Free to Be Seinfeld

For 168 episodes, Seinfeld reveled in the most minute minutiae, eventually spinning those trivialities into plots with the most cosmic interrelations. The show about nothing was, as has been suggested many times, always really about something. But those somethings were always dealt with overtly, comically, seldom providing pause except to those whose moral codes dictated that even mentioning certain things is distasteful.

Recently, the series came to an end. Jerry felt that it would be better to go out on top. Sad and admirable. The last episode was sure to be highly anticipated, and it was. For the grand finale, what minutiae, what interrelatedness, could possibly top the great moments of the past? None. An episode like all the others — different in topic but with no intention at creating an event — would surely be an anticlimactic disappointment. Then again, anything was sure to disappoint.

So why was the finale as unusual as it was? In a lose-lose situation, the notion must have simply been “why not,” why not do something different? But, under the guise of nothingness, the show had covered a little of everything. What was left? Only two things remained, two things which had been actually taboo for the show that pretended to have no taboos — true emotionally and intellectualism.

Moments before the final episode itself, a clips preview ended with a syrupy montage, with Green Day’s schmaltz in the background. For the first time, Seinfeld took a turn toward overt sentimentality. Other than in parodic ways, such as when Jerry suddenly became emotional and loving or when Frank Costanza professed his devotion to the Korean manicurist, this had never happened before. It seemed unnaturally natural for this to give way to the grand ethical debate that was the final episode itself.

After standing idly by while a man is carjacked, the New York Four are put on trial — not just for this sin of omission during their country visit, but for the whole nine years of the show. This was not even symbolic — in the trial itself, their deeds over the years are run by them, as if their lives, about to come to an end, are flashing before their eyes.

The series had thrived on characters that were often thought to be unlikeable, on situations that were often thought to be horrible and twisted. Now, it was all to be put to the test. In Seinfeld’s world, like them or not, what defines right and wrong?

First thing’s first: obviously we liked them. We kept them on the air at the top of the ratings, even through comparatively mediocre seasons. But was this despite their nastiness, or precisely because of it? Are they, in fact, guilty?

As they are convicted and thrown in jail for a year, the easy conclusion is that they are paying for all their sins — their nasty personalities have finally gotten the best of them. “Even Steven” is finally receiving his just desserts, balancing out the years in which he got away with so much. What goes around comes around, and selflessness has won out over the self-centered nature of the characters.

But here in this final episode, emotionality and intellectualism are subverting the last nine years of what the show was all about. The entire history of the series’ content is turned on its ear. Is it not possible that this subversiveness is there for a reason? Is it not possible that this superficial “message” is not the real one to take home?

Remember — as nasty as the group always was, it takes a trip to the heartland to get them accused and tried. And it was not the show’s popularity in urban areas alone that assured its success — that same heartland made the show the smash it was. It is not just urbanites like the characters who approved of the show, but the heartlanders who watched, possibly not despite but because of the group’s flaws.

If the group is guilty, we — the whole audience, urbanites and heartlanders alike — are guilty. Seinfeld is saying “j’accuse” to us, rather than the other way around. The heartland especially is revealed to be hypocritical. We all are the ones one who kept the show’s ratings high. If punishment is just for the group, the same punishment should be meted out to us.

But consider the contrapositive: If we are innocent, then they are innocent.

Legislated selflessness cannot make good. We may not have always agreed with the group, but they were free to make choices. And if the series as a whole ever had a message, it is only now revealed in this new light — Seinfeld defended freedom.

Behind bars at the end, they appear not to have changed. The superficial interpretation, of course, is, how sad, they are no different, even this punishment cannot change them. Their whole lives were self-made prisons — they barred themselves in the insular world of Monk’s, the jail of Manhattan, the big evil city — and this is what they will always be, this is what they had coming to them all along.

But the real message is clear. Manhattan, the island, is just like the people on it, who are free to be islands unto themselves if they want to be. These are things to be cherished. The freedom to be selfish and despicable is theirs and ours, even if we choose to be something else. Manhattan is not a prison. Monk’s is not a prison. Even the prison in which they are jailed is not a real prison — in there, they are more free than those who legislate selflessness outside the jail, more free than those who allow themselves to live by this legislated morality. After all, how can these people’s lives be self-made prisons, how can their home be an island prison, when crime has steadily decreased and the quality of living has increased in Manhattan during the very period in which the series ran? The stereotype and the myth are dispelled.

If freedom was not the key message behind Seinfeld, how else could these people have been the way they were, done the things they did, thought the things they thought, said the things they said? It all would have been impossible. Without their freedom, we would not have had the series to love.

It’s not like all their laughing and exploiting and manipulating got them anywhere. As their lives go, they just spun their wheels. But they were mostly content to do so. Fine, let them be. And, in fact, more often than not, things did not work out for them in the end. The genuine happy ending was never anywhere to be seen. Why, if that’s the case, do they deserve a cosmic punishment at the series’ end? The answer is that they do not, that the prison sentence is effectively not much more than an inconvenience for them. It is not what everyone thinks.

The ghosts from their past, all the people whose lives were sullied by the group, may come back to haunt them at the end. But, indeed, these malcontents are on the side of those who would legislate selflessness, who would force people to be a certain way. And they thus reveal themselves to be unwilling to accept their own freedom, to accept responsibility for their own actions, blaming everything instead on the New York Four.

Jerry and his friends have been through enough cosmic interrlations to know that the world works in a certain way. It is precisely this understanding of life as a system that allows them to be themselves within it — and to accept their jail sentence with aplomb. The sentence is no different for them than any of the dozens of episode endings. Their “enemies,” on the other hand, never had the same chance to acquaint themselves so intimacy with the holism of the world. It is only this lack of understanding that gives them the justification to lay blame. They, and anyone else who would punish the New York Four, are prisoners of their own minds, victims of their own ignorance about how the world works. Their willingness to punish is itself evidence that they are anything but free. Even in their supposed defeat, the Seinfeld group have triumphed. Like the victim of a concentration camp who remains free in his mind no matter what the Nazis may do to him physically, the New York Four remain totally free to be themselves even when a misguided and unenlightened society throws them in jail. They create their own lives within the system handed to them — everyone else merely allows the system to have its way with them.

Remember what Larry Flynt said. To paraphrase, if the law can be made to protect them, then it can be made to protect you — to protect everyone. If the law comes down on Larry — or Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer — how far behind are we really? Judge not lest ye be judged.

Why should we wish to punish them? We are free because they are free. And more importantly, we always enjoyed the fruits of their freedom. Had they not been free to be and do and think and say, where would we have been these last nine years?

Is this a conflict between left-wing liberal urbanites and right-wing conservative family-values-oriented heartlanders? Absolutely not! It’s the urbanites here who are selfish, out for themselves (stereotypically right-wing and capitalist traits) while the heartlanders are passing good Samaritan laws, demanding that everyone hold a love-in for their fellow man. As quirky as it is, Seinfeld is about the real world. It is about real people. And people and situations cannot always be broken down into black and white — neither the urbanites nor the heartlanders are exclusively right-wing or left-wing. This is not about left vs. right. By blurring the lines, the finale puts the entire bipartisan paradigm on its ear, just as it does with the previous seasons of the series.

To sum up in the manner of Cary Elwes’ always-ask-a-question-then-answer-it-yourself-character: Was the finale a great episode? Certainly not in the way some of the most memorable ones are. Can sense be made about why the hell Jerry and Company would decide to go out that way? I think so.

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