Friday, January 10, 2014

Disappointing Series Finales vs. Our Need for Resolution in Stories [SPOILERS]

Warning: this post deals with endings, so there are MAJOR SPOILERS throughout.  You have been warned!

One of the most divisive series endings was the ending of LOST.  The series had split into two timelines by this point: the first one, which continued the plot of the survivors of the airplane crash on a mysterious island along with the “Others,” the sort-of natives who want the island to themselves.  The second timeline imagined that the airplane crash on the island never happened.  Most of the original cast dies in the original timeline to “save” the island, while in the second timeline, it is revealed at the end to be a “purgatory” for the characters after they die.  This purgatory ending was disliked by many fans because the creators insisted early on that the characters on the island were not in purgatory, so it felt like the creators were cheating. 
And yet, many people eagerly anticipated the ending of LOST.  With a tight cult fan-base and a completely serialized story-line, the show seemed ready for a huge satisfying pay off for the main characters.  But the majority of critics and many fans were disappointed. 

Fast forward three years: Dexter, a series about a “moral” serial killer who targets other killers who target children and other innocents is about to end.  The series ends with Dexter the moral serial killer living out his days alone in a cabin far from everyone else.  Everyone thought that the ending was extremely disappointing.  And yet again, the ending was eagerly anticipated by the fans. 
Why do we desire satisfying (but not necessarily happy) endings for our characters?  With ongoing story-lines, television tells us that it must be all leading to some sort of ending.  But life is not like that.  People die while others live on.  Births happen and new stories begin.  But since the dawn of time, we crave an ending.  Even the Bible has Revelation, which tells us how the world ends.  We want a resolution of all things, a payoff to the setup of the story.  We want our characters to have a satisfying ending, which corresponds to the world in which they live. 

This desire for resolution is partly fueled by the desire for resolution in our own lives.  When we have an ongoing disagreement with someone, regardless of whether we can bring ourselves to put our pride aside or not, we desire for that disagreement to be resolved, for there to be no more of a split between the two.  Seeing a satisfying ending fulfills a desire in all of us for some sort of resolution in life.  It may not be real or even realistic, but if it feels satisfying, then we praise the ending and the story for doing it.  If it doesn't feel satisfying, obviously we raise our voices about it.
What it is, regardless of happy or sad, is resolution.  The reason we are so unsatisfied with endings like LOST and Dexter is perhaps a combination of two things: one is the writers’ fault.  They set up the world of the series and then failed to find a satisfying resolution within that world.  They broke or ignored the “rules” that had been set up in the world, and paid the price for those decisions.  But the other reason is within ourselves: we have already built up in our heads what a supposed satisfying ending should be and are looking for the show to bring it, or maybe bring it in a new and interesting way.  We've built it up so well in our minds that we may not have given the writers’ planned endings enough of a chance. 

But either way, we desire an ending: plot lines to resolved, characters to receive their just rewards for their actions.  If a character is good and has been trying to meet with the man of her dreams, we desire for the man of her dreams to recognize the main character and fall in love with her.  If a character is bad and killing innocents, we desire for that character to be thrown in jail or killed by the hero.  Now, if the character is morally grey, the question of what we want for the character does become more muddled.  Perhaps to redeem himself, the anti-hero makes the ultimate sacrifice and dies protecting innocents for the first time his life.  It may not be a happy ending per se, but it feels right with the story. 

Make no mistake: we nevertheless desire a satisfying ending, one which follows the rules of the world.  That is the nature of our desire for resolution: good or bad, it ends what it set out to begin and leaves us ruminating on the story we just experienced.  

What do you think about series finales?  What do you desire out of them?  Did your favorite series finale conform to your personal idea of resolution?  


  1. Hey Lee! What you've said is completely true, and also one of the main reasons why I find so much truth in the Bible. Christianity is the only religion I know of that addresses this issue humans have of wanting a "good story." I don't watch LOST or Dexter, but from what you say, I'm assuming the people who liked the finales were in the minority. It's interesting to think about what those people are like, and why they enjoyed a lack of resolution. I have a friend like that, and she likes stories without good endings because she thinks they are more realistic, and they suit her pessimistic outlook of life.
    I'm not like that! I love stories with good resolutions -- in fact, that makes or breaks the story for me. The Hunger Games was one series that I had high hopes for when I began reading, but completely disappointed me simply because of the progression of Katniss's story (or lack of progression). I can contrast this to two of my favorite stories: Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings. In both, the main characters are better, more complete people than they were at the beginning of the stories. They are not broken by their experiences, but redeemed (though maybe not by themselves).
    My newest favorite series is Doctor Who, which might seem surprising given that the show has been going on indefinitely for 50 years now. But even though there's no ending in sight, each episode and story arc has been satisfactorily resolved for me. I do hope that if it ever does reach an end, it is a good one.

    1. Thanks for your response! What the Bible contains is a history of the people of Israel and the early Christians, written by those same people. It feels like a history (a real story) as opposed to simply a religious text (though it it is both). I had similar feelings about The Hunger Games after I finished it...I wanted to like it, but I didn't feel emotionally satisfied. You are right about the characters LOTR and Harry Potter. And I zoomed through Doctor Who on Netflix, and I love the twists and excitement of the series. I also hope for a great ending for Doctor Who, but who knows how long that will be. We will have to wait and see!