Warning: This post contains spoilers for the series finales of Big Love, Six Feet Under, The Sopranos, and Sex and the City.
After five seasons on HBO, Big Love ended its series run Sunday night with a packed season finale. The series never really dominated the watercooler in the way its paycable predecessors Sex and the City or The Sopranos did, but thanks to an attention-grabbing premise—how a prominent polygamous Mormon and his three wives navigate modern society—and stellar acting, it kept up a devoted, passionate following and maintained critics' support over the years.
On the finale the show's divisive patriarch (and, thus, controversial protagonist) Bill Henrickson was murdered at the hands of a fed up neighbor, leaving his three wives—each at their own crossroads—suddenly widowed. The events have instigated intense reactions from critics—a debate that points to a successful conclusion.
As fans of any of HBO's long-running series will tell you, the network has a spotty history when it comes to wrapping up their TV shows. The creators of Big Love may have noticed that too, because the structure of Sunday night's closing moments borrowed lessons from three of HBO's most talked-about series finales. Here's what Big Love learned from finales past:
1. Have a Definitive Conclusion, The Sopranos
A mammoth 11.9 million people tuned in for "Made in America," the final installment of one of the most critically heralded dramas to ever air on television. As Tony, Carmela, Meadow, and A.J. arrive separately for dinner at a local diner, tension mounts as viewers brace for what is sure to be some climactic, violent end to the series. But then, with Journey's "Don't Stop Believing" playing in the background, the screen cuts to black, an ellipsis rather than a period on the end of a eight-year sentence.
Viewers and critics alike were split between outrage and awe. Was the ambiguous ending disrespectful to loyal fans, or artistically brilliant? The abrupt conclusion and ensuing divisiveness was the target of late night comedy for weeks, and upset viewers continue to smart over the unusual finale. Big Love, on the other hand, finished off it's run with a decisive end, one that ties up the season's multiple arcs while still honoring its lead character. The debate over Bill's tragic demise sparks over whether it redeems him, not whether it should have happened at all.
2. Close With a Flash Forward, Six Feet Under
Six Feet Under ended not with the family still reeling from the death of Nate, but with a poignant six-minute flashforward sequence that chronicled the full lives the six remaining lead characters would live, including how each of them will die. It was a brilliant coda to a series about life, death, and what how it affects us all.
Ripping a page from the playbook of Alan Ball—the Six Feet Under creator who wrote its series finale—Big Love's final episode included an epilogue that takes place 11 months in the future, showing how the Henricksons adjusted to life without Bill. We see Barb, Nicki, and Margene still existing as one household, still bonded by their love for each other and for Bill. That they reached this happy ending and did not splinter off to pursue their own paths after Bill's death, was a sharp statement about the true relationships they had forged in their lives together.
3. End Where You Began, Sex and the City
Though different in tone from Big Love, echoes of the conclusion to Sex and the City can be seen in the final moments of Sunday night's finale. In Sex and the City, Carrie ends the final episode sauntering through the streets of Manhattan with a glow of fabulousness just like the one exuded during the initial strut that introduced the character in the series' famous opening sequence six years earlier.
As Big Love's epilogue wrapped up, the sister wives were just as secure in their unusual lifestyle, rooted in their love for each other, as they were when the series began five seasons prior. As the camera panned out, the show's original theme music played "God Only Knows," but this time rather than the Beach Boys version that opened each of the series' early episodes, the song was sung by a woman—a poetic nod to the series' beginning.