How to do an ending

3 Sep

It’s occurred to me many times as I’ve watched quality television drama, how few script writers manage a good ending.

I’m thinking specifically of the ABC TV drama Broadchurch, a series that finished last week.  It was pretty good I thought, and I hadn’t picked the villain. That revelation was an unpleasant shock (Oh, no! No! I cried) which I won’t reveal, in case anyone is planning to watch the DVD.

However, after the critical denouement, things went south fairly rapidly, sinking into a swamp of sentimentality that left me irritated and offended. It was as if the script writers didn’t quite know what to do next, and settled on an unrealistic coming together of an intolerably fractured community as their nod to catharsis. Obviously they felt compelled to attempt a resolution, in a situation in which such a thing would take decades to achieve, if ever.

The final scenes worked as an exposition of the kind of overwhelming public emotion experienced after a catastrophic event, the short-lived euphoria of  an intense and temporarily bonding experience. But it told me nothing about the morning after when everyone woke up to find themselves inescapably trudging through daily life in a bell jar of emotions, most of them necessarily dark.

The other ending that comes to mind is that of The Sopranos. No easy resolution for these scriptwriters: the Soprano family are seated in a cafe, Tony looks up, and everything goes black. What the fuck? I yelled. Then I thought we’d lost our power. However, I count this as one of the finest endings I’ve ever seen. Not even the merest nod to catharsis, bugger audience desire for resolution, everything just went black so figure it out for yourself.

My interpretation was that we were offered Tony’s perspective as his life abruptly and unexpectedly ended.

Of course, everything has definitely gone black now, with the recent death of James Gandolfini, who played Tony. There can be no change of plans and further episodes. It is ended.

Endings are rarely easy. The lovely innocence of Aristotle in Poetics, in which he declares his belief in a beginning, a middle and a cathartic end, seems in 2013 to belong with fairy tales and Hollywood, though in the latter case, innocence is long-lost. The ending has to be happy in Hollywood because that’s what brings in the money. There’s also an infuriating rush to resolution in most media: after the most horrific events, people are urged to seek “closure” and “move on” with what seems to me a most unseemly haste. Grief has its own unpredictable timeline, and Freud referred to the “labour” of mourning, implying the hard slog of it. If you’ve lost a sentient being under any circumstances, you’ll know the rewards of  “closure” and “moving on” have to be earned and they don’t come easy. And they aren’t the only losses some of us have to grieve: loss of health, body parts, hopes and ambitions unrealised. Sorrow is, to varying degrees, an inescapable aspect of human life, so why there is such emphasis on hastily tidying up the dark and difficult with such lack of due respect, is a mystery to me.

“I can’t believe it, I can’t believe I’m alive,” snarls Bob Dylan, in one of his many angrily grieving lyrics written for some woman who’s abandoned him, “but without you it doesn’t feel right…”

It doesn’t feel right. It doesn’t feel the same. Something has irrevocably changed. That’s endings for you. And that’s what I want the scriptwriters to show me. Bugger the confected catharsis.


11 Responses to “How to do an ending”

  1. samjandwich September 3, 2013 at 11:55 am #

    Thanks for the memories!


  2. hudsongodfrey September 3, 2013 at 2:28 pm #

    Fully agree, I cheered for the end of Sopranos… once I understood it. I think it took everyone aback for a moment, but I guess for many of us that’s just how its going to be. So, tired as it may become if we ended everything that way, this was a case where I recognised it as such a totally appropriate as commentary on the end of Tony’s life that it was in many ways just utterly exquisitely perfect. One of the best moments in TV history and the use of the medium ever.


  3. Anne September 3, 2013 at 7:11 pm #

    I was surprised at Broadchurch’s villain too but was also critical of the final episode because I thought the murdererer was revealed too early – about 12 minutes in, rather than in the last 10 mins or so. This gave 35 minutes to fill with the overwrought theatrics of the various grieving parties and included silent screams, slow-motion rolling around and head grasping. It was so long-winded it wore very thin and diminished what had otherwise been a gripping drama..


  4. doug quixote September 3, 2013 at 7:27 pm #

    “They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance.”

    – General John Sedgewick : who died seconds later with a bullet in his head.

    “I told you I was ill!”

    – Spike Milligan’s tombstone.

    “I just have to push this big red button . . .”

    – USA’s last ever President.


    • hudsongodfrey September 3, 2013 at 11:13 pm #

      I thought “What does this button do?” Was Christa Macauliffe….

      Too Soon?


    • 8 Degrees of Latitude September 18, 2013 at 2:52 pm #

      Doug, the General’s actual quote was “They couldn’t hit an elephant at this dist…” 🙂


  5. Nick September 3, 2013 at 11:56 pm #

    I’m inclined to take Journey’s word for it:

    “Oh, the movie never ends,
    It goes on and on and on and on.”

    wicka-wieewww (guitar pick squeal which may or may not be in the song)

    “Don’t stop! Believing!”

    Alternative interpretation: nothing changed. Tony didn’t die there at the table with his family. He’ll say goodnight to his wife later, and wake up the next morning as always, white male fear of death intact.

    It was a MacGuffin though really, so no point giving the writers what they were after and arguing too much about it 😉


  6. bkr12 September 6, 2013 at 8:04 pm #

    Wierdly enough I did pick the killer in Broadchurch but only because he looked similar (skinny bald guy) to the person identified by the creepy Susan. I always enjoy endings more when they surprise me. I hate the textbook, schmultzy ending where everyone waltzes off into the sunset. Hit me between the eyes every time! People who get too caught up in the characters (a la Offspring) need to get a life. hee hee


  7. 8 Degrees of Latitude September 18, 2013 at 11:59 am #

    I’ve been a bit busy lately and have missed essential blog readings (and yours is top of my essential reading list). I’d really like to comment on your Abbott piece but I can’t because we’re poles apart on that score and we shouldn’t shout at each other 🙂

    But I certainly agree it would be entirely inappropriate to call him a cunt, for all the eminently sensibly reasons you advance. The cunt is indeed a wondrous thing and it’s sad that vulgar deconstruction of language has elevated her not to the altar of worship but to the pinnacle of prurience.

    In regard to “endings”, you are so right. So often they trail off into confused, embarrassing pap or sickening sentiment. Art house is better, but it’s not for the masses who fuel the money machine.


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