|There was the show that ended with its cast in the buffet line for heaven, and the show that ended with its homicidal hero on his way to retirement at the beach.|
And then there was the best finale of all: the show that ended with a very sick police lieutenant excusing herself to take a phone call and getting good news.
The last episode of “Law & Order,” written and directed by the show’s longtime executive producer Rene Balcer, was finished before the series’s cancellation was announced this month. Yet it managed to be an entirely appropriate send-off, and its low-key last moments were more moving and honestly emotional than the endings of “Lost” and “24,” shows whose finales received much more attention.
The story line of “Rubber Room,” about a disgruntled New York teacher planning to blow up a high school, was standard-issue “Law & Order.” But it did reflect a libertarian tendency to tweak big institutions that had grown stronger this season — neither New York City’s department of education nor the teachers’ union could have been very happy with how they were portrayed.
The stakes were slightly higher than usual because this was, after all, supposed to be a season finale: Detectives Lupo and Bernard found themselves face to face with the gun- and pipe-bomb-wielding teacher. But the violent confrontation played out in a few minutes, ending with a simple tackle and heavy sighs of relief. (In some kind of nod to “Lost,” it took place at John Locke High School.)
Through 20 seasons, the message of “Law & Order” was always about living to fight another day. You suspect that even if Dick Wolf, creator and overseer of the show and its spinoffs, had known that Monday night’s episode was the show’s last, it would have been business as usual — some phone calls, some wisecracks, a lot of da-dums, a few beers.
What hadn’t been business as usual throughout Season 20 was the battle with cancer fought by Lt. Anita Van Buren, the show’s longest-tenured character. As Alessandra Stanley wrote last week, the show’s treatment of it was graceful but unblinking. Van Buren lost hair, conducted short telephone skirmishes with her insurance carrier and tried to keep her illness completely separate from her life in the precinct. On Monday night she was overheard applying for a personal loan to cover her treatment.
There had been much concern among fans over whether Mr. Wolf would kill off one of their most beloved characters, and it didn’t look good when Van Buren was lying under the scanner while what sounded like Pavarotti singing “Nessun Dorma” boomed on the soundtrack. But then came the show’s final minutes, and the phone call from the doctor. The lieutenant’s shoulders heaved, and we were left in awful suspense until she said a whispered “thank you” and walked back in to her colleagues at the bar. The camera pulled away through the crowd, and while the show ended, life went on, which is not a bad thought for a television series to leave you with.
A scene like that — intimate, understated, practically solo — requires a gifted actor, and it certainly helped that Van Buren was played by S. Epatha Merkerson, one of the most gifted performers in prime-time television. “Rubber Room” was just another demonstration that “Law & Order,” which had experienced a creative resurgence over the last few seasons, went out boasting one of the best acting ensembles on television. Ms. Merkerson, Jeremy Sisto and Linus Roache were all excellent, and received able support from Alana De La Garza, a much-improved Anthony Anderson and the redoubtable Sam Waterston, who got one last, great scene as crazy-angry Jack McCoy, yelling at a lawyer to “Get out of my way” so that justice could be done.
The acting on “Law & Order” in recent seasons has been at a level far above that on “Lost” and “24,” shows often singled out for their performances. More mystifying — or galling — has been reading the weepy comments about how much the complex characters of “Lost” will be missed. Elaborate back stories don’t make characters any less two-dimensional. The police and prosecutors of “Law & Order” may have spent most of their time in dingy offices and had no personal lives to speak of, but we’ll likely miss them more in the long run than the hothouse heroes of those other shows. That’s what happens when you focus on the writing and the acting for, say, 20 years.