I guess because it’s May—the end of the school year, and the end of the regular TV season—but I’ve been thinking about endings. I watched the season finale of my current favorite, Doctor Who, this past week, and as the episode ended (right after I yelled the name of the exec producer: Moffattttt!!!!!! Captain-Kirk style, and scared my dog) I was left with way more questions than answers. I hopped online, but the rest of cyberspace seemed to be just as confused as me. A lot of folks have theories, but none of us will know if we’re on the right track until November. Which seems like such a long time to wait.
I have a love-hate relationship with cliffhangers and open endings. On the one hand, I hate waiting and not knowing. But on the other, how often in life do all the loose ends really get tied up? People are always talking about closure, but a lot of times we have to just move on without it. In an episode of The Big Bang Theory the other week, Sheldon freaked out when Leonard casually mentioned that Alphas was cancelled, calling the SyFy channel in a panic because he had to know what happened to the characters, and saying,
“They have to help the viewers let go. Firefly did a movie to wrap things up. Buffy the Vampire Slayer continued on as a comic book. Heroes gradually lowered the quality season by season until we were grateful it ended.”
I’ve been mourning the untimely death of Firefly since 2003, but this past year at the ten-year anniversary, one of the showrunners, Tim Minear, described his and Joss Whedon’s plans for the series—a horrific story about Inara that I’m glad I never got to/had to see. The closure I thought I wanted might have retroactively ruined the show for me, the way a bad ending sometimes can.
When a series is caught unaware, and there’s crap-all for resolution, it is really annoying. But I think it’s even worse when the writers do know, and they fail to deliver a real ending. Of course, endings, just like every other part of the story, are in the eye of the beholder. But for most of us, when we love characters, seeing them happy and at least on their way toward what they want in life is hard to not like. A decent ending can make up for a lot—Roswell, for example: the third season was a hot mess. But the final ten minutes or so saw the whole gang together, Max and Liz married, and a happy song played as they all drove off in the distance. And though we were all worried about Harry's fate, J.K. gave us all a lovely epilogue with a happy Harry and company.
It’s not just alien and wizard teens who want to be happy and on the right path, though—it’s what we all want. In fantasy and SF stories, the writers can always pull a rabbit out of their hat and fix things for the characters. Part of why I was so confused about the final Doctor Who ep is because there are sort of twelve of him. In the real world there’s only one of each of us. Sometimes we feel like we’re on that right path, but how can we ever really know? The stories that are the most true to life don’t offer that much closure.
A contemporary novel has to have a last page, but does it have to have an ending? Think about Holden Caulfield at the end of The Catcher in the Rye. We sort of hope he’s on his way--that he'll go to a new school, make friends, get good grades--but we'll never really know. In a way the lack of clear resolution keeps Holden pure: he never becomes something else at the end of the story, so he’ll forever be that boy watching his little sister going around and around on the carousel.
There's no grand final curtain—at least while you’re still alive and kicking. Joss Whedon said it best this past week on Twitter: a follower tweeted that his life would be complete if @jossactual retweeted him. The reply: No, your life will be complete when you die.
At least I think it was Joss—this being real life, I’ll probably never know for sure.