How the Ending Can Ruin the Beginning

(originally posted April 18th 2014)

(WARNING: The following post contains spoilers for the final episode of ‘How I Met Your Mother’ and ‘A Doll’s House’)

On March 31st 2014, the long running US sitcom ‘How I Met Your Mother’ ended after nine seasons. Usually when a series such as this comes to an end, there is much fanfare. The fans come together in unison to bid farewell to their beloved characters and, sometimes, tears are shed. But ‘HIMYM’ wound up doing something that took me by surprise. The final episode created a chasm that split the fanbase down the middle. I hesitate to use the word ‘controversial’ but opinions were definitely mixed.

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The show was about Ted Mosby telling his kids about how he met their mother, regaling them with stories of him and his friends Robin, Marshall, Lily and Barney when they were young adults. And, after nine years of waiting, the identity of the mother was finally revealed… only to have her be killed off and Ted ending up with his on again/off again love interest Robin.

I’m not going to deliver my own thoughts on this (mostly because I’ve never liked the show to begin with) and you can find out why people do or don’t like this ending yourself, but I shall use this finale as an example as to the actual point of this post.

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Final episodes… no, finales in general, be they for TV series, films, books, plays or videogames, are dangerous territory. Not only are they subject to the usual criticism, there’s also the fact that they’re the ending. Endings are a big deal. It’s the point where things… end. No more. Nada. That’s it. The point where Luke brings balance to the Force, the point where the Ring is destroyed and Sauron is defeated; it’s when there’s nothing left to do. The story can’t continue and the characters can’t be developed anymore. Everything is rounded up and brought to a conclusion.

What’s important about said conclusion is that it needs to be satisfying. When you become invested in something, you are devoting your time, attention and emotions to it. As a result, you deserve something back – whether it be entertainment or a lesson or an emotional reaction. When you watch, say, ‘Othello,’ you don’t walk away thinking “Well that was three hours of a play.” No, you walk away thinking “Woah.” Unless you don’t like Shakespeare plays, in which case maybe you do experience the first reaction but more on that later.

The point is endings have a lot of expectations to live up to and if they fail, that’s not just a blow to them; it’s a blow to the whole thing. Suddenly, everything you’ve experienced feels as if it was for nothing. You aren’t happy or content with what has transpired; you’re disappointed. And that disappointment turns to anger and now, you’re bitter. You can no longer re-watch the show or the film and enjoy it because you know how it ends and how it ends sucks.

Of course, we must remember that endings are also subject to that oh so hated of terms known as ‘opinion.’ Though there are many who hated the ‘HIMYM’ finale, there seem to be an equal number of those that loved it and are, therefore, satisfied with it. Just like that there are probably some who weren’t happy with how ‘Othello’ ends.

You obviously can’t please everybody when it comes to endings, same as everything else. But that still means your ending needs to deliver; it needs to be a culmination of everything the characters, and the audience, have experienced.

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Here’s another example: Henrik Ibsen’s play ‘A Doll’s House’ had two different endings. The original ending sees the protagonist Nora walk out on her husband and children. Without going into detail, this is the result of Nora’s development and the logical conclusion. It’s what’s expected and, while tragic, is ultimately satisfying as it highlights her growth as a person. However, it was written during the late 19th century, and the idea of a woman leaving her family would not have gone down well with audiences. So, Ibsen was pressured to writing an alternate ending where Nora is dragged by her husband to see her sleeping children and finds herself unable to leave them. Ibsen himself described it as a ‘barbaric outrage.’ Why? Because it renders all of Nora’s development meaningless. She’s been on this journey of self-discovery; accompanied by the audience, and for what? Apparently nothing. It makes the audience feel like all their time and devotion has been wasted.

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Haven’t you ever wondered by endings don’t see the bad guys win? How would you feel if Harry Potter was struck down and Voldemort reigned supreme? After seven books of seeing Harry struggle only for him to die at the end and evil triumph would’ve felt like a slap in the face of all the fans who stuck with it for so long.

When writing an ending, everything needs to be taken in consideration. The plot, the characters, the world – it’s not just a case of where you think it should end; you want your audience to watch it or read it, sit back, look over the whole thing and say “Yeah, it was worth it.” And that’s ultimately what’s important. Making your story feel like it was worth something.

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