This week’s question comes from contributor Drew Fortune:
With Parks And Recreation, a show I loved but a finale I didn’t, I got to thinking about last lines in pop culture. What last lines have disappointed you in film, TV, and books? For instance, I actually thought “Texas forever” from Friday Night Lights was kind of lame. The show ended on a marquee catchphrase farewell, betraying the realism that made it so special.
As a show that hinged on massive amounts of dialogue, a lot was riding on Gilmore Girls’ last line. The final seasons of the show had been problematic after the departure of creator Amy Sherman-Palladino. The end of the series was going to be extra painful, because back when she was in charge, Sherman-Palladino had hinted that she knew what the final two words of the series were going to be. Somehow, I always thought the last two words the showrunner referred to would be “Shut up!” (probably from Rory to Lorelei), as a meta-capper on the title characters’ incessant stream of patter. In the final Gilmore Girls episode, “Bon Voyage,” Rory prepares to leave Stars Hollow to become a political reporter. Lorelai prattles off a variety of things she should take with her, but Rory stops her with, “Mom, you’ve given me everything I need,” which I like to think of as the de facto last line. But we still need to have one last breakfast at Luke’s Diner, where Lorelai and Rory attempt final banter for old time’s sake, which falls rather flat. They spar about necklaces and thermoses and the fact that Rory left her “World’s Greatest Reporter” cap at home. Lorelei despairs, “Then how will people know you’re the World’s Greatest Reporter?… I guess they’ll just have to read your stuff.” Rory replies with the last line of the series: “I guess so.” “I guess so”? A well-crafted “Shut up!” would have been so much better.
With the Independence Day sequels barreling toward us, it’s important to remember how Roland Emmerich’s last vision of armageddon ends: Not with a bang, but a plug for Pull-Ups. Even after that bit of product integration—a callback to a long-ignored subplot involving the potty-training struggles of Lilly Curtis (Morgan Lily)—2012 can’t leave well enough alone. In the span of a few days, writer-turned-chauffeur Jackson Curtis (John Cusack) has raced a limo across the crumbling streets of Los Angeles, witnessed the eruption of the Yellowstone caldera, crash-landed in Tibet, and stowed away on one of the massive arks that carry what remains of human civilization. As that ark reaches habitable land, and Jackson revels in the reconciliation of his marriage and his daughter’s newly discovered bladder control, the wonder of it all can only be summed up in one word: “Nice.” I don’t expect profundity from my Emmerich disaster porn, but surviving what Jackson has survived merits a reaction stronger than the type that might greet a basket of mozzarella sticks or a muscle car with a badass paint job. Even Lilly’s coming-of-age milestone is worth more than “Nice,” the only appropriate social use of which is in reference to a dog riding a skateboard—and that’s only if the dog isn’t wearing sunglasses.
As a Best Picture nominee adapted from the memoir of storied journalist Lynn Barber into a screenplay by respected author Nick Hornby (High Fidelity, About A Boy), one would expect 2009’s An Education to end not only a literary high note but one that made sense with the main character’s plotline. Instead, it tidies up the deceit- and love-filled coming-of-age tale with a too-coy quip that largely undermines the spirit of bright and experienced Jenny (Carey Mulligan). After an adolescent affair with the much older David (Peter Sarsgaard), a matured Jenny speaks of her later dating life, as the camera shows her riding her bike through Oxford: “One of the boys I dated, and they were boys, suggested that we go to Paris and I said I’d always wanted to see Paris. As if I’d never been!” It’s perplexing that the always-defiant, constantly yearning Jenny would see any reason to pander to a boy, as she had proven herself a strong individual, albeit one with room to grow, throughout the film. This ending was also one of two filmed, and sadly, it robs Mulligan’s character of a more natural progression in which viewers see her mature in a way David never mustered.
Count me among the detractors of The West Wing’s closing lines. While the once-great show had sunk into a sodden morass during season five (and part of six), it came roaring back with a final season of crackerjack entertainment, a rich and compelling election storyline that reminded me of everything good about the series. Which is why the last scene, of President Jed Bartlet and first lady Abbey getting maudlin over a sentimental note from their deceased chief of staff and dear friend Leo McGarry, felt cheesy. After all, this was a show that thrived on the idea that there’s always another battle to fight, something to jar you out of whatever reveries might temporarily occupy your mind. Not only that, it had already given us the series-defining two-word phrase that summed up the philosophy of Bartlet, the show, and its clear-eyed progressive politics: “What’s next?” So forgive me, Mr. President, but the lachrymose exchange of Abbey saying, “What are you thinking about?” followed by Bartlet’s wistful “Tomorrow.” needs to go back to the presidential speechwriters for revision.
I’ve watched plenty of spinoffs, but for my money, few of them have worked so successfully and for so long as Frasier. But having said that, the last moments of the final episode still rankle me when I watch them. I realize the intent of the series’ conclusion was to leave Frasier Crane looking optimistically to the future by having him close with the words, “Wish me luck,” but it wouldn’t have taken a great deal of restructuring to allow him to offer those words and then reflect back on having delivered his final speech to the listeners of KACL. That way, the series could have ended in the same way every episode of the show up to that point had: by hearing Frasier say, “Goodnight, Seattle,” and fading to black.
It feels dumb to give a spoiler warning when responding to a question about endings, but here goes: If you don’t want to know the lame, cop-out ending of Stephen King’s massive, fitfully fascinating Dark Tower series, skip on down to the next entry. I give that warning not so much for those still excited to read the series a scant 11 years after the last (chronological) book was published, but to spare people the headache they’ll get from knowing that King ended his epic mashup of Tolkien and spaghetti Westerns in the most ridiculously cliché way possible. Because, you see, the final line of the series, “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.” is also its first line, as the series’ Clint Eastwood-as-an-Arthurian-knight protagonist, Roland Of Gilead, briefly realizes that he’s caught in a massive time loop that repeats every time he reaches the titular structure. If that feels like the sort of floundering stab at depth you’d see in the work of a much less experienced writer, that’s because it kind of is: King started the series in his early 20s, long before writing classics like It or The Stand, and it seems likely he had this literary rug-pulling planned from the start. That realization (and King’s Lemony Snicket-esque declarations that fans won’t like the book’s epilogue) doesn’t help much when you’ve just fought your way through 30 pounds of books, only to find out you’ve been reading what amounts to the longest, bestselling shaggy dog story ever told.
Producers of the various Ghostbusters-related projects in the works would do well to remember that there’s nothing particularly funny about busting ghosts. The original is one of the best comedies of all time not because of its novel premise, but because it had a murderers’ row of comedic talent working from a brilliantly crafted screenplay. Besides being endlessly quotable, the movie manages to turn some very convoluted exposition into entertaining character moments for Dan Aykroyd’s obsessive occultist, and throw in just enough scares to make the stakes seem real. One of the only flat moments in the script is the very last one. The film’s final minute expertly zips through a happy ending for every character—Dana’s alive, so Venkman gets the girl; Louis is alive, so Ray and Egon get to experiment on him; everyone’s happy. Finally, we get to Winston, the character given the shortest shrift by the film. Winston’s simply overjoyed at not being blown up, and tonally, it makes sense to end on that moment of exuberance. But it’s expressed with a non sequitur: “I love this town!” Cue the theme song. A Sumerian god comes down to Earth in the form of a 50-foot marshmallow man, and Winston’s first thought is, “Only in New York?” It feels less like a natural response and more like screenwriter Harold Ramis couldn’t quite find a button to put on the script.
For one of the most guaranteed generators of manly tears ever, Brian’s Song shows surprising restraint in its depiction of the unlikely friendship between Chicago Bears running backs Gale Sayers and Brian Piccolo. Sure, there’s an extended deathbed scene where Piccolo says goodbye to his pal (and loving wife), but, for the bulk of the movie, James Caan’s Piccolo and Billy Dee Williams’ Sayers maintain an unsentimental prickliness suited to their real-life rivalry and racial wariness. (For a G-rated movie, the word “nigger” sure is thrown around a lot.) But once Piccolo finally succumbs to the cancer that killed him, poor Jack Warden, playing Bears coach George Halas, delivers one of the sappiest benedictions ever (over slow-mo footage of the two jogging in happy Rocky Balboa-Apollo Creed tandem, no less): “Brian Piccolo died of cancer at the age of 26. He left a wife and three daughters. He also left a great many loving friends who miss and think of him often. But when they think of him, it’s not how he died that they remember—but how he lived. How he did live!” Throughout, Warden matches the film’s unsentimental tone like the old pro he was, but he’s just helpless against that final, inescapable exclamation point.
I think I’ve mentioned before that I’m a huge fan of the Will Ferrell-Adam McKay comedies, but I grudgingly admit that both Anchorman and Anchorman 2 fail to end on the kind of big-laugh final line that they should. Anchorman ends with a cute-enough but not especially hilarious “you stay classy, Planet Earth” sign-off from Ron, while the sequel closes with a funny scene (Baxter saving Ron from his returning shark friend Doby) that fizzles out without a real ending—to the extent that it even has a proper last line, it’s just Ron telling Baxter he loves him as the camera dollies up and Steve Miller Band fades onto the soundtrack. The first movie at least has the saving grace of immediate segues into bloopers and alternate takes playing over the credits, while the sequel offers no such dessert. It makes sense that these movies would have trouble ending on a laugh line, though. Much of their funniest material is built on escalating interactions; even the one-liners coming from non sequitur-generator Brick Tamland play better in a round-robin type of scene than standing on their own. The Anchorman movies sustain this energy for so long that their last lines feel like a finish-line collapse. But let’s keep this positive: The Ferrell-McKay joint that ends most perfectly is Step Brothers, with Ferrell trailing off about the non-movie-quality of his Chewbacca mask right before the movie cuts out.