Let's set one thing straight: Jeremy Clarkson had it coming. No one put a gun to his head and made him berate and assault Top Gear producer Oisin Tymon, just months after being told explicitly by the BBC he was on his final warning after a snafu involving unused footage showing Clarkson mumbling the n-word as part of a nursery rhyme.
One other thing: Top Gear as headlined by Clarkson was, as A.A. Milne so beautifully explained, ""a triumph of the craft of programme making, of the minute, obsessive, musical masonry of editing, the French polishing of colourwashing and grading." It treated its subject as art, and displayed an extraordinary devotion to capturing and delivering that pure wonder to an audience composed largely of people who would never experience it.
Top Gear, under Jeremy Clarkson, was a love letter to the dream machines. It was joyously irreverent, obstinately buffoonish. It was much like the man at its center, who was a man out of time. He was a schoolboy clowning around, worming his way out of trouble because his imposing stature, deep voice and sharp mind conferred a cocky charisma.
Experiencing towering success without sacrificing that childishness had the unfortunate effect of distancing him from reality. Perhaps this is why he could be a nightmare to work with, why he never quite seemed to get that he was running out of slack. Any of us would be stupendously arrogant if we dodged growing up. Perhaps that's why his outbursts grew more frequent and disastrous. The schoolboy who never left the classroom found fewer and fewer people applauding when he yelled something crass or made a show of dropping his books.
But one million people signed a petition to reinstate him. I think most agree with what James May said while Top Gear was in limbo: "I've said many times before that the man is a knob. But I quite like him." In an age of compassion and empathy, Clarkson was a gleeful dinosaur driving ludicrously expensive supercars, doing single-digit miles to the gallon, foot hard down, bellowing "power!" for no other reason than it was funny.
His was the star around which the show orbited. James May was the brains, Richard Hammond was the sidekick, the production and editing teams were among the best in the world, but the show needed a Peter Pan.
He may return older and wiser; his reporting the incident himself and then insisting people leave Oisin Tymon alone was a good start.
Top Gear will be back, but it will just be about cars again. And that's a quiet tragedy to me. Clarkson's Top Gear was a tribute to never growing up, to boys being boys, to wrestling in the mud and defiantly promising you'll one day drive the Lamborghini on your bedroom poster. That was the infection of it, and why it became a global phenomenon. Top Gear lived in the gray zone of knowing it was time to grow up and not wanting to do it yet. It was an act of defiance by a group of extraordinary talents building a product around a childish fantasy - and said product was sublime.
The day after the decision was finalized, I found myself watching one of Top Gear's last great episodes: series 20, episode two. Each of the presenters were doing what they do best: first, Clarkson took the BAC Mono, a new track car out of Cheshire, for a spin around the track and fell in love with its feel and precision. Then Hammond determined the best taxi in the world by gathering several from various countries and racing them against each other in a manner one could call "needlessly destructive." May pitted a BMX champion against two free runners in a race through BBC's then-defunct television headquarters. And then, at the end, having ticked off the classic boxes for 'quirky new car review', 'destructive race', and 'segment completely unrelated to cars', Clarkson reviewed the F12, most powerful road-going production car Ferrari had ever made.
There was one moment, in particular, that seemed to capture just how confident in itself the show was and just how very good it could be. While driving, Clarkson mentions that in the past, big Ferraris had felt...big. But as his hands turn on the wheel, he grins and says "this isn't. It's light and nimble and sharp. It is..." And then he pauses.
He turns his head to face straight out of the windshield, trailing off in wonderment as you hear the F12's engine reach the top of its rev range. And as the violins swell and the English countryside whips past the window, he goes slightly slack-jawed as his mouth curves up in a half-smile. It's a feeling James May refers to as "the fizz": a moment when the car becomes an extension of your hands and the engine becomes a roaring echo of your heartbeat. It's a moment in which you find it very easy to believe that the machine is galloping beneath you, that it yearns to push the limits, that it's just a little bit alive.
Clarkson was eight years old again, sitting in a dream planted by a poster on his wall. And when he spoke next, he spoke with an imagination fully engaged: "...it is spectacular."
There's probably no better note to end on than the best review Clarkson ever did, in which his passion for his work was incandescent: his review of the Aston Martin V12 Vantage at the end of Series 13. And it's perhaps fitting that he was at his best describing a V12, a massive engine that - like Clarkson himself - is fast becoming a remnant of another time.
But this was Top Gear, at its finest. The intersection of talent and defiant joy. And I hope, as the show and the man part ways, that neither one loses that joy. Over 13 years, it made for one of the greatest shows on television.