I have watched, and rewatched, every episode of Top Gear. I couldn’t help but tune in for the final one with the now-disbanded cast, especially knowing that it was clearly going to be unlike any other. Yesterday, BBC aired it — and it starts with a literal elephant in the room.
While the show has always been rife with controversy, this series has been particularly controversial. Series 22 — the last starring Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond, and James May, it would turn out — started with a trip to Patagonia where the trio made numerous references to the Falklands War, a deadly 1982 conflict with Great Britain. This stirred up enough anger with Argentinian locals that the entire crew was forced to flee to Chile in the middle of the night. Throughout the series, Chilean flags have been prominently displayed in the studio and even worn on the presenters’ lapels. Clarkson had already come under fire for referring to a Burmese man by a racial epithet in the previous season's finale. The final straw was a fistfight Clarkson had with a producer over catering that ended in his suspension (and eventual dismissal) from the show.
Off-screen controversies set the tone for the series finale
And off-screen controversies set the tone for this series finale. Richard Hammond and James May stand in an empty Top Gear studio in front of a life-size model of an elephant to fulfill the end of their contracts. May jumps in to set the tone by saying "… and tonight’s program is not, as I’m sure you’ve guessed, a normal one" before going on to introduce the first segment on classic motoring, filmed before Clarkson’s unceremonious departure.
That first segment was a solid piece where the three bought old cars on a budget and fixed them up as producers interrupted them with envelopes directing them on their journey. This segment would have been a good final sendoff, as the parallels between three old cars trying to get by in a modern era were well done. The group went to a car meet-up with a bunch of kids in Japanese cars drifting circles around them and struggled through pub trivia about Top Gear; Clarkson wound up breaking down on the way to the final classic car and air show.
But then the show started breaking down in the second half. The task was once again to buy used cars and run through a series of tasks — this time, SUVs to tackle outdoor lifestyle activities. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much substance to the segment, leaving the show to end on a particularly awkward note. Brief (and genuinely heartfelt) goodbyes from Hammond and May wrapped the show. Needless to say, it wasn’t a satisfying end for one of the most controversial and entertaining teams of personalities on television.
The show will never be the same
There was a Top Gear before Clarkson, Hammond, and May. There will be a Top Gear after, too, but the show will never be the same. While their politics and antics have been polarizing, their on-screen chemistry introduced car culture to an entire generation who might not have experienced it otherwise.
Scott Kellum is a front-end designer for Vox Media.