Endings: The Happy, The Sad and The Ambiguous

When you watch your favorite TV series for years you have high expectations for a satisfying ending. Anne-Cecile Ville examines story endings that are happy, sad, and ambiguous.


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The final season of Games of Thrones has finally aired, and some viewers are not happy. They’re so unhappy, in fact, that a petition online to (quote) “Remake Games of Thrones Season 8 with competent writers” has now reached over 1.6 M signatures worldwide. Scrolling down the comments, a recurrent complaint stands out, ‘We deserved better!’ Games of Thrones joins the ranks of long-standing television series such as Lost whose final season disappointed scores of viewers.

So, did the writers, who delighted millions of fans for eight years, truly became incompetent overnight?

The answer is no, obviously. The reality is, and this is not a thread about the Games of Thrones finale, the longer a show runs, the less likely writers can fulfill the audience’s wishes. Simply put, the longer an audience is invested, the higher the expectations.

Having said that, when ending a TV series, it’s good to remember the concept you started up with. I have listed a few examples below (beware, spoilers):

Six Feet Under: A show about a family who runs a funeral home. The final episode relates each of their deaths.

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend: A show about a deluded young woman who drops everything to find a lost love in California, which is an homage to musicals. In the last episode, the cast delivers a live rendering of the best songs from the series.  

The Americans: Unbeknown to their children and friends, a Russian couple imbedded as a normal American family secretly spy for the Russian government. Their lies finally catch up with them and they have to run back to Russia, leaving their children and friends behind.

Breaking Bad: In a desperate bid to earn as much money as he can to help his family financially, a terminally-ill man turns an old RV into a meth lab on wheels.  He inevitably dies in the end, but he has fulfilled his wish.

Beyond concept, are there other general rules for Happy, Sad, and Ambiguous endings?

Happy Ending

Genre movies such as romantic comedies: If you’re writing a romantic comedy, you inevitably need a good ending. Romantic comedies are ‘feel good’ comedies and you can’t have everyone being miserable in the end. Take the Breakup, the two protagonists might not get back together, but both characters continue to go down the street after sharing one last smile to let each other know that they are in a better place. Also, this echoes the original concept as it is called the Breakup.


“The End” – Importance of the Right Story Ending


A struggling protagonist: Your main protagonist has struggled to get where they need to be. A bad ending would likely betray the audience’s expectations. In The Impossible, a woman searches for her family after a tsunami strikes. It would be a huge let-down if  they all happened to be dead in the end.

Sad Ending

Genre movies such as Horror movies: Final Destination, Cabin in the Woods, when we’re in a horror movie, we instantly know we’re in for a rough ride.

Insurmountable flaw. When the protagonist tries to overcome an impossible hurdle. Take Invasion of The Body Snatchers, where aliens take over human bodies while they sleep. No matter how hard they try, each character finally succumbs to sleep. The sci-fi movie also bears an element of horror, which also explains that choice.

Realistic ending: In Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, two bank robbers flee from the law by continuing their criminal lifestyle. The robbers never once divert from this. This was unlikely to end well.


ACT III—The End of Endings & the Will-to-Franchise


Ambiguous Ending

And now we have reached the most contentious of them all; the ambiguous ending. I think the wisest editors would try to steer you away from it. Again, this is mainly to do with what we started up with; audience expectations.

Pay off

Or rather, the lack thereof, an audience doesn’t want to invest an hour or more of their time, to find out that there’s no resolution in the end. Take, See You Yesterday (Netflix), you watch an hour and a half of the protagonist desperately going back in time in order to prevent her brother’s murder only to see her run into the sunset with no resolution to boot. I had desperately wanted to see her succeed and the ending impacted badly on my experience of the movie, which had been excellent up to that point.

Exceptions

Inevitably, there are some rare exceptions. In American Psycho, the killer eventually confesses to all his crimes only to find out that there is no evidence he actually did it. We’re left wondering; did he actually do it? There’s no real answer, but the movie strongly infers that the protagonist was suffering from mental health, leaving the audience to ponder.

Ultimately, it is true that a writer will never win them all, but it is also true that an unfortunate ending will ruin an audience’s experience. Keeping your story concept and genre in mind will help you create an ending that will hopefully echo in the viewers’ mind long after they’ve watched the final scene.

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