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Thematic Rounding-Out (And when not to do it)

Updated: Aug 5, 2021

Audiences love major pay-offs. For example, character pay-offs like B.J’s goodbye to Hawkeye at the end of M*A*S*H and Michael’s arrival at Dwight’s wedding. The biggest pay-off a show can have is one it set up at the very first episode. Scrubs’ season 8 ending was J.D’s closure with every relationship he started in his first outing, especially with the hospital and his own insecurities about it.

One of the most monumental endings in television is still from the show you either talk about too much or not enough: Avatar: The Last Airbender, and talk about thematic rounding out. Just look at the names of the first and last episodes and you would feel the chills as The Boy in the Iceberg becomes Avatar Aang.

The ultimate round-out in television has to be Arrested Development. After three seasons of progressing these characters, the last episode plays out only to let us know that no one has actually changed at all, and we are just witnessing a total 180 degrees of the first episode.

However, this rounding out technique is not a universal rule without exceptions. Some events set up in the start may not be what your show evolves into, and you should thus avoid a disjointed finale. Sometimes it works, like That ‘70s Show ending Eric and Donna’s relationship over the very car bonnet it started, but other times, it should be avoided.


Being the most self-aware show in existence, Community, of course, predicted itself falling into the trap of rounding-out and let the audience know why it chose to avoid it through the finale of season 5. The show started out with the competitive and tactical relationship of Britta and Jeff, so it should end up closing it out, right? Well, not really… Neither of these characters, especially Britta, is close to the way they started out. Jeff went on from an ambitious guy working out against the infective disease of caring to a nihilistic teacher dependent on Annie. Britta went from a rather boring activist trying to keep the group to a moral centre to a weirdo who gets to use the entire acting prowess of Gillian Jacobs.

At the end of season 5, which could have been the last season if not for a certain dead streaming service, Jeff and Britta, trying to make sense out of such an anti-climactic finale, decide to round-out each others’ plot line by getting married. They spend the entire episode being the worst couple imaginable which isn’t overtly abusive. They were not a good finale couple to say the least. How could they, they have evolved, or devolved depending on how you look at it. As soon as they learned that this wasn’t their finale and Greendale continued to live, they broke up and went back to the two characters no longer dependent on each other for the definition of their own character.

Justifiably, the actual ending centres around Jeff and his relationship to Annie and Abed, arguably the two most important people for him. Abed was Jeff’s gateway into everything that defined Greendale, and Annie was his escape, the grounded one. Losing them both at the same time was a loss he couldn’t shrug off. Jeff’s scope on the finale shifted to that of mortality, and his character was deeper than the way he started out.

Parks and Recreation

If the inciting event for your show is the friendship between two characters, what do you do once their actor leaves the show way before the finale? That ‘70s Show was in denial about the death of their show. Parks and Rec, however, went on to be as strong as ever.

The thing is, Parks did not introduce a replacement for Ann and Chris, they’re both irreplaceable. It did not turn them into jerks off-screen, and it did not create a tangled love-web to keep the audiences engaged. After one of your most important characters leaves, you have to evolve your way around their existence and let the show grow on without a noticeable absence.

Parks and Recreation had the tremendous advantage of well-written characters, specifically Leslie, Ben and Ron. The show started to intensify the conflict between the professional and personal goals of all its characters.

The show ended with its iconic pockets-of-future episode where every goodbye Leslie says leads to the natural conclusion of that character’s arc, not forcing all characters to reach their own finales at the same time. From the truly heartfelt like Ron to the hilariously appropriate like Garry, the show transcends from an obsession over a pit to understanding what life means to each of the characters until they all come together once again with Leslie as their candidate for governor, Parks and Rec may as well have one of the most cohesive endings ever written.

How I Met Your Mother

How I Met Your Mother, despite being one of the most creative mainstream sitcoms ever made, has its legacy diminished by its controversial ending. That ending has less to do with the creators’ abilities as writers and more to do with their inability to evolve out of their original ending.

In the finale, you might have noticed that Ted’s kids, after nine years, look remarkably young. This is because this ending was shot during the early seasons. The writers had, during the very start of the show, decided to go with this ending. They knew that Ted was telling the story to ask for permission to rekindle his relationship with a single Robin. They also predicted the show will not last a long time. They were wrong.

During this long while, Lily and Marshall got married and had children, Ted built his skyscraper and most notably, Barney and Robin got married. During the middling seasons, Barney started to fight Ted for the position of the protagonist of the show. Being the most marketable thing out of the show, the writers started pushing for that narrative as well.

To make their ending more impactful, they had to give Barney a romantic ending as well as make Ted more miserable than he ever was on the day he met Tracy. Having him return from the wedding of his best friend and the girl he believed to be his “the one” is a really solid way to establish that, and now is the time to drive home this new narrative. After everything, you proved Barney is not beyond redemption, Robin is worthy of love, and Ted doesn’t fall into an infinite spiral of loss. From both a character and a narrative point of view, this is, by all means, a deserving conclusion.

Except that is NOT the conclusion. Tracy dies and Ted continues his relationship with Robin. Remember that they were a thing in season 2? After years of progress, Ted goes back standing there with the Blue French-Horn. Within two minutes, we are being told that we are going to go back to the ending that was planned for a much shorter show. You cannot argue that based on the situation laid out (Tracey passing away, Barney and Robin splitting up), Ted does nothing wrong, they have a right to be happy. The problem is, this situation should not have arrived.

Barney and Robin’s marriage, from how far we can see, lasted all of two episodes. The problem was their incompatible life goals, which was ultimately the thing that broke Robin and Ted up. Robin didn’t think that she would be offered a job as an international reporter, it just dropped on her. But given that Robin is now at a place where she can find some stability, why isn’t it that Barney ran over to hers to give their relationship another try? They had the more recent, and arguably, the stronger relationship. But where Ted could have ended the show in a contemplative state where he tries to understand his relationships as he got and Barney could have ended up finding the strength to give the strongest relationship in his life another try, we get one man standing while holding a Blue French-Horn.

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