Warning: the following contains spoilers for the endings of Cowboy Bebop, Fullmetal Alchemist, Neon Genesis: Evangelion, Avatar: The Last Airbender, Battlestar Galactica, LOST, Supernatural (current) and The Prisoner.
I’ve noticed an alarming trend in television finales, lately: God.
The presence of God in television finales alarms me for a number of reasons. Culturally, I think it reflects the general shift toward conservatism in the West. Most stories that involve the presence of God (or at least a divine entity of some sort, whether it’s Krishna in The Bhagavad-Gita or The Furies/Eumenides in The Oresteia, are about characters finding their path at a moment of confusion, or coming back down to Earth after reaching too high. In both cases, the Divine re-establishes the “natural” order. Arjuna steps into his role as a virtuous prince. Orestes accepts that vengeance is not his to take. These stories come from an inherently conservative point of view: everyone has a place to stand and a part to play, and attempts to step outside those boundaries can only result in pain and suffering. You’ll notice that stories about God commonly involve triumph over the self, not triumph over an oppressive regime — Arjuna never once thinks that he should share his riches with the lower castes, or that he’ll unseat the monarchy once he wins the battle. Doing so would overturn the “natural” order of his environment. Arjuna’s kingdom, once he wins it, will continue to rely on slavery to sustain itself — because that’s how Krishna wants it. God’s role in these stories is a conservator, one who might snip off poisoned buds or gently nudge humans in one direction or another in attempt to preserve that which is good and right, without radically altering anything. God conserves the status quo, and we’re supposed to take comfort in that: a place for everyone, and everyone in their place.
Recent American television finales have embraced this logic. The endings of Avatar: The Last Airbender, Battlestar Galactica, and LOST all involve a divine figure returning balance to an earthly equation by repeating an ancient pattern. The Avatar achieves his final state and the four nations again live in harmony. Humans create Cylons, battle Cylons, and become Cylons. The Island calls people in need of personal change, gives it to them, then lets them go (to Heaven) before calling another group. All of this has happened before, and will happen again. The pattern doesn’t change, it simply repeats.
Another word for “repetition” is “letdown.”
As far back as Aristotle, critics and audiences have measured the quality of a story by (among other things) whether it has a discernible beginning, middle, and end. Things must change. The characters must be in a different place than before, and the audience must feel for them. Traditionally, this comes about as a result of the character making a choice or taking an action that has consequences, and then suffering through them. Agamemnon sacrifices Iphigenia so that his ships might sail to Troy, and Clytemnestra retaliates by murdering him. Hamlet refuses to kill Claudius when he has the chance, and he (and everyone else) dies. Rochester lies to Jane about his marriage, and loses her. Meursault kills the Arab, then awaits his execution. Consequences follow actions. Stories progress. Circumstances change. Characters grow.
But lately on American television, they haven’t. Lately, all tension has been drained from their actions, and all opportunities for choice have been robbed from them by fate. Does it matter that humans created Cylons? Not really. They did it because God wanted them to. Does it matter that the Losties all had issues with their parents that they needed to overcome before they could be whole? Nah. They were all in Purgatory, anyhow. Does it matter that Aang had lost access to the Avatar State? No — apparently stray rocks can unblock his chakra. (That’s right, kids: Aang works like the Millennium Falcon — a well-placed punch can bring his circuits back online.)
Notable exceptions exist: Supernatural invokes God as a character who allows humans to make their own decisions and suffer the consequences. At the end of this season, Sam and Dean did their best to flout Heaven’s will, and God essentially tousled their hair and said “You crazy kids…” before consigning one to the flames and leaving the other a soulless wreck of a man. He threw in a couple of freebies, like re-integrating Castiel, who then gave Bobby his life back. But as Castiel says, Dean and Sam worked hard to achieve exactly what they desired: no hell below us; above us, only sky. They rebelled against God’s plan, and God responded by washing his hands of them. It’s a sad story, but it’s an eminently satisfying one. Pity and fear, the two emotions that Aristotle said make up the crucial narrative element called catharsis, are not pleasant feelings. But they are powerful, and they teach us the things we listen to stories in order to learn.
Stories where God fixes everything? That’s the narrative equivalent of a nutritionist saying that you can eat nothing but McDonald’s and not get fat.
Perhaps this is why I like anime so much: anime lets characters suffer the consequences of their actions. The classic example is Cowboy Bebop. Spike flees the Red Dragon crime syndicate rather than killing Vicious, and Vicious chases him across the stars, snapping at his heels until their final, mortal meeting. This theme, the futility of trying to outrun one’s past, repeats across all the characters: Jet wants to forget how he lost his arm, but he’s forced to confront the man who betrayed him; Faye wishes she were always the tough woman she’s sculpted herself into, but eventually her memories of childhood return and she realizes just how much she’s lost. In all three cases, unfinished business comes back to bite the characters. The decisions they made in the past have meaning in the present.
Another example is Fullmetal Alchemist. Although the original anime series had to make up its own ending because the manga that inspired it was unfinished, that ending is still fairly satisfying, if not necessarily happy. Edward and Alphonse have spent the entire series trying to get their bodies back without paying the price demanded by the alchemical laws of equivalent exchange, and they do — somewhat. For Edward, that means being stranded in another universe where alchemy is impossible, without an arm or a brother. For Alphonse, it means gaining back his body, but losing all his memories of the brother he spent the last four years with. It’s an ending, yes, and it’s the ending Edward wanted for his brother. But doesn’t make it painless.
This isn’t to say that anime always gets it right. The ending of Neon Genesis: Evangelion so thoroughly confused viewers that it inspired its own TV Trope. Much like The Prisoner, NG:E ends a convoluted plot not by tying up loose ends, but by swerving into an extended stage-performance-as-life metaphor. When I watched it with Peter for a Mechademia review of the series, he sat calmly for a minute, then asked me what the fuck had just happened. I rose quickly from my seat and said something about starting dinner.
I should note that the ending of NG:E should function as a warning on multiple levels: not only should writers fire all the rifles resting over the mantelpiece, and not fire the rifles that were never there to begin with, but they should accept defeat when the trigger jams. To this day, Hideaki Anno has yet to create a series as enduring or profitable as NG:E, primarily because neither he nor his audience (myself included) could leave that ending alone. We kept picking at it its rough and ragged edges, slowly enlarging the wound by sticking two sequels, three manga series, and an entirely new sextet of films inside it. If Anno had ended the series satisfactorily in 1996, his career might look very different in 2010.
But by and large, I notice that anime is better able to end a story than live-action television. I suspect that this is because anime producers contract with studios for a set number of episodes within which to tell the story. No one worries about the “back nine” being picked up to complete a season, or whether a second or third season will be asked for. Those questions are answered before the animator ever lights up her table. Granted, in cases where an anime has to sync up with a manga, there can be problems with filler. (I’m looking at you, Bleach.) But even a six-episode mini-series like FLCL can tell a complete story where the world changes and characters grow. That’s more than some series can do in six seasons.
I write this as a person routinely stymied by endings. When I’m in my workshop, my most frequent question is “How can we fix this ending?” Normally, I need someone to tell me what the story was about for them before I understand how to bring it all together. Perspective is just harder to achieve at the end of the game, when you’re too tired to keep your eye on all the balls you have in the air. All of the mistakes I’ve written about here are ones I’ve made myself, before. I just got back Peter’s line-edit on my manuscript last Tuesday, and our discussion (with Caitlin) of the ending was not a pretty one. (I believe the words “cheated,” “squandered,” and “lazy” were used multiple times.) But a few hours and three bottles of wine later, we had worked out a few tweaks that might accomplish what I’d been trying to do all along. The next day, I went over these changes with both my husband and my best friend Dave. The former is a far more logical thinker than I will ever be, and the latter a far better writer. They both agreed that these changes would improve the re-write. So maybe this little essay isn’t a dirge for American drama, or a paean to Japanese anime. Maybe it’s just a meditation in praise of re-writes. Maybe it’s an acknowledgment that we all fail the first time, and that the first draft should never be the final one.
Speaking of which, I need to get to work.