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The Age of Endings

This point is neither original nor controversial, but I’ll make it anyway: we’re living through an age of brilliant storytelling on television.

The rise of premium cable channels and streaming services has ushered in a host of high-quality dramas, whose writers are delivering novel-quality fiction with lavish style. I sometimes wonder at the economics of this — if these premium programs, arguably being produced to secure awards and prestige, can possibly be turning profits for their networks. But whether they make money or not, we’re enjoying more of them than most of us can keep up with.

We all have our favorites, and I’ve written about a few, but I want to pause and acknowledge one of the greatest qualities shared by most: they end.

Unlike the programming of just a decade ago, when chasing network renewals seemed the only goal of most shows in the North American market, many (though not all) premium dramas are now being written to an ending — and this, I think, is an excellent development for storytellers in all mediums. Instead of television audiences being conditioned to see the same thing over and over, with no character development and no real jeopardy, they’re being reminded of the satisfaction that can be found in well-crafted conclusions.

Great endings aren’t new to television, of course. I’ll be forever loyal to “All Good Things” because it managed to encapsulate the spirit of seven years of an iconic show in just two hours. The Shield ended just as well, with all the consequences of that gritty tragedy coming home to roost in its final hour. But in years past, good endings seemed only to be granted to a lucky few, and many shows never got the sendoff they deserved.

Now, it seems as though more stories are concluding on their own terms, and the finest example from my list of favorites wraps up Sunday.

Black Sails is ostensibly a prequel to the classic book Treasure Island… but to simply call it that fails to capture its quality. Over the course of four seasons on the Starz network, it has blended real history from the golden age of piracy with the fictional world laid out by Robert Louis Stephenson, and the result has been far more than the sum of its parts. This is not Pirates of Caribbean, or a Game of Thrones knock-off.

Though its first season checked some of the boxes on the ‘prove you’re a premium cable show’ list (sex, violence, and swearing), what impressed me most was that the writers subverted these cliches by making them thoughtful and consequential parts of the plot. It’s difficult to explain how this happened without ruining everything, but I’ll unreservedly call the result a master class in storytelling, and it’s been brought to life by an exceptional international cast.

For instance, here’s Australian writer and actor Toby Schmitz successfully navigating the post-Depp ‘rockstar pirate’ idiom without descending into cliche or parody:

When I’m looking for writing inspiration, shows like Black Sails are where I turn for a jolt. Along with masterful dramas like Ripper Street, these productions demonstrate the craftsmanship behind great storytelling… and an essential part of that craftsmanship is knowing when to stop.

By all accounts, Black Sails wasn’t cancelled — the writers simply knew better than to try to keep the story going. In the world they’ve created, well-drawn characters remain bound by their deeper truths, and their actions have consequences. When you’re dealing with a war between piracy and civilization, those consequences don’t lend themselves to a perpetual story; at some point, one side or the other will fall… and the writers understand that the fall is perhaps the most important part of their tale.

Of course the story has to end — and end spectacularly. I can hardly wait to see what choices the writers and cast have made for the final hour on Sunday. It will surely be fine work indeed.