If you’ve ever played organized sports, I guarantee you’ve heard the cliche “Failing to plan is planning to fail.” Even if you haven’t played, you’ve probably heard this paraphrased Ben Franklin quote before. As trite as it may be, it’s 100% true, particularly in the realm of storytelling. When it comes to serialized media such as TV shows or movies that are planned out over multiple installments, usually a trilogy. We’ve seen clear examples of both sides of this coin in the past couple of decades. The most obvious one, and the inspiration behind this post, is Game of Thrones.
Admittedly, I never watched the show. But it became an inescapable part of pop culture. It was my introduction to the concept of “social osmosis,” which is in essence the phenomenon of knowing a lot about something that you never personally experienced. Without watching a minute of it I generally knew about John Snow, the Red Wedding, white walkers, etc. Somehow, this insanely nerdy high-concept fantasy series worked its way into the mainstream, joining Lord of the Rings as the only ones to pull off this feat. It was at the top of the TV mountain, achieving success that people only dream of. And it all disappeared overnight. On May 19, 2019, the finale “The Iron Throne” premiered (funnily enough the only episode I’ve ever seen), and the show was dead. Once the initial uproar and backlash died down, Game of Thrones slipped out of the public consciousness entirely. Just think about it, when was the last time you heard someone talking about Game of Thrones unrelated to how awful the ending was? This post isn’t about why the ending was bad, there are a billion different blog posts and video essays to handle that. Show-runners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss started out with a plan for the ending: wait for George R.R. Martin to finish the books. Not the dumbest idea on its own. They did have eight years to work with after all. But Martin infamously put off writing the next book, which he still hasn’t released. Without a plan of their own, D&D were left scrambling to wrap up their story and went with, well, that.
Although GoT is the most famous example, plenty of other cultural mainstays have suffered from the same fate. The Office is one of my all-time favorite shows and was the first real child of the iTunes/streaming era. It’s one of the most culturally relevant comedies in modern times, but nearly all of the moments and lines people reference are from the Michael Scott era. Seasons 8 and 9 have been forgotten in the zeitgeist, and for good reason. When Steve Carrell left the show, it became clear the writers had no real plan for the future. They started grasping at straws looking for plot points, most of which made no sense, and flopped hard. Last month John Krasinski even revealed that the writers planned for Jim to cheat on Pam while she was pregnant, a disastrous twist that Krasinski himself stopped by refusing to shoot the scene. And even though the final episode ended up being amazing, the series as a whole clearly suffered a bumpy conclusion. For another example, just look at the Star Wars sequel trilogy. Disney made the bold decision to have a different director in charge of each installment of the new series. JJ Abrams would make the first film, followed by Rian Johnson and Colin Trevorrow. New Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy ensured that all three directors would collaborate to develop one cohesive story. There was only one problem: movies take a long-ass time to make, and Disney needed to pump out a new installment every year. Johnson was forced to start writing his movie before The Force Awakens was even finished. If you’ve seen these movies; you know they had no plan. The Force Awakens was a beat-for-beat retelling of A New Hope, but then The Last Jedi decided to take a blowtorch to the entire franchise. Johnson had no interest in following the narrative Abrams laid out, instead taking the movie in a whole new direction. Unsurprisingly, the reaction was polarizing bordering on toxic. I definitely have my thoughts about it, which could be a whole post unto itself, but it undeniably threw Disney for a loop. Abrams took over production of the ensuing Rise of Skywalker, spent the first act of the movie frantically retconning everything Johnson set up, and ended up with a train wreck. After releasing a new Star Wars movie five years in a row, Disney decided to take an indefinite hiatus from feature films, a hiatus that currently has no end in sight. Star Wars and The Office will never be irrelevant, but their unfocused endings marred what could have been perfect series.
The opposite end of the no-plan spectrum is what is known as a “zombie show.” This is a series that has long been out of interesting ideas or things to say but continues because of that sweet, sweet ad money. So as not to dwell on the negative too long, I’ll be brief with these examples. The term was coined because of the most famous example, The Simpsons. It’s pretty widely accepted that the longest running sitcom in history is a shell of its former self, with most of the original creative staff moving on a long time ago. The show inspired another important term to describe what happens in zombie shows. “Flanderization,” named after Ned Flanders, is when one trait ends up dominating a character’s entire personality. A great example is Kevin Malone from The Office, who went from speaking slowly to being legitimately mentally handicapped. The Simpsons is far from the only zombie show. Family Guy is an entire show that Flanderized itself. SpongeBob has been a zombie show for nearly two decades. The Walking Dead is the rare zombie zombie show. Without a plan for ending a show, it might drag on well past when it had any value.
So we’ve established all the terrible things that can happen when you start a series without an end in mind. What happens when a great show goes in with a plan? I think the best example is Breaking Bad. Arguably the greatest TV show of all time, and one of the biggest ratings hits on AMC, ended after only five seasons. Despite the show firing on all cylinders, Vince Gilligan decided to end things for one big reason: the story was over. Walter White’s arc had come to its logical conclusion. As he says himself at the end of season four, he won. He’d achieved everything he set out to do. All that was left was one final season for his hubris to bring everything crumbling down around him. No random twists, no convoluted storylines, no filler just to keep the franchise alive, just a satisfying ending that made watching the whole series worthwhile. Another perfect example is the show Avatar: The Last Airbender. I’m probably the first person to link a show about a homicidal meth dealer and a kid’s cartoon, but both have very similar philosophies when it comes to ending. Despite being a critical and commercial success and giving Nickelodeon a popular alternative to SpongeBob reruns, Avatar ended after only three seasons. The reason was the exact same as Breaking Bad, the story had reached its logical conclusion. About halfway through Season 1, the writers set an in-universe deadline for the show’s main conflict to resolve. On that one specific date, the story would come to an end one way or another. There was no more story to tell, so the show ended. The finale cemented the show’s legacy instead of ruining it. M. Night Shyamalan took care of that part.
When it comes to TV and film franchises, a bad ending is one that retroactively makes a show worse. One that makes rewatching the show seem like a waste of time. That’s the difference between a bad ending and an ending people just didn’t like. A lot of people hate the ending of The Sopranos, but it didn’t sully the show’s legacy in any way. Because, like all other great shows, the creators had a plan. Without an ending, a story has no point, no purpose. When that purpose is decided on the fly, audiences notice. If you don’t have a plan for how your story will end, you don’t have a story at all.