You die, or you get a great promotion. That’s the message pop culture sent in 2019, as beloved franchises climaxed into self-sacrifice and authority. HBO’s Game of Thrones killed two queens and crowned two Starks. Three people on Veep were elected president, and they share presidential status with one long-running survivor from The Walking Dead. The comic that launched a TV megafranchise ended with a flash-forward full of grand political destinies. Future America, it turns out, builds a giant statue monument to sainted brain-smasher Rick Grimes.
And that Lincoln-worthy memorial looks shoddy compared with how the Marvel Cinematic Universe mourned Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man. The hero reached his own finale in April’s Avengers: Endgame, and yet Downey’s face was everywhere three months later in Spider-Man: Far From Home. The fandom for Hollywood franchises has gone religious, so the narratives themselves embrace a messianic mode. Luke Skywalker is dead…and there’s Mark Hamill talking in the Rise of Skywalker trailer.
This strange year ended a strange decade. Is that why so many ongoing stories were concluding on a weekly basis? Maybe it’s just a numbers game: more shows, more finales. Pray for the poor viewer with complex taste who loved Broad City, Elementary, Orange Is the New Black, You’re the Worst, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Into the Badlands, Mr. Robot, Gotham, Catastrophe, Jane the Virgin, The Deuce, and The OA.
The latter’s cancellation reiterated Netflix’s destroyer-of-worlds status, though you can’t blame the streamer. New challengers approach for small-screen attention, and so 2019 was the moment for existing networks to remind subscribers what they’re subscribing for. HBO finally went back to Deadwood 13 years later, and Aaron Paul’s Jesse Pinkman returned six years after Breaking Bad to drive harder. Meanwhile, Netflix wrapped its superhero spin-off showcase with Jessica Jones season 3. And that wasn’t even the only Marvel universe that ended this year! Dark Phoenix was the last stand for Fox’s X-Men, now that Disney has absorbed the mutants into their Magic Kingdom.
You didn’t spot much modesty in these finalities. The Big Bang Theory was relatively subdued, merely giving two main characters a Nobel Prize. Mainstream entertainment was only excessive (Worlds saved — no, galaxies! Nay, universes!), and I worry history will remember 2019 for its strident hyperbole.
Or maybe these endings were a collective Viking funeral, making way for new storytellers. In our Entertainers of the Year issue, Entertainment Weekly praises the work of artists like Jordan Peele, Sally Rooney, Billie Eilish, the Safdie brothers, Lizzo, Lulu Wang, and Florence Pugh. They come from different generations and different backgrounds, and you’d forgive any of them if they couldn’t name more than a couple Van Halen songs.
Phoebe Waller-Bridge forefronts 2019’s newish class, and the multiple Emmy winner says she probably won’t do another season of Fleabag. Respectfully: I don’t believe her. “Nothing ever ends,” Doctor Manhattan told us in the last issue of the original Watchmen graphic novel, and the blue nuclear god told us much more this year in HBO’s sparkling sequel series. Watchmen’s co-creator Alan Moore probably didn’t approve of that return. And the writer claims the riotous League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Tempest series, which concluded in July, marks the end of his comics career. I don’t believe him, either.
In fact, I give it seven years before Downey is back as Iron Man — time travel, alternate reality, Skrulls — and a couple of spin-offs before HBO begs the thirty something Starks back to Westeros. It’s become weirdly conventional for people to assume the world will end in their lifetime. Don’t believe that, either. Our great-grandkids will be complaining that Disney couldn’t just leave things alone with the obviously perfect ending in Toy Story 15.