There are, in essence, two goals for season finales: One is to conclude the season that just finished, and one is to focus on setting up the next season. The best season finales do both well. Cliffhangers can be fun, but the most satisfying finales are the ones that organically and methodically set up future arcs, not ones that spring a plot twist on you.
It’s a tough balance to pull — consider one of my favorite season finales, The Job from the third season of The Office. Though it had some twists that could be described as cliffhangers — Jim asking Pam out, Ryan getting the corporate job — it was equal parts conclusion and set-up. Jim finally realized that only Pam can make him truly happy, and Ryan’s two years of putting up with Dunder Mifflin hell while studying at night turned into a major promotion. The episode excited me for the future of the characters while making me feel like they’d actually come a long way.
One barometer I use to evaluate the quality of season finales is to ask — how would I feel if the series ended here? Many of my favorite season finales can also serve as “de-facto series finales” as I call them. In other words, if the series is spontaneously cancelled (or the storytelling goes to hell and I want to pretend it was), at least I’ll always have this moderately complete, satisfying arc.
It can be tempting for shows, I’m sure, to focus on keeping us buzzed about where the plot is headed. Cliffhangers do this by only increasing, never releasing, the tension. But the wisest showrunners of all will tell you that good storytelling is what keeps viewers coming back, not artificially heightened drama.
I preface this recap with these thoughts on finales, because Moving does just about everything right. It balances closing old plots and opening new ones. It has some vaguely cliffhanger-esque twists, but it never feels overly dramatic. It also serves as a nice thematic capper to everything that’s happened to date. If seasons 4-6 of The Wonder Years suck, then I can just pretend that it all ended here and be satisfied with how it turned out.
Kevin thinks he might be moving, even though it ends up being Winnie who does. Either way, the episode is less about the move itself and more about what the move represents — the world getting bigger and the distance between Kevin and his youthful ideals growing. Kevin and Winnie share some nice moments in the episode, the best of which was a long embrace right before she left that seemed less about being a romantic couple, more about going through the bittersweet process of growing up together.
Winnie’s life hasn’t really been the same since her brother died in the pilot. In those two years, she’s gone through a lot more drama than Kevin has — the death of Brian and her parents nearly divorcing stick out. Because of this, she’s also always seemed more traumatized by the process of growing up. She consistently makes defiant acts of innocence, from her invitation to go swinging in S01E02, to playing hide-and-seek as a farewell to Harper’s Woods (S02E16), to bailing out of the make-out room (S03E17). And Kevin has almost always been there, whether as a friend or a boyfriend.
There’s some cheese here — Kevin’s grab for her hand as he realizes she recovered the ring, Winnie’s override of the narrator when she says “you” — but most of the Winnie-Kevin development lines up with the themes of the show and the characters’ previous behavior very organically.
I do have two complaints with the episode, one of them bigger than the other. My smaller complaint is that the episode hinges too much on a sneaky plot twist of Winnie being the one who has to move. The writers do a good job laying groundwork for it — Jack mentions he got the number for a realtor from the Coopers — and I loved the way the show convinced us that Jack was actually going to follow through on leaving the house. But it seemed just a bit out of left field, a bit too coincidental.
My second complaint with the episode is that Danica McKellar is not a very good actress. I really, really want to like her. I keep looking for little bits of subtlety. But the truth is she just carries herself like she barely memorized a script and is just reading directions. When she has the long scene in the moving truck with Fred Savage, it’s almost comical how much more convincing and expressive and nuanced Savage is. I kept watching scenes — even little moments like Winnie’s reaction to Kevin learning that she’s moving — and thinking how much more effective they could have been if McKellar gave us anything to work with. She’s gotten a bit better over the series, now and then shining, and her chemistry with Savage is decent, but she’s not quite there yet.
The end of the episode hints at some future themes about the world getting bigger and Kevin and Winnie facing more adversity in their relationship. I like the idea of the show broadening its scope at this point before it starts repeating itself thematically. I’m really excited to see where it goes, but even if it stumbles from here, we have three great seasons (more like two seasons, given how short the first season was) that paint a rather complete and very convincing portrait of both the characters and the culture growing up, losing their innocence, and dealing with complex modernity.