When a great book – or especially a great series – ends, it is always difficult in a way. Even when we go back and re-read or re-watch a favorite, it will never be the same as reading or viewing something for the first time, desperate to find out what happens next, breathless to know where our beloved characters and storylines will end up. It’s intoxicating and wonderful. And it also makes it really hard to deal with it when we reach the end, and instead of being satisfied, end up feeling betrayed and abandoned by authors or show-runners or movie makers.
I’ve experienced this twice recently, with varying levels of emotional involvement. The first time was when I read Allegiant. I read it over the course of one day, on a long flight, so I was completely immersed. Despite some things I noticed in retrospect that made me love the book a little less than I might have otherwise, I was totally swept up in the experience. And then I reached the end – or at least, that thing that happens near the end that defines the ending of the story – and it was like I was stopped mid-stream. It was jolting and jarring, it was not what I expected, and it didn’t seem right to me. It took away the end result that I had been counting on, the thing that had made everything that happens in the book and everything the characters went through worth it. It took me a while to decide how I actually felt. In the end, I’ve come around to believing that Veronica Roth planned this event from the start of the series, and to understanding why she made that choice. But at the same time, what happened, and especially how it happened, still upset me. I felt almost like I had wasted my time on the whole series. If I couldn’t at least have that ending I was counting on, what was the point?
I had a similar experience this spring with the series finale of How I Met Your Mother (henceforth referred to as HIMYM because I am lazy). I’ve been a huge fan of the show for years. I saved up episodes on my DVR, and binge-watched almost the whole second half of the final season. When I arrived at the penultimate episode, I was happy. I had been warned that I would be disappointed in the finale, but I told myself “as long as this and this and this” – three things that added up to my personal worst-case scenario – “don’t all happen, I can live with some disappointment.” And then I watched the finale. And this and this and this all happened. I couldn’t even believe it, at first, as the episode unfolded. I watched seasons worth of character development and plot movement disintegrate before my eyes, leading to an ending that just didn’t make sense to me, based on everything I knew about these characters that I had spent years with. I was beyond upset. I will neither confirm nor deny the rumor that there was couch-punching involved, but I took it hard. I felt like all the change and development that had happened in the show had been wasted. I felt completely betrayed.
Obviously, not everyone feels the same way about how these two series ended. Heck, I’m in the minority when it comes to another controversial ending to a beloved series – I felt that Mockingjay was exactly the ending The Hunger Games needed. Make no mistake, there were tears (and, I’m only a little ashamed to admit, a call to my mom to sob about it a little). But overall, it seemed like an earned and appropriate ending. But I suspect many people – even some people reading this – experienced the same sense of betrayal over that ending as I did over the endings to Allegiant and HIMYM. So did those creators really betray their audiences? Or is the betrayal only in the eye of the beholder? I can make some solid scholarly type arguments about why, especially in the case of HIMYM, these endings simply weren’t good storytelling. But really, that doesn’t justify the sense of personal betrayal I felt at these conclusions. That, I’m afraid, is a personal problem.
That of course leads to the question, “what should I do about this?” Unfortunately, I have no answer. In these two cases, I will likely never read Allegiant or watch the HIMYM finale again. I’ve even mentally removed the last episode of HIMYM from my “head canon” and mostly pretend it doesn’t exist. But that doesn’t make me any happier, really, with how these things ended. It doesn’t make me feel less betrayed.
There is one thing that does help a little though. And that is thinking about how invested I was and am in these books and shows, how invested I have to be, to feel that strongly about an ending. I know plenty of people who would laugh at me if I told them about this, and make fun of me for being so invested in things that are “just fiction” or “just made up.” But to me, it says something wonderful about the power of stories that I can be that invested. I’ve talked about it before, and I’ll probably always keep coming back to it – there is something really magical about stories, whatever format they are told in, and the way they can transport us and envelop us and come to seem so real. And I think that’s a wonderful thing. So I can comfort myself just a bit about how upsetting I found these endings by thinking of how that emotional response is really a kind of magic. And I love having magic in my life, no matter how it gets there.