Suppose you're the executive producer, head writer, chief cook, and bottle-washer for a successful series that's now about to embark on its final season. At the end of that last lap, you have before you a series finale. You can build up to it, planting plot-points along the way that you can then harvest to maximum effect in your big two-part end-of-the-world extravaganza. With that kind of leisure, your series finale can serve any role you want: heartwarming romantic resolution (like, say, Felicity); long-awaited achievement of destiny (like Smallville); unexpected visions of the future (like Stargate SG-1); shocking twist (like ALF, though that one was unintentional); completing the circle (like Stargate Atlantis); or a massive thermonuclear collision of all of these.
Now imagine that that final lap was just taken away from you, and you have 42 minutes to resolve everything you carefully left hanging from the previous season -- and still provide the fans with a worthy send-off for the show. At that point, you ask yourself: If my series finale can't be what I want it to be, what does it have to be? What must a series finale achieve?
This was the problem facing Jaime Paglia and company when Syfy unexpectedly scrapped season 6 of Eureka and, after fraught negotiations, allowed for exactly one more episode to put a bow on the whole series. Naturally, to carry forward as much momentum as possible into the now-evaporated season 6, the writers had left plenty of problems open and festering at the end of season 5, most of them growing out of the key twists of season 4 (the alternate timeline) and season 5 (the hijacking of the Astraeus mission). Which meant that a good deal of those final 42 minutes had to be devoted to tying off plot threads involving Holly, Grace, Beverly Barlowe, etc., etc., as methodically and efficiently as possible, leaving only a rump of the finale to do what a finale should.
Which is what?
It's instructive and apropos that for the Eureka cast and crew, the most important function of the finale (July 16, 2012 on Syfy) was to reassure viewers that this strange little town and all of its wacky residents would be fine once the time came that we were no longer able to look in on them. In a good, well written series, the viewer is not merely passive: there's a latent sense that the conflicts and threats that the characters face and resolve in the course of the hour are resolved partly through the ritualized process of watching the episode. It's almost as if Sheriff Carter and all those crazy scientists make it through the latest crisis in part because there is a structure and process inherent in these crises and their resolution. Strong viewer empathy, a sense that the heroes resolve their problems with us, creates a dissonance on the viewer's part when the series ends, because they won't be able to face and fix their troubles with us any more. A series finale for a show with a strong fan-base must, therefore, confront this unconscious anxiety about how the heroes will fare without us.
All Right Without Us
Paglia and company address this need in two ways. First, they develop a broad threat to the existence of Eureka: it's being shut down because of budget shortfalls. This makes manifest the fans' collective sense that the five years we've spent watching (and helping!) Eureka and its people grow and develop might have been cruelly wasted, so that viewer identification with the characters is at its most potent and concrete. This scenario also allows Douglas Fargo (Neil Grayston) some choice dialog in which he lambastes the bean-counters and pencil-pushers who made the call, fumes that other expensive facilities aren't being shut down for being expensive even though Eureka had made their success possible (hear that, Warehouse 13?), goggles when the six months he thought he'd have to shut down GD is suddenly telescoped to a day when the movers show up, and generally wails at the injustice of it all. Fargo, in other words, gets to tell the bigwigs at Syfy everything we're thinking.
But this scenario is developed not just to bond with the viewers but to provide a resolution. The vitiation of the fantasy-place, Eureka, is eventually averted, as part of the culmination of the actual series, Eureka. In fact it's averted so thoroughly that the story of the town is bent back around and continuity is established with the pilot episode: instead of trailing off into the infinite, Eureka is in one way tied off into a safe and satisfying circle. The finale creates known and understood bounds for the characters' persistence without us.
The second way the writers address our separation anxiety is to reinforce our faith in the heroes by underlining exactly how it is that they are able to prevent disaster every week. We've known all along that the scientists are smart and idiosyncratic, and that Carter is intuitive and brave. But in the finale, this is spelled out both as the reason that the Eureka oddballs, all individually dysfunctional, coalesce into such a great team when put to the test, and also as the reassurance that they'll continue to be able to do even when we're not looking. Fittingly it's a relative newcomer that points this out at the crucial moment: like the device that's about to fix the last catastrophe they'll share with us, Carter is the "strong force" that holds them all together. This not only reflects Carter's importance to the other characters, but acknowledges how Colin Ferguson's hard work and dedication has made him the rock that makes possible all the kookiness that Grayston, Joe Morton, Niall Matter, Erica Cerra, Kavan Smith, Felicia Day, Christopher Gauthier, Wil Wheaton, and the rest exhibit brilliantly every week. Even Salli Richardson-Whitfield, whose Allison is normally steadier than the rest, derives her freedom as an actor from Ferguson's uncanny ability to hold the center.
How to Say Goodbye
Most of the minor plot turbulence is resolved in the finale with as much economy as possible, because the other thing you want to try to do with a finale is to provide happily-ever-afters to as many character pairings as possible -- especially the pairings you've been throwing hurdles in front of for the past season or two. With Carter and Allison already ensconced in perma-bliss, and even Deputy Andy and S.A.R.A.H. having comfortably slid into LTR-land, and Henry, Grace, and Fargo being relatively easy to deal with (as part of the tying off of the lingering subplots), the main big romantic conflict left over was Joe and Zane, and Erica Cerra and Niall Matter know that making sure we know they're finally in sync is important. By dealing with these two in an unambiguous and permanent way, the sense that the folks in Eureka will be okay without us is further reinforced. Cameos by sporadically seen folks like Matt Frewer's Taggart, Jordan Hinson as Zoe, and even the adult twin extras glimpsed frequently in season 1 add to the impression that things will persist in Eureka as before.
The Eureka series finale is not a masterpiece. The economy of the plot resolutions approaches the perfunctory in places; one occasionally has the sense of a checklist being marked off, not surprising given demand being placed on this one terminal episode. And there is one performance that, while very welcome and a nice part of the overall storyline, comes with a faked accent so jarring one wonders whether the actor in question had recently forgotten how to talk and had regained this ability only partially and with great difficulty.
But this series finale is heartfelt and, more than that, it is real. Jaime Paglia, Bruce Miller, Colin Ferguson, and all the cast and crew are not merely manufacturing an ending to a television show; they're living out the climax of the time they've spent with us, and they're giving us the same fond and fierce farewell that we would wish for them.