Two relatively recent events have gotten me thinking about what makes a good ending– and what ‘good’ even means.
First, I finally and much belatedly got around to watching all of Parks and Recreation for the first time. It’s obviously fantastic, but critical consensus seems to be that the final episode isn’t, by any artistic measure, particularly good. But it’s immensely satisfying, with all the beloved characters getting exactly the kind of endings one would dream of for them.
Second, I saw The James Plays at the Luminato Festival in Toronto (and wrote about them here). A three-part, nine-hour theatrical marathon about the first three King Jameses of Scotland, it’s an epic theatrical event that culminates with the young King James IV preparing to be crowned. His great-aunt helps to dress him, bedecking him with objects that belonged to his ancestors– the same kings and queens we’ve seen in the previous parts. As she did so, these kings and queens entered on a platform above, a sort of ghostly tableau. Too easy? Maybe– at least one person I described this to groaned. But after investing so much time in these plays and these characters, it was exactly what I wanted, and in the moment, it was very impactful and emotional.
So call it the dramaturgy of satisfaction: deciding when an ending should strive for utmost originality and artistic merit, and when it should satisfy some simpler, more emotional, probably less intellectually profound desire in the viewer. The former is its own kind of satisfaction, of course, but perhaps a less visceral one.
A common denominator in both shows I mention above is, of course, length. A TV show goes on for multiple seasons; the three James Play clock in at just under nine hours. Viewers so often seem to be let down by the endings of TV shows, which makes sense. You’ve put in a significant investment– the conclusion, whatever it is, has been a long time coming. And though pure duration may seem like a superficial concern, far removed from the intricacies of storytelling, it’s something to consider, I think. I think the time investment of both these examples allowed the endings, though not in themselves challenging, to feel earned and hard-won.
The question taps into the problem I struggled with most when first starting out as a dramaturg in rehearsal rooms: I felt like a dramaturg could only earn her position if she always had the right answer. The general assumption that a dramaturg is little more than advanced-level Googler didn’t help me shake the idea that I always had to be correct if I wanted to be seen as good at my job. But this question of endings perfectly demonstrates that it’s usually more helpful to ask a question than offer an answer… in this case, what do you want your ending to do?