Here’s What Happened

I didn’t really appreciate what a great series “Monk” was until it was over.

For eight years, “Monk” has been the “old reliable” of television. It was always “safe” enough to watch with my parents, but still interesting enough to watch alone. It was never really “appointment” TV, but if I made time to watch an episode, I could be pretty much guaranteed of an hour of well-made television. More often than not, the cases had at least one clever twist or revelation, and when they didn’t, there’d always be at least one funny set piece. It could go on for season after season without being completely weighed down by formula, and it could weather gimmick episodes and stunt casting and still keep its integrity.

But still: the formula had gotten pretty apparent, and I’d stopped watching a few years ago. It wasn’t until they announced the series was ending that I really started to pay attention again. And it’s pretty remarkable what they managed to accomplish. Take the premise: combine Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot into one character, put him in modern-day San Francisco (or at least as close as Vancouver allows), with Dr. Watson/Hastings played by a caustic nurse from New Jersey and Chief Inspector Japp played by the guy from Silence of the Lambs. Give him all of Holmes’s arrogance and Poirot’s peculiarities, but say they’re because of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Because of a domineering mother and an absentee father. Actually, make that crippling OCD, which caused him to lose his job and become a social outcast. Caused by the murder of his wife by a car bomb, which caused him to have a complete mental breakdown requiring years of constant therapy.

Oh yeah, and it’s a comedy series.

And yet somehow, they did it. For eight years, two assistants, two therapists, constant flashbacks, and three Dale the Whales. And they managed to almost always strike the right balance — it could’ve easily gone too far into hopelessly bleak or maudlin territory, or too far into standard police procedural territory, or too far into pointing and laughing at the wacky guy with mental problems. The reason it worked as well as it did is not because they avoided any of the extremes, but because they remembered to include all three extremes. Here was a series that could have an episode played completely for laughs, but still had an ending that felt like a punch in the gut. Or an episode about the series’s “mythology” that incidentally has Monk solving multiple homicides.

Sometimes they’d let the comedy bits get too broad, at the expense of everything else. And some of the actual cases were slight at best — but then, this was always first and foremost a show about characters, disguised as a police procedural. So when it presented an episode that was a little too formulaic or a bit too contrived, it became easy to lose sight of the show’s greatest achievement, taking black comedy and making it mainstream. They never wore their edginess on their sleeve, but it was still always there, the show’s big message: really horrible stuff frequently happens to good people.

So I really didn’t know what to expect going into the series finale. Season 8 hasn’t been an overblown season-long event, but a series of standalone cases. There’s been a recurring theme in all the episodes: that of Monk gradually getting over his phobias and learning to adjust to “normal” life. But they saved the final revelations about Trudy’s case until the final two parter, and it could’ve gone in any number of directions. This is a formula-driven crime procedural, where Monk always solves the case… it’s got to have a happy ending, right? But then again, this is a series that has never really pulled its punches: it’s a comedy series where the main character is a profoundly broken and miserable man who constantly wishes for death. The people involved with the show wouldn’t say more than that the ending was “satisfying.” If Monk died and was reunited with Trudy, would that be “satisfying?”

Considering that they had so many options, I’m impressed that they came up with a finale that was damn near perfect.

The rest of this has spoilers in case you haven’t seen the last two episodes, or you didn’t have the ending already ruined by Entertainment Weekly.

They could’ve revealed that Trudy was still alive somehow, but thankfully, they didn’t. They could’ve had Monk die and meet Trudy in the afterlife, but they didn’t. They could’ve had Monk exact his revenge on Trudy’s murderer, but they didn’t. They could’ve revealed some bizarre connection between Monk and Natalie (or, even worse, a romance) but didn’t.

Instead, we got pretty much what we wanted to happen, but in a way that didn’t once feel predictable. And I’m not going to lie: I spent pretty much all of the last 25 minutes of the episode in tears.

The episode felt a little bit rushed, and I think they could’ve easily stretched it out another hour. But then again, it was already perfectly clear from the first half that Craig T Nelson’s character was “the guy,” so they chose not to insult the audience’s intelligence by dragging it out. Instead, we learned that Trudy’s murder wasn’t because of the news story she’d been investigating, as we’d been led to believe all these years, but because of an affair in her past.

I read someone complaining online that having a videotape inside the Christmas present was a huge cop-out that invalidated everything. The crucial clue for his most important case had been sitting in front of him for 12 years. And it revealed not only the murderer, but the motive as well. Monk didn’t have to do anything to “solve” Trudy’s murder except watch a video — it wasn’t even essential that he figured out where the body was buried, because it would’ve turned up eventually.

But it was the perfect way to end the series, because “Monk” has always been about characters first, and then about detective cases. (Hell, it was even the network’s tagline for a few years). Monk would never have been able to solve Trudy’s murder, because he was looking at it the wrong way. He says as much in the scenes from earlier in the series, shown at the beginning of the episode. In the episode before the finale, “Mr. Monk and the Badge,” he finally gets reinstated — the thing he’s wanted for the past twelve years — and he realizes that that’s not what he wants after all. He’s changed since he was on the police force, and he never realized he was actually happier now. And it’s the same thing here: he spent the last twelve years in stasis, leaving everything exactly as it was when Trudy was still alive, convinced he could never move on until he solved Trudy’s murder. But solving Trudy’s murder was never actually the thing that was preventing him from moving on.

In the video, Trudy says basically that: he always thought she was perfect, “a saint.” When she reveals that she had an affair that resulted in a daughter, that doesn’t ruin her character; it just finally makes it clear to Monk that she wasn’t perfect. I think the most telling line of the whole episode comes later, when Monk is walking on the beach (!) with Trudy’s daughter. She asks him to tell her what Trudy was like, and the first thing to come to mind was “she snored.” He could finally appreciate her as a real person, instead of as some perfect angel who existed only to solve all his problems and remind him how horrible his life was without her. The gift was as close as you can get to poetry on basic cable: he’d kept it sealed all these years as “Trudy’s last secret,” but the secret wasn’t who killed her. The secret was that he could move on and meet a whole new person who would help make him happy. The part where I lost it is when he meets Trudy’s daughter for the first time, and she just says “It’s okay.” People have been trying to tell him for eight years that everything was going to be okay, and he always refused to believe them.

Speaking of poetry, I’m not that crazy about the poison in the wipes. I’m pretty sure we all saw it coming, and it was poetic justice after eight years of this series that the wipes would be the thing that was killing him, so you want to cut the show a little slack. But it doesn’t really make sense that if you’re trying to kill a genius detective who solves every case, you’d use the slowest method possible. On the plus side, it set up the moment where Natalie is the one who discovers the crucial clue, a perfect capper to her character.

And the rest of the episode was filled with great moments like that. Natalie stressing out about the crooked E on the “case closed” box, and Monk not caring. Monk’s excitement about The Internet and Molly’s “blog.” (Considering how moved I was after seeing Monk get attached to a dog a couple episodes ago, this episode was devastating). The gradual shift in Monk’s wardrobe as he starts to adjust back to normal life (what other show can get you weepy just by virtue of showing the main character wearing a sweater?) Natalie crying at the idea of Monk going to a movie.

And especially the last sequence, which showed what the first few moments of the pilot would’ve looked like if Monk hadn’t been stuck in limbo for years. If you’re cynical, you could say that the entire series has been like one of those commercials for Paxil, stretched out with eight years of slapstick. But the series didn’t leave any room for cynics in the audience, since there was more than enough cynicism on screen. Monk earned his happy ending. Or to put it in Monk-speak: he’d spent twelve years on picture stop and could finally press picture go forward.