It’s the end… but probably not the one you were expecting. Good Omens ends its fantastically binge-worthy run with a finale that expands on the novel’s ending. The result will keep even fans of the book on their toes until the final scenes.
One problem all adaptations of well-known books face is being robbed of their ability to surprise. The story, after all, has to go where it goes. And altering the plot to create a sense of the unexpected rarely pays off. For example, Blogtor Who can think of a few Poirot and Holmes adaptations that change the identity of the guilty suspect, but only succeed in creating a story that no longer makes sense. And how much more pronounced must that be in a story that’s effectively about destiny, as this adaptation of Good Omens? After all, almost since the start of the first episode of former Doctor Who David Tennant’s new series it’s been telling us how it all ends. We’ve even had a fun countdown in the style of “End is Nigh” placards. Placards measured first in years, then days, and now hours and minutes.
So Good Omens plays one of its smartest and most impressive cards at the start of this finale. It flashes forward to an ending that’s not from the book. And then swiftly rewinds back to an almost Doctor Who style reprise of last episode’s cliffhanger to tell us how we get from one to the other. It’s a devilishly clever move that leaves even long term fans of the book at the edge of their seat.
And, indeed, The Very Last Day of the Rest of their Lives brims with invention. One of the strengths of this series has been its ability to add brand new material that, all the same, isn’t just consistent with the original but enhances it. We’ve already had Hard Times’ startling half hour cold open charting Arizaphale and Crowley’s six thousand year friendship. And now the finale also spends much of its time covering new ground. In fact, we actually come to the climax of the novel about halfway through this episode.
The extended aftermath of The Very Last Day… seeks to wrap up multiple characters’ destinies. But, as always, it’s when Arizaphale and Crowley are on screen that the show is most alive
A lot of the second half, whether expanding on scenes from the book or creating new ones, finesses the somewhat abrupt and ambiguous original ending. And it’s more successful in some strands of that than others. Our three core relationships (Arizaphale and Crowley, Shadwell and Madame Tracy, Newt and Anathema) are defined by the conflict between meeting in the middle while being true to yourself. But, even on the page, that didn’t quite work with the latter two. On screen, Anathema is at least more of an active voice in her own life choices. The fate of Agnes Nutter’s manuscript Ye Saga Continues is implied in the original but made explicit here. More importantly, there’s less of a sense of Newt pushing for a particular outcome. But Tracy wins Shadwell over by, well, changing everything about herself. While he doesn’t change much at all.
However, as through all the episodes, everything involving our Angelic and Demonic pair of heroes is magnificent and that’s just as true of their new ending. The books see them merely shrugging off the idea of consequences for them somewhere down the line. But that moment simply becomes a piece of punctuation here before the hammer falls on them. In some ways, it’s a significant knock-on effect of the greater presence of the forces of Heaven and Hell in Gaiman’s script. We’ve actually met Gabriel and Beelzebub on screen, and it’s difficult to imagine them just letting things go. And the brand new resolution of just how Arizaphale and Crowley not only save the world but survive having saved it is genius.
This final battle for the Earth sacrifices some of the book’s funnier diversions, but it’s all in the service of a real sense of threat
Similarly, the decision to reinvent Adam’s confrontation with his biological father pays off brilliantly. As soon as Benedict Cumberbatch was announced as voicing Satan, the ears of fans perked up. Because he never actually appears in the book, being banished by Adam’s power before he can even rise. As staged here, it provides a more visual and dramatic confrontation. But more importantly, it forms a perfect encapsulation of one of Good Omens’ central themes. Adam gets the opportunity to choose who he wants to be. And moreover to reject his distant and manipulative ‘Father who art no longer in Heaven’.
The new material does result in some of the familiar elements from the book being sidelined or dropped for better or worse. These are primarily the funnier bits, which may have been a deliberate choice to avoid undercutting the danger. But still, it seems a terrible shame to lose things like Arizaphale’s world tour before he finds himself a guest in Madame Tracy’s head. How funny would his finding himself giving a sermon on live TV to a prosperity gospel megachurch has been? The Other Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, effectively fans which Death, War, Famine and Pollution pick up at the truck stop, are another sad loss to Good Omens’ more comedic side.
Good Omens achieves all one could want from any book adaptation. It satisfies both fans of the book and newcomers. And should send the latter running to their local library.
Good Omens may well be one of the most perfect adaptations of a fantasy novel yet attempted. It’s an accomplishment probably only possible with the confidence of the original writer behind it. It doesn’t make wild departures into a barely recognisable form. It accurately and lovingly holds true to the letter and spirit of the original. But it also manages to add new elements and characters that lift and improve on it. Balanced against that, none of the bits and pieces that didn’t make it into the show (the Buggre Alle This Bible anyone?) are mortal wounds. But they should inspire viewers to run to their local bookshop or library and pick up the book. Think of them as deleted scenes. Only flatter and in black and white.
Many Blogtor Who readers will have come to Good Omens due to its healthy Doctor Who connections. Both behind and in front of the camera. But it has proved a massive television event in its own right and a highlight of telefantasy in 2019. There are few mini-series you can tell dedicated fans will still be watching in thirty years (Armageddon allowing), but Good Omens is one.
Did you spot more Doctor Who faces this episode?
-As with most episodes, there’s a host of Doctor Who acting names on screen beyond the obvious. Including Brian Cox (Death/Elder Ood), Anna Maxwell Martin (Beelzebub/Suki Macrae Cantrell), Bill Patterson (R.P. Tyler/Bracewell), Elizabeth Berrington (Dagon/Auntie), and Sanjeev Bashkar (Giles Baddicombe/Colonel Ahmed). And of course Daniel Mays, who plays Arthur Young here, but similarly played adoptive father to a supernaturally powerful child in Doctor Who’s Night Terrors.
-The Young family car, with its Doctor Who inspired licence plate “SID RAT” makes another appearance
-In the ‘rebooted’ version of A.Z. Fell’s bookshop, Arizaphale finds himself now the proud owner of an appropriate set of Just William first editions. Good Omens originally started out as a parody of the Just William books – William the Antichrist – that eventually outgrew that idea as Pratchett and Gaiman realised they wanted to deal with the broader world beyond the child Antichrist and his friends.
-Over the end, credits play a haunting new version of A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square by the famous singer, and good friend of Neil Gaiman, Tori Amos. It’s an appropriate reference to the final scene, as Arizaphale and Crowley drink a toast “to the world” at the Ritz. As the lyrics say, “There were angels dining at the Ritz/And a nightingale sang in Berkeley Square.”
-Speaking of Amos, Pepper’s slapdown of War – “I believe in peace, bitch!” – is another sneaky Easter egg. This time to Tori Amos’ 1994 song The Waitress. (So I want to kill this waitress/She’s worked here a year longer than I/If I did it fast you know that’s an act of kindness/But I believe in peace/I believe in peace, bitch)