The "Down Ending" Myth

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Title: The "Down Ending" Myth
Creator: Merlin Missy
Date(s): July 25, 2008
Fandom: multifandom
External Links: The "Down Ending" Myth
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The "Down Ending" Myth is a 2008 essay by Merlin Missy.


This essay is part of a series called Dr. Merlin's Soapbox.

Some Topics Discussed

From the Essay

So, how about that Joss Whedon?


The work of Joss Whedon was originally characterized by the use of smart, hip dialogue and refreshing views on gender roles. (Sort of like Aaron Sorkin, only written for a younger audience, discussing fewer politics, and having taken a women's studies course.) While those particular traits haven't been lost, they occasionally get overshadowed by facets of his work which are highlighted by their frequency. Joss Whedon is king of the down ending, and I for one am tired of it.

This isn't Whedon's fault. If anything, it’s ours.

Bleak endings are good for cheap drama. They're what graduate students compose for their creative writing courses, while dressing in black and drinking bad coffee, and they think they're capturing the truth of the human condition as they (and their characters) bleed on the page.

Little kids hate down endings. Young adults in or just out of college thrive on them, because they think it makes them deeper. (see emo kids) And certainly, anyone who's spent time studying Shakespeare and other dramatists knows that tragedy can be a fine art. The problem comes in when tragedy becomes a shortcut to emotional manipulation rather than an honest exploration of character. Shorter: "Shit happens" may be an accurate assessment of life, but it's not the only assessment.

When fans complain about the unrelenting darkness of a particular series or movie, there's always someone who shoots back that said fans just want a sunny bunny happy Disney ending, with the implication that happy endings are unworthy of truly intellectual minds.

Adding realism for the sake of "realism" (note: anyone who comes at me preaching realism in fandoms with spandex-clad superheroes who get their powers because the sun is the wrong color will get laughed at a lot) just alienates the audience who tuned in for the fun.

Realism is not about body count. It's not about which character you can damage, or whose backstory you can change to give him/her reasons to be the person we already know. It's not about ratcheting up drama or playing on emotions. It's about looking at life, looking at many lives if you can, and telling the story that's true. Its certainly not about "giving the audience what they need," much less what they want, because you, gentle reader and hopeful writer, have no fucking idea what your audience wants (except what they tell you) or really, honestly needs, and pretending you have that kind of knowledge makes you sound like a pretentious twit. It's about telling the story that needs to be told, the good and the bad, and if it's more of the latter, being nice enough to let your audience know before they get there that this might not be for them. You're not writing for them, anyway. You're writing for you.

Fan Comments

[Maia]:"Bleak for the sake of bleakness, destruction for the sake of upping the tragedy, these things are the tools of the emo hack." Thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you! I was beginning to think that I was the only person in fandom who believes that downer endings aren't more artistic or "authentic" than happy endings, they're just yanking our chains -- as if we only get emotionally involved in a story when we're traumatized. I gave up on Battlestar Galactica when the the story line hosed the one non-traumatic interpersonal relationship in the show. And for the record, I wasn't all that impressed by Dr. Horrible. It was full of chain-yanking, and I don't like being manipulated.

[Dan Gavin]: The first time I saw Blake's 7 was on UKTV Gold several years ago. It was an early Sunday morning repeat, and the episode showing was the final one. That one. 45 minutes of amazing storyline and characters. A crashing spaceship. A planet of 'Thieves, killers, mercenaries, psychopaths'. And the most self destructive ending ever written. I thought it was brilliant! And, as the credits rolled, the voiceover said they were repeating the whole series again from the start from next week. I was hooked.

[aaron]: So Joss Whedon is an "Emo Hack". Well your shit article didn't convince me! The majority of the time his work is funny and uplifting. So he kills off a couple of main characters every now and again. In case you didn't notice they happen to live in very dangerous worlds. And yes it is used for dramitic effect. Thats the point, its supposed to make you feel sad. Basically what your saying here is, "I don't like when movies try to move me emotionally, unless to make me happy." Watch something else then you twit. Yes Battlestar is depressing, but not to the point where it annoys me, I love it. You sound like the the Emo. No one claims that sad endings are more realistic, I don't think that anyone would even say any of the work you've mentioned here is realistic. Toy Story is about toys that come to life? If you want realism watch reality tv with the rest of the sheep. Me I just want a good story to get emersed in and if somebody dies i'll get over it. Whedon writes great stories with clever dialogue, you are a critic, someone who hasn't got what it takes to do what he does and yet you still think your equal enough to condemn him. And to Maia, you dont like being manipulated, ok fair enough, but isn't the point of watching something to get moved by the story, it sounds like it was working but apparntely thats not what your looking for. Try American Idol, that sounds more down your street, then you won't need to use your brain either!

[Ladyfox7oakes]: Thank you for articulating this so VERY well! I find it frustrating and seriously annoying when writers, (Screen, novel, fanfic, or what have you,) seem to think that they HAVE to throw all this Cr*p at their heroes to see how much they can take before they break and go hopeless/angsty-emo on us. Or they MUST end on some sort of a "Romeo and Juliet" ending. (Yes- I just dissed Shakespeare.) When they fail to show us ANY hope, any happy, or any of the million other things that are part of life, it gets Very Boring, Very Quickly. Joss, from everything I've been told, wrote a really tight story with Buffy that wrapped a lot of people up into it WITH Humor, and action, and funny, and tragedy, and unexpected and the mundane all present. (I hardly ever watched, but I DO recall Buffy trying to wake her mother up. It isn't pleasant, but it happens.) Yeah- a lot of people wish it had ended differently- I can understand that. I can also understand that it needed to end the way it did.


Absolutely true that not everything is going to have a happy ending, but please- can we have a few more True (to the story) endings? Oh- and "Aaron"? You're rude.

[HSavinien]: Whew, Aaron. Cool down a through it again, recognize that she's not trashing Whedon, and don't knock a clever columnist just because she says something you don't like. I see what you mean -- I was really depressed in a Philosophic Themes in Literature class I took a few years ago, because everything we read was frickin' depressing. Sure, they had important things to say, the authors were Deep Thinkers (tm), whatever. I kept bringing Terry Pratchett quotes up in discussion. (He's one of the most brilliant students of humanity I've ever read and he's clever and hilarious in his writing. People die sometimes in the books, because that happens, but there is so much more to life on the Discworld. The point is the way you live your life.)... Dark for the sake of dark is all very well, but not to my taste either. There has to be balance, heroism as well as depravity, and some chance at least at some moments of happiness. (That's why I got sick of the Wheel of Time series after two books--you can tell that nothing good is EVER going to happen to these people.) Hope is the oldest human grace.

[Kohlie]: Kudos to you. Joss Whedon's undeniable talent has been buried beneath his pretention for a while now, and the #1 marker of that pretention is his supposedly "hard, gritty" plot twists that are mostly just gratuitous deaths/harm meant to prove how Serious and Important this fun program really is. He's far from the only offender, but it's doubly annoying because Whedon is capable of better, and because it's this tendency more than any other that condemns him to the geekdom ghetto. If he'd get the hell over himself, he could do the phenomenal breakout show we've all been hoping for. I seriously doubt this will ever happen, though, b/c he is stuck in the echo chamber of his rabid fans who worship everything he does, misguided or not.

[unknown user]: ROTJ (J for Jedi, not Joker, btw) is still my favorite. Saw it seven times in theaters when I was six. :D I would, overall, have to agree with you. There are great downer endings, and then there are just depressing, "Why did I watch this?" downer endings. And some people won't be happy unless they're . . . um, not happy. (My pet example is the first season of the anime My-HIme, where fans were upset because multiple characters were resurrected in the final episode. Okay, I'm as pissed off as the next guy when people are retconned back to life - Jason Todd, for example - but these people neglect something very important. Practically TWO-THIRDS of the cast is dead by the last episode, and the survivors are all completely devastated by loss, and not in a "they'll be over it next week" way. I'm not sure why THIS ending is preferable to the actual ending because it's "cheap". Part of the reason I watched the last few eps in the first place is I was COUNTING on these people not staying dead. Woo-hoo!) Sincerely, A P.S. At least SOMETHING about JLU 5 left you bitter :P

[Preya]: Thank you for your article, it certainly made me think. Tragedy for tragedy's sake is certainly not right, and I've definitely not noticed it before. Thank you for helping me notice. Also, I'm afraid the only work you mentioned that I'm really familiar with is Dr Horrible, which I've only just recently discovered and become giddily in love with, act 3 included. I certainly didn't realize that it had what one might consider a 'bad' ending, though now that you mentioned it... Well, now that you mention it, I think I kind of agree.


[estrella]: Cleansing of the Shire--absolutely! I loved the movies...but this was a serious miss. Go Sam. :) And I didn't catch your Serenity spoiler-- but leaving all those unanswered questions about Book in the series and NOT answering them and then what happens!!!!! Joss lost a point in my book, as much as I lurve him.

[Fuzzy Elf]: "As a friend pointed out to me today, people who embrace tragic stories as the only real thing worth watching are also people who tend not to have had real tragedy in their own lives." How dare you presume to assume what someone's personal history is based on their taste in fiction, just because it is different from yours. How dare you. I can't believe you think it's acceptable to generalize to such an offensive degree based on a conversation with a friend of all completely rubbish sources. You're wrong. You're generalising, presumptuous, and you are offensively wrong. The rest of the article I just plain didn't agree with - a perfect example of why someone who isn't a fan of a genre is usually not informed enough about that genre to critique it - but that was outrageous. Personally, I find dark stories therapeutic purely because they allow me to work through issues in my own life in a safe environment. I know many others who feel the same. Trauma doesn't automatically render a person so weak and fragile they can no longer cope with fiction, for crying out loud. It's not to your taste, we get it, but keep your offensive generalisations to yourself in future.
[Merlin Missy]: There is a difference between using tragedy as catharsis and claiming that overwrought melodrama is the only valid form of artistic expression. I didn't say someone can't enjoy the former or use it to help. I said if someone's pulling the latter to show how Deep and Sophisticated they are, they're almost certainly NOT someone who's survived near-starvation, attempted genocide nor being exiled to Siberia for reasons of political dissent. They're doing it to look cool, and because they can, and because there will always be someone who says "OMG, the bleakness of the human condition! That's GENIUS!" It's crap, and it's cheap, and it's emotionally manipulative and hey, sometimes I enjoy cheap emotionally manipulative crap too, but claiming that's all there is to good entertainment and that stories which aren't dark and depressing where everyone's dying are by their nature less valid or worthy? That's pretentious bullshit.