Not All Endings Are Created Equal: Dexter, HIMYM, and the Road to the Series Finale

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Ending a long-running television show has to be unbelievably hard. Making any television is tough enough on its own, but once a series nears the end, writers and producers face all sorts of challenges, from picking what to focus on to making sure diehard fans are satisfied (or at least pretending that they care what fans think in the press and on social media).

But when we get into the discussion of what makes a great series finale, one of the things often pushed aside is the fact that, like shows, not all conclusions are not equal. There is a big difference between wrapping up a plot-heavy, mystery-laden show and concluding a story that's more character-focused. And oftentimes, choices shows make much earlier in their run end up defining (or hampering) how they come to an end.

While there are a number of long-running series coming to an end this season—The Office, Gossip Girl, Fringe, and 30 Rock most notably—the two that are taking the most interesting approaches to the endgame won’t (or won't necessarily) be done in May. We know that Dexter has another (final) season after the current one and despite various protestations from the cast, there's still a chance that CBS will try to keep How I Met Your Mother around for one more season in 2013-2014, even though the producers are "assuming" this is the end, and writing to the end. Regardless, both series are in the midst of concluding. More so than any other shows near the end, HIMYM and Dexte represent how the fundamental structure of a show—and a creative team’s willingness to tinker with said structure—shapes the conclusion.


How I Met Your Mother’s Misguided Stubbornness

You have probably heard from someone that How I Met Your Mother, now in its eighth season, is pretty much a shell of its former self. The jokes are still there on occasion, but the show’s primary strength—the ability to build to and then hit truly powerful emotional beats—is all but gone. In that way, the later seasons of the show remind me of the later season of Friends (an easy comparison, but an apt one as well): sort of empty. All the pieces are there, but the impact is nullified. But HIMYM’s problems go beyond that, and as you might imagine, date back much further than the current season.

For whatever reason, showrunners Carter Bays and Craig Thomas steadfastly believe that it's crucial that the "Who's the mother?" mystery remains a dominant part of the narrative, and to a lesser extent, they think that screwing with the audience is a fundamental part of the HIMYM viewing experience. Ted still hasn't met the mother and the show’s other still-developing relationship, Barney and Robin's, is trapped in narrative hijinks. While both the identity of the mother and plot tomfoolery have been essential to the show from the beginning, the longer things have gone on, the more strained those elements have become. The search for the mother has lost its luster and trapped Ted in a problematic holding pattern, while Barney and Robin’s relationship has gone from truly compelling to convoluted and ineffectual.

The counter to this frustration is that HIMYM can still be enjoyed as a more conventional “hang-out” sitcom that produces pleasure simply due to our affection for the characters. I used to support this viewpoint. But the show’s unwillingness to move past certain inevitabilities and its desire to keep winking toward “the future” has warped the characters to such a degree that it’s getting hard to care about them or their relationships. It’s not the show's focus on the search for the mother that bugs me, it’s that it has positioned the search as Ted’s biggest—and sometimes only—goal, so when he’s not looking (or even when he is), we know that it doesn’t really mean anything other than a surface connection to “the journey.”

And the biggest problem with all of this is that I sort of see where Bays and Thomas are coming from. The twisty-turny narrative nonsense and keeping the mother secret are defining parts of the show’s formula. Removing those removes a core of the show, in theory. It's a similar sort of argument to the one Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse made during the final season of Lost. Answers aren’t as interesting as questions and all that. But whereas Lost was a show that most fans wanted to be about the mystery and the producers claimed was actually about the characters (whether you believe that or not), How I Met Your Mother has always felt like a great character show that the producers really want to keep dazzling up with gimmicks.

So, for HIMYM and its stewards, removing certain essential parts of the show is not really an option, and unfortunately, I think that's the wrong decision. The show is stuck, and will be stuck until it stops pretending that most viewers care about the identity of the mother above all else. And while the Barney-Robin story is less problematic, that pairing has been damaged since the show aborted it the first time around. Despite all the good intentions, HIMYM feels like it is simply padding time until the end when all the “important” revelations can come out. The show is winding down instead of wrapping up, almost solely because it is held hostage by a framework that it actually has the power to run away from.


Dexter’s Smart Simplicity

Conversely, Dexter has gone from turning in one of the worst seasons of television last year to building up one of the best this year. Few shows have creatively revitalized themselves this late in the game, and Dexter’s improvements are especially impressive considering it didn’t really have a commercial onus to change a thing, what with last season’s strong ratings. Dexter’s success in Season 7 is the byproduct of its fundamental structure, but also its willingness to do what How I Met Your Mother is not: stop screwing around.

Unlike HIMYM, Dexter has never really been about mystery. The show’s dedication to framing the narrative through the lead character’s eyes has sometimes resulted in nice surprises (most notably when Trinity dispatched of Rita at the end of Season 4), but for the most part, Dexter is a straightforward, procedural show with two (and sometimes more, depending on the big villain of a season) compelling performances at the center.

The show’s formulaic nature has been a detriment from the very beginning. Even the “good” seasons were hampered by some fairly dreadful stories (typically involving LaGuerta), and the same can be said for this current one. Still, the reason those “good” seasons were good is that they featured compelling characters and great performances that were pushed to the forefront—or at least they pushed the silly stuff far enough to the side.

So whereas HIMYM’s essential qualities helped make it an innovator at the beginning and a disappointing slog at the end, Dexter’s inherently basic narrative structure has allowed this season’s transition from mediocrity to excellence to be pretty simple. HIMYM’s plot gets in the way, whereas Dexter’s plot can simply move aside for the important stuff. Which, in this case, is the tremendous, compelling relationship between Dexter and Deb.

Much like Ted finding the mother, Deb learning about Dexter's extracurricular activities has been the show's primary untold story. The big difference between the two series is that Dexter’s team recognized (or they at least felt empowered by Dexter's set end-date, something HIMYM still doesn’t have) that if the show owes the fans one story before it concludes, it’s Deb learning the truth about Dexter. More importantly, they understand that it’s not Deb just finding out that matters; it’s her reaction and the way her newfound knowledge re-shapes her relationship with her brother.

Somewhat surprisingly, Dexter has, at least through the first five episodes of Season 7, lived up to the expectations of the “Deb finds out” thread. Every week, the show has examined tangible and logical parts of the story in great detail, and there's been an intuitive progression to Deb’s thoughts on Dexter’s lifestyle that I would have never anticipated from a show that can be quite stupid. And perhaps most importantly, the show is treating Deb’s newfound knowledge as it deserves to be treated: like the biggest thing to ever happen. There are no cute misdirects or problematic evasive maneuvers. This is an honest exploration of the show’s most important relationship—and the show is all the more powerful for it (although the amazing performances certainly don't hurt). Dexter feels like it’s legitimately wrapping up, in a good way.

There’s no question that How I Met Your Mother and Dexter are very different shows and some of those prominent differences are playing sizable roles in their divergent journeys to the end. HIMYM’s fundamental reliance on the mother mystery and its structural playfulness—not the mention the fact that it's a sitcom—are arguably harder to manage in a final chapter than Dexter’s more simplistic character-based procedural framework. So maybe, in some ways, HIMYM is at a disadvantage.

But what I see as the key distinction the way both shows have chosen to engage (or not engage) with their respective series arcs. One keeps holding on to its essential nature as a way to avoid truly exploring the big story in a satisfying fashion, while the other has pretty seamlessly integrated the big story into its essential form. And that’s why How I Met Your Mother will likely limp to the finish line and why Dexter will probably have its best season in year seven.


QUESTIONS:

– How do you think Dexter and HIMYM are doing, respectively, as they near the ends?

– What are the most important things for each show to do in order to give fans a satisfying season finale?

– Series finales are contentious by their very nature; what elements do you think of as "series finale essentials"? Closure for all the major characters? Answers to any and all outstanding questions?