Long-running serializations are popular these days – maybe they always have been. We the viewers and/or readers get to watch our favorite characters come back time after time, and the businesses that produce those stories make a great deal of money off of those stories. But do those things make these good stories? Do they make these stories good?
What about stories that seem to run on forever? What about stories that seem to end, but then continue? What does it mean for a story or series if an earlier ending was more satisfying than the eventual Ending?
The first series I want to discuss is Supernatural, a highly successful series that has run for ten seasons. The show is about a pair of brothers who hunt ghosts, monsters, and other supernatural creatures. The first season of the show is focused on the brothers’ search for their father, who disappeared while hunting for the creature that killed their mother. They eventually find their father, the demon who killed their mother (as well as one brother’s lover), and they have the means to kill the demon, but they fail. The younger brother, Sam, refuses to kill the demon because it was possessing their father at the time. The season ends with Sam gathering his injured family and driving to a hospital, only to have a truck t-bone their car. The final shot has the camera panning up the front of the truck to show the driver, whose eyes are black with the tell-tale mark of demonic possession.
And I know it sounds weird, but I actually like that ending as an Ending for the series.
It’s not a happy Ending, but it tells an interesting story if the Story would have ended there. The brothers’ story is one of revenge: they’re trying to kill the thing that killed their mom. They have been doing that their entire lives. They never had a childhood; they spent their time training for when they got older and would be able to help their father hunt monsters. The series actually starts with Sam having broken with his family, and his older brother Dean brings him back into the family business to help find their father. But when they return, Sam’s lover is killed by supernatural causes, and he leaves with his brother to continue hunting.
At the end of the season, Sam is the one in the position to get revenge for all of them. However, to do it he not only has to kill the monster that killed his mother, but also his father (whom Sam “dislikes”, to put it mildly). But he doesn’t – he can’t. He’s there, with his father fighting the possession and urging Sam to kill him and get revenge for them all, and Sam cannot do it. And the demon not only gets away, but the weakened and injured family is seemingly killed by one of the demon’s minions.
And that sucks as a happy ending, but what about as a parable for revenge? Their family’s quest for revenge took everything from them: their childhood, their sense of “normalcy”, any romantic relationship – everything. It’s not that they lost their lives – they never had lives to begin with. They had a mission, a quest. And that quest defined their lives, and stole everything else from them. Revenge defined and ruined their lives. And on top of all that, they still failed. They “died” in the end (The following 9 seasons show that they, of course, did not die. But for the sake of the discussion of this ending being the Ending, they die.)
And to top it all off, they failed because the only person in a position to get that revenge was the brother who wanted nothing to do with it anymore. He wanted a normal life, and his father’s love. They failed because Sam wanted his father more than he wanted revenge. That quest for revenge took everything from them, until Sam drew a line in the sand and refused to give any more.
Was Sam right? Is family more important than a quest for revenge? Must we draw the line when life asks us to give too much, even when it ends in tragedy? Or was Sam wrong? Did they fail because he was weak-willed and choked at the critical moment? Must we be willing to sacrifice anything and everything for the things we want the most? The Ending of season one is ambiguous to me with regards to those questions, and I like the ambiguity of it. I like Endings that make us think.
I still like the later seasons of the show, and the characters who appear in those seasons. Castiel is a personal favorite of mine, as well as the character development of Bobby, another hunter and family friend. But for the sake of the story, it would have set a hell of a tone for the show had it ended there. It would have said something; it would have asked some hard questions. But the following seasons each set their own tones, and the brothers deal with different moral themes as the show progresses. I feel like the message and questions of season one are muddied over the following decade. I like the ending of season one, and I enjoy the Story that Ends there, even as I enjoy the Story that continues past that point.
My next example for this topic is the Japanese animated show Sword Art Online. To those who are unfamiliar, the premise of the story is that a newly released online virtual reality game, Sword Art Online (or SAO for short) traps the players inside it, preventing them from logging off. The only way for them to return to the real world is to beat the game – however, anyone who dies in the game dies in real life. The first season of the show is 25 episodes long and the first 14 are the story of the players’ adventures in SAO which occur over a period of two years.
In episode 14, the players defeat a difficult boss monster, but suffer numerous casualties. The protagonist, a swordsman named Kirito, discovers that the mastermind behind trapping them in the game is one of the people traveling with them. He challenges the villain to a duel, on two conditions. First, all the players would be freed if Kirito won the duel. Second, if Kirito lost, the villain would prevent Asuna, Kirito’s wife, from killing herself. However, Asuna interrupts the duel and is killed. In grief, Kirito attacks again, and the two kill each other.
Kirito is transported to a new zone to hear the announcement that the game has been cleared, and sees his wife there. The two share a moment, while the world falls apart around them as the game ends. Thinking that they died, Kirito is surprised when he awakens in a hospital bed. Realizing he is alive, he thinks of his wife, slowly pulls his atrophied body from the hospital bed, and shambles down a hallway that fades into white, whispering her name. The episode ends to soft music and the closing credits playing as he disappears into the hallway, looking for Asuna.
And DAMN that is satisfying. The problem is: that is episode 14 of 25. There are nine more episodes to the show. What happens in them? Another fantasy adventure in another game, his cousin’s incestuous attraction towards him, and fairies. Yes, they play a game where they are fucking fairies. And while the eventual ending to the season is satisfying in many ways, it’s still inferior to the ending of episode 14 in my opinion – especially considering the eleven episodes the viewer must trudge through in order to get there. The two story arcs feel so different, they might as well be two different seasons of the show, or even two completely different series.
I love that first ending. I love watching him wake up and wondering for a moment if this was all a dream. I love seeing determination drive someone with two years of muscle atrophy to struggle to stand, but stand anyway. And he does it because he wants to see her again – he NEEDS to see her again, and see that she survived too. And when he fades into white, I imagine a happy ending, one where he finds her safe, one where he makes a life with her, one where their two years of trials and suffering are rewarded.
Instead, we find out in the next episode that she, as well as a small percentage of other players, still have not woken up. And there is a new quest, but what do we have to show for it? Incest and fairies? No, that is fucking unsatisfying. Even the eventual ending of the season does not wash the bad taste out of my mouth.
I prefer the Ending that does not show me everything. I prefer thinking that the death game these people played is the worst thing they would ever have to face. But happy Endings at episode 14 does not make as much money as continuing the story for another eleven episodes. They do not make as much money as bringing back the show for a second 25-episode season. To me, the climax of that story has always been and will always be the end of episode 14. The 36 episodes that follow… I would sacrifice them all to have episode 14 as the Ending, and I would do so without a second thought.