Monday, May 24, 2010

The Problems with Endings

It’s pretty perilous to express an opinion on a TV series you’ve never seen, but oh heck, whatever: I’ve never seen Lost, but the response that I knew was inevitable turned out to be just that—we’re talking about massive, angry disappointment and anger with the (apparent) nonresponsiveness of the ending.

At this point we should stop pretending that this is a problem specific to Lost, however: I think it’s a medium-wide problem. The sort of progenitor of the artsy TV show, Twin Peaks was unable to resolve itself coherently…People are still pissed off by the ending to The Sopranos…The same for the end of SeinfeldThe Wire’s final season, while not completely awful, was a huge letdown in relation to the previous four seasons--The Godfather III of television seasons.

So it’s not just Lost. And it’s not merely a question of quality, either. The first question you always have to ask yourself, when talking about the quality of any piece of art, is whether your complaint just a function of the fact that most art fails. So people saying stuff like “rap music is all noise” or “they don’t write novels like they used to” are the people I’m thinking of when I say that. However, this criterion can be successfully dismissed: these shows are considered to be finest television shows ever, the series that lifted television from a barbarian medium—the boob tube—into a place for civilized, cultured tastes. So the fact that the finest television shows routinely deliver uninspiring endings—at least as measured by popular and critical acclaim—is something interesting and worth remarking upon.

What other forms of narrative art have this problem? Certainly some great movies lack great endings—in my opinion, Lawrence of Arabia is a great ride with a so-so ending—but anybody’s comprehensive list of greatest movies ever has to have a few great endings. The ending of Chinatown is so good it’s spawned an iconic line (that I will not spoil because…it’s a great ending!); same for Casablanca. Godfather Parts I and II both finish with memorable, fitting endings. Hitchcock practically specialized in great endings. The noir movies required them.

Probably the more appropriate comparison for the great TV series is the great novel. How many endings of a great novel can you really remember now as being great? I can remember a few: The Great Gatsby, 1984, Catcher in the Rye, but it’s worth noting that the relative esteem that the latter two books are held in (as books) is considerably lower than the relative esteem the above shows are held in. It’s also interesting that these three books are all on the shorter side for novels; the shorter and more self-contained your story is, the easier it is to pack a stomach punch or great twist at the end. You can see the opposite side of the size scale: Infinite Jest has many wonderful qualities—it’s one of the best books of the past twenty years or so—but its ending isn’t one of them. Smaller means tighter, better planning; it’s this reason, I suspect, that thrillers tend to have great endings. (And note: a fine, big thriller Sacred Games, has an absolutely awful ending.)

A great TV series eventually approaches epic length and, if anything, becomes more sprawling than the great novels published recently—which, being divorced from the serial form, get to pursue plots differently, etc.—so it’s no surprise that they’ll have too many strands to gather and create a good, emotionally satisfying ending. To do a great ending, you have to not only answer the relevant questions, but you have to provide an emotional clarity, while retaining some space for the audience’s imaginations and questions to worry at the world you’ve ended.

The dilemma of a great ending would be especially worrying for a show like Lost, which had tons of little clues and mysteries that could never ever be explained well—and if they had tried, it probably would have felt inorganic and forced.

At any rate, I’d suggest to everyone who was really disappointed at the ending to the show—and I mean really disappointed, e.g. at least two people on my twitter feed declared they weren’t following a show EVER AGAIN—to…not be disappointed. Endings are inherently hard. If you’re disappointed at the end, it’s because the previous installments were so very good and so provocative. That’s a good thing…just remember that feeling, as opposed to the ending.

But I sympathize with the disappointment. Ultimately a story like Lost, which relies on mystery, needs to provide the payoff of answering the mystery. The story of, say, The Wire (or Mad Men, a show whose ending I suspect will turn out disappointing), isn’t focused on answering a mystery inasmuch as providing an experience of lives lived and so I think being disappointed at those endings is carping a little too much: the point was to show you how lives get lived, not to end some grand narrative. But Lost was a grand narrative and as such deserved a great ending. It didn’t get that. But still, judging by the outraged: a lot of us were entertained.


  1. I've seen nearly all of Lost, but not the ending yet. I'm not expecting much, because with TV series it's always better to travel than to arrive. Some reasons for this are (i) after the final episode the cast and crew go home, so there is no opportunity for pickups and fixes, so the last episode usually comes across as jerky in some way, (ii) every possible ending has been discussed in fan sites forcing the producers to go with something ridiculous just because noone has thought of it yet, or (iii) the loose ends that were going to make the ending were prematurely tied up and finished off that time the show was threatened with early cancellation. My great hope for Lost was that it would follow Keith Laumer's Dinosaur Beach and have a shootout between the Time Police who had come to close down the timetravelling and the SuperTimePolice who had come to close down the bumbling Time Police, not to mention the SuperDuperTimePolice who thought the SuperTimePolice were a bunch of Nazis who had to be stopped, etc.

    Best ever season finale goes to Fringe, I think. They had a whole season of nonsense which ends with the hero going through a portal and meeting .... Leonard Nimoy! Of course! That explains everything! So obvious when you know!


  2. Heh. I never saw Fringe at all either.

    Anyway, I suspect what you say has a lot to do with it: they've gotta come with something new. Particularly with Lost, where it's such a mystery that the conviction is that it must be AWESOME and totally UNBELIEVABLE. In that case, fans are setting themselves up for disappointment and the creators for failure.