All too often, endings are synonymous with "letdown." We all love to complain about how our favorite science fiction TV series or movies ended. And we're kind of sick of twist endings and "WTF Mindfrak" endings. But on the other hand, there are some endings that we just don't see enough of.
It's just not fair to criticize without offering some alternatives — so here are 10 endings we wish science fiction and fantasy movies and TV shows would use more often.
Top image: Cover art to Angel, Not Fade Away #3 by IDW Comics.
10. Two random characters walk off into the sunset together.
Yes, the Casablanca ending. Which is a classic for a reason — it totally works. After the dust has settled and everybody's died or won or achieved their goals or lost everything, two characters walk off together. There's often some vague suggestion that they're going to go have a whole new series of adventures together, leaving the viewer imagining a new spin-off or quasi-sequel. Note: This type of ending requires you to have provided quite a bit of closure leading up to this, making this an excellent placeholder for the basic-but-underrated "provide closure" type of ending.
9. The hero loses.
Or alternatively, the villain wins. (See: Sapphire and Steel.) This is one of those gutsy sort of endings that can be too much of a downer — but if you pull it off right, it can be really powerful and memorable. The sort of ending people talk about for years, as opposed to the sort of run-of-the-mill happy ending that everybody instantly forgets. Obviously, an ending where the "good guys" lose is closer, in many ways, to real life. But also, it's more interesting to see how characters respond to a final defeat than to a final victory. Plus, it's kind of bitchin' to go that dark.
8. Everybody gets a medal.
Aka the ending of Star Wars. There's something kind of sweet about an ending where not only do the heroes win, but they get a big Asterix-style banquet, or a nice ceremony, afterwards. Just to put a nice point on it. A big wedding could also work, if almost everybody gets married at the end, like in Shakespeare. I'm just saying, if you're going to have a happy ending, why not have a fancy celebration at the end, just to underscore how happy it is? Plus, having a ceremony reminds us that A) there's a social order in place that's organized enough to give out medals, and B) everybody's pretty clear that these folks are awesome. Medals! They make everything better.
7. Big Dance Sequence!
Even if the rest of the TV show or movie hasn't been a musical. The other way to bow out after a clear-cut happy ending is probably just to have everybody start dancing, and possibly singing. You have to admit, BSG would have been way better if it had ended like a Bollywood movie. I can't, off the top of my head, think of an SF movie or show that's ended with a dance sequence — Return of the Jedi, maybe? — but that just means this is an idea whose time has arrived. Even better for fantasy movies or shows — the final scene of Once Upon a Time's final episode could easily be all of the fairytale people doing a huge Busby Berkeley number together, and it would seem totally consistent. I picture someone taking someone's hand and leading them into a room where suddenly all the characters are dancing in a triangle formation. Let's all just agree that a happy ending that doesn't lead to medals should lead, instead, to a massively choreographed dance sequence.
6. The story never ends
Like the ending of Angel, basically. This can be done really well — suggesting that the adventures will go on, there will be more battles, the heroes will always keep trying to make the universe a better place. Or it can be done badly, and look like a botched cliffhanger with no resolution. The key to doing it well seems to be in providing enough of a gracenote, like Angel's "I want to slay the dragon." This kind of ending can be bittersweet but also inspirational, since the battle never ends but the heroes never give up. A related type of ending: You can tell how things are probably going to turn out, but the story fades to black before we quite get there. Like The Sopranos, I guess.
5. We're lost forever
This might work well for shows about people traveling in the wilderness or exploring in space — imagine if Star Trek: Voyager had ended with the Voyager being flung even further out into space, to someplace the ship could never get home from. I like endings where people realize they're going to be journeying forever — it feels poetic and wistful, but also inspiring in the same way as the "story goes on" ending mentioned above. I guess partly I'm thinking of the ending to the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy TV show, where Ford and Arthur are permanently trapped in Earth's past. (Except that, as readers of the books know, they aren't really.)
4. The fourth wall shatters
Basically, the Blazing Saddles ending. Or maybe, the Batman: The Brave and the Bold ending. At some point, everybody just wanders out of the narrative and starts interacting with the "real" world or addressing the audience directly. The characters and their universe have stretched to the breaking point, and something finally broke, leaving the characters no choice but to wander out into the realm of metafiction. If Supernatural keeps getting renewed for long enough, you know that eventually this is the only way that show can end. They've already set it up, with "The French Mistake."
3. Full Circle
The last episode connects up with the first episode in some meaningful way — or some image from the start of the movie is brought back in the ending. Done clumsily, this can look like pointless Ouroboros porn — and everybody hates Ouroboros porn. But the finale of Star Trek: The Next Generation is a classic example of bringing the story back to its beginning in a way that feels fitting, and adds significance to both beginning and ending.
2. Everybody dies at the end.
Just like the ending of a certain British space opera from the 1970s and early 1980s. It doesn't get much more final than mass death, after all. Nobody can complain that there were loose ends left over, if every single character who might have pursued said loose ends is now entering rigor mortis. Plus, this is the most metal of all possible endings. An ending where everybody gives his or her life for a worthy cause is as heroic as you can get — and an ending where everybody dies for no reason is pure nihilistic angst-candy. Either way, ending with corpses is a great way to draw a line under a series or film.
1. The heroes win but they're broken.
You know, like China Mieville's Perdido Street Station. This is probably a more common type of ending in books than films or TV shows. The cost of victory is too high, and the survivors are severely messed up — physically, mentally, or both. Probably both, really. The more epic the victory, the more wrecked the victors are likely to be — so it's hard for us to believe in a victory that doesn't leave everybody kind of damaged. Plus, this provides a chance to talk about PTSD and the fact that in real life, nobody gets away from a major conflict unscathed. There's a reason why the finale of M*A*S*H is so celebrated, and that's because it shows Hawkeye losing his shit.