How to End a Story


Major SPOILERS in this article for tv shows: Mr. Robot: Season One (USA), The Killing (AMC), Breaking Bad (AMC)

I was hooked on AMC’s The Killing. Addicted. Absolutely loved it–for 12 episodes. Hell, even in the 13th, the Season One Finale, I was in love right up until the last few minutes. Then they broke my heart. They laughed in my face. And then they had the nerve to ask me to come back for more abuse next season. No way. “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.” I would never be their fool again.

Not everyone agrees with me, of course. One of my very good friends–an intelligent, discerning connoisseur of the cinematic arts–was only slightly irked by the story’s ending, and he tried to talk me into going back for Season Two. But I couldn’t do it.

Here’s why:

They didn’t deliver what they promised. For 12 and 9/10ths episodes, The Killing led us to believe that we were going to find out the truth of who did…the killing. And then, in the final moments of the Season Finale…they faked us out. They pulled a bait and switch–only this time, the bait took 12 hours and the switch took less than 12 minutes. They had structured the story brilliantly, up to that point, and then, at the very end, they fucked it up. Completely.

I remember the feeling in my gut when the credits rolled: betrayalWho the fuck do think they are? How dare they fuck with me like that?

I was insulted as an audience member. There was no defense for what they did to me emotionally. As a loyal viewer, I sat and watched this wonderful, dark, compelling story unfold for the entire season, and most of that time I was leaning in–usually metaphorically, but sometimes literally. Then, in those final moments, I pulled back from them, flung myself up from my chair (literally) and walked away, cursing in disgust. Why promise me an answer and then give me none? Do you think you’re being “edgy?” That’s not edgy, that’s betrayal. 

I was insulted as a writer. There was no defense for what they did structurally. That stupid fucking twist at the very end, when we almost find out who did the killing but then surprise! fooled you! it could’ve been anybody! come back next season and maybe we’ll tell you or maybe we won’t!–that moment was as out of place in the story structure up to that point as a toilet placed on the altar of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. Hey! Look at that! We put a turd-bowl on an altar! Betcha didn’t see that coming! Ain’t we original?

In response to the outrage expressed by some of the viewing public, the show’s creators responded (and I’m summarizing from memory here because I don’t give enough of a fuck to even Google the actual remarks–plus this isn’t journalism): “We know some people are unhappy with the ending of Season One, but we never promised to reveal the killer’s identity, and we pride ourselves on being unpredictable and staying one step ahead of our audience.”

Fuck you. Take your Season Two DVD boxed set and shove it up your piss-hole.

Enough of them. Here’s a less offensive example of what NOT to do:

Mr. Robot (USA) disappointed me, but they didn’t lose me. I still love them. And I will go back for Season Two. My problem with that ending is not what they did but how they did it. Throughout the whole first season, they had me leaning in for an answer to the big question: Will they defeat Evil Corp and start the revolution, or won’t they? The answer that we get in the final episode of Season One: um, well, they succeed, but you don’t see it happen, or feel it happen, or feel anything about it at all, because it happens off screen, during a blackout, and then Elliot wakes up in a Cadillac, and he can’t remember it happening, and he learns about it the same way we learn about it which is slowly and awkwardly and unsatisfyingly over the course of several run-on moments of poorly structured revealing action much like this poorly structured and unsatisfying run-on sentence. 

At a certain point, I had to pause the DVR and turn to Sammi and ask: “So…they won? Hurray…? Viva la revolucion…I guess…?”

We never got to celebrate. We never got to fucking feel it. Why not? What’s the point of all that build-up with no payoff? We’ve been building up to this climax for 9 hours, now where’s the money shot? Yes, it seems that the victory is somewhat hollow and the revolution will not be the end of Evil Corp and it will be a temporary victory…but that doesn’t excuse the decision to not honor the structure of the story that was built up to that point. The thematic choice to show the limited nature of the revolutionary win is not a good enough excuse to undermine the narrative structure–nor is it satisfying enough to be worth it.

However, the story and its structure were good enough to allow me to forgive this one mistake and return for more later. I don’t have to love everything to still be in love.

Now, here’s an example of the RIGHT way to end a story:

Breaking Bad (AMC) is the best t.v. show ever. (In my humble opinion, of course. No, I haven’t seen everything. Yes, I have seen The Wire. And yes, Breaking Bad is better.) And they got the ending right.

Walter dies on his own terms. He dies a hero. He saves Jesse. He ties up all lose ends. And before he dies, he sees his own reflection in a kettle. As he falls, his image is blurred into streaks over the metal surface–just like the character of Walter was blurred over the years by his actions. Walter set out the beginning of the story to use his chemistry skills to save his life–and ironically, he dies on the floor of a chemistry lab, having defeated the original cancer in his body, but beaten by the cancer in his character.

It’s perfect.

There are plenty of other stories that end well: Boardwalk Empire comes to mind.

There are others that didn’t end well: Dexter was memorably disappointing.

So what?

So maybe learn from them. If not to honor the audience, then to honor the story. Even now, sitting here writing this, I hadn’t thought of Dexter in a long time. And as I remember it, I shake my head and grit my teeth. I loved it. For years. And all of that love is tainted now. But Boardwalk Empire? That’s reason to smile.

Endings matter. To the audience. To the story.

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