We demand a lot from art.
Sometimes we demand a lot at the beginning, as demonstrated by the astonishing tidal wave of identity-politics criticism directed at the first installment of Lena Dunham’s Girls. But pilots cannot and should not solve the problems of the world. Pilots are rough sketches, vague ideas about what and how a story might become; they are experiments in thought and action.
Sometimes we demand a lot at the end, as demonstrated by the objections to the conclusion of Lost, or to the non-conclusion of Deadwood. As David Milch articulates in this sequence from a DVD extra, there exists a bizarre belief that the finale, or even worse the final moments, of a series are somehow that series’ justification, or its pure essence. If the end fails, the series fails, and the viewer’s long investment dissolves into wasted time. How does The Odyssey end? With an anticlimactic return to conflict, a conflict that is interrupted before it can really begin—a stuttering finale that would have been insta-trashed on Twitter. How does Great Expectations end? One hundred and fifty years after its publication, no one knows how Great Expectations ends. The Odyssey and Great Expectations; what a waste of time.
A three-season series is not a limerick. Our principles for evaluating its final gesture cannot plausibly replicate those we would employ for evaluating the rim shot of a joke.
Serial storytelling, at its most interesting, is about the present tense. It is about the precious feeling of a moment suspended between past and future, a weekly performance separating the history that cannot be changed and the possibility that can only be imagined. By accident or design, Deadwood’s suspended closure keeps the series perpetually in the present, in a world that is, rather than a world that was or a world that will be. Al Swearengen was scrubbing blood off the floor of his office…and then something else happened. Or didn’t happen. Later in this wonderfully melancholy return to the set of the show that did and did not end, Milch asks viewers “to accept the part of the story which we take to have been untold as residing in the realm of the untold.” The realm of the untold: Deadwood, a series about how and why and at what cost we claim territory, made the land that does not exist one of its defining geographical features.