Recently the world has been in the grip of continuity fever, as movies and books and TV and radio have been building big, sprawling, endless continuities, whether in the very low-key work of things like Homestuck or the megabudget billionaire spaces of the Avengers franchise. Particularly important in this generation of media are the seemingly endless twin leviathans of The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones. Now, my scorn for these series isn’t any kind of secret, and if you happen to find some enjoyment or tension in the relentless whirring of a pointless murder tombola, so be it for you, but these stories are staring down the barrel of running out of stuff to tell you.
That is, they’re approaching their ends.
As we’re also near the end of an anime season we’re faced with the unpleasant conversation about how many anime that were well liked drew to a conclusion that was, well, probably bad. I mean I’m not thinking of any specific example, it’s just anime is full of bad endings. It’s absolutely crammed to the gills with unsatisfying conclusions that are ill-thought out or badly connected to their premise and while I have my thoughts on why that happens, what I find more interesting right now is talking about why having a bad ending matters.
Now, there’s a time and a space for a conversation that’s about how these works don’t actually serve as a conventionally structured narrative, but not now, not here. The question we’re asking is why does it matter if a story ends badly. If there are 13 episodes of a series, and 11 of them are good, does the bad ending mean anything at all? What does it mean to define where a story ends, in the first place?
It feels a bit strange to have to explain this, but let’s talk about the most fundamental element of resolution. I mean there are some people who when you tap out half of Shave and a Haircut are going to give you a look until you tap out the two bits, and to those people we don’t need to explain why resolution is satisfying.
What I care about though is how conclusion determines text. That is to say, your conclusion is how you answer the question of any given story which is why am I reading this? The premise of a series like Game of Thrones tends to be sold where the anguish and distress of the sympathy of the experience is that it has some meaning. That, when viewed from the perspective of the whole of the story, you’ll be able to see that the death had some impact, that the losses were worth it.
It won’t be, by the way.
Yes, I know this is me basically picking on Game of Thrones, but I hate it, I’m being open about that. But the thing I hate the most about it is the way that once it ends unsatisfyingly, having shed viewership on the way, we’re going to be treated to part of the Throne-Critical Complex of people talking about how it was okay that the end was bad, that the bad ending was someone else’s fault, or maybe it doesn’t matter how endings are bad. And that makes me very angry because I’m one of those writers and creators who believes in the idea that your audience’s attention is worth something, it’s a gift.
You don’t start a story with the end. You don’t start a story by saying ‘this dude punched a dragon, the end. But now I’ll tell you who the dragon was and who the dude was.’ That’s the conclusion. That’s the point you’re building up to. The story is a frame to make that moment mean something. The introduction gets us into the story, the development shapes that story to set up the conclusion, and the conclusion shows us how that event comes to a head, how all of that means something. And that meaning is derived from being able to put that conclusion in a meaningful context in the whole of the sequence of events that lead up to it. If the ending of a story introduces aliens or teleporting Nazis or reveals the whole thing is just a conversation between ad executives, none of that relates to the previous story – and it ruins it. Ending a story well is the way you show what that story was about.
I mean in a way I’m really just railing against this post-structural view of storytelling, the idea that everything is a franchise and that being able to tell a story well, cleanly, quickly is less of a skill than teasing out people’s attention over months with an incomplete story where you yourself don’t know where you’re going. Basically, we’re at a point where multimillion dollar movie franchises are being constructed with roughly the same structural worldview as Webcomics, and webcomics were able to grow up and out of it.
Maybe if I call this ‘narrative lootboxing’ I can get people to pay attention to it as if it’s worth being as unhappy with as I am.
Some work cheekily tells you it doesn’t matter, you enjoyed the ride, and some of them even go so far as to not bother trying for conclusions. Sure, that’s fine. We can talk about those works some other time. There is definitely a place for work that’s more about the experience than the point – but you’ll notice the best of those works don’t tend to really bother with endings. There’s a reason a soap opera is twenty plotlines, no waiting, beginning and ending all over the place together.
In the end, media and stories are ways we practice, in our own emotionality, what matters to us. They let us practice our love and our hate and our youth and our age and our competence and our naivete. They let us practice being ourselves and being other people. They let us craft memories of nothing that is or was but that we wish would be.
And in that space, it is worthwhile learning how to end, and how to end well.
Because, in the end, what does it matter the way a man falls down?
When there’s nothing left but the fall, it matters a great deal.