Why is it so hard to end epic stories?

It’s early Christmas morning and I am awake. Not because I’m excited to get presents, but because I couldn’t stop thinking about how badly Game of Thrones ended, and why disastrous endings is becoming the norm these days.

Another long running series also reached it’s conclusion this week, Star Wars. The reviews were so bad you would think J J Abrams released an all Jar-Jar Binks Christmas Special.

To start with Star Wars, The problem was that it was too convoluted. It had to setup a story, solve it, and give as many nostalgic callbacks to aging millenials as possible. All while fitting in deleted footage of a deceased actor. It didn’t work because it was restrained not by the rules of the world they build, but because they started with an emotionally “satisfying” ending and the existing back story wasn’t leading to it.

I think to see why story conclusions don’t work we must first see an ending that does work. I would argue Breaking Bad has the best ending of a modern series for a few reasons.

  • The ending works within the world’s logic. Drug lords rarely have happy endings, they get weak and someone stronger takes over. This is what happens.
  • Walt does not get total redemption. He does save Jesse, but at this point it’s really the least he can do. His family hates him, his fortune is gone, and he is dead. Would the world be better if he had simply never started cooking meth? Yes. The ending does not change this immutable fact. As much as we may like Bryan Cranston’s character, he is a bad person.
  • It doesn’t try to tie up loose ends that can’t be tied up. We don’t know what the White legacy is. What happened to Saul? Jesse? The narrow focus on the journey of Walt benefits the story by not getting bogged down in pointless plot threads. And leaves the audience wanting more… which we then get in spin offs!
  • My favorite part of the ending was when Walt shoots the guy trying to tell him where his money was. It puts the final nail in his character when he knows he didn’t do all this for his family, but for himself, and he has lost.

Another series that failed spectacularly at the same time when Breaking Bad succeeded is Dexter. Both series have their unique take on anti-heroes but Dexter takes it in the completely opposite (and wrong) direction.

Dexter, the professional serial murderer working for the Miami PD, has no repercussions to his crimes after the season 4 finale where his wife is killed by another serial killer. The writers to the series after this point gave Dexter invulnerability with “Plot armor”. Dexter Morgan was basically a super hero and no one could find out his secret identity.

It was really a shame what happened to that show because in the earlier seasons they struck a nice balance of. 1) Hey it’s great that he’s killing bad people, and 2) It’s creepy how much he enjoys murdering. In the latter seasons it went from a healthy balance to being completely #1. Even non-criminal people who had to die to keep the plot going, like LaGuerta, were killed by people other than Dexter. Likely so he could keep his “innocence”. It was just weird how the writers went all in with portraying serial killers as cool and there’s nothing wrong with it. And that was the shows downfall.

Where Breaking Bad followed the internal logic that bad people fall, Dexter took the opposite approach. There was no tension, there were no stake, his sister died randomly off screen from barely related events. He disowned his son to another serial killer. Dexter fakes his death and became a lumberjack. At no point was he under suspicion. When you type it out like this it sounds insane, and it was. Dexter was a show based in our reality, yet I cannot see how the ending could ever realistically happen. It was simply too far fetched.

A good story ending is one that follows the world and rules established earlier on. A bad ending is when writers create an ending that doesn’t follow these same rules. They typically do this to hit emotional archetypes basic to storytelling. To get to that ending they have to manipulate the events so much they don’t even make sense. Actions that aren’t consistent ruin our immersion. Without immersion the emotional impact of an ending is lessened or non-existent.

Ruining our immersion is the crux of the problem when endings go off the rails. We use our powerful human brains to simulate the story world as we are enjoying it. This is why people enjoy the escape of a good story so much! It’s why we are sad when loved characters die or when a hero succeeds. We are living vicariously through the same events. But this breaks down when we find events that stretch belief, or events that contradict what we previously assumed to be correct. Think of your reaction when a magician does a trick that appears impossible. The laws of physics are broken when a ball appears to be in one hand and then later isn’t. It pulls you out of the world and you feel disoriented this can be good to create excitement in real life, but disastrous in story form.

Let’s take an example. Imagine you’re working a job that is incredibly stressful. Your bosses tell you everyday you must accomplish all your work 100% accurately or you will be fired. You work really hard, but one day you accidentally turn in drawings of dinosaurs instead of your work. No one notices and you are expected to come back the next day. At this point the tension is gone. It doesn’t matter what you do you cannot be fired. The premise that created the drama in the first place is faulty which eliminates the danger and conflict. What if the ending to this short story is that your hard work gets you promoted, or you find some other way out of the job, it doesn’t matter. Without conflict why would you care what happens when you can keep going to work, do nothing, and still get paid.

Dexter fails because we find out it is impossible for him to ever be caught or face consequences for his actions. Knowing this, it is incredibly boring to watch.

The latest Star Wars fails for a number of reasons. One, because nobody dies. Why is the Emperor still alive? It’s never quite clear. Most people who die become ghost Jedi’s who pop up whenever it’s convenient. Second, force powers seem to come and go randomly. New powers show up when needed and past powers get forgotten if they would short circuit plot points. The plot end points are emotional and for fan service. Almost none of them are deserved i.e. they wouldn’t happen organically in our internal mind simulations.

And that brings us to Game of Thrones, a really great show that somehow has a really bad ending. The reasons it fails is always because events happen that don’t make sense.

The first scene in Game of Thrones introduces the White Walkers as a deadly threat to all of Westeros, and then each season builds upon this threat. The ending of season 7 has the army of the dead breaking down the wall and invading…

And then the undead army is defeated decisively at the first city they encounter with only 1/3 losses by the human side. And most named characters surviving easily! Wait, what? Do you see what happened there? The largest threat that had been building since the beginning was resolved in one episode with less loss of life than when Stannis invaded King’s Landing. It turns out the White Walkers aren’t much more dangerous than a herd of Dothraki. The premise of the world breaks, our enjoyment lessons.

Remember when Daenerys burns down Kings Landing, for some reason? How Cersei didn’t actually have a plan for that? How Jon Snow wasn’t immediately executed for killing Daenerys? How Jaime randomly decided to go back to his crazy sister? How everyone just suddenly stopped trying to be king and let Bran do it? None of this makes internal sense in our simulated Game of Thrones world. It only happens to advance the plot to a fixed ending.

Game of thrones was one of those rare shows that kept true to the adage: actions have consequences. Good people got murdered by bad people and you could understand why within the story’s logic. Cross someone and they will cross you back. Be good to people and they will follow you. The last season ignores these lessons.

Perhaps if you follow internal consistency to a stories logical conclusion you will get a less flashy or action packed conclusion. But you will get the conclusion the story deserves. A great ending needs to be built from the beginning with a flow of actions that make sense from start to end. If a writer wants to make a different ending then maybe that story shouldn’t have been told in the first place. You can’t always have the hero ride of into the sunset. Sometimes he’s got to be dead on a meth lab floor surrounded by a SWAT team. Because that’s the only way it could happen.