Episode 76: Closing the Door on Conclusions and Closure

Hey there readers,

I am glad to report that my impromptu hiatus from blogging is at an end. My writing mojo pretty much vanished after the previous post for pretty obvious reasons but I think I’m getting my groove back. Below you can find the paper I wrote for this year’s Popular Culture Conference in Washington DC and presented just a few hours before posting here. I literally typed out the last sentence just before the guy talking before me ended his talk so photo finish typing for the win!

Expecting a Happy Ending: Exploring Endings and Epilogues in Serialized Storytelling

 

      Serial literature contains this very interesting contradiction within its production and reception. On the one hand, any kind of ending is one that will inevitably be delayed and deterred. Readers and viewers want to see the major plot resolved but also desire for more installments and seasons to be made. (Insert How I Met Your Mother Reference) So when the cycle of story progression has a definitive end in sight, the destination should be one that has made the narrative journey worth it. What I’m attempting to do with this paper is a close reading of different finales to different classic and contemporary serials to try and find the elements of a “satisfying” conclusion. I’m basing my analysis on critical reception of said endings and my own experiences as a fan and scholar of these novels, television shows, etc.

        Difference between ending and epilogue. Ending is the final installment/chapter. Plots and subplots are resolved with minimal loose threads. The epilogue occurs outside of the main story (almost like a paratext) that normally has a flash forward that shows what happened to several characters, usually years after the conclusion of the plot. It rarely if ever has a twist or surprise (though mystery and espionage works tend to reveal major secrets at this point). The epilogue works to cement what the story has already expressed. The people in love got married and now have kids, the antagonists disappear or outright die even if they had already been in jail. Other minor characters have found their place in life. In short, the author is painting a very definitive picture as to what happens to the characters once, for all intents and purposes, the narrative has ended. Long before the times of unnecessary sequels, especially the dreaded “direct to movie ones”, authors cemented their narratives within the finite space between the covers of their books. I don’t mean that that there are no more stories left to be told about these characters but rather that there is a minimal reception that believes that there are things left to be said.

     One of the literary periods that I have researched is Victorian Literature. While it was common place much before this period, the ending of any particular work is one where a conclusion of the happy variety is anticipated. This is clearly foregrounded with the title of the last chapter of Charles Dickens’ fist novel “In which the Pickwick Club is finally dissolved, and Everything concluded to the Satisfaction of Everybody.” The happy ending is cliché but one that readers expect regardless. To continue with the works of Dickens, one need only remember the novel Great Expectations. Our protagonist Pip undergoes several transformations throughout this Bildungsroman and the promise of him achieving the status of gentleman has evaporated like the pipe dream we imagined it to be. You may remember from your sophomore lit class that your professor mentioned how Dickens had changed the ending from something much grimmer to one that was closer to the mold of the happy ending because he was worried about his readers’ potentially “great expectations”. What might not come to mind is the fact that this alteration was to the epilogue of the actual novel that takes place eleven years later. In one version, Estella is happily married when she reunites with Pip and that ship has been sunk. While in the official ending Estella is single and there is a glimpse that they might end up together. One is far more definitive but sad while the other is open but happier.

          One of the more interesting findings in my research is how the process of serialization affects how the work is received. Because the temporal range is extended due to the enforced interruptions of each installment, readers make more of a narrative investment in these serial works and want a return for all the time they have put in. There are many debates as to the overall purpose of literature and to all of art (pedagogic, entertainment, purposeful purposelessness) with no clear answer since the history of, well ever. This is incredibly subjective and personal for everyone. And yet, there is a collective mentality that if a problem is presented in a work of literature it is done so purposefully and will be resolved at some point. We as readers hate when something is revealed to be a dream, we call it a cop out when deus ex machina are used, and we are left flabbergasted when the screen just suddenly fades to black. It’s one thing when you read a book and you feel like your time was wasted over the process of reading it, it’s quite another when you have been waiting for months or even years to see how it all ends only to be left with a sour taste in your mouth.

      There’s no objective way to analyze these concepts like closure, expectation, or even happiness and satisfaction when it comes to reading but what you can do is look at the content. Dickens made a behind the scenes change towards how to end his novel. You get a very interesting example of something very similar when it comes to an altered ending but this time it’s the reverse. In Elizabeth Gaskell’s My Lady Ludlow, the epilogue goes through a recap of what happened to the characters years later through a letter that is sent to one of the characters that moved away. It follows the almost formulaic pattern of further providing adequate karma all around except for the final two paragraphs. Here the tone radically shifts into one of regret and remorse as they wonder whether leaving was the right thing to do and how the titular character that everyone loved died a short time later. However, the original serialized version did not include these final paragraphs and those initial readers were left with how everyone was having a good time at a get together. We see this disparity between editions and the balance between a warm fuzzy feeling and more specific details of the story.

         Television and films provide this serial reading experience in our time and provide different experiences when it comes to our favorite narratives. There’s this one episode of 30 Rock where Kenneth the Paige explains that if he had one wish it would be for there to be a proper finale to the show Night Court and Tracy Morgan brings in the actors and they begin filming his own version of the finale as how it was supposed to be. This portrayal of the fanboy is one that we can all relate to towards our own favorite programming, movie series, book franchise, etc. While we may not be the uber violent fanboy like Futurama’s Glurr from Omicron Persei 8 threatening to destroy the planet because a finale is not available or not to our liking, we do have certain expectations that we wish to be met. Any will they or won’t they relationship needs to be clearly defined a la Ross and Rachel. Any long standing threat or antagonist is vanquished, like how the Fire Nation and the Equalist Movement were quelled. Characters from seasons past make a comeback as guest stars, like when JD goes through a hallway of memories at the end of Scrubs. And flashbacks from different seasons appear in almost clip show fashion to illustrate just how far the characters have grown and reminding us of the experiences along the way, Boy Meets World.

        The amount of detail for what we can categorize as a “proper ending” varies highly. You can have a minimalist moment like the end of the Rocky movies where our pugilistic protagonist walks away from the ring after his last fight, not caring to hear the result. We can have a major celebration where the past reappears, much like in Return of the Jedi (CGI Hayden Christensen notwithstanding). And you can even have the epic epilogue from Return of the King where you get 20 minutes of finales for each character. Even some movies that do not have multiple installments will proceed to give a minor epilogue of what happens to the characters in the near future. While this is normally done in a comedic manner, the idea that one can summarize the eventual occurrences of various characters in a blurb of yearbook length is based on this literary tradition of providing an over extended finale.

         As much as I or any reader can attempt to codify tropes in order to create a checklist for the “perfect ending” there are some things that fall outside of the purview of quantitative analysis and more under a personal gut reaction. While I am reluctant to publicly declare that there are some aspects of my literary area of expertise that I can’t very well explain, there are some things that just resist this kind of classification. Perhaps an example can help me better extrapolate for you my ponderings into a finale. Allow me to perform an abridged close reading of the series finale of the famous show about nothing, Seinfeld. In this two part episode, the gang ends up taking a trip on a private jet. Thanks to Kramer’s previous shenanigans at the beach and being unable to get water out of his ear, the plane descends into a freefall. During their potential last moments of life, George reveals that he had cheated at the contest and Elaine almost declares her love for Jerry before the imminent danger passes and all are safe. The jet lands in a tiny town, where the gang explores the quiet streets while filming everything until they witness a mugging. In true Seinfeld style, Jerry and his friends provide a Riff Trax voice-over commentary of the action before being arrested for violating the town’s new Good Samaritan Law. The prosecution decides to make a spectacle of the case and decides to bring in countless character witnesses to discredit our protagonists. A cavalcade of previous characters show up once again to go over how they have been wronged. One time favorites like Soup Nazi and reoccurring characters like Jay Peterman and Mickey join the stable supporting characters of Jerry and George’s parents. After various snippets and flashbacks describing some of the more recognizable lines from all seasons of the show. In the end, the judge sentences each of them to a year in prison, and the four sitting in a jail cell as Jerry and George discuss the importance of button distancing shirts, almost word for word like how they did in the first episode.

          On paper, the Seinfeld finale is one that was perfectly orchestrated but ultimately fails to strike a chord. The characters are placed in a situation completely alien to them but still rooted in familiarity. We see a recognition, albeit a brief one of a relationship between two of the main characters. Throwbacks, recaps, and flashbacks are all around reminding us of why we giggle upon the mentioning of a marble rye or how George and Susan were never meant to be together. Characters with the original actors littered the group shots and many took center stage once again. To borrow a term from tv tropes, there was continuity porn throughout the majority of the finale and fangasms should have been prevalent. And yet, the ending is one that does not sit well with a large majority of the fandom. From recent anecdotal experience alone, I have heard people say that the ending failed because it did not follow the Beckett style narrative of nothing ever happening by suddenly having a plot with actual consequences. At the same time, there are others who believe that the ending of the characters apathy towards incarceration was perfectly in track with the non emotional responsiveness of the show but that it seemed wrong once juxtaposed with a summary of their exploits. Perhaps it is even something as simple as the fact that Jerry and Elaine did not end up together, George did not find the perfect life, and one of Kramer’s ideas actually made him successful. As contrived as it may be, this was still something the readership expected and even a simpler traditional happy ending could have changed all of that. Still they followed a formula for just about everything else that many other television programs incorporate into their finales almost to the point of narrative stagnation and it being it’s own cliché.

         Endings and epilogues have seemingly been relegated to television long running dramas and sitcoms but there are a few contemporary examples that break these borders of genre and medium. In my own extensive research on webcomics I found one moment where an epilogue takes center stage (which is rare because most don’t end). Brian Clevinger’s 8-bit Theater, at over 10 years and 1,200 installments had an epilogue that took place three years after the main story. Multiple characters reappear, reference are made throughout, and the witty banter of the original story remained. They looked to the future while remembering their once entwined destinies. Perhaps most interestingly is how the last line is a call back towards the first adventure they were planning to take in the first installment, thus working as a bookend for the whole story.

         Epilogues in print serials are also rare but are included when authors want shut the book on any potential sequels. The most famous of these endings has to be JK Rowling’s epilogue at the end of Harry Potter and the Deadly Hallows. The book could have easily ended after the defeat of Voldemort amidst the celebration of the survivors of the epic struggle between good and evil. This would have been a satisfying conclusion on it’s own but Rowling went with an epilogue that showed the beginning of the new school year at Hogwart’s. Here we see that the kids of the main characters are going to school and things are looking good for everyone. The final line furthers this unquestionable happy ending by declaring that, “The scar had not pained Harry for nineteen years. All was well.” Even with JK Rowling giving further canonical details throughout subsequent interviews, she has basically put the final nail in the narrative coffin of her serial work with this epilogue.

        But perhaps I am looking at this through the wrong perspective. As one of my professors was quick to point out, I can’t just ascribe the qualities of the otaku fanboy or fungirls to a general readership. After all, there is no physical or psychological barrier from anyone to see the final pages or episodes to readers and viewers without going through the narrative duties to follow the story for years through thick and thin (or through sweeps week and through filler). We the faithful can critique these fairweather fans who are only aware of the more iconic moments. And yet these readers should come to this reunion. As Janet Murray in Hamlet in the Holodeck explains to how the finale of Cheers and I quote “provoked an orgy of public nostalgia.” Maybe the end of the story should not be the final page but rather a mirror which invites us to observe the reflection of the narrative and what we have gone through. 

Episode 75: In Memoriam

The following is something that I wrote last night, expecting but not foreseeing the immediacy of what would happen next. I edited and added a few things to preserve coherence but in all honesty this may be the most “raw” piece of writing that I have ever submitted for the approval of the midnight society or any other group of readers.

I have a draft of my dissertation proposal due in 36 hours and I find that my muse and my heart pulls me in another direction. It honestly frightens me to even write these thoughts down but I can’t really find a way to deal with my present emotional state than to lay it out on the digital canvas towards my ideal an almost imaginary reader. If there’s one thing any writer can tell a novice it’s that when inspiration strikes everything else needs to be deferred because the right words are fleeting and quick to escape unless they are captured with the stroke of a pen or a typing of keys. I write tonight for the memory of someone who has left this mortal realm, knowing full well that as I search for the right phrasing she still breathes and yet fully aware that her last breath is imminent.

Yesterday, my dad called to tell me that my grandmother was very close to dying. As I write, she is somewhat stable but as difficult as it may be to express, I feel that we are all just biding our time before the inevitable occurs. “Tata” as my generation of grandkids has amorously called her over the years, is in her mid nineties and been in the hospital for about four months. The revelation that she is leaving us does not invoke a sense of shock or delirium but it is still a surprise if you know her basic biography.

She is a widow at about the halfway point in her life with 5 kids, most of them grownup but that did not make the task any easier. She never remarried and remained staunchly independent ever since. If anyone ever asked me who was my role model when it came to emotional strength at the speed of an involuntary reaction I would declare that it was my grandmother. She has been the most stable thing in my life over a good fraction of it. Her memory evokes the image of silver hair, wide rimmed glasses, veiny hands, and a smiling disposition. This picture of my mind became frail over the years but rarely falters. At least, not until a few months ago.

While prepping for my comprehensive exams a few months ago, my parents called to tell me grandma was in the hospital. During the conversation, I was reminded of just how tough she really is. The medical staff apparently didn’t have a record of her, which was surprising until we remembered when her last stay at the hospital actually happened. I have a vague recollection of one time she slipped and hurt her shoulder pretty bad but everything there was an outpatient procedure. The last time she had to stay the night at the hospital was when she gave birth to my mother, that’s how much of a badass she is. Sure, she was getting a little slower, needing a walker, and having a few slips, but she was still fiercely independent even if my mom and uncles would convert the spontaneous visiting schedule into something rigorous to make sure she wouldn’t be alone or unsafe for any large period of time. So when I heard she was in the hospital I thought it would be a short stay and then things would be back to normal. Little did I know that our definition of normalcy would be radically altered.

Expectations of how quickly she would be returned home slowly shifted towards the question as to if she would come back. When you have a nonagenarian in the family, there is certainly an awareness as to any particular moment or holiday being “the last one” but having that possibility directly in front of you leaves your psyche quivering. That abstract moment in a vague future was now a very real fear and the family knew all too well of what awaited us. The pilgrimage of family members commenced somewhere around week 2 as I was still with my academic blinders. Still, I prayed for a cure, for something, that somehow whatever inconsistent powers of a super or magical variety of mine could help. As hard as it may be to explain or comprehend, my levels of empathy towards my family, especially towards my grandmother are strong enough that I can get some kind of feedback through the cosmic resonances of energies. If it was a bad pain day or if things got dicey, my spidey sense for lack of a better term would kick in. My parents have enough of a vague understanding about this to be honest about the situation, even when things are at their bleakest.

During her stay in the hospital, I have felt her energy ebb and rise so much that I have mourned her passing, even as I type I get the odd feeling that grandma is creeping closer to the end, if she is not there already. It fills me with a sense of dread and powerlessness, to be aware that someone you love is suffering and that you can’t help. And yet, even if I was right by her bedside like the rest of the family I could do nothing but hold her hand and maybe engage in some light conversation. But that was something, maybe not enough for a medical difference but an emotional one nonetheless.

I sent in the second part of comps at about 7am one day and made my way to the airport soon afterwards. By the time I got home the imminent fears had passed, heartbeats had been stabilized, and breathing was as close to normal as it had been in a long time. The danger had passed but hope was never really regained. I spent a good part of my impromptu Thanksgiving vacation by her bedside, trying to make her smile, trying to make the day brighter, trying not to let agony or the inevitability of what is our ultimate destiny rear its ugly head.

About a week later I returned to my academic responsibilities but left a proxy of me behind for the worst parts.You see, two years ago I went to a tiny regional Comic Con of sorts and decided to get gifts for pretty much all my loved ones. For grandma, I brought a tiny stuffed yellow ball that looked like a little chicken, which she affectionately called “el pollito”. I got it with the hopes of there being another safe toy whenever the great grandkids would come to visit but she had kept it for her own as a reminder of that sickly little kid that she helped raise and is now in a far off land studying serialization. Pollito was still in her house, so I thought that it would be nice if she had it with her in the hospital room. The immediate danger had passed but improvement was still on the horizon.

It wasn’t until I returned a few weeks later that the possibility of her returning home was attainable. I spent most of my Winter vacation by her side when my mom would take her shift to take care of her. Some days were good and we would talk and she would remind me to be a good kid and to get a nice girlfriend. Other days were filled with pain and frustration as the downside towards having decent cognitive function in this state of your life is an awareness that things aren’t getting better and that the only thing you can really do is try to be a minimal burden or disturbance to your loved ones and medical staff. It is an odd feeling to have your independence as an individual be slowly stripped away and have the pride that wants to push people away clash with the vulnerability and weakness that won’t let people leave your side. It’s difficult to remember this without a tear being summoned to my eye that she would cling to me or other family members only for her maternal instincts to kick in and say that we should leave so we can get something to eat. That’s grandmothers for you, always wanting you with a belly full of food and a heart filled with love.

Over the month that I was back, grandma was moved to another hospital with a focus on physical therapy, back to her house, and then eventually back to the hospital. I made sure to be there during these various stages to lighten the emotional load as the rest of the family had to resolve crazy medical logistics alongside seeing a loved one slowly deteriorating. It was tough on everyone but there were still moments where the clouds of fear and painful misery would part long enough for a moment of clarity to shine that helped bring closure in such a trying time. Long before she went to the hospital, I somehow attained the role of star grandkid for making sure to call once a week. With so much of the family being far away, having jobs, and other responsibilities I became the representative of my generation and one of the most stable visitors. In one of the most heart wrenching moments of my time with grandma, only a few short days before I had to leave, she pulled me in close and said that she loved me because “everyone else that comes to visit me is to say goodbye but you are the only one that comes to say hello.”

I find myself at a loss for words trying to figure out the next thing to say. It is only due to my instincts of freewriting that I want to remain typing away with the hopes of achieving something worthy of remembering her. I know that this is no epitaph or obituary, that most of you will glance through it and provide a well-intentioned but ultimately half-hearted “there, there buddy”. I don’t know why I write besides the urge to shape these feelings into something observable by someone, anyone. That this outlet through language in some way serves as a measurement for how much I love her and what a big part she is to my life. Maybe I just want to create some form of evidence to validate my emotions and my eventual grief. This is something that I can’t prove or show or somehow hold to others as some kind of superior affection. Maybe it’s just the fact that ever since getting that phone call yesterday my brain was hard at work prewriting this particular draft for such a post. The thing that scares me most is not the loss of someone I love. A big part of my training was to confront and fabricate simulations of loss because at one moment or another you will mourn or be mourned. It was that dreaded feeling that made me want to limit my interpersonal relationships, so that if the end came early to me most people who knew me would get a passing feeling of surprise and a momentaneous “that’s a shame” but nothing deeper. Loss, isn’t what scares me beyond its sudden realization. It is absence which leaves me with a sense of emptiness. To see that one place, that one spot without someone who made it a place of security and comfort, that made it an extension of home that really makes me rethink everything.

And as I wrote that previous paragraph my father called to confirm my suspicions and fears. She is in a better place, more than a solace or empty hope I know that to be true. I knew this moment would come, I asked for it, even prayed for a quiet end to the agony she was enduring. As predictable as it may be, this moment is still one of sadness for the family as we say goodbye.

But perhaps I am focusing too much of the end when all of my narrative instincts tell me that what resonates most is those key moments that span the entirety of a work. I should not emphasize the death and final days of my grandmother but rather the moments of her life worth celebrating. This was the woman who was fearless, though she did get nervous about fires and horses. This was the person who noticed when you were down, opened a bottle of booze, passed it over, and asked what was wrong. This was the role model who time and time again proved that family had priority over self. The only person I know whose move silently was of ninja quality with a bionic ear that could put you to shame. She will be missed greatly. Love you Tata.

Episode 74: Death as Permanence

Last week I ran my pirate D&D game as usual, things went crazy and rules were bent to accomodate minor shenanigans. The boss encounter for that time was surprisingly tough and it been better obtimized they PCs would be so dead (greater invisibility equals death, no matter what) but instead a couple of them got ridiculously close, falling off a tower tends to do that to you.  Talking about that with my friends and players, the more experienced one in all seriousness said that it might be good if one of the characters had actually died. One of the most memorable experiences that you can have a s a player is the first time your character bit the dust. Be it a string of natural ones, oppossing natural twenties, that one thing that you weren’t optimized for, and/or not understanding that this was suppossed to be a “run away, too strong encounter”, there is something that makes that moment of loss stick. The D&D setting has ways to revive someone if you really wanted but these are usually not available for plot related things, except for a very tenacious recurring villain. The fantasy genre of has the option of resurrection through magic somewhere in there so death here, especially in serial fiction does not have too much of an effect. Other genres have their own particular manners of reviving characters, to the point that dying is considered more a hiatus for a particular character than a guarantee that he or she will never appear again, especially in comic books. Still there is always a moment when death is permanent and when you realize that in a story that you have been following for a while, it tends to bring a tear to your eye.

I’ve been really mulling over that last part thanks to the most recent installment of my favorite webcomic in the history of ever, Order of the Stick, check here for why http://www.giantitp.com/comics/oots0877.html

I won’t write about OOTS here because honestly I already gushed and analyzed he Hell out of it in my Master’s thesis. Over at the forums a few people were saying that the current events had made it so that resurrection was no longer available as an option so that character was pretty much gone for good, as could be several other protagonists. It was a moment when I as a reader suddenly really started to think about what would now and in what direction would the story be going. The inevitability of death is one of the biggest fears that has been biologically programmed into our sentience and to realize that a beloved character won’t come back is a tough moment to say the least.

One of the big arguments I have about serial fiction is that it is a form where character takes precedence over plot. Stories may come and go but the hero, villain, and all the other archetypical roles continue to exist and plots will still encompass them so long as there are authors willing to write them and readers interested in what happens next. Serialization is all about delaying narrative closure and nothing is as final as death so it becomes an issue of either depowering the dramatic impliations of death or make sure that death is limited to only a few key moments. Backstories are riddled with characters dying and that being the motivational catalyst for the hero to accept responsibilities (think Thomas and Martha Wayne, Jor-El, Ben Parker, Gwen Stacy, Abin Sur, Obi Wan, Lily and James Potter, and so many others). Mentors, parents, and first loves are sacrificial lambs for narrative efficiency so that the protagonist has a purpose. Villains rarely die unless it’s to really prove a point or it’s the very definitive end of the story, especially if the hero has a low mortality/high morality ratio. And then there’s the sidekick that bit more than he could chew and the hero is now scarred.

There is an old adage in the comic book fandom that are three characters that have to stay dead:

1. Bucky (first sidekick and best friend/kid brother role to Captain America, dies in WW2 in most versions)

2. Jason Todd (second Robin after Dick Grayson becomes Nightwing, dies by crowbar and explosions at hands of Joker)

3. Uncle Ben (Peter Parker’s Uncle and surrogate father figure, dies by mook who in some versions becomes Sandman or any other named villain).

And as you can imagine, they have all been revived in one way or another. Bucky became a chaotic neutral mercenary called the Winter Soldier and Jason Todd was fixed Crisis Crossover reshaping history/Lazarus Pit and he became the Red Hood. Uncle Ben stays dead but does show up alive and well in an alternate Universe where Peter Parker pulls an Iron Man and becomes super rich and arrogant. Still, if character is what drives the narrative to continue, what happens when the person behind the mask dies but the story continues? We get a glimpse of it during Death and Return of Superman where not Clark Kent and a bunch of other people tried to take up the Caped Crusader’s title before he ultimately reappears. Batman pulled a similar stunt during the R.I.P. arc (actually stands for “rot in purgatory”, don’t ask). Still there are several characters who do die and someone comes in and takes up their identity. That’s why there have been so many Flashes, it’s why different people have been Dr. Fate, and it’s what happened to the orginal Mr. Terrific and he didn’t even get a replacement until decades later. Marvel recently leaked that Peter Parker was officially meeting his demise in an upcoming issue but there are more Spiderman comics scheduled to appear so there’s a chance that one of the pseudo proteges out there with similar arachnid powers will take the place of your friendly neighborhood Spiderman (or woman). Only time will tell if this new character sticks of if Peter Parker makes his way back into the pages.

FYI: the character from the D&D game did die at the end of the last session when a giant plant monster attacked them. There was no way he was going to make it considering the circumstances so we prepared him for the worst. In the end, I let the gunslinger use all of his powers so that he could try and get one last miracle shot. The blast killed the character in the process but since the other one was a pyromaniac alchemist, I decided to throw smoe big words around. The bullet created an unstable resonance cascade effect that compromised the chemical stability of the reagents. Hence a giant explosion occurred, killing the blast monster and giving the kid a worthwhile end to his first character that he will remember and share in future games with no chance of his corpse being turned into an undead antagonist.