In the World of TV, There is No Perfect Ending

When you spend hours with a show, can you ever really be happy having to leave the characters you've come to love?

the haunting of hill house ending
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WARNING – this article discusses the endings of TV shows. Spoilers are not just likely but certain. If you see the name of a show you don’t want spoiled, avert your eyes. You have been warned.

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I started thinking about resolutions after my recent binge-watch of Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House (granted I’m late to the game, but stay with me). Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the series, but the ending felt a bit anticlimactic after all the ominous build-up. The saccharine tone felt out of place with the dark atmosphere and themes the series had defined itself around. I am not alone in my dissatisfaction. This has led viewers to speculate that maybe it was all a trick, that we are being hoodwinked into thinking that everything is fine and dandy.

Speculation and theories are commonplace in the discussion of TV and film. In the last series of the BBC’s Sherlock, fans believed they found clues in the second episode that pointed to a ‘secret’ fourth episode. After Sherlock (Benedict Cumberbatch) reveals to Culverton Smith (Toby Jones) that he had brought four recording devices instead of three, Smith says, “There must be something comforting about the number three. Everyone always gives up after three.” This led fans to believe that the fourth episode would air at the same time the following week, and the scheduled series Apple Tree Yard wasn’t a real thing. This turned out to be incorrect, but still, it was fun while it lasted.

For speculating fans of The Haunting of Hill House, all roads point to the colour red and the symbolism the show’s built around it. When the Crain siblings are hallucinating behind the red door in the house, there is the constant image of red in all their nightmares: Steve (Michiel Huisman) wears a reddish looking sweater, Shirley (Elizabeth Reaser) is wearing a red top, the heroin bag in Luke’s (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) dream sequence is red and lastly, Theodora’s (Kate Siegal) one-night-stand is wearing red underwear. At the conclusion of the series, our attention is drawn to the reddish cake in the centre as everyone gathers around, the cake celebrating Luke’s two years of sobriety. Red cake means red door – or so we think. Hence, the theory is that the Crain siblings didn’t really escape the house, but merely believed that they did.

A quick search through the web brought up the fact that the happier ending was not the originally intended one. The series was supposed to end with a final shot of a red window in the room where the Crain siblings are, indicating that they were unable to escape the influence of the house. Mike Flanagan, who directed and co-wrote the series, felt that the original ending would dilute Hugh and Nell’s sacrifices. He had also grown quite fond of the characters and wanted something better for them. So we were right in our feelings of dissatisfaction, but we can’t do anything about it.

The problem is an inverse one for How I Met Your Mother. While Flanagan deviated from his initial narrative plans, How I Met Your Mother creators Carter Bays and Craig Thomas ardently insisted on sticking to the conclusion that had been planned from the start, which was Ted and Robin ending up together. If we look deeper into how the series unfolded, it is clear that this was always where we were going to end up. Despite the title, Robin was a large focus of the narrative, and it was apparent that to Ted she would always be the one who got away. He was still in love with her even on her wedding day.

The problem is the creators didn’t account for the inevitable issue that would arise because of how much they teased the mother to us. We waited for her for 8 seasons. When we saw her, of course we fell in love with her: she was perfect for Ted. There was all this anticipation from us viewers about their life together, only for us to be told that she dies. I know it’s called ‘How I Met Your Mother’, not ‘My Life With Your Mother’, but it doesn’t stop me from feeling a huge sense of betrayal. They forget that we only see Ted and Robin’s disastrous pairing, not the successful relationship they share in the present. We are not privy to the passage of time, so there is no way for us to get invested in this new outcome. What we have here is a ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ situation. Flanagan adapting his plans was not well received, Bays and Thomas didn’t account for how change might sometimes be necessary.

Then there are the plans that simply fall apart because life happens. Take for example the impact Corey Monteith’s death had on Glee. The plan from the start was that Finn and Rachel (Lea Michele) would end up together by the end of the series (Finn even had a whole speech about them being endgame in season 4), but Monteith’s death turned things upside down. The series was also facing the limitation of having only 13 episodes in the final season, which wouldn’t allow them to properly set Rachel up with someone else.

Further complicating the issue was Monteith and Michele’s real life relationship. She was still grieving him, so it would be difficult for her to end up with a random new character when it was always going to be Finn for Rachel. So they brought Jesse back. The character is played by Michele’s real-life best friend Jonathan Groff. This choice was something Michele was comfortable with, so we end the series with a flash-forward of the two, married. While some viewers were happy with the outcome, others criticized the need for Rachel to end up with a man. She could have been single and won a Tony award.

What happened with Glee is proof that real life relationships can sometimes contribute to complications. This was the case for The Vampire Diaries as well. Nina Dobev (Elena Gilbert) and Ian Somerhalder (Damon Salvatore), the lead actors in the series, had a far from amicable breakup in real life. Somerhalder was clearly not happy that Dobev was going to be brought back for the finale, going as far as to argue with Julie Plec (co-creator of the series) in an interview.

While the fans got their ‘Delena’ happy ending, there was much frustration about the moment being rushed, with the common complaint that Somerhalder’s character didn’t look entirely pleased about the reunion. When asked about the series finale, Somerhalder felt that the fans shouldn’t have got what they wanted, which was a Delena reunion. He thought that the Salvatore brothers shouldn’t have been allowed to live because of the awful things they had done, and Damon didn’t deserve his happy ending with Elena.

However, Dawson’s Creek didn’t suffer from the same plight despite co-stars Katie Holmes and Joshua Jackson breaking up. The pair were to develop a romance in the third season of the series. Instead of flaming out, their characters shared burning chemistry, with the root of it probably emerging from the embers of their past relationship. When creator Kevin Williams returned to pen the series finale after his hiatus from the show, he realised his original ending no longer made sense.

From the start it was clear that Dawson and Joey were meant to end up together. They were best friends and soulmates. But the Pacey and Joey relationship and chemistry derailed Williams’ plans. Of course once again there is the perfectly viable option of Joey ending the series single and content. However, as in the case of Glee, somehow creators feel the need to show a romantic connection, because unfortunately, this is our idea of social success. A person can only be happy and content when in a relationship. Also, there is the awareness that viewers have spent ages ‘shipping’ a particular couple, so at least they give in to some of us with their chosen endings.

This is why it is harder to stick a proper landing for TV shows in comparison to film. If we are disappointed with a film’s denouement, we would have merely lost a couple of hours of our life. For TV, we sometimes invest years in a series, roughing it out even when there are low-points, hopeful that in the end our desperate clinging would have been worth it. We are a subjective bunch, and when we don’t get what we want, we spray our discontent all over the internet. I think at this point I must have read at least twenty or so articles on the ending of How I Met Your Mother, on why it works and why it doesn’t. We are obsessed with our version of the perfect ending, and even if we do get what we want, there is still the lament of not being given enough. I was a Jesse-Rachel shipper, and while I was triumphant, I also realise that narrative-wise I don’t get as much content as a ‘Finchel’ shipper.

Then there are contractual issues, with cast signing on for a particular amount of years, and suddenly the series doesn’t stop where it intended to. This was the case for Downton Abbey, with the intended plan of only three seasons becoming six seasons. Dan Stevens didn’t want to sign on for any more seasons since he had other projects lined up, so his character Matthew needed to be killed off. This was after we spent three seasons rooting for Mary (Michelle Dockery) and Matthew to end up together. I stopped watching the series after that, because it just didn’t make sense to me anymore.

Sometimes as a creator, you need to know when to stop. Success mustn’t get to your head, and make you go against what you creatively set out to do. I feel this applies most acutely to J.K Rowling and her return to the wizarding world when she should have just left it the way it was. Her constant ill-advised forays onto Twitter to feed fans with inane tidbits really makes me wonder how on earth she penned what was one of my favourite book series as a child. Did we really need to know that wizards used to poop where they stood before they copied the muggles’ plumbing system in the 18th century? Rowling’s bad judgment doesn’t pertain to this post since it’s not TV, but I couldn’t resist letting my discontent take hold.

Given the nature of audiences, and the size of audience any show of note will have, pleasing everyone would thus remain an unreachable goal – though if any TV show could achieve this, my money is on Game of Thrones and its upcoming final season. Just because it’s TV doesn’t mean it’s not real life, and real life is mostly disappointing. There are moments of sparks though, and if a series has managed to hold me till the end, then I would hope for a rare glimpse of fireworks, lighting up the sky like a 4th of July weekend.