Thursday, December 25, 2014

Let's Talk About Endings

First off: Merry Christmas if you celebrate it. Or Festivus. Or anything. Happy holidays.

I've been thinking about endings a lot. About people's expectations - both in fiction and "true stories." About what's owed to the reader, listener, whatever, and who is responsible for "delivering." 

I was pretty hooked on the podcast Serial, which tried to re-investigate the murder of a Maryland teen and whether or not her ex-boyfriend - serving a life sentence for the crime - was actually guilty. I like to think I'm an avid true crime reader, so the format didn't really strike me as new. Nor is it that new for a podcast - see StartUp, for example. 

I didn't go into the podcast's debut season expecting An Ending, or Big Resolution. Because hey, this is real life and endings aren't tidy or clean. Life is gray and muddy and very rarely features tight plotting. Things get messy. But as the show gained momentum, press, buzz and its very own subreddit thread, it struck me that some listeners - relatively new to true crime narratives and maybe even new to podcasts - were expecting that. They were expecting a final episode that revealed the killer, Murder She Wrote-style. Actually, it felt like they wanted that kind of closure. The final episode came and went. I won't go into detail because I imagine plenty of you are still listening or plan to listen. But, like I said, it got me to thinking about endings.

I had a similar feeling, except this was regarding something fictional, while watching True Detective's first season on HBO. It also started off on a subdued note - in terms of attention - and gained traction as it developed, reaching maximum buzz before the season finale. Who was the Yellow King? Who would survive? Would all the questions be answered? The finale happened, people discussed, and here we are.

Both endings were totally fine, in my view. Good, even. They managed to stick the landing. They were solid conclusions to the stories both Serial Executive Producer Sarah Koenig and True Detective showrunner Nick Pizzolatto set out to tell, or in Koenig's case, investigate. But have we reached a point where a "good" ending isn't good enough? Is there such a thing as a perfect ending - and is it impossible for it to leave anything unresolved? 

I love sloppy endings. I think the grays and what's left unsaid are much more interesting than having everything explained. While I do want to see a character arc and certain things resolved - if you're building a mystery, you better solve it (see season one of The Killing, for example) - I also don't expect Every Single Thing to be crossed off like a shopping list. I'm not that kind of consumer of media. But maybe I'm in the minority? I think that, sometimes, stories just end. You take a journey with characters and it stops. There's no villainous speech, no heroic battle at the precipice of a giant canyon. Sometimes it's a haunting visual or a bit of dialogue that signals this is it for now. 

If I'm taken on an interesting journey and the ending matches the trip or delivers on the promises made, I'm content. I think it's unfair to expect an earth-shattering ending to stories that have not purported to be those kind of stories. Am I wrong?

What say you? 


Dana King said...

I'm with you on this one. There must be some level of satisfactory resolution, but it need not be neat. For example, maybe the cops figure out who the killer is, but for some reason they can't close the deal. The reader is not left with an unsolved mystery--he's probably owed that much--but the ending may not shakeout quite as expected.

Joey said...

I think you have the right of it, Alex. A good ending offers a resolution to the story being told -- not necessarily the story the audience is perceiving.

True Detective wrapped up all of its disparate thematic, plot, and character threads with poignance, elegance, and a fair amount of suspense. I've found most people who complain about it were looking for an escalation of spectacle, not storytelling. I think a lot of people mistake the former for the latter these days.

For the same reason, I think No Country For Old Men has a perfect ending. The plot may be about a resourceful protagonist outwitting a psychotic killer, but the story is about the senselessness and unpredictability of violence, and the world in general. The ending delivers on story, while veering wildly away from the expected narrative.

There's nothing wrong with delivering on that visceral, spectacle level, but the substance has to be there under the surface.

Kristi said...

did you see my post on Thursday - waiting for you to write about Serial? lol.
I think an unsatisfactory ending can ruin the entire book or movie for me. In fact, I think the ending is possibly the most important part.
t can be unresolved as long as it satisfies the story question ...

Alex Segura said...

Thanks for the comments, Dana, Joey and Kristi!

Dana/Joey - Glad we're in agreement! It's funny, right after I posted this my wife and I watched 12 Angry Men. Obviously, a classic, great movie - and it hits that sweet spot I was trying to describe. It doesn't resolve every little thing. In fact, you're left without knowing a major plot point. But the delivery is so strong and the journey is so well-crafted, you appreciate the resolution that does come with it.

Krisit, I DID see your Serial mention! Ha! Glad I was first, and that I didn't spoil it for you. Curious to hear what you think when you do catch up.