TV has learned a thing or two about bringing serialized stories to a close. More often, creators are developing new series with the intention of bringing them full circle in the span of a few seasons. As such, the medium has seen some remarkable endings, many of which are as memorable as their beginnings, and make revisiting the series as a whole as inviting a prospect for the viewer as it is for the network that owns it. But in the ever-expanding scripted universe that is Peak TV, there still exists the need for shows designed to carry on (and be profitable) for as long as possible. Unfortunately, bringing those shows to a satisfying end still proves difficult.
Whether sitcoms or weekly procedural dramas (or The Simpsons), these shows were the cornerstone of network television before The Sopranos, Mad Men, or Breaking Bad were a twinkle in their creators’ eyes. And while most viewers are likely excited (if not completely overwhelmed) with the amount of television they can now choose from, there’s something comforting in knowing shows like CBS’s NCIS, NBC’s ridiculous Law & Order: SVU, The CW’s Supernatural, and, until now, FOX’s Bones exist. These shows are comforting because there’s no real pressure in watching them in order or keeping up with them religiously to know the outcome of the story. Sure, there’s an overarching narrative to the seasons and often a growing sense of continuity between episodes, but for the most part you can turn an episode on, watch it, be entertained (or not), and forget about it until the next time you’re channel surfing. But as more television moves to shorter and shorter seasons and even shorter lifespans for most shows, seeing Bones bring its 12-season run to a close is a little like admitting a once-reliable staple of television is slowly going the way of the dodo.
A quirky crime drama with a romantic angle, Bones‘ closest equivalent would probably be ABC’s Castle, which ended its eight-season run last year after nearly entering into a disastrous-sounding ninth season without Nathan Fillion’s co-star Stana Katic. Luckily, there was no such potential debacle awaiting Bones, but rather the dreaded acknowledgment that the series had likely run its course years before and that it was past time to put the show out to pasture. That realization, mixed with a hint of nostalgia for an old workhorse that maintained a respectable presence in primetime for more than a decade led to FOX granting the series a shortened last run, a Final Chapter if you will, so that Hart Hanson’s eccentric little procedural could go out on its own terms. What’s strange about that scenario is that, by the time the credits role on ‘The End in the End’, it doesn’t feel like much of anything has come to an end. Bones just keeps on going; it’s the audience that won’t be there to see what happens next.
That is an interesting way to bring things to a close, especially after the penultimate episode, ‘The Day in the Life’, ended with the Jeffersonian Institute being reduced to rubble with Bones (Emily Deschanel), Booth (David Boreanaz), Angela (Michaela Conlin) and Hodgins (T.J. Thyne) still trapped inside. It’s not that any of the squints or members of the FBI needed to die in order for Bones to go out on a high note (or any note), but rather that something of some significance take place, so it felt as though the audience was in fact seeing the end of something, and that it was okay to move on because the characters were. Instead, the finale felt more like what was really going on: the network was simply pulling the plug.
There have been changes over the past twelve years that have allowed Bones to feel like the audience was a part of these characters’ lives. Things have changed; characters have changed. Some, like Sweets, have died (or gone off to co-write Spider-Man: Homecoming), while others have seen their lives irrevocably altered for the better – with children and marriage – or the not, as Hodgins was in a bomb attack. But despite the changes, they all have come back to the same place – a little different, but not so much that a semi-regular viewer wouldn’t notice them as essentially the same person as when the show began. That’s why the destruction of the Jeffersonian Institute was such a symbolic gesture, and an acknowledgement that Bones was in fact on its way out the network door, to go roam the endless hillsides of cable syndication.
There was a sense of conclusiveness going into the finale. The Jeffersonian was ostensibly gone and after brain injury the title character found herself without the thing that made Bones… well, Bones: her intelligence. As divisive an ending as that would have been, it would have at least been an ending; there would have been a reason for the show to come to a close. But even that wouldn’t have felt right. And so the plan of the season’s Big(ish) Bad, Kovac, to kill everyone and exact vengeance for his father – who Booth killed – ends up being like everything else that happens in procedurals and becomes oddly indicative of the strengths and weaknesses of the format: it’s an obstacle that’s easily overcome and just as easily forgotten. It’s not long after everyone is rescued from the burned-out husk of the Jeffersonian that Booth dispatches Kovac in the field, moments after Bones, whose brain injury has been miraculously corrected, fixes an injury preventing him from shooting his gun. With the villain gone and Bones returned to her old self, the only thing left to do is tie up as many loose ends as possible, to ensure each character gets as much of a send-off as possible.
With its truncated twelfth season, you might have thought Bones would have spent some of its 12 episodes shoring up various supporting character plotlines eariler, making sure Camille is on her way to becoming an adoptive mother of three well before the series’ final moments. And although Angela’s pregnancy was announced ahead of time – to add to the stakes of Kovac’s bombs no doubt — the same is basically true for the Jeffersonian’s other couple – and the Jeffersonian itself. Bones delivers a few minutes telling Hodgins he’ll be interim director, while Camille spends her honeymoon adopting three boys, and Angela gets to rest easy that her unborn child is okay. That leaves Bones and Booth just enough time to talk about the day’s events on a park bench, remember Sweets, and explain the significance of a stopped clock.
The finale is fascinating in how it avoids feeling like a finale; ‘The End in the End’ could be the end of any other season – or any other episode for that matter. But what that creates the element of fascination also makes the finale come up short. It is an ending only by virtue of the fact that the series will not continue from this point on. If the Bones finale tells audiences anything, long-running procedurals like this are from a different era of television. They’re built to last, but having a sense of an ending isn’t necessarily part of their composition.