What’s the ending? This has to be up there among the most terrifying puzzles for any writer. You can create great characters, great suspense, themes, imagery, and comedy, but you’ve still got to put a bow on the damn thing. The better the build, the better people expect the ending to be. And yet, how many endings do we actually enjoy? From TV shows, to books, to movies, how often do you really say, “That ending blew me away.”
The first time I remember ending backlash was with the Sopranos. I didn’t watch the Sopranos while it was actually on, and am still not anything close to a superfan, but I watched that finale while it unfolded, because it was a cultural phenomenon. Like I said, I’m not a big enough fan to critique the ending, but when millions of people think their cable went out–you’re probably going to have a problem. We live in a world where people get angry about these things. Maybe only virtually, and on superficial levels, but the angst is palpable.
The latest reviled ending came from HBO’s True Detective. True Detective started as a show without much buzz, gained some steam when a very good-looking woman chose to remove her shirt and then rode the Matthew McConaughey Oscar train to the front of the public conscience. As it turned out, True Detective was the worst kind of show for ending haters, because it was analyzed into dust. Obsessives with time on their hands and bones to make, expounded theories, found connections and symbols a casual viewer would overlook and created a list of questions the show never had any hope of answering.
So, when the show ended last night with Hart and Cohle getting a man, not necessarily THE MAN, and then kind of stumbling into the darkness as each other’s crutch, it set off waves of internet anger. WHO IS THE YELLOW KING? What about Maggie’s parents? WHERE WAS THE TWIST? The ending, especially the last 15 minutes was anti-climatic, but I don’t know how it wouldn’t have been. The show was called True Detective, not Choose Your Own Voodoo Adventure.
This isn’t to say I loved the ending, or that I felt especially sated with how things played out. In truth I was a bit underwhelmed, underwhelmed with the boat interrogation right up through the climax at “Carcosa.” I saw it coming, though. The greatness, if you want to call it that, of this show was in the buildup. It was the dialog, the interplay between Harrelson and McConaughey. The best part of this show was always going to be the pursuit, not the collar. And, that’s why I think I would have been better off not watching the final episode, or at least turning it off after that bullet connected with Errol’s dome.
In contrast to True Detective the recent end of another rabidly followed show, Breaking Bad, was much more well-received. Unlike True Detective, Breaking Bad didn’t have a lot of open questions left at the end. It was a final season that spent a lot of time answering the question, “Who is going to survive this?” By the finale, not many characters were left standing, a real twist seemed impossible. And, Breaking Bad did us the favor of tying up many of the loose ends, if not all of them. So, it was a good finale in the sense it didn’t leave unanswered questions, but is that how we really rate things?
There seems to have been a movement toward the open-ended ending. Years back, I don’t remember watching many movies and thinking, “wait that’s it?” Now, every third movie I watch I’m a little surprised to see the credits roll. And, with books it’s even worse. I expect newer books I read now to just gently fade into the middle. No big lesson, surprise or twist. A lot of books are glimpses into a world and then suddenly someone turns the lights off.
At first I thought this was terrible. I want my neat ending. But, I’m thinking that neat might actually be boring and not that satisfying anyway. Has any comedy movie ever been made where the final twenty minutes are the funniest? Think of your favorite comedy and then ask yourself whether you liked the first half or the second half better. I think we have been conditioned to want the great ending. Many movies I’d list among my favorites have very satisfying endings. Shawshank Redemption. Scent of a Woman. An array of sports movies, but maybe we should look at these as the exception.
I say all this knowing that I’d never skip out on the finale of a show I actively watch. Mad Men is eventually going to end and that ending will be a cloudy mess of innuendo at best and I’ll probably hate it, but I’m going to watch. What I really want is to watch the first few seasons in perpetuity. That’s the world I want to peek in on. I’d rather watch 75 episodes from the 60s than watch someone try to piece together what SHOULD happen with Don Draper and Company in the 70s.
It makes me think a bit of The Simpsons, because even though that show has been running for decades now and I don’t know a soul that has watched it in ten years, part of the reason why it was so good in the beginning was because it wasn’t going anywhere. The characters were static and each episode was just a look into their world. It definitely has kept the show going as well, because I don’t think Bart at 35 years old holds an audience, but even on an animated series that’s been running for twenty-five seasons, I’m sure there are still a FEW people out there who are expecting a certain ending for The Simpsons when it finally ends, if it ever ends.
I just wonder if they shouldn’t be, or if we shouldn’t be so demanding of our endings.