I’ve never watched the show but I’ve heard a lot about the disappointing ending of How I Met Your Mother. Judging by the overwhelmingly negative reaction, it seems like it was the most disappointing series finale since Seinfeld, another show I didn’t watch.
That response got me thinking about what makes a good ending to a long-running series, whether television, book or movie, and how rewarding a good ending can be – and how easy it is for it to go terribly wrong.
A shot from the final scenes of Harry Potter
The worst offenders, in my view, are endings that I deem to be ‘too convenient’. Those stories that wrap up perfectly, everyone is satisfied, good has prevailed, and there’s no room for followup questions. This was my problem with how the Harry Potter series wrapped up. It was too clean. The fast-forward was too convenient. It was just too neat.
Another ending I don’t favour are those that I deem to be ‘too out there’. Stories that attempt to bite off more than they can chew by delivering an epic, explosive twist and then everybody dies, or it was aliens, or an alternate universe, or the evil twin no one knew about. Simply put, stories that introduce an idea too late.
It’s a challenge that comes with a great story where anticipation builds for an ending that has to be just as good. People expect a great story to end on a high note but doing so is tricky since obviously not everybody will be pleased.
I have always said my favourite endings are those that leave room for personal interpretation. Those that are ambiguous, not to the point that you’re left with a soul crushing cliffhanger, but enough to leave you wondering. Something to hold on to and have a conversation about.
Final shot from Inception
A classic example that comes to mind for me is Inception. If you’ve seen it, you know what I’m referring to. Does the top stop spinning?
I particularly find unhappy endings to be the most effective. A protagonist who doesn’t necessarily win; a couple that don’t reunite; a family member who passes away. These disappointments create emotions that are stronger and longer lasting, especially in characters whose stories and personalities you really get to know. You feel for them.
What makes these endings so effective is the finality of them. When a character you love dies in the end, there’s no undoing that. When a couple you thought would last separates, they’re moving on and it’s over. When something familiar and beloved changes, you’re forced to accept the change just as you would in real life.
In Toy Story 3, Andy gives his toys to a young girl in the end and it evokes emotion that comes with the permanence of growing up. You recall being that age and having to give up something you hold sentimental because it’s time to move.
When they were moving out of their apartments in Friends, you felt an emotional sense of loss that a place you were familiar with for ten years was uncomfortably empty as they were moving on.
These endings, while built around altering something comforting and familiar, create hope. Hope is an emotion that relies on how the desire of the future plays out but is based in uncertainty. When an ending leaves no room for uncertainty, there’s no room for hope as everything has been provided for you. There’s no reason to hold onto it.
So an ending that isn’t purely happy, or that least leaves room for interpretation, allows room for hope and to give further thought about what could be. If you were in the protagonist’s shoes, what would you do next?
Of course, there is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to a great ending. It obviously has to reflect the series or story as a whole and provide enough closure to at least ‘feel’ like an ending. There should be some sort of a resolution, even if that ending contains some blanks that only you can fill.
And it was all a dream.
What are your favourite series, movie or book endings?