I’ve recently come to a renewed appreciation of the power of a good ending.
Over the past few days, Ireland has been gripped (well, all right. Perhaps that’s a bit over-the-top. Mildly interested, then) by a TV mini-series, which has been showing on our fine upstanding national broadcaster since Sunday night last. I was one of the many thousands of viewers who tuned in, night after night, hooked by the tale of a teenage girl who inexplicably vanishes from the bosom of her (fractured, and slightly weird) family, waiting patiently for the story to come to a Conclusion.
(If, by any chance, you were watching the same TV show and you managed to miss the final episode and you don’t want your televisual world to implode, you might want to stop reading at this point. Here‘s a fun thing for you to look at, instead. See you tomorrow, when I’m sure I’ll be discussing something non-controversial.)
If you’re still with me, let’s proceed. Please note: there will be spoilers.
So. This TV show was, by Irish standards at least, slickly produced and reasonably well acted. It showed Dublin as a hip, happening sort of place with its own fancy tram system and everything (get us! None of this ‘starvin’ for a spud’ nonsense any more), and several lovely cosmopolitan apartments. It featured an ultra-modern separated couple. It had hints of the movie ‘Taken’ (which also featured – of course – the most famous Irishman since Daniel O’Connell, our very own Liam Neeson!) in the frowning, ex-Army Ranger father character. It had a beautiful young mother character who was very well equipped in the crying department and who lived a super-swish lifestyle without any visible means of support. It had a mournful-looking little boy who nobody really cared about, which was terrible and Very Meaningful all at the same time. It hinted at Societal Issues, touching on things like immigration, organised crime, prostitution and underage people doing things that they shouldn’t really be doing in fancy nightclubs.
Nobody mentioned Mass. Or tea. Or shamrocks.
So, in many ways, it was different from anything I’ve ever watched before in terms of a TV show cooked up, produced, and made in Ireland. The only Irish thing about it was that funding difficulties meant it was made over two years ago and we’re only getting to see it now, but that’s another story. Anyway, I watched it with great enjoyment, having fun spotting all the places I recognised and wondering if I’d see anyone I knew wandering around as an extra and trying to figure out how they made Dublin look so clean and tidy.
And then, last night, the final episode aired, and everything went a bit sideways.
Nothing was explained. No resolution was offered. I’m sure that plenty of choice words were hurled at TV screens in living rooms across the country as the credits rolled.
The show’s conclusion was one of the most frustrating things I’ve ever seen on a small screen. If I may be permitted a small flight of pretension – I understand, artistically, what the makers of the show were trying to achieve by ending things the way they did. From a creative, oh-so-modern point of view, things were wrapped up perfectly. It didn’t play into the hands of expectation, norms were shattered, and the idea of perfect closure was told to take a long walk off a short pier. Rather more poignantly, from the perspective of how it really feels when a person goes missing, the ending of the show makes sense – and I understand all that.
But from the point of view of storytelling?
It’s important for stories to conclude. Even if things don’t work out the way you want, and even if certain things – important things – are left unexplained. My main problem with this particular TV show was the fact that, as well as the main storyline, so many side threads – subplots, interesting hints dropped during previous episodes, stories which started but sputtered out – were left to the viewer’s imagination in the long run. Sure, I get that when you’re investigating a person’s disappearance in real life, you have to cope with red herrings and false leads and information which doesn’t go anywhere at every step of the journey – but this wasn’t real life. This was a TV show. This was the kind of thing that people turn to for comfort, and for explanations, and for resolution. Leaving a storyline unfinished is like infesting people with an itch they can’t scratch. It goes further than irritation – it is profoundly disturbing.
The human psyche is programmed to need completion when it comes to a story arc. It’s not so much because an audience is curious to know what happened to these particular characters in this particular situation (though, doubtless that’s a large part of it); it’s more than that. Our need for an ending comes from a deep part of the brain, and it’s no coincidence that stories have been told by humans from our very earliest days, when the world was full of unexpected threats. Stories end because they are controllable – unlike life. Stories are utterly in thrall to human power, and it is completely within a person’s ability to affect and effect the movement and meaning of a story. In a world where nothing else seems to pay heed to humanity, where our power is regularly crushed out by nature or war or random tragedy, stories can be used like talismans to reflect back to us our perfected version of how the world should be. We need stories to end – even unsatisfactorily – because if they don’t, they might as well be real.
And nobody wants that.
I wish that this TV show had ended differently – even just slightly differently. I can accept the fact that the main thread of it couldn’t have a neat conclusion, and I understand that this is the only way it could have gone. But I’m irritated by the way it was done. I’m annoyed that the subplots, and the details, weren’t tied off, and that the viewers’ investment in the show – the effort put in to ferreting out connections and seeing the hints and wondering about images and motifs – wasn’t paid off. It’s irritating because it’s frightening, and because it says more about the chaotic nature of reality than anyone is comfortable facing up to. It was a clever artistic statement, sure – but a deeply upsetting one.
And a good lesson in how to anger an audience, too.