When a Story Should End: Infinite Imagination or Structured Storytelling?

The following will contain spoilers for Twin Peaks, Seinfeld and How I Met Your Mother. This is an extension on the thesis posited in August Merz’s piece ‘Calling it Quits: When Should TV Shows End?’.

Not unlike a Mobius strip, stories never truly have a beginning or an end.  Picture: Christopher Handran
Like a Mobius strip, stories have no beginning and no end.

When one undertakes watching a television series, a film, a book or any other kind of narrative art piece, one inherently expects that it will, most likely, be constructed in a typical bell-curve like structure. This usually consists of an introduction of familiar characters; the implementation of these characters into several hardships, which they must overcome, and reach a new and different equilibrium. Therefore, the characters of a text do not end back where they started, but their story often concludes in a way where we can imagine how their lives will continue. This is otherwise known as the conclusion of a story.

It is logically necessary for everything which begins to eventually end, and this is no different for pieces of entertainment. When a person chooses to take the time to perceive a narrative work, they innately like to be shown how the characters change. By watching the characters change, the viewer’s perspective on the world will change. However, just as one expects the character to return to an equilibrium, so too does one need to return to an emotional equilibrium. As more and more people become aware of the rules of narrative, they have become more aware when something is not answered or left ambiguous. While this is not necessarily a bad thing at times, there are instances where the death of a storyline or a series altogether is untimely to say the least.

However, our ideas of needing explicit details of how a story ends need to be re-evaluated so that art does not fall down the slippery slope towards complete blatancy of narrative. However, with the expansion of the creative world to include ‘fan fiction’ and tributes, perhaps, the story does not need to end, at least in the minds of who reads or views it. However, with the need for an artist to consider the commercial pressures connected with creating a beloved text, should the creators always expect cancellation or adhere to their creative dreams? Does leaving a series filled with loose ends negate what has come before it or is the journey just as valuable as the destination?

The Inherent Need for Commercial Viability

The cult series 'Twin Peaks' is set to return for nine episodes in 2016.
The cult series ‘Twin Peaks’ is set to return for nine episodes in 2016.

A case which has highlighted the need for a conclusion is the ABC cult series Twin Peaks (1990-1), which has been revived by its original creators David Lynch and Mark Frost, for a limited reboot season lasting nine episodes on Showtime, premiering on June 2016. Twin Peaks followed a FBI agent named Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) investigating the murder of “good girl” Laura Palmer in the town of Twin Peaks. While the series was thought to have “ended” after the finale of the second season was broadcast in 1991, a resurgence in support for the show to have a proper conclusion obviously came from several avenues. There was no limit on what the show could continue to do, at least in a creative sense.

However, because of insufficient ratings during the second season and a prequel film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me losing money during its run at the box office, the series was not renewed for a third season. To have the journey end with the protagonist of the entire series, Dale Cooper possessed by an evil spirit, as well as leaving several other characters’ future in question, was, undoubtedly, not what anyone wanted for the series. However, regardless of the fact that it was initially marketed via the famous tagline of “Who killed Laura Palmer?”, Twin Peaks was never about reaching a defined conclusion. As much as it was a murder mystery, which transformed into a mystery surrounding a supernatural demon-like figure known only as “BOB” (Frank Silva), it was also a soap opera which focused on constantly exploring the underbelly of American small-town surburbia. Like most soap operas (e.g. The Bold and the Beautiful (1987-), it is defined in terms of its “infinite seriality”, or the fact that it could have continued to put characters through hardships and situations forever. However, all serial texts are always subject to commercial pressures, as Twin Peaks exemplifies, one should always be aware of both the commercial support of one’s work (and how long that will last) and the creative vision as to how one wants to end such a text.

The Familiarity of Art

The infamous ending to Twin Peaks featuring Dale Cooper (Kyle McLachlan) possessed by 'BOB' (Frank Silva).
The infamous ending to Twin Peaks featuring Dale Cooper (Kyle McLachlan) possessed by ‘BOB’ (Frank Silva).

When an artist creates something, they are not only creating it to be watched, read, seen or otherwise interpreted by the senses, but does so with the conscious intent to evoke some emotion in the recipient of their work. Therefore, the product can never be interpreted as completely distinct from the audience for which it is created. While there remains a vision as to what the artist wants their work to be, the expectations of the audience, as well as those who are supporting the work are always influential on what the final work is. However, if one knows that there is not enough support for their work to continue, should one end it before support is denied, or continue with one’s initial vision and end it in a way which is consistent with the initial idea?

In the case of Twin Peaks, David Lynch and Mark Frost, as well as other creative forces behind the show must have been aware that the initial hype had died down, especially since the main question of “Who Killed Laura Palmer?” was answered half-way through the second season. However, those behind Twin Peaks decided to end the season without resolving any of the character’s plotlines. While this was consistent with how Twin Peaks was programmed and outlined, with most episodes ending on a cliffhanger, they must have been aware that the future of the series was under question. While it seems natural to assume that an artist’s intention to end it whenever they desire or see fit, there must also be an understanding that there is a “fandom” which is expecting a satisfactory conclusion to give them the appropriate amount of closure.

One of the reasons why people undertake such things as watching an entire television series, or reading a novel, or any other narrative-based artwork, is not only to become attached to its characters, but to be inherently aware that they are only structures of a larger story. This is to say that while works of entertainment and art, at least those which aim to resemble a coherent narrative, are viewed as influential on people’s world view or to distract them from their normal activities, they are also manifestations of ingrained structures of narrative. Therefore, people go to the cinemas or the library, or watch television with a subconscious awareness that our interaction with a text will be finite (whether it be the length of a film, a television episode or the time it takes to read a novel).

However, these inherent expectations are not confined to just the length of time to finish, but in adhering to oft-repeated points of narrative progression. Regardless of what medium the text is presented in, the mind is constantly subconsciously referring and comparing it to other well-known works. Similar to the way in which the introduction and body of a text is being referenced to other works, so too is how a story ends. Just as much as the viewer wants a certain repetition in narrative progression, they also need a certain familiarity in the narrative conclusion. However, this is not always possible as certain texts need to subvert common narrative parts. Recent texts have displayed and supported the thesis that the story does not need to end in a typical manner in order to hold value as either art or entertainment.

Subversive Endings as the Future

'Game of Thrones' actress Rose Leslie as Milner in Channel 4's Utopia.
‘Game of Thrones’ actress Rose Leslie as Milner in Channel 4’s Utopia.

A recent text which subverted the expectation of its cult following was the short-lived Channel 4 show Utopia (2013-14), which was cancelled after only two seasons produced lasting twelve one-hour long episodes. Utopia follows the story of four average Brits who inadvertently get caught up in a web of government corruption and conspiracy. However, on account of insufficient ratings statistics, Channel 4 rejected a third season, even though the second season ended without providing any real conclusion. Despite the fact that the show’s creators asked that Channel 4 let them conclude the story with a two-hour special, this was also declined. Therefore, while the creators must have been aware about the failing numbers, they intentionally left the series on a “cliffhanger”. The causes for this decision is an amalgamation of many factors including the fact that Channel 4 is a public broadcasting station and is, therefore, on the periphery of what is considered mainstream. However, Utopia was all about subverting typical storytelling norms, with the narrative told in such a way so as to persuade the audience to sympathise and understand the actions of who are ultimately the antagonists. While other texts foreshadow or remain explicit on how they will end and, indeed, how they do end (e.g. Breaking Bad (2008-13), Six Feet Under (2001-5)), a decision to end a series, or a serial text with some ambiguity should not necessarily be shied away from as long as it fits with the themes and tone of the text. However, more episodic texts, such as those of sitcoms or certain dramas do need a definitive conclusion.

Ending an Episodic Text

How Seinfeld ended was divisive, to say the least, but it ended by leaving enough left in the tank
The way in which ‘Seinfeld’ ended was divisive but it ended by leaving enough left in the tank.

An episodic text is one which need not be watched in consecutive order and can be watched without a comprehensive awareness of what has occurred before or a need to know what will happen in the future. Episodic texts not so much tell a story, but present an over-arching message over several, loosely connected stories. Therefore, in contrast to serial texts, the characters are where the story flows from, in that the stories are forced to happen via the traits of the text’s characters. The story is not the focus, but it is how the characters instigate and react to certain situations.

For instance, an episodic text which utilises this format is the “sitcom”. For example, CBS‘s extremely popular How I Met Your Mother (2005-14) was about the journey of four New Yorkers throughout their lives. Interestingly, it also aimed to tell a story, namely the story of how its protagonist Ted Mosby (Josh Radnor) meets his wife and the mother of his children. However, the story is still just an ancillary part of the show throughout most of its run. Episodic texts often are based upon repetitious relationships between characters, exemplified by the “on and off” romances of Ted and Robin on How I Met Your Mother and Ross and Rachel on Friends (1994-2004). As a consequence of the use of traits to repeat similar stories continuously, it is hard to conclude the story, because there is not really much of a story being told, at least in the sense of a defined beginning, middle and end. Simultaneously, the story of the characters must logically be concluded, at least in the sense of what is going to be presented to the audience explicitly. However, as the story is not restricted by its own parameters, a show or other episodic text will usually continue to the point where it becomes culturally irrelevant or artistically redundant. A case in which the creators of a text ended the explicit story before this point is Seinfeld (1989-98). Despite the fact that one of the show’s creators, Jerry Seinfeld, was offered a hundred million U.S. dollars for him to make a tenth season, he rejected the offer and decided that the end was a fitting one. Indeed, by leaving the “New York Four” incarcerated at the peak of its popularity would have left many viewers dissatisfied. If it were to continue for much longer, it was evident that the ideas would soon be exhausted. Rather, what is key is to determine the balance between commercial viability/artistic impact and “losing its mojo”.

The Simpsons is one of many shows which have passed their prime.  Picture: Bennettua (Deviant Art)
The Simpsons is an example of a television show which has lived past its prime

There will always be a certain point in time where the thing one loves losing the magic it once had. Whether or not people grow out of certain things or the thing itself extends into absurdity, there will always be a point where there is nothing more to gain out of it. You can, after all, have too much of a good thing. Artistic texts remain no different. Recall, for instance, the world-wide craze which was The Simpsons (1989-), the Fox Broadcasting Company’s animated sitcom about a normal American suburban family living in the town of Springfield. It used to be a institution that whenever a new episode aired or even when a classic episode was being re-run, it had to be seen. Now, after the production of 26 seasons and the broadcasting of 560 episodes, it is of no doubt to anyone, even the most lenient and die-hard fans of the show, that the show has lived into its “golden years” and, quite simply, has lived several seasons past its prime.

It has lost a considerable amount of the wit that makes its peak (argued by many to be the third season up to and including the eighth season) as renowned as it is. There is always a certain point in a story where its telling becomes unnecessary and the information provided becomes superfluous. While people often return to shows like The Simpsons, South Park and even The Bold and the Beautiful, because they know that certain expectations about what type of story will be told to them. However, familiarity should never be the first intention of art. Stories should always change the way in which the viewer looks at the world, and many shows have broken new ground in this way and then continued past the point of necessity. Another example of a less episodic show which continues past the point of necessity is Fox’s Glee (2009-), which was a pioneer in its first couple of seasons. It combined social commentary and some memorable characters mixed with musical numbers, while still attracting a wide viewership. However, in recent seasons, the show has stretched the characters past the point where they should be shown, as well as inserting gimmicky episodes, such as the episodes focusing on particular artists or musicals.

In the end, although most stories could, in theory, go on forever, or at least until all of the characters die, but there will be a point in every story where it could have ended satisfactorily and therefore, becomes something different to what it was at its beginning. For example, Glee has changed from being a drama about teenagers who are out-casted within the social microcosm of high school and consequently, learn to be who they are via singing and friendship to just another melodramatic musical. The Simpsons has changed from the wacky adventures of a suburban American family to an amalgamation of cultural references. This is not to argue that change in how art is depicted is bad or should be discouraged, but rather to argue that most stories do not work if changed. Stories should be allowed to morph and change as long as they are still telling the original story which it began as. Still, this may mean that how a story ends, or refuses to end will devalue the rest of a piece of art.

The Emotional Impact of Endings

While the responses from fans of 'How I Met Your Mother' were, overall, not favourable,  it subverted the typical "happy ending".
While the responses from fans of ‘How I Met Your Mother’ were, overall, not favourable, it subverted the typical “happy ending”.

Regardless of how a story ends, it will never change how another part of that story made you feel in the past. For example, many might see the end of How I Met Your Mother, where it is revealed that Ted is telling his children the story after their mother has died, and instead ends up with Robin, as a rip-off or that the ending cheated them. Whether or not the ending was a satisfactory ending is not the point. The point is that just because one may feel that way does not mean that any feelings evoked by previous episodes or moments during the show are any less valued when contextualised with the ending. Nevertheless, when viewing a work as a whole, by comparing it to other parts, the ending can be used to discredit something which came before. This could be an instance where the ending is inconsistent with a prior event, a plot hole created by the ending or simply not ending the story sufficiently. Whether one tries to or not, an ending will change how we view that piece of art forever.

Imagine if one stopped watching Fight Club or Memento before the twist ending. Doing so would make your view of the film completely different from anyone else’s, but it would not be a true interpretation as you would not be seeing the text as a whole. Therefore, how a story ends is integral to how one views that story. However, no single, discrete part of a text, whether it be its introduction, its body or its conclusion holds no more weight than any other. If any part was taken out, all of the other parts would be valueless. If one was to say something like “I liked that show, except for how it ended”, that statement would instantly be inconsistent with itself, because the ending is so closely intertwined with both how a text began and how it progressed throughout its run. However, although things can be explicitly ended, with anyone’s fan fiction able to be publicised and potentially accepted as canon, the line of where a story ‘ends’ can become blurred.

Creativity Unrestricted in the Modern Age

With a new 'Star Wars' movie set to be released next year, it is obvious that the fan-created expanded universe and its associated 'fandom' is a major influence on the story
With a new ‘Star Wars’ movie set to be released next year, it is obvious that the fan-created expanded universe and its associated ‘fandom’ is a major influence on the story.

While a story can be explicitly told via visual or textual methods, a good story will never end as long as creativity is left to run as free as it is doing so now. With creative projects such as fan fiction or tributes abound all over the internet and throughout the writing world means that even though a story has concluded, it will live on forever. Fan fiction can be any work relating to a particular text written by a ‘fan’ and could take place after, before, or relate other events which take place during the actual text. Texts which have inspired fan fictions include such series as the Harry Potter novels, the Star Wars films or any other text with a wide mythology. They can range from being utterly faithful to the main text to being preposterous and poorly written.

However, such unbridled enthusiasm for writing should be heartily encouraged, as it endorses an active interpretation of the text. Whether or not any one’s continuing story or auxiliary story is consistent with the existing canon is besides the point. Admittedly, the world of fan fiction can be a daunting place. Sorting between what is reliant on the canon, what takes place in an alternate universe or what is just having fun with the story is intimidating. However, this does not mean that any restrictions should be placed on how a story should grow in the mind of the writer. Consequently, if that writer feels that they wish to express these thoughts of how the story should continue, then they should be allowed to express these thoughts freely. A story is, first and foremost, that of the writer; that is until they give it to the world. Then it is the world’s duty to keep telling the story.

The literary and art world has made human beings so aware of different manifestations of similar story types and similar endings that, at least for the more mainstream of texts, we know how they will end. However, it is this familiarity which people are always subconsciously seeking. However, a story should not end at a point which the audience expects it to, if the impact of art wishes to remain as potent as it can be. While an artist should always be aware of the commercial success of their text, it should not impact on how long or short the story should be told for, but should match up with their initial idea. People who decide to watch or understand stories do so with the subconscious awareness that they will reach a certain point of closure, where the problem which the characters have faced is more or less resolved and the characters are more or less in a stable state.

The end of a story does not always mean that the story should be concluded without loose ends
The end of a story does not always mean that there is not more of the story to be told.

However, artists, and indeed the viewers, should not shy away from the natural anxiety which comes from not providing closure with the ending. Indeed, those behind a creative text, especially a television show must always be aware of when a show should end and not continue it because of financial support or because the fans will continue watching it. If a text continues on, the audience will begin to passively read it, and that is where it becomes valueless. Similarly, a text would be valueless without its ending. Regardless, an ending should always be consistent with what came before, otherwise it would serve no purpose. However, on account of the growth of the world of ‘fan fiction’, there can be certain texts where there is never a true ending to the story. As long as there are those who continues to imagine how the story could continue, it will continue in those minds. To define the end of a story as fixed in a certain place in time or psychology would be to define imagination as defined by its end, which, by definition, it can not be.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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My name is Matthew Sims and I am a 25 year-old journalist from Victoria, Australia, writing about film and TV on the side.

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  1. Great post! Rarely do I come across a magazine that’s both informative and

  2. Heroes and X-Files comes into mind.

    • Matthew Sims

      Tried to watch X-Files, but could not get into the episodic structure without some sort of linking story. I am sure it probably did get into that later. I have heard that the show lost its steam, especially after Scully and Mulder were replaced. As for Heroes, I have never seen it, but I have also heard the same thing.

    • “Heroes” turned into the Sylar show and completely lost focus. The worst part is, the leads rarely, if ever, did anything heroic. It was mostly a program about angst and people running around being ineffectual. Also, they seemed to forget that they had superpowers at the most inopportune times (remember the guy who could phase through walls, but didn’t bother to do that when someone pointed a gun at him?).

    • Heroes didn’t stay on too long, it just lost its way and became a terrible, stinking mess of a show.

      • One reason that is hypothesized often was that the show’s run in the beginning of the second season coincided with the writer’s strike (c. 2009-2010). I tend to take this with a pinch of salt however.

    • X-Files, yes, but only slightly. And its not season nine that I dislike the most.

  3. Margarete

    “Criminal Minds” could’ve bowed out gracefully at the conclusion of the Reaper storyline back in season five, but instead will be starting its tenth season in the fall. Is CBS that hard-pressed to find something to put in its timeslot?

    • Matthew Sims

      I am not aware of ‘Criminal Minds’ at the moment, and do not intend to be in the future, but I am assuming that it is continuing to be popular in America. I doubt that they would be hard-pressed, but as long as they have a landmark show which has defined that timeslot for many years, then they will, most likely, continue to squeeze that opportunity, unfortunately for some.

  4. Marquiz

    In truth, I cannot really argue with their assessment of any of these shows.

    • Matthew Sims

      Firstly, thank you for commenting. However, I am not sure what you mean by ‘their’. Do you mean the producers of the shows I mentioned? Or did you mean my assessment? Regardless, to the former, it is ultimately in the hands of the creative forces behind a show as to when a show should end. I am not necessarily criticising these shows, just arguing that an assessment based on financial or ‘fan-based’ backing should not dictate how long or short a story should continue.

  5. How I Met Your Mother has been a stinker since the beginning. How can you take seriously a gay man pretending to be a cocksman?

    • Matthew Sims

      I am assuming that you are a casual watcher of the show (in that you have only watched a couple of episodes opportunistically). By viewing it in this manner, it could come off as low-brow or run-of-the-mill sitcom material, but the overarching storylines and character development is often very impressive. Admittedly, Barney is not the best character. Regardless of his (Neil Patrick Harris’) sexual orientation (which is irrelevant), Barney was sort of the character which you were never supposed to take seriously, because he never took himself seriously. Not to say that he did not have his dramatic moments at times, but he was often where most of the dumb, misogynistic humour sprouted from, and therefore, I can see why you may view ‘How I Met Your Mother’ as a ‘stinker’, but it is more valuable than many would give it credit for.

    • Mikel Pacheco

      Homophobic much? I always thought it was ironic yes but that’s what acting is. Bet you don’t like Will from Will and Grace either huh? Or was that ok because he was a straight guy playing a gay one?

      The ensemble was great, if you don’t have a sense of humor how sad for you

  6. I rarely made it through even the good parts of many of the shows mentioned here. These and more really run out of steam way too soon. The only show that was a sin, in my mind, was for Twin Peaks to last more than 8 episodes. Pure brilliance ran off the rails in episode 9 and never got back on. I might suggest more US shows take in the British method of only 6 or 8 episodes a year.

    • Matthew Sims

      That is an interesting opinion, Veta. However, I would argue that Episode 9 was a redefining of the show from a straightforward murder mystery to a supernatural and stylistic show. I totally understand where you are coming from, though. The show did take a more goofy edge, especially at the latter end of Season 2, but some of the show’s best moments, in my opinion come from the former half and especially, the last episode. I agree completely that U.S shows should take more hints from British shows, especially in the realm of sitcoms (e.g. Fawlty Towers, The Office). To leave the audience wanting more will make those comedic moments all the more valuable, rather than just repeating and repeating old jokes. Still, seriality has its value in the televisual medium, but really only in the form of a long-form drama or soap opera. As they say, quality over quantity.

  7. The biggest offenders: “Scrubs.” They replaced the entire cast with what they somehow thought were similar characters. They were not. That show became painful to watch.

    • Matthew Sims

      I would argue that the same thing happened with ‘Glee’. The only reason that I do not want to get into ‘Scrubs’ is that I will have to inevitably have to watch these episodes without J.D. and the others.

  8. pimentel

    I hated “How I Met Your Mother” from season one.

    • Matthew Sims

      As aforementioned, completely understandable. But, also assuming that you did not watch any episodes after the first season, it does get better.

    • Um how do you know you hated it if you didn’t watch it? Kind of a stupid thing to say

  9. Great thing about TVs….they have an off switch. If you don’t like a show anymore, put on your big boy pants and turn it off….like most adults do. This is like the people at IMDB who whined about Dexter stinking every season after the first, yet they tuned in every week. Weak minded simpletons.

    • Matthew Sims

      Firstly, I sympathise completely with your view, and no-one should necessarily feel obliged to continue watching a story unfold if it is not providing them with pleasure anymore. The case of ‘Dexter’ is a perfect example of this. It was my first experience of quality television (quality being arguable, of course), so I may be biased. However, there needs to be a differentiation made between the physical form of the television, with a physical “off-switch” and the actual art form of television, composed of both the broadcasting methods and the actual mental response it provides us with. In the past (namely the 1950’s-1980’s, television was just something to pass the time. One could sit down and watch an episode of “Starsky and Hutch” and not be changed much by the experience, but spent an hour relatively entertained/distracted. Now, it is much more of an emotional experience, as we have to invest what is essentially our mental beings to the television to change. Most definitely, there is a choice to stop watching a television show. But, one can not, in this day and age, expect to watch a television show without expecting the story of that show (whether that be the length of an episode of a sitcom or a whole series) to come to an end. Naturally, if one commits to watching a show like ‘Dexter, they are aware, albeit subconsciously, that it will end. I could, evidently, see why people would say that Dexter “st[ank]” after its first season (or even that the first season was poor). But, to call people who whinge about a show being unsatisfactory with them does not make them a weak-minded simpleton, but one who is actively participating in the reciprocal medium of television.

    • Bunn,

      I think you’d do best to accept the fact that most people want to give things a chance before completely disregarding them. I’d say that the normal human inclination is to hope a show will be good, but every once in a while it doesn’t happen.

      It can be annoying when someone dislikes a program you enjoy (though I consider it fun since it grants me a chance to argue the shows’ excellence), but that doesn’t mean they have no reasons to dislike it and it certainly doesn’t mean that they completely hate the show. Those people you’re talking about probably wanted Dexter to get better and were just waiting for it to strike a chord with them. With some it probably did, and with some it probably didn’t, and in the case of the latter, I’m with you in saying that maybe they should try another show that may suit their fancy. Still, as Matthew said, there’s no cause to call them weak-minded simpletons since most people tend to find some problems with the things they like. In fact, in a way, they’re almost strong-minded since they were willing to accept some of the shows problem episodes in the hopes that it got better.

      It’s best not to be bitter about such things; though it feels good at times, you don’t need other people to validate your opinion of a show for you.

    • Learn the difference between “commentary” and “whine session.” If you don’t want to read things critical of TV, put your own big boy pants on and don’t read articles whose headlines imply they will be critiquing TV and writing.

  10. The cure for this illness, the model for the perfect television series, was, of course, HBO’s “The Wire.” The creators determined five seasons, each focused on a particular facet of Baltimore, was ideal. It left me wanting more, which is a great way to go out. Thank you, David Simon.

    • Matthew Sims

      Admittedly, and with much remorse, I have not yet gotten into ‘The Wire’. Watched the first episode and was pleasantly surprised. However, it seemed that the next episode was too episodic, in that it just seemed like another case to solve loosely solved with another character. However, I am sure that it is as brilliant as everyone says, and it sounds like the ending was a perfect way to end it.

  11. I’d be curious to see how this sort of discussion relates to game stories, particularly the range of emotions raised by “Mass Effect 3”. Some felt betrayed by the ending, or that the ending didn’t remain true to the arc of the story, and others that felt the story ending was fine.

    In my opinion, as raised in the article here, “Mass Effect 3” would’ve better been served with a more ambiguous ending – while the relationships with other players was important, it was the arc of Sheppard that was paramount, and leaving his or her fate more “up in the air” would’ve and could’ve created a unique buzz all its own.

    Often, story creators feel the need to wrap up the story on their terms, when leaving the ending more ambiguous empowers the reader to fill in the gaps. There is something incredibly satisfying by allowing the reader to end the story on their own terms.

    • Matthew Sims

      I, personally, have never played any of the ‘Mass Effect’ games, but have often heard some very harsh things about the ending.

  12. Larry Kleitches

    Matthew makes a great point about how “The End” does not always mean THE END. If it is show we enjoy, we can imagine what happens to those characters at the end of each episode. When it is a series finale we wonder in which direction those lives will go, and perhaps even start creating those lives in our minds. The problem is that when a show is running past its expiration date, we 1) start believing that we are already seeing those characters’ lives playing out and there is no way [as viewers] to expand on them any further; 2) we simply stop caring about where life may take those characters.

  13. Nof

    I love the point you made under “Emotional Impact of Endings,” it’s very true, but I have never actually heard it being said that way. I thought it was very original.

  14. If TrueBlood had stuck to the story lines in the books, i think the show would’ve been better longer.

  15. I am so glad to see How I Met Your Mother end! I don’t even want to see the reruns… Lets say goodbye already and take your reruns with you!

  16. The Simpsons has been ridiculous after headed for a quarter of a century almost is just stupid. Then they waited way too many years to finally release an actual movie, another stupid move by producers.

  17. V. Johansen

    Girls. Needs to end now.

  18. This is an interesting topic. I think there are some important arguments to be made for the value of stories that never end as well. Stories that never end provide hope and provoke the imagination. There are also stories that end with an open-endedness, in the sense that they provoke us to imagine any number of alternative endings. This isn’t related to film, but Borges wrote a short story about infinite courses that our lives could take and how we are always living alternative lives in alternate universes while we are living the one we are in.

    • Matthew Sims

      Thank you for commenting, Connie. Love the idea from Borges, and it is indeed one which can be applied to our understanding of stories. Some may see characters living one life, while others see characters living in a way which is completely opposite.

  19. This article was well written and appears to be thoroughly researched. Speaking on a personal level, I have to disagree with you in regards to the weight distribution if you will of stories. I think that there is significantly more weight on an ending because as you said audience have come to have certain expectations in regards to stories. For instance, I was one of the many disappointed with the ending to how i met your mother. It was not only because of the fact that ted ended up with robin so quickly, but the issue was that the mother was hardly a factor in last season and her meeting ted to simply be killed off a few sentences later. the emotional payoff of watching ted struggle through one broken relationship after another was never fulfilled because we never got to see his happiness at meeting his “soulmate”. Then at the end when the kids say how the future ted’s real focus of the this epic narrative was robin it changes the whole perception of the story when re-watching. By doing that to the ending, you have re-written what this story was truly about. It makes ted search for love feel cheap. Even moments in the story where ted finds a something that will eventually lead him to his wife (e.g the yellow umbrella) it hold less significance because you lose the mother so quickly. The ending is the keystone that holds the narrative together for certain stories and bears the weight of all the events that have preceded it. This is of course simply my personal opinion

    • Matthew Sims

      wolf2150, thank you for commenting. I understand your point, but I think that you are arguing that an ending has more emotional/psychological weight than any other part, and that I would agree with. However, I think, within my piece, I am arguing that the ending of a story has no more weight on a purely numerical basis. Therefore, in a typical storytelling, how a story begins is of no more value than how it ends, because they provide value to each other. Without a beginning, there would be no ending, and without a body there would be nothing to conclude. In addition, if an ending is inconsistent with the rest of the story, it also balances itself out by devaluing the beginning and the body.

      As to ‘HIMYM’, I think that this argument is consistent with your argument, i.e. that the way in which it ended was, in a way, inconsistent with most of the show’s episodes. While I do not wish to argue about the minutiae of ‘HIMYM’ and whether or not the ending was appropriate, I think that while we did not get to spend much time seeing the ‘story’ of Ted and Tracy, we were given the general gist, and even if we were given a couple more seasons, or, more interestingly, if she was introduced as the mother in the first couple of seasons. The story was about the journey of love, not the destination, and especially in episodes like the time travelling one. Indeed, just because we see Ted and Robin end up together in the end, it does not mean that they will stay together indefinitely, and, going on previous events, the show never was never meant to show that Ted and Robin were always supposed to be together, or that Ted and Tracy, but that love is never perfect, but that Ted and Robin (Ted especially) do need love to survive, regardless of how much it may make him miserable at times.

      Anyway, thank you for commenting, and I respect your personal opinion, and partially share it.

  20. Matthew,

    Excellent article! I’m most interested in two of your ideas; the first came from your “Subversive Endings” portion and the second deals with the “Creativity Unrestricted…” bit.

    First, I’m in agreement that it is often sad to see shows end before their time, but I still wonder how much good showrunners do in leaving the show off with a cliffhanger. I haven’t seen Utopia but an example that I think fits is HBO’s Carnivale. The last scene of that show is, in my opinion, one of the great unresolved plot threads in TV history and it’s a shame that it was never answered. In fact, I’ve often joked with friends that if I could get one more season out of a show that was cancelled, it would be Carnivale. On the other hand, HBO’s Rome was also cancelled, but there seemed to be an active attempt on the showrunner’s part to try to end the show well and with all loose ends tied up, and although it did feel a bit rushed, they did exactly that. In the end, I would rather showrunners mess with the pacing of their show to ensure a natural ending rather than leave things too open, but as you said, the way a show ends shouldn’t completely devalue the show altogether (here’s hoping Showtime picks up Carnivale).

    Secondly, about fan fiction and expanded universes; while it’s certainly fun to write a story based on a universe that one finds near and dear (I myself have fond memories of writing such stories set in the Star Wars universe when I was growing up), I don’t know whether they should be considered in canon or not. For example, I asked a friend of mine (who is well acquainted with the Star Wars EU) why the recent teaser for Star Wars: Episode VII had a stormtrooper who wasn’t a clone of Jango Fett. He took me to a page on Wookipedia and showed me how it came to be that clones stopped being used and began being replaced with human soldiers, and how it was due to a Civil War that took place in 0BBY, and so on and so forth. I didn’t even know half of this stuff existed, but this is a case where I will defend my ignorance; Star Wars, for me, begins and ends with the films. Novels, video games, and spin-off shows are fine, people are free to make them, and moreover they’re free to enjoy them (I myself adored Knights of the Old Republic) but in the end I will always see such things as fan’s saying to themselves, “Man wouldn’t it be cool if…” rather than integral parts of the universe. Moreover, to me it seems like all these expanded storylines are more or less the same thing as stretching out a show or film series. If there is no set boundary, then no story will ever end, and while that may be nice for some, I can’t see the attractive quality in that. Perhaps it’s best to quote Arin Hanson (the animator Egoraptor) who said that endings can’t be one of two things; either they can be high-class desert that is meant to finish off a great meal with some panache, or they can be endless bags of junk food that you’ll never run out of but that will never truly fill you up. No doubt I’m for the former.

    Anyway, I wanted to say again that this was a very stimulating article that made me think a lot more about how I perceive the life-span of both films and TV shows.

    • Matthew Sims

      Thank you very much for commenting, August, as it was your piece which inspired this one to be written.

      If a show can be wrapped up in a way that is consistent with the rest of the show, even if it is rushed, then that is the decision that should be made. What I mean to argue is that ending in a way which leaves things open should not be shied away from with shows which are not necessarily reaching some defined “endgame”. While I can not speak to ‘Carnivale’, it sounds familiar to Twin Peaks. Of course, there are commercial pressures, as I am sure there was for ‘Carnivale’, to be taken into account, so it is a constant teetering point between artistic integrity and commercial viability.

      When I was talking about “fan fiction”, I was not arguing that all pieces written within any fictional story universe should be made part of the canon, as this would just descend into chaos and endless contradictions. I think that what should be considered part of the canon is an argument for another day, and indeed for someone more familiar with the world of ‘fan fiction’. I was, instead, just using the case of ‘fan fiction’ to illustrate that stories need not ever end in the mind of the reader/viewer.

      I like this quote by Arin Hanson, I think that while some people may like the high-class desert, and indeed, that is the more adherent option in order to maintain some satisfaction and sophistication in art, but there are always going to be those people who will always want more. An example of this will most likely be the ‘Breaking Bad’ spin-off ‘Better Call Saul’. I, personally, have said good-bye to the ‘Breaking Bad’ universe, but there are obviously those out there who are interested in watching Mike and Saul for more stories. I am not advocating the latter at all, but merely saying, that there are those which are never satisfied with the story ending, and will always want more.

      Thank you once again.

  21. remembrance

    I think it’s more of a matter of us as viewers or readers understanding that these dramas and stories don’t really end, just as our own eras in life — as we perceive them — are never fully left behind us.

  22. The “no ending/abrupt ending” trend seems to be the standard for fiction in The New Yorker. As a reader, I feel cheated out of the time and emotion I’ve given to a lazy author’s version of postmodernism.

    There is also the critical influence of the actor’s personal life on endings. I stopped watching Downton Abby and The Good Wife after principal characters were killed off so the actor playing that character could go on to other things.

  23. Jeanie Hsu

    ‘How I Met Your Mother’ lasted one day too long. Harris makes everyone puke.

  24. “Two and a Half Men”.

    No Charlie – No Chemistry – No Funny.

  25. “Seinfeld”, my all-time favorite sitcom, yet I must admit it lasted about two years too long and the finale was pretty much terrible.

    My all-time favorite drama, “The Sopranos” also lost its way in its last two seasons. And “Two and a Half Men”. There!

  26. ArmandAce

    I love “The Simpsons.” I hope it goes on for a while. Even though I live in NOLA, “Treme” should have been a one-season deal.

  27. Helen Parshall

    This is a really thought-provoking piece, thank you for sharing. I just… Sometimes I think endings don’t need to tie it up as neatly as in the case of the whirlwind that was HIMYM’s final episode? no. I like engaging the audience more and keeping thoughts going after the text/piece itself has ended.

  28. M*A*S*H*. It lasted three times as long as the Korean War and stopped being funny after Season 4. By the last few years they were phoning it in, with shaggy late 70s/early 80s haircuts, tired gags, and preachy episodes.

    • F-Thorne

      Agree completely. The mischievous, nurse-chasing, flippant Hawkeye of the early seasons wouldn’t recognize the sentimental, teary-eyed, benefactor-to-all Hawkeye of the end. I felt like each episode was an after-school special by the finale. Alan Alda put himself as the dramatic and comedic lead of every story and none of it worked by the end.

  29. Consuelo

    Going way back ‘My Three Sons’ was perhaps one of the most egregious examples of this and always desperate to do anything for ratings. The dad got remarried, Robbie got married and had triplets and even Chip was married at about age 17. One more year and Ernie would have had a wife at 14.

  30. Maxie Kay

    The Simpsons? It’s been unwatchable for the last 15 years or so.

  31. Very interesting and informative!

  32. Dexter. Should have ended after the trinity killer.

    • Matthew Sims

      I agree that Season 4 is the pinnacle of ‘Dexter’, not just because of John Lithgow’s performance, but because it also has some of the most interesting Debra, however, I still loved Season 7, but a very understandable opinion nonetheless.

  33. Hostetler

    I just wanted to add that Grey’s Anatomy, which was my favorite until, a certain point, where it wasn’t….

  34. how i met you mother should never have gone beyond six seasons, you can see the moment the series was meant to stop imho, its the moment when barney and robin break up, the series takes a huge dramatic decline in quality from that moment as the producers of the show became blinded by the money.

  35. Ben Hufbauer

    Very good article! Here’s an interesting example from long ago. The original Star Trek was killed in 1969, after just three seasons. Even today, fans are still creating new episodes of this original show. These episodes are made with sets and fx that are just as good if not better than the original show. Here’s a link:


  36. This was a very well done article. Our television shows mean so much to us, and I feel like creating a perfect ending that every audience member enjoys is impossible but there is always so much pressure on these shows to live up to expectations. Thank you for analyzing these different types of endings!

  37. I agree that “a text would be valueless without its ending,” yet an open ending –one that allows you to continue the journey—and that is “consistent with what came before” is as valuable as a “fixed” ending. I was confused by How I Met Your Mother’s finale left viewers to imagine Ted and Robin’s relationship continuing after they provided a very final/fixed end to the mother of his children. In this case, the ending was not consistent with what came before and what millions of viewers had tuned in for. It did, in my opinion discredit what came before. Although they, as you state, “subverted the happy ending;” it undermined their viewer’s loyalty. I’m left wondering…how it will fair in rerun heaven?

    • Matthew Sims

      There are certain episodes that can be seen regardless of their connection to the serial narrative, i.e. Ted’s search for “true love”. I agree that the ending is not consistent and therefore, the series as a whole does not fully work. But, I think it was an experimental show which may later be seen as one of the first to subvert the typical happy ending. Anyway, thank you for commenting.

  38. StephKocer

    I love what you point out about the Ross and Rachel problem. Shows have fun getting characters like that together but after they do fans seem to stop caring and they almost always have to then break the character up to keep the show going. And, like you say, this is a hard issue to resolve and ultimately end.

    • Matthew Sims

      Romantic plotpoints are always hard to end without some sort of absolute closure (such as a character’s death). Thank you for commenting, Steph.

  39. I never thought “The Office” (either version) was the least bit funny. So, for me, even one season was enough.

  40. Great article! When it comes to the end of a TV show or book series, I always think of what Michael Stipe said when R.E.M. broke up: “the skill in attending a party is knowing when it’s time to leave.” I think more and more, we see shows making the decision to quit while they’re ahead – like Mad Men or Breaking Bad – allowing them to tell the complete story they want to tell without leaving everything up to the network and/or ratings. I hate to see the end of the series I love, but I do think it’s better for them to go out on their own terms than to overstay their welcome. I wish things had gone differently for Twin Peaks the first time around, and I’m interested to see what the new season brings. And I forgot how terrifying BOB is – definitely going to have nightmares.

  41. Really interesting article! I’ve always found it interesting to think about series endings — GOOD series endings — in terms a necessary partnership between the network and the series creators. The onus lies on the creators and the writers, I think, to go into a series with a definitive story arc for each character individually and for the series as a whole, and to try and follow that to the best of their abilities while still allowing the series room to change and evolve — a lot more difficult in terms of episodic series, but as you said, a general theme or moral arc can go a long way there. What I think some series lack is the understanding of the network or governing body, either in understanding when the series is becoming more of a detriment to their network’s ratings than a benefit, and on the flip side when a series needs something like a 2-hour special or a few-episode run to tie up loose ends when a series is cancelled unexpectedly or in the middle of an arc. I think the CW’s series “Nikita” did this really well, running a six-episode season to close up the series instead of leaving the story hanging at the end of Season 3. While everyone hopes that a series will run strong for a long period, there’s a partnership required between writers and networks to ensure that the series and the story meets its potential start to finish.

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