This year, we were at home and ready.
Two of the series which we most enjoy had very different finales.
NCIS is a police drama which differs from the others of that genre because the detectives are “navy cops,” as their detractors sometimes call them. Their mission is to investigate crimes that involve the U. S. Navy or its personnel. In the finale’s last scene, we find Gibbes, the principal character, lying in a roadway, perhaps dying, in a Middle Eastern city, shot by a preadolescent jihadist from America. Does he survive? Does he return to fight crime another day?
A classic cliffhanger, the intent is for the audience to ponder these questions for the next four months and to be planted in front of their sets in late September, eager to learn the outcome. Some of you will recall the near hysteria that gripped American audiences in the spring, summer, and fall of nineteen-eighty (there was a writer’s strike that year, postponing the new season) as they waited to find out who shot J.R.
Castle is another police drama (we watch a number of programs which our daughter assigns to the category of Mon’s weird cop shows). Kate Beckett is a New York City homicide detective, married to a best-selling author. As the last episode concludes, the mystery that plagued the characters through the season has been resolved, Kate’s current case has been wrapped up, and she, her team, and her friends celebrate. She has been offered a promotion to captain. She has also been urged to run for the state senate. As one of the other detectives says, everything is going to change.
With a television series, the next year’s season is like the sequel to a book, continuing the story, taking us on new adventures.
A story and its sequel relate to each other in one of three ways.
First, the two stories may be independent. While some characters may appear in both stories, while the sequel may reference events from the original, each story stands alone. Either one may be read and enjoyed without the other.
Second, the sequel may assume so much of the original story that it makes little sense if the original has not been read. The author may attempt to provide the back story, but there is a limit to how much of past can be rehashed without distracting from the present.
Finally, the first story may be so incomplete that one must read the sequel to have any idea what happens to the characters. I’ve seen this last pattern several times recently. I think of a novelette whose story had reached a point of tension and the story …stopped. It was as if a door had slammed shut. Of course, there was a sequel coming soon.
I enjoy books with happy endings, but, whether it is happy, or not, the ending must be satisfactory. In another essay, I suggest that the two are not the same. I assert that a story ends happily when the main character gets what she wants, and that it ends a satisfactorily when she obtains what she needs. Satisfaction is more important than happiness.
Dr. Hannah Harvey, in her “Great Course” The Art of Storytelling, elaborates on what it means for a story to have a satisfactory ending, suggesting at least three characteristics: the story must be complete, its meaning must be clear, and there must be a plan of action.
Completeness is the most basic of the three. When a story is complete, the major issues raised by the story, the relationships between the characters, the problems inherent in the plot, have all been addressed. There are no loose ends. The reader is not left wondering, what was that all about.
Clarity exists when the reader understands the point that the author was trying to make. Stories are seldom simply accounts of what the characters do and what happens to them. The author always knows more about the characters than he chooses to tell, and he selects those events that he wants to include. The selection process is not a random one. Events are chosen to reflect a theme, to make a point, or to define a character. In a satisfactory conclusion, the reader understands the purpose of the story.
A plan of action means that the issues raised by the story have been solved and that the characters are ready to move on to something else. Character’s lives do not end on the final page of the book. If they did, sequels would not even be possible! Even without a sequel, though, their lives continue. In a satisfactory conclusion, the reader has some idea of what might happen next. Even if all the reader knows is that they lived happily ever after, she knows in general what comes next.
The season finales represent two of the possible relationships between an original and a sequel and the
NCIS, as I noted, was a cliffhanger, so, by definition, the story was incomplete. Unless I tune in next fall, I will have no idea how the story ends. The point of the story is unclear. Was it written as an illustration of senseless murder? Was it about a changing of the guard? That is, does the agent die, leaving a new person in command of the unit? Was it/ will it be a story of redemption for the teen-aged boy who fired the shot that brought the agent down? With neither of these issues clear, there can hardly be any kind of plan of action or path into the future.
In Castle, there are no lose ends. The season’s plot lines have been tied off. We understand that Kate and her husband are the ultimate crime-solvers, and we know that she is on her way either to the captain’s chair or to the senate.
Now, I enjoy NCIS and I may be watching in September to see what happens, but the Castle finale had much a more satisfactory conclusion and the sequel (next season) will certainly get my attention.
So it is with books. The cliffhanger might catch me, or it might not. I do not always read sequels. The good story with a satisfactory ending, though, will stay with me. I may construct various scenarios for the characters’ futures. And if there is a sequel, I will grab it.