(Note to readers: If you live in a place where the 2001 season finales of "The West Wing," "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "The X-Files" have not been broadcast yet, stop reading now.)
Life-changing events -- births, deaths, and weddings -- are what May sweeps season finales are all about. But this year -- well, let's just say that things have gotten out of hand. Call it the Sopranos Effect: Network series made nervous by the no-holds-barred riskiness of TV's critical darling have upped the antes, entangling major characters in last-episode cliffhanger plotlines that seem to offer no way out. Here are some thoughts on three momentous finales and what they might portend for next season.
By the way, "The Sopranos" ended its season with an elderly man singing a nice Italian ballad. Go figure.
The West Wing (May 16, NBC)
The revelation that Josiah Bartlet ran for president knowing he suffers from multiple sclerosis, and that his inner circle withheld the news from the public, made some illuminating points about how effortlessly a caring public servant could tumble into a political and ethical abyss. Bartlet placed himself above the law, lied to people, with no malicious intent. And now, his enemies will make him pay. A Lewinsky allegory? Yes. But also a commentary on the impossibility of finding perfection in elected officials; aren't they human, after all?
If only creator/writer Aaron Sorkin had been content to merely put Bartlet through the personal and political wringer. But, no. He loaded up the final two episodes with soap opera plot twists and the sort of wincingly laughable dramatic clichés that would have flunked him out of screenwriting class.
Cliché No. 1: When you're planning to kill off a minor character, be sure to give them about 10 times more screen time than usual, so we can see it coming a mile away. In the penultimate episode of the season, why was Bartlet's loyal secretary Mrs. Landingham allowed to rattle on and on about buying a new car? It all became clear the minute Bartlet told her to drive her brand new jalopy back to the White House so he could kick the tires. I turned to my husband and said, "Put an X over her face. She's gone." And she was, killed by a drunk driver a block away from the White House.
Cliché No. 2: Always have a storm raging outside while a character is wrestling with inner turmoil. In the finale, a freak May tropical storm hit Washington while Bartlet was preparing to go public with his MS, deciding on whether to run for reelection, dealing with a hostage crisis at the U.S. Embassy in Haiti and mourning Mrs. Landingham.
Cliché No. 3: When in doubt, flash back to a character's youth. The finale was interspersed with scenes of the teenaged Bartlet at prep school, trying unsuccessfully to stand up to his tyrannical father the headmaster. Nevertheless, he was set upon the road to greatness by the young but still wise and snappish Mrs. Landingham, who was his father's secretary and sort of a babe. I kept waiting for Mrs. Landingham to initiate young Jed into manhood, but unfortunately, all she did was needle him about having the courage of his convictions 'n' stuff. Sorkin was more inspired by "Dead Poets Society" than "The Graduate."
Cliché No. 4: After Mrs. Landingham's funeral in the National Cathedral (don't even get me started on that bizarre gangsta-bitch ensemble first lady Stockard Channing wore to this austere event), Bartlet asked the Secret Service to empty the place, so he could be alone. What followed was that well-worn Emmy nomination ploy, the "cursing God in church scene." (See Andy Sipowicz in the 2000 "NYPD Blue" season finale). Devout Catholic Bartlet (who almost became a priest) railed at God for being a "feckless thug" raining heartless punishment upon his faithful servants. Martin Sheen wins extra points for doing the scene in Latin.
Cliché No. 5: In a development straight out of "Providence" (and predicted by my very astute spouse), the departed Mrs. Landingham returned for a visit just before Bartlet was to go on TV and tell the nation he would not run for reelection. As wise and snappish in death as she was in life, the ghostly Mrs. L. told him he'd better run again or she'd be mighty disappointed in him. Which led to ...
Cliché No. 6: Bartlet, outside, searching his soul in the howling storm. Truly, a King Lear moment.
Cliché No. 7: Before Bartlet goes before the media, press secretary C.J. Cregg drills him over and over to take his first question from the medical writer of the New York Times; it'll be a puffball about his MS, and give him time to get his bearings before taking the inevitable reelection questions. But when Bartlet stands before the press corps (soaking wet from standing out in the rain, and looking like he slept on a park bench), he passes over the Times guy (just like you knew he would) and takes a question from a tougher reporter. Is he running for reelection? Bartlet gazes upon the assembled multitudes for what seems like an eternity before -- you guessed it -- not answering. Yes, the entire finale was a commercial for next season.
I have overlooked the show's soggy tendencies because of the brilliant cast and the pithy insights into the Way Things Work. But after this appallingly predictable and maudlin finale, "The West Wing" drops way down on my best drama list. OK, I know Aaron Sorkin has had his problems lately and I don't mean to make light of them. But I really hope he gets himself clean soon, because, kids, this is what happens to your brain on drugs: It gets lazy.
The X-Files (May 20, Fox)
Scully's miraculous pregnancy came to fruition after a season intriguingly laced with expectant mother paranoia and messianic overtones. Let me see if I have this straight. Scully's unborn baby was being pursued by two shadowy groups who were at cross-purposes, but both saw the baby as the savior of humankind. In one corner, we had the unkillable superzombie alien replacements for humans, who were slowly taking over the planet. In the other, we had a bunch of government scientists who were secretly working to create a superhuman prototype to resist alien tampering and repopulate Earth.
Agents Doggett and Mulder devised a plan to protect Scully by having spunky Agent Reyes spirit her away to an abandoned Georgia town and help her give birth. A strange light glowed in the heavens -- hey, just like the star of Bethlehem! -- above the empty storefront church where Scully was waiting for the baby to be born. Faith and science, fact and fiction were about to collide. We seemed, finally, on the verge of getting some answers about who, or what, the baby's father is, about what higher (or sinister) purpose Mulder and Scully have been used for all these years.
But then Chris Carter's story ran out of energy. The baby turned out to be ... just an ordinary human baby. In the last scene, Mulder and Scully hold the infant William between them and kiss; although we still haven't been told flat-out, it sure seems like Mulder is the baby's daddy. So, after all the stuff about alien abductions and government conspiracies, this is how "The X-Files" wraps up the Mulder Era: Forget little green men -- love and commitment are the most mysterious and powerful forces we know, and parenthood is the final frontier. What a sweet ending for the series' eighth season!
What a nice sendoff for David Duchovny, who is reportedly not returning next year, and he really means it this time! What lovely closure for the platonic relationship Mulder and Scully have nurtured through the years! What a load of sappy horsecrap! When did "The X-Files" turn into "Mad About You"?
What's more, the finale, and the episodes leading up to it, were plagued with some really silly characters, like the mute, unstoppable Billy Miles, head of the B-movie superzombies, who took a licking and kept ticking, and FBI director Kersh, who is such a one-note hard-ass, I hope it's a joke, for actor James Pickens Jr.'s sake. Then there was Mulder going out on cases with Doggett, even though he's been fired from the bureau. Look, we don't watch "The X-Files" for veracity, but, come on, don't insult our suspension of disbelief.
Where does the show go from here, I wonder? Fox has renewed it for another season, although Carter reportedly may only act as a consultant. Duchovny is out, so how does the show continue the happy family circle glimpsed in the finale? Gillian Anderson's contract obligates her to appear in every episode, but what is the definition of "appear"? Here's a prediction: Doggett and Reyes take over and do the skeptic vs. believer partner thing. Scully has a couple of scenes in each episode, like Steven Hill on "Law & Order," where she advises Doggett and Reyes in between Mommy and Me classes and feedings. Mulder comes back for a big sweeps cliffhanger where the baby gets kidnapped. And since nobody understands what the hell is going on with the alien-invasion replacement conspiracy anymore, Doggett and Reyes concentrate on stand-alone cases involving paranormal phenomena and freakish beasties.
Now, I don't mind Doggett and Reyes; Robert Patrick and Annabeth Gish are appealing actors who have grown more confident carrying the show. It's just that "The X-Files" is not "The X-Files" without Mulder and Scully. "The X-Files" is a shell of a once-meaningful show, a zombie that walks among us and can't die. It's Billy Miles.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer (May 22, WB)
(One last warning: Stop reading if you live in the U.K. or someplace else where the "Buffy" season finale has not yet aired.)
When you think back over this past season, you realize it had to end like this. Buffy had been obsessed with death, emotionally shut down, worried that slaying had made her hard, unlovable and incapable of love. She forced Spike to tell her how he killed two Slayers in his past; a Slayer is easy pickings when she develops a death wish, he told her. Death came home in the haunting February episode "The Body," in which her mother's sudden passing left Buffy unable to tap the depths of her grief. To try and shake the fog of gloom around his student, Buffy's mentor Giles took her on a vision quest to conjure the first Slayer, who told Buffy that, despite her fears to the contrary, she is "full of love." She also told her that death was her "gift."
Buffy would puzzle over that pronouncement for the rest of the season. She also labored to protect her "little sister" Dawn -- aka "The Key," pure energy made human -- from Glory, a glamour-girl hellgod cast out of her own dimension and bent on ritually bleeding the Key in order to bring about an Armageddon that would allow her to slip back home. This ritual could only be stopped by stopping the Key's blood -- killing the Key. After Glory snatched Dawn, Giles warned Buffy that she might have to kill Dawn with her own hands, to stop the apocalypse. But he knew, and we knew, that Buffy would never do it.
In the final episode, "The Gift," Buffy and her motley Scoobys mounted a valiant attack on Glory's minions in a race to free Dawn, but they were a moment too late; the bleeding had begun. Dawn wanted to jump from the towering scaffold where she'd been taken for the ritual, to stop her blood -- her heart -- and thus end the destruction. But Buffy got that scary-calm "I know what my destiny is" look on her face, and you thought, "Uh-oh." She had put the puzzle together: Death is her gift; Dawn was made in the image of Buffy, from her flesh and blood; Buffy could sacrifice herself to save her sister, and save the world. But it wouldn't come to this, would it?
It did. Buffy jumped from the tower; she was apparently dead, judging from the way Willow and Spike and Giles were all bawling like babies around her. The final shot was a slow zoom in on Buffy Anne Summers' gravestone, with its charming, and accurate, inscription, "She saved the world a lot." That was when I lost it. "The Gift" was the most heartbreaking, shocking season finale I have ever seen.
The presumed death of Buffy sent fans into a panic; immediately after the episode aired, message boards on "Buffy" chat sites started filling up with expressions of pain and anger. A rumor that the show's move from the WB to UPN next season was all a hoax and that the series was, in fact, over spread through the Internet (fueled, no doubt, by the WB's tacky insistence on calling the episode the series finale, rather than the season finale). The "Buffy" hoax theorists would have us believe that the long, bitter negotiations between 20th Century Fox (which produces "Buffy") and the WB was an elaborate set-up chummily played out by the highest-level executives at the WB, Fox and UPN, all to protect the series' surprise ending. To which I say, people, you've been watching too much damn television.
Wednesday morning, series creator Joss Whedon (who wrote and directed the finale) posted to the official WB "Buffy" board dispelling the hoax rumor. "'Buffy' will be back next season starring Sarah Michelle Gellar ... Tuesdays at 8 p.m. on UPN," Whedon wrote. "How will we bring her back? With great difficulty, of course. And pain and confusion. Will it be cheezy [sic]? I don't think so." Thursday, he further laid to rest the hoax rumor, and revealed some plans for next season, in an interview with TV Guide Online. Did you know that Giles is getting a BBC spinoff?
So how is Whedon going to bring Buffy back? "Buffy" fans have their theories. The most popular one (and the only one that Whedon dismisses outright in the TV Guide intervew, for what it's worth) is that Buffy plunged into a yawning, pulsing portal thingie when she jumped and is floating around in some other dimension or alternate universe. What if Buffy surfaces, alive, in another world -- a demon world? In this scenario, might some demon striving for redemption (that's you, Spike) sacrifice himself to bring Buffy back?
Another theory is that Dawn gets the chance to honor Buffy's final words. ("The hardest thing about this world is to live in it. Be brave. Live in it -- for me.") Glory existed on earth by sharing a human body with a mortal named Ben, so maybe Buffy would come back sharing Dawn's body. And if Buffy is made of the same flesh and blood as Dawn, wouldn't it follow that Dawn is part Buffy, and therefore, the new substitute Slayer?
There's also the possibility that Buffy's former lover, vampire-with-a-soul Angel, might work some mojo, although that storyline might be tricky, now that "Buffy" will be on UPN and "Angel" will still be on the WB. After all the bad blood between the WB and the "Buffy" producers, we probably won't be seeing any more of those swell "Buffy"/"Angel" crossovers.
There's always Willow, who has gotten to be a pretty powerful witch lately -- did you catch her telepathically communicating with Spike during the climactic battle in the finale? She might work some hocus-pocus to bring Buffy back. And let's not forget about Riley, Buffy's genetically engineered commando ex-boyfriend, who departed halfway through the season and who everybody seems to have forgotten about. Say, didn't he have knowledge of a secret government re-animation program?
I for one am going to sit back and wait for Joss Whedon to be brilliant again. The guy has pulled more rabbits out of his hat than David Copperfield. (OK, I don't think David Copperfield actually pulls rabbits out of hats, but you get my drift.) Buffy has died (momentarily) once before, and was brought back to life. Angel was trapped in hell, but now he's hunky-dory. Whedon even managed to pull off the old "hey, here's a family member you never heard about before" trick with Dawn. Whatever storyline Whedon devises to bring Buffy back to life, though, it will probably require patience on our part; it will be painful watching the Scoobys grieve through the first few discombobulating episodes next season. But I trust Whedon. Even more than that, I doubt that UPN paid $2.3 million per episode for two Sarah Michelle Gellar-less seasons of "Dawn, Buffy the Vampire Slayer's Sister."
So, we'll just have to wait for the two-hour UPN opener (no date yet), and pore over the finale for clues about the future. Most of all, we have the summer to marvel over how Whedon crafted this incredible past season, how he took his modern fairytale deeper and deeper into the unknown, plumbed the characters' psyches and devised new rites of passage for this singular, complex heroine and her family of beautiful misfits.
All of the characters learned the true, painful meaning of love this season. Willow and Tara, kissing full on the lips, were the most lovey-dovey lesbians on network TV. But that wasn't true love; true love was Willow spoonfeeding Tara, who had been rendered mentally disabled by a Glory brainsuck, poignantly caring for her "in sickness and in health," promising never, ever to leave her: "She's my girl." Then there was Spike, in the throes of unrequited love for Buffy, acquiring a Buffybot to get randy with. But when he saw how he disgusted the Slayer, he was ashamed and heartsick; he understood what he was really feeling, and he showed his love by protecting Dawn with his life.
Giles, thinking he'd been mortally wounded in battle, uncharacteristically told Buffy how proud she'd made him, how he couldn't ask for more in a ... He didn't finish the sentence, but you were sure he was going to say "daughter." Anya, the vengeance demon cursed to live as a human, finally developed compassion, realized the fragility of human life and, in bed with boyfriend Xander, contemplated the power of her body to make a new life. And finally there was Buffy learning to love Dawn, even though she was a pest, even though she was a burden, even though she brought inconvenience, trouble and pain. Buffy's love for Dawn struck me as more motherly than sisterly, especially in that final scene, when she gave up her own life to protect her.
Most marvelous of all was how Whedon challenged traditional notions of network storytelling. He distracted us with the death of a minor character (usually, a series can get away with one death per season, max), only to cap that with the death of the major character. The death of Buffy's mom Joyce (natural causes), you'll remember, was played out in a heightened reality, with no background music, with every moment seeming like an eternity. There is magic in this series, but Whedon showed us the limits of magic when Dawn attempted to resurrect Joyce, only to back off at the last second.
Joyce's death was an aching contrast to the cartoon monster deaths the Slayer metes out, and to the show's constantly rising from the dead vampires. Joyce's death, and Buffy's sense of loss, was permanent. But is that permanence, that realistic impossibility of bringing Joyce -- or Buffy -- back, only a diversion? Are we being drained of optimism, in order that we don't see the magic coming when it does? I hope so.