On good endings

Over the last few days, I’ve watched the endings of Ashes to Ashes, Lost, and also (by a quirk of fate) the ‘Journey’s End’ episode of Doctor Who (end of series 4), which is where my eldest son and I have got to. I think that all three TV episodes ended well. (In fact, I am now open to seeing the whole of Lost again at some point (in a few years time), when I was quite sceptical of it.) So the question of endings is on my mind; most especially, the question of good endings. What is the essence of a good ending?

I would say there are two elements that apply to any story, and then something that I look for personally to gain the most satisfaction from an ending.

The first and possibly most essential element of a story ending is that it is consistent with the characters. The actions taken – and the consequences of those actions – must flow from authentic behaviour and not be mere contrivances to advance the plot. Characters must be given their own integrity, otherwise the authorial voice is overwhelming and we are no longer in story territory, but in sermon territory.

The second element is that the plot should be coherent and intellectually satisfying on its own terms, that is, the ‘universe’ being explored should be consistent and have its own stable framework. (Where the framework is the same as our lived existence, you have realist fiction. Where the framework is altered is a specific way, you have what is called fantasy or science fiction.) Essential questions need to be answered!

Those two elements I think are essential for anything to qualify as ‘good’, ie to have a certain degree of quality. For me, personally, there is a third element that I look for which ‘knocks the ball out of the park’ when it is achieved successfully, and this is when the creation succeeds in showing that death is not terminal for meaning. What I mean by this is that there is a framework of value which is articulated through the story which is shown to be vindicated beyond the death of the lead character(s). Of course, this is a Christian perspective. It is perfectly possible to have a high quality story that is not ‘orthodox’ in this sense (Un Couer en Hiver is the best example I can think of).

Where the third element is in place, then an element of grace enters in to the story, and it makes letting go much easier – for the characters themselves, and also for those watching or reading. There IS such a thing as a good death.

Things I particularly enjoyed from those three TV episodes:
from Ashes
– the destroyed Quattro, and then Gene looking at a Mercedes brochure;
– the Railway Arms, and all that was symbolised by that (and by the parallel symbolism elsewhere);
– the realistically sad note about Molly.
from Dr Who
– the final resolution of the Rose character arc;
– everything about Donna (sort of tragic).
from Lost
– Juliet coming back in the way I predicted, and the ‘Go Dutch’ resolution for them;
– Locke forgiving Ben, and Ben staying outside;
– Jack’s redemption.

For me, the most effective treatment of these themes – and the best ending – isn’t found in television, or in novels, but in comics, specifically the Sandman sequence, which is all about the nature of a good story (and therefore, by definition, all about a good ending). My three criteria are all fulfilled in abundance here, but most of all, there is a richness of allusion and metaphor and incidental characterisation that makes the re-reading of the stories an immense pleasure.

In keeping with the nature of the medium – herewith one of the many endings in the Sandman sequence (you’ll have to read it to really understand it!)


Talking to a friend yesterday who explained SUMO to me – it stands for ‘Shut Up, Move On’ – in other words, don’t get stuck in a place of pain. (In Christian terms, I think it could be phrased as ‘come down off your cross’.)

One of the best things about the Sandman sequence was the presentation of hell as somewhere that people chose their forms of punishment. One of many deep truths that Gaiman managed to capture.

Captain America had a point

John Hobbins links to two interesting articles here and here.

One of the things I enjoy reading in my spare time is comics – occasionally called ‘graphic novels’ at the higher reaches of the form, but, basically, comics, involving people who have large muscles and poor taste in clothing. One of the most interesting ones I’ve read recently has been the ‘Civil War’ sequence put out by Marvel. I won’t bore you with explaining why it is that Captain America and Iron Man are slugging it out (though it IS extremely interesting social commentary) I just want to point out that there comes a point when Captain America surrenders – not because he has changed his mind about the justice of his cause, but because too many innocent bystanders are suffering because of the struggle.

The man has a point.

Caster Semenya and the difference between Wanda and Lord Fanny

One of the interesting things about the Caster Semenya kerfuffle is how it brings out the inadequacies of essentialist thinking. Sporting discrimination between male and female is predicated on their being an ineradicable difference between the two genders. Contestants have to be placed in one of two boxes ‘male’ and ‘female’. What happens if someone doesn’t qualify under either heading (I have no idea if this lady doesn’t; it just raises the issue)? It brings the classification system itself into question.

This thinking is a key part of what underlies the teaching in Leviticus 18 & 20 that it is an “abomination” for a man to lie with a man. The understanding is (and I’m drawing on Gareth Moore here) that there is a right way for sexual relations to be ordered, and it involves the two parties being members of particular and opposite categories (with male superior to female of course); the boundaries must not be transgressed. Human beings have to fit into the different categories (‘male and female he created them’) and, again, if there are people who don’t fit, it brings the classification system itself into question. Which is why there is the language about ‘the authority of Scripture’ – even if we leave aside questions of consistency, this issue does threaten that authority.

Two of my favourite graphic novel series deal with issues of transvestitism/transsexuality (forgive me if I don’t use the terminology properly), in differing ways. In the Sandman sequence there is a pre-op male to female transsexual called Wanda, who lives as a woman but who, at a key moment in the plot is rejected as a woman (by the Moon) because she has a Y chromosome: she is not acceptable as a female on essentialist grounds. In contrast to this, in The Invisibles, one of the key characters is Lord Fanny, who was born a boy but raised as a girl, and who, in a climactic engagement with the God Mictlantecuhtli is accepted as a witch because she made the God laugh.

What I want to ask is: where are Christians called to stand? Are we with the moon in saying that there is something essential that needs to be safeguarded and preserved – the boundaries are absolute? Or are we with Mictlantecuhtli and prepared to be flexible, allowing our categories to be bent?

For me the answer is pretty clear. We are called to recognise and relate to all people as individuals, not as members of one class or another. In particular, there is such an absence of genuine love in so many places in our world that it seems bizarre not to celebrate love when it can be found.

I see this as a development rooted in Christian understandings – not so much in Scripture as the unfolding of a tradition from that Scripture, specifically the teaching that in Christ there is no male or female etc – in other words, in Christ all the old essentials have been dissolved. Our identity now rests in our relationship with Him and all the other categories can get lost.

In other words:

UPDATE: an interesting article, via AKMA.


A valiant attempt; whilst, inevitably, not as good as the book, I think it will hold up over time. I look forward to purchasing the extended cut DVD, and The Tales of the Black Freighter, which was cut completely. But if you haven’t read the book, please do so.