Watching so much Joss Whedon-created tv recently, I have, naturally, been thinking about the nature of happy endings.
For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure, Joss doesn’t exactly believe in things ending well. Actually, the earth gets saved from a couple of apocalypses a year, so I should qualify that by saying that he doesn’t believe in relationships ending well.
“The Thin Red Line” was probably the most controversial Buffy episode in this sense, and the A.V. Club’s review has some interesting discussion in the comments. One comment that made me start thinking was along these lines: Every relationship eventually ends in either misery or death.
How depressing. But, I guess, true.
And considering that Buffy is largely metaphorical, I think this aspect of love fits effortlessly into the larger picture of the show. The war against evil is never going to be won or lost. It simply is. And you simply keep striving. When you enter into relationship you are going up against impossible odds – misery or death. And you simply keep striving.
Of course, exploring this doesn’t necessarily have to be soul-crushingly depressing.
Happily Ever After is key to the romance genre. Obviously. But it’s no longer an ideal moment at which all of life is suspended, forever. It’s more commonly a moment at which the lovers have strength and faith and trust in each other to head into an unknown future together. The journey of the book is each character becoming a person who can support and stick with the other through anything.
We acknowledge that life is not going to end at Happily Ever After – but we have faith that they’ll make it. To death, that is. (Never forget this is war.)
Probably the best exploration of a strong relationship on tv is Mr and Mrs Coach in Friday Night Lights. We’re never asked to worry that their marriage will end – but they are endlessly fascinating to watch. And not a little inspiring. Theirs is the daily battle against the odds, and though it can get tough, by god are they winning.
I’ve been thinking about how it’s possible to keep a couple so interesting without threatening their relationship, and this’s what I’ve come up with: Most of the drama we see them deal with is external to their relationship. This means that they’re not static, but instead of battling each other they’re supporting each other against external drama. And if you’ve ever been in a relationship, you know that’s not as easy as it sounds. But it sure is interesting to watch.
You know that one point on which you and your partner simply do not see eye-to-eye? We also watch them navigating those fundamental disagreements – attempting to balance being true to themselves and supporting the person they’ve vowed to support. It’s a paradox that’s only really possible because a human being is so complex. Again, interesting to watch.
But even with the changing emphasis of a happy ending – when that moment of perfect understanding is reached in a romance novel, there’s completion. It’s the moment that finishes the book inside you, and allows you to let it go. It’s the thing we continue to imagine will happen when we fall in love in real life, and never does.
Joss Whedon’s romances simply will not let me go. And I think it’s because they refuse to resolve themselves. They are not finished, and never will be. It’s the thing that happens when we fall in love in real life, despite all our expectations. There are moments of perfect contentment, and it can be unutterably exhausting, but it will never stop. Until misery or death.
(Okay, that’s an entirely depressing place to finish! So let me take a highlighter to my subtext: it’s not the ending that’s happy – it’s the being brave enough to go to war.)