The concept of “Happily Ever After” is a common theme in stories. The heroes or heroines complete their quest and are rewarded with long, happy lives. Sometimes the viewers are shown the cliffsnotes of that happy future, while other times we are merely left to imagine what has happened to our protagonists. The story trails off like a sentence whose completion we forget mid-speech.
But sometimes these fade-away Endings don’t leave us satisfied. Sometimes they do not answer all of our questions (or any, in rare cases). Sometimes the story trails off not because it is the End, but because the writers and producers want to give the viewers a reason to return the following season. It’s not an Ending, nor an ending – it’s bait.
Are these proper Endings to stories? Should we the viewers be given all of the answers? Or must we earn the truth through critical thinking and analysis? Do unpopular stories deserve to End without rewarding those who did stick with the show?
What the hell is up with Endings that are, and are not, Endings?
The first story I want to discuss is the movie Inception. It’s the story of a group of people who dive into others’ minds and attempt to discover secrets. The protagonist of the movie is a man named Cobb, who has been doing this work while on the run from the law as a suspect in his wife’s death. He wants nothing more than to be able to return home and see his children. The client for the final job in the film promises that he will clear the charges against Cobb if Cobb and his team perform an “inception”: the implanting of an idea in someone’s subconscious in such a way that they believe the idea to be original, not planted.
Those dream divers like Cobb carry something with them at all times called a totem, which they use to differentiate between reality and the fantasy of the dream world. Throughout the film, Cobb is seen spinning a top to test whether or not he is dreaming. If the top continues to spin endlessly, he knows he is dreaming. If the top falls over, he knows he’s awake and in the real world. At the end of the film, Cobb and his team complete their job, the charges against Cobb are cleared, and he is allowed to go home to see his children. But just before he goes out to see them, he pulls out the top and spins it. He then leaves the room, but the camera remains focused on the top. And just when it appears that the top may be starting to slow down and fall, the screen goes to black, and the viewer is left wondering if the Ending is real or another dream.
This isn’t typically what we mean when we refer to the Ending of a story as “Happily Ever After”, but we, the viewers, are still left imagining what is in store for Cobb. Did he finally get to go home to his family, or was it all a dream? The Ending is left to our imagination – or is it?
One of the core principles of a totem is that you are supposed to keep yours with you at all times, and never give it to anyone. The reasoning for this is that if someone else knows how a person’s totem works, they could influence it in the dream world. They could make someone believe they are awake even though they are still dreaming. But earlier in the film, it is shown that the top Cobb is using was previously used by his wife. It violates that rule. But I have read articles that suggest that the top is, in fact, not Cobb’s totem.
Throughout the film, Cobb also plays with his wedding ring, and the articles I read observed that Cobb only wears his ring in the dream world. It is never present in the real world. If that is true, then it is Cobb’s true totem, and the top is a deception – both to the viewer, and to the other members of his team. And the question of whether or not Cobb is able to finally return home to his children at the End of the movie is answer by whether or not he’s wearing his ring. The “Happily Ever After” Ending we are left to imagine is also deceptive – there is an Ending to the film, the final question is answered.
But I won’t tell you the answer – you’ll have to watch the Ending yourself.
The next kind of “Happily Ever After” I want to discuss is the kind of Ending that is left open in order to allow for a sequel to the story. If it Ends there, we have our Story. We may have questions like with Inception, but we do have an “Ending”. But if a sequel is financed, then we will have more story. Otherwise, we are left with an open Ending, and must use our imagination to fill in the details.
This is often the case with television series. Their seasons sometimes end with a hook that will keep viewers motivated to return for a following season. And the show I would like to discuss is the BBC show Sherlock (a modern reimagining of Sherlock Holmes). Specifically, I want to discuss the ending of season 2 (or series 2, as the British call it).
At the end of that series, Sherlock’s nemesis Moriarty has cornered Sherlock and put him in a position where Moriarty tries to influence Holmes to kill himself. If Holmes refuses or takes too long to decide, Moriarty will have Holmes’ closest friends killed. Moriarty even goes so far as to kill HIMSELF to prevent Holmes from tricking him into revealing anything that would get Holmes out of the situation. Holmes makes one last phone call to John Watson, his closest friend and partner, before leaping from the roof. The last scene of the episode and series is that of Holmes’ friends standing over his grave, and John makes a final request for Sherlock to make one more miracle – to pull one more trick and not be dead. With tears in his eyes, John walks away, and the camera shows a very alive Sherlock Holmes standing in the distance watching his friends as they stand over his “grave”.
Now, it was never in question that a show as popular as Sherlock would be getting a sequel. We would see what happened. But that is not always the case with stories. There was an American vampire show called Moonlight which ended in a similar way: the loose ends of the season were tied up, only to have the final scene of the season, and ultimately the series, be one that hints that the story has just begun. But that show was not renewed for another season, and the viewers never got a conclusion to the story. That ending ended up being the Ending for the story.
And while I think it’s a good way to sell another season of a show, keeping the ending of a story hostage to the whims of television financing feels a bit cruel to the viewers. Sometimes we find out what happens. Other times, we never get a proper Ending. We are left with only questions that our imaginations must struggle to answer.
And while that’s not very happy, it is our Ever After for these cut-short stories. It’s sometimes the only Ending we will ever get. And isn’t that just a little sad?