me that this is inherent in seriality, and not something that is “added on” for the critics and academics at some point because we all like self-reflexivity so much. Serial narration has an inherent tendency towards self-reflection and meta-serial awareness (as I was trying to convey in my paper). Why is this so? I think your article provides many good clues and answers to this question (as did the entire panel, btw, which was the best I saw at SCMS). However (ah, there’s always an “however”), I’m not convinced that “meta-fictionality” and “self-reflexivity” are the best options to describe what’s happening at the end–and with the ending–of THE WIRE. Of course, my perspective here is of someone who is not an American (media) scholar, and hence my interest in THE WIRE is as much in the show itself as in its critical reception, because I think that both have a lot in common and can tell us something about contemporary American culture. Now, I think THE WIRE is different from all other HBO shows of the 2000s in one important respect (and it pays to think about what this difference has done in terms of academic reception): THE WIRE’s commitment to an aesthetics and ideology of investigative naturalism seems to require that the series is largely absent from its own acts of representation. The show’s insistent claims of authenticity notwithstanding, the cops & gangsters of THE WIRE are most visible as /television/ cops & gangsters in the fact that they don’t watch TV cop shows. A few inside jokes about DEADWOOD & DEXTER & CSI aside–all of which serve to emphasize the /distance/ of THE WIRE to these “other” shows–,there is no television in the realistic world of THE WIRE. Now, of course one could say this is not unusual for a television show, but it is unusual for a show that describes itself as unusual and tries to represent accordingly. (It is also unusual in comparison to other HBO shows of the same period.) When the media finally do occur in the world of THE WIRE, the question is typically one of realistic representation vs. mis-representation. In fact, the basic assumption of the show’s media theory in season 5 seems to be that media report reality, either correctly or incorrectly. Thus the fake reality of “The Baltimore Sun” /in/ the show ultimately proves the authenticity of the show’s /own/ naturalistic reportage. In short, what strikes me about THE WIRE is not the turn towards questions of representation and mimesis in the end (which in itself, I think, is not a turn towards the meta-fictional yet), but how /little/ self-reflection and meta-fictionality there actually is in this turn (also compared to other finales of the same time). One reason for this is probably that the show for large parts doesn’t even think of itself as a television program–in fact, makes a point of being anything BUT television (turning HBO’s marketing slogan into something like “It’s not television, it’s David Simon”). Describing itself more along the lines of investigative journalism and sociology (in-the-necessary-form-of-fiction, a narrative that runs through a lot of Simon interviews and sociological approaches to the show), THE WIRE seems to have only few incentives to think about its own narrative operations as a television series. Which is not necessarily bad, and it certainly makes its sociological argument more forceful. Also, I see that your essay is trying to make us appreciate an ending (and a season) that many viewers apparently thought out of touch with the complexity of the first four seasons. Here I find your argument very convincing that season 5 & its finale fit much better with the rest of the show than has been frequently claimed. For me, though, meta-fiction and self-reflexivity would not be the first things that come to mind in that regard. I can see the value of these descriptions in terms of rescuing the ending for academic viewers in particular, but for me, season 5 and its media theory, as well as the finale with its (truly satisfying) curtain calls serve to reinforce the show’s well-established ambitions towards narrative totality. Hope this makes sense. Thanks for the opportunity to reply to this here, I thought my comments after the workshop were a bit disorganized.

    • We’ve already spoke about this in person, but it’s clear that I need to work on clarifying the concepts of “meta” and “reflexivity” in regards to the larger project. It’s definitely not just about the more playful winking form typical of cartoons or postmodern style, as The Wire exemplifies a more reflective and serious form of self-analysis. I’ll definitely be working on nuancing these distinctions – thanks again for the great comments!

  2. Thanks for this fascinating and thorough dissection of US TV show finale tendencies. There are very acute distinctions here and the topic is an underexplored one. I think there’s something perverse and mischievous about the way the final season of ‘The Wire’ focuses on a far-fetched storyline, as if the writers and producers of the show are now testing our abilities to detect unconvincing representations of crime and policing on television, the programme having been our educator on this. You could almost look at Season Five of ‘The Wire’ as a satire of police procedurals (particularly the Bochco legal dramas), especially with the opening scene sending up the public’s belief in faultless crime-fighting technology, curtesy of ‘CSI’, and the discussion about context vs. the individual explored in the newspaper scenes referring to network TV’s privileging of personalities over social context as much as it does to social policy.

    • Tom – that’s exactly the mode of reflexive commentary I’m talking about. There’s an aggressive undercurrent of Simon saying “viewers, you want some sensationalist crime drama? Well here you go…” in the serial killer plot. It’s not quite satire or parody, but certainly commentary. Thanks for commenting here…

  3. This is a great post, Jason. I wonder if the Season 3 finale (crucially not the series finale) of Friday Night Lights might add another category to your useful taxonomy here. The firing of Coach Taylor from Dillon and his subsequent resurrection as the coach of the less affluent and established East Dillon team has always struck me less as a straight-up reboot per se than as (1) a confirmation of the claim that the show is about the Taylors rather than about the high school kids, who come and go (and thus a nice handling of a crux age point that many teenage soap operas mishandle) and (2) more subtly and importantly, an allegory of the show’s own fate in the market, in which the beloved, high-quality fan favorite (Eric Taylor/the show itself) is conspired against by the powers that be and farmed out to start all over in a new landscape (the barren field of East Dillon that closes the episode as well as the DirectTV network 101 that picked up the show, and thus premium/non-network TV in general). If we read it this way, the metafiction seems not (or not only) to be about the show’s narrative but also about its place within the media landscape, foregrounding itself as a partial conclusion but also as a resurrection. I wonder what other series might fit into such a category…

    • Paul – on the panel I was on about finales, my friend Greg Smith presented a paper about season finales, especially for shows on the bubble. One of the main types he identified was the “game changer,” where the terms of the series are changed to stoke continued viewer interest (and hopefully networks as well). FNL is a great example – he talked about similar ones in Chuck, Alias, and others.

  4. I’m no guru on this matter, but your views are significantly like mine with this spot and I value how you have composed this short article. You’re a wonderful writing talent.


  1. 1 JustTV Blog Post | mroos08
  2. 2 Painful Goodbyes « Quality Viewing
  3. 3 Serial Orientations « Just TV
  4. 4 The Ends of Serial Criticism | Just TV
  5. 5 Complex TV: Ends | Just TV

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