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!
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.