NOT for the first time this year a television drama has been all about the ending.
The finale of True Detective, which offered its two troubled protagonists a glimmer of hope and a moment of redemption, was hugely divisive. Many felt the final episode was a betrayal of the series’ central theme: that the universe is a cruel and nihilistic place.
I couldn’t agree less; I thought it was an immensely satisfying conclusion and the more emotional flavour of the final scenes well-earned.
With regard to the ending of Amber, on the other hand, which outraged viewers by not really being an ending at all, I couldn’t care less. Frankly, the biggest mystery wasn’t who snatched Amber, but why so many viewers felt compelled to stick with something so dreary and unconvincing for four long hours.
Which brings us to Tuesday night’s finale of The Missing, arguably the most hotly anticipated hour of television drama this year. And now that it’s all over, the outcome is being just as hotly debated. It was inevitable that a drama series which gripped the audience in a way not seen since Broadchurch was never going to please all of the people.
One negative review said the finale was “a manipulation too far”. Personally, I’m happy to be manipulated, happy to have my expectations messed with if the end result is going to be as brilliant as this. And expectations truly were messed with.
It turned out that five-year-old Oliver Hughes wasn’t abducted by the revolting Ian Garrett (Ken Stott) or any of his paedophile associates. He was run over by a drunk driver, Alain, the alcoholic hotelier whose proud years of sobriety turned out to be a lie.
Alain turned in panic to his brother, the shifty local magistrate, who, on discovering the boy was still alive, called on a Romanian gangster, who “solved” the problem by murdering Oliver. Or so it appeared; we were never actually shown his dead body.
Rather than leaving us dangling in frustration as the dire Amber did, this last uncertainty, this slim possibility that Oliver might still be alive somewhere, is what gave The Missing’s final act its shattering power.
To treat The Missing as a standard abduction drama and demand a resolution was to miss the point. It was always about other things too: guilt, buried secrets, marital betrayal and disintegration, and the corrosive, soul-eating effect of delusion and obsession.
At the end, there is closure for Oliver’s mother Emily (Frances O’Connor). She marries ex-cop Mark (Jason Flemyng) and builds a new life. She’s finally accepted Oliver is dead.
So has former lead detective Julien (Tchéky Karyo), who is filled with hope that his own child, lost in a different way to drug addiction, will emerge from it. The only one for whom there will never be closure is tragic Tony (James Nesbitt).
The finale opened with an ominous shot of an unknown man in present-day Russia watching young boys in a wintry playground. In the final scene, we discovered the man was Tony, haggard and bearded, still believing, doomed to spend his days searching for the son he’ll never find.
He can’t do anything else. He doesn’t have an old life to return to or a new one to build. This is his life. The heart-wrenching closing shot of the wild-eyed Tony, now possibly insane, being dragged away by police from a boy he wants to believe is Oliver will linger longer in the mind than any tidy conclusion.