It’s remarkable the effect an ending can have on a story. A really good ending leaves you feeling fulfilled. Consider Casablanca, where Rick’s last-minute change of heart is the culmination of his character throughout the film as his cynicism fades. Or Inception, where the uncertain top drives home the question of reality that has permeated the entire film. Or Lost’s finale, which builds on the idea of the Island as a crucible where friendships and relationships that will last beyond life were forged.
Then there are bad endings. Which conversely can sour everything that came before. How I Met Your Mother’s final season was shaky at best, but its finale, wherein we finally meet the titular mother only to find out she’s dead in the context of Ted telling the story and that he’s in love with Robin again, felt like a wildly roundabout shaggy dog story that diminishes what came before. It’s not an inherently bad note to end on, but as the show got longer the story changed. We’d seen Ted’s romance with Robin happen and fizzle out and both of them move on, all in the assumed interest of getting Ted to where he would need to be (emotionally) to meet the mother. For it to finally happen after nine seasons only to backtrack back to where Ted was at the end of the first season felt like a reneging on years of storytelling.
That said, I still do admire the showrunners for sticking to their guns. Part of the finale had been filmed years in advance, so it was ready to go. And when the time came, they slipped it in and brought the story to the ending they’d wanted all along. When they made it there was no accounting for getting renewed time and time again, but they could have changed it.
On the other hand, I love how Lost ended. It worked for me because I dug how the story had shifted from the mystery of the island to the relationships of the characters. The sci-fi trappings of the world were neat, and I loved the mystery of it all, but far more compelling were the developments of characters. The show’s characters arcs like Sawyer’s journey from self-flagellating outcast to reluctant leader, or Ben’s journey of redemption stay stuck in my mind a decade since it ended for how magnificently done they were. Of course, Lost also got to decide when the show would end: deciding its sixth would be the last as it was wrapping up its fourth. Having a decided endpoint gave the show’s story a sense of direction.
Vulture put out an article recently where six screenwriters talk about writing endings. It’s a fascinating read (and endings are hard, man!), especially something Mike Jones of Soul says: “A lot of Pixar movies, sometimes we figure out the ending we want and then we have to do the work — step backwards into the story, to make sure we earn it.” It’s a fantastic approach: if endings give you closure, figure out what you want that closure to feel like, and then write your story to earn that feeling. There’s a reason Soul works so damn well.
Of course, knowing your ending isn’t always possible. There are writers in that article who rewrote their scripts time and time again after they realized where their stories were actually going. I suppose television doesn’t have that sort of luxury, seeing as the story will be told as long as the show is renewed. Something like The Good Place with an intention for four seasons and four seasons only is the rare exception. Look at shows like Chuck or Community that have had multiple Definitely Final Episodes only to have to continue and do it all again.
So yeah. Endings are hard. Like ending this