The monumental Richard Wagner coined the term I use in the title. Of course, one must understand that even if he "ironed out" arias and recitatives into what he called the Endless Melody, they always ended. Always, and without getting too philosophical "all up in here" that's pretty much what happens to everything else. Why is it then that we are obsessively afraid of endings? And yeah... *Spoilers ahead*!
Now, I said that we shouldn't get too philosophical but understanding why someone want's to see the hero succeed in the end or get the girl and save the day is directly connected with our own mortality. If it must end, it must end well?
How many times have you attempted to describe a film or a story to a friend only to be interrupted with the famous question "how does it end?"? I am not saying that the question itself is irritating but it must be understood that the point of a story is the story itself. The ending is simply an inevitability. Many writers have embraced this fact and even revelled in it! Skipping to the end is a practice that I never really understood. For me it was always about the journey, never the end, of any character or story. I have always seen the ending as a bonus and if done right that can make a story greater than it already is.
Take the Godfather trilogy as an example. Even though every single one of its films can stand on its own two feet, you must take the story as a whole. Michael Corleone lived and died by the sword and no matter how much flak the third instalment has taken, for me it is always considered worthy due to the fact that Michael finally pays for the life he has chosen (the life of his father, of course). It would have been incredibly silly of anyone to believe that one way or the other, he wouldn't have died. Everybody does! Yet just like his father, he loses one of his children because of the road (to perdition *nudge, wink*) that he chose. THAT is what constitutes it a worthy ending. Comeuppance is always welcome in the endings of such stories. Characters getting their dues, for better or worse.
Since one trilogy has been mentioned let's move on to another one. Also, to clarify, I start off with trilogies because it is the closest that cinema has every gotten to emulating TV series (many of them PAINFULLY never-ending). I must admit, the rush of the impending end of a monumental journey is immense and always a pleasure when delivered right. Back to trilogies...
Ewoks aside, The Return of the Jedi for me is the best Star Wars film out of all six that have seen the light of day. The reason for this is the climactic father-and-son duel. A true clash between characters that we have "lived with" for three entire films. A brilliant climax revolving around the "main dish" of the saga. The son finally confronts his father as a true and complete warrior then ensues to utterly dominate him at his own game. That was the true triumph in the story for me. Regardless of the interstellar warfare raging between the rebel forces and the Empire below, the fight of two individuals mattered so much more. Not the happiest of endings of course since Darth Vader achieved his catharsis by sacrificing himself for his son (Mr. Abrams and co. , PLEASE deliver...please...).
That, perhaps, is a good recipe for an ending. Bitter-sweet. Sometimes only sweet but only because the story was bitter. Biting and gnashing all the way to its climax just like inThe Shawshank Redemption. The viewer needs the release of knowing that the protagonist finally got what he deserved, a peaceful life.
The fear of endings is deeply rooted in our psyche. As mentioned above we all fear the end, it's only natural (both the fear and the end!). The same applies for any narrative, it MUST end otherwise it loses it's charm and purpose! In ancient Greek tragedies, the Gods were envious of mortals because they could go through every living moment knowing that it could be their last therefore they could enjoy it to its fullest. Yes, it is a very romantic notion (romance and death go hand in hand) and one that can be applied in any form of literature since romance slowly removed itself from everyday life. Gallant knights and damsels are hardly the norm any more wouldn't you say?
TV shows, for reasons directly connected with the pockets of those involved, are dragged to the point of nausea and hatred for any series that started out fresh and strong. In film you cannot avoid endings but studios still push writers and the creative process in order to produce more marketable endings. Don't get me wrong, a happy ending is not a bad ending. That's not what I am saying here. But having the chance to end on a note that at least makes the viewer think for themselves is what art is all about. Manipulating the creative process for financial reasons is directly crippling the art itself.
Enter video games! Much like films (life, the universe and everything...) they always come to an end. Only recently have we seen the same manipulation of their creative process, like films, make its way into our living rooms since the last decade or so was the golden age of video games which meant, money. A single figure to display the explosion of the medium around the world is the staggering one billion dollars that Grand Theft Auto V earned in only three days! Thankfully, GTA V and (almost) all the games of the franchise never joked around with their endings. Perhaps the previous release to GTA V was guilty of being rather soft. However, Rockstar rectified this by giving the player options on how to end their latest crime saga. Options that also include killing one of the three main protagonists (all three carry the same importance to the story leading up to the climax). Giving the player the option to choose the way the story ends, or at least the option to choose a path that leads to an ending more suitable to the story that the player had in mind is something that is impossible to do in a television or cinema production. This is where video games have an edge. And sometimes that backfires badly since the aforementioned manipulation due to financial traction kicks in!
Any role-playing gamer worth their salt is aware of the epic journey that is Mass Effect. A product so grandiose that no film, series or even book (due to the delivery method) can ever hope to replicate. Since explaining in detail what Mass Effect is all about would probably take a three-digit number of pages, I'll do my best to contain it within a few lines (I apologise to all my fellow ME lovers for the hubris). The player begins by creating a Commander Shepard (male or female) and then experience a story through which Shepard saves the largest multi-race colony in space keeping the humans in the good graces of other galactic species only to uncover a plan that is set in motion which will bring about the end of life in the universe as we know it.
The game was delivered in the form of three main releases. Each one reminding you at any given point that choices you make will have an impact on the story and will change the outcome of the narrative in one way or another as you progress. Here is where the "fear of endings" kicked in and caused the largest uproar in the history of the global gaming community (which I must remind you is large and quite important, "market-ly" speaking!). Following a titanic adventure, the player as Shepard comes to understand what the "plan" was all about. So far so good. Every choice that was made through this adventure however is thrown immediately out of the window when the player is presented with three choices to end it all.
I am about to geek out a bit here so move on to the next paragraph if you've never played Mass Effect. There are only TWO bloody endings! It is nobodies fault if you had fallen in love with the Geth and you suddenly harbour feelings for MACHINES! They are machines and they will never be any different NOR can they ever fuse with living beings. They can live in harmony, they can co-exist (much like Shepard who was practically more machine than man/woman by the end due to the Lazarus project) but NOT synthesize! It's as if the writers got together for burgers one day and while having a mouthful of cheese and beef one of them decided that it would be "cool" to just "throw" the green ending in there where machine and flesh synthesize flawlessly and seamlessly. It is downright atrocious writing. Machines will always be machines. A Reaper does not and cannot feel. The "green" ending allows that to perhaps happen and I cannot accept it, no sir. Never. It practically removes half the story they had written just so they didn't fall even FLATTER on their face by presenting only TWO endings by the end of it all.
As I was saying, this monumental story gave the player the choice of three (two...) endings. Granted, as a fan I was pleased by the "red" and "blue" options since at least one of them gave me the closure I needed to put the story to rest once and for all (Shepard's story at least). But that didn't stop the community from lashing out to "retake Mass Effect" as was their goal. They managed to raise almost $100.000 in order to get the company behind the game (Bioware) to take notice and address the lack of closure and the general "apathy" displayed by the creators themselves towards their own product. It worked to a certain extend, resulting in some downloadable content that gave the players the same choices but with some added narrative to help tie it up even better (and another tacked-on ending where "you die and yeah..."). You see, gamers unlike film lovers have more control (literally hands-on) of the story they are experiencing hence why the huge backlash. A story can only end ONCE and getting it wrong can hurt everyone. The players, the writers, the producers. Everyone.
This cannot happen in cinema since once the product is out, it's out. You see it and that's it. How many gasps of surprise can you remember hearing when Inception ended? One of them could might had been yours as well, I know I gasped! But that was an ending orchestrated to perfection in order to deliver a hefty punch, driven by the story behind it during the very last shot. Fight Club also has a marvellous ending, where it reveals to the viewer that Tyler Durden never existed. It was a figment of the unnamed narrators imagination and how he decided to deal with him (he shot himself in the mouth. Brilliant!). The mayhem ensued as scheduled, of course.
For every poignant, fitting, epic or otherwise great ending however there are about ten (thousand) endings that aren't even worth our time. The guy gets the girl. The girl gets the guy. The bad guy dies. The bad guy dies... but comes back to life in order for us to have a sequel where we can watch everything happen all over again. It all comes down to the people not involved in the creative process but heavily involved with the production, NOT hampering their own creation in order to achieve mass appeal. It is clear that they are not trying to satisfy everyone (since that does not work) but instead aim at their target audience and fire to maximise profit.
A story isn't the only thing that has an ending however. Characters also have endings and characters are something we generally attach to even more than the story as a whole (we ARE characters ourselves after all). Neo from the Matrix trilogy was treated with respect and was given a very fitting ending. The messiahs sacrifice. That was bitter-sweet and worked with the story we all experienced before the climax. The same applies for Jack Nicholson's character in One flew over the cuckoo's nest. Did we feel good about him being lobotomised? Of course not. But did we feel good about the fact that he was killed by Chief at the end? Not an easy question to answer and that is a good sign of a beautiful ending. The Chief made it out at least and that gives the viewer the much needed release that is deserved after witnessing the stifling story unfold.
Killing the characters in stories we love is always a hard subject. Cumberbatch's Sherlock most definitely shouldn't have died at the end of season 2 (and didn't!), otherwise there wouldn't be any more adventures to be had! Only recently did we begin witnessing the death of beloved characters right before our eyes. Two prime examples where this takes place is both Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones. Both the narratives heavily involve mortality and the general finality of death which is what made Greek tragedies the bar-setter that they still are. Romantically speaking, we forgot that we are envied by the Gods as previously mentioned for this very fact. And as a result we have stories that are inappropriately ended or characters who never receive their comeuppance or what they deserve in general which leaves a rather stale taste in the viewers mouth by the time the credits roll.
In both the series I just mentioned, the writers never think twice about tying up an end. You attached yourself to THAT specific character? Good! That means the writers did their job brilliantly. Why else do we watch and enjoy all these works if not to feel? It doesn't matter whether tears or smiles are involved, as long as we are feeling. That is the beauty of a melody. It ends because it must. And unlike our frail existence, we can replay that melody over and over again to our heart's desire even if it hurts when all there is left is silence.
- Frixos Masouras 2014