Warning: this article contains spoilers for the Line Of Duty season six finale. Proceed with caution.
Is there anything quite so disappointing as a bad TV finale?
When Lost came to an end in 2010, I immediately found myself sinking into a week-long bad mood. When Game Of Thrones reached its lacklustre conclusion in 2019, I dissolved into a pool of frustrated tears. And, when Line Of Duty finally unveiled the identity of H earlier this month, I – like so many others – felt a hot bloom of anger swelling in my stomach long before the credits even began to roll.
Why, though? Well, I have a theory – which, somewhat ironically, is the exact same phrase that’s doomed me to enter this strange state of grief whenever my once-loved shows reach their conclusions.
I’m talking, of course, about fan theories.
Often believed to be the hallmark of any great TV series, fan theories blossom wherever writers have nailed the art of mystery, ambiguity, and cliffhangers aplenty. Which is why the likes of Lost, Game Of Thrones, and Line Of Duty had countless Reddit threads dedicated to unravelling their secrets ahead of their finales.
Of course, the writers of these shows didn’t just feed off popular fan theories; they fed into them, too, by weaving in yet more red herrings, more clues, more mysteries to solve. Cast members were asked to comment on theories about their characters, which would quickly be transcribed into viral articles (read our breakdown of the best Line Of Duty fan theories if you haven’t already).
And, while the shows became all the more famous as a result of this online chatter, there’s no denying that the frenzied discourse around them became bigger than the series themselves.
Here’s the thing, though; with so many deliciously intricate fan theories out there, how can screenwriters ever hope to compete? Because, and here’s the crux of the matter, the storylines we carefully weave ourselves are always going to feel more satisfying to us than anything plucked from the actual writers’ brains (sorry Jed Mercurio).
As psychologist Emma Kenny explains to me: “When you watch a TV show, especially a long running one, it becomes more than a simple viewing experience; you become invested in the plot, storyline and most importantly the evolving characters.
“As you form a relationship with these, you buy into your own ideas, philosophies and fantasies regarding how things should ideally work out. As this is a subjective experience, like any fantasy, it will rarely live up the expectations that you have as a viewer, so this idealised perspective will often result in feelings of injustice, let down and even grief.”
Well, exactly. Exactly. That’s why, when Lost ended with that big purgatory reveal, I was so furious that the polar bear and smoke monster remained unexplained (my version of events saw every single loose end neatly tied up with a little bow). That’s why, when bloody Ian Buckells was exposed as H in Line Of Duty, I couldn’t help but roll my eyes. Because… well, because surely it would’ve been better if all those clues pointing to Kate Fleming’s corruption had turned out to be true, right?
And that’s why, when Game Of Thrones fizzled out with the murder of Daenerys Targaryen and the uprising of Bran ‘The Broken’ Stark, I spent days telling anyone who would listen my own ending for the show. Which, based on the idea that GoT’s iconic “winter is coming” strapline was a metaphor for climate change, saw me suggest that the White Walkers would prove unstoppable unless every leader of Westeros pulled together (much like, y’know, actual climate change).
Why did I think this? Well, because George R R Martin told The NY Times that “the people in Westeros are fighting their individual battles over power and status and wealth. And those are so distracting them that they’re ignoring the threat of ‘winter is coming,’ which has the potential to destroy all of them and to destroy their world.”
Is it any wonder, then, that I assumed the HBO show would defy the public’s thirst to know who ends up on the Iron Throne and focus on Martin’s vision of an apocalyptic weather shift instead? That I wanted the White Walkers to drive everyone out of Westeros and across the Narrow Sea, where they’d be forced to work together and start a new life in a hostile desert wasteland? That I found evidence to support my theory in a 50-song playlist released by showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss ahead of the season eight premiere? And that I was so impossibly angry that the White Walkers were defeated in a single episode very early on in the series by a nimble Arya Stark?
“Depending on your own moral code, you will also feel challenging emotions when good fails to prevail over evil, as to some degree many humans are almost hard wired to seek a positive outcome for characters they identify with due to their altruistic nature,” explains Kenny.
“When this fails to arrive it provides a moral blow, leading to feelings of frustration, and even a complete change of opinion where a once much loved show is concerned.”
Of course, now that I’ve had time to think about it, I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s a deeper message to the Line Of Duty finale – one which serves as an important reminder of the ordinariness of evil.
Lost, too, gifted us a finale that, thanks to it being as convoluted as the show itself, is still generating articles and fan theories all these years later – particularly with regards to that 4, 8, 15, 16, 23, and 42 sequence.
And Game Of Thrones? Well, with a whopping 12 months of hindsight, I can honestly say that it was one of HBO’s best shows of all time… until it was utterly let down by its rushed and terribly unsatisfying ending. So sue me.
Kayleigh Dray is Stylist’s digital editor-at-large. Her specialist topics include comic books, films, TV and feminism. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends.