You Gotta Seal the Deal
What Makes a Good Ending?
We all have seen good movies and shows, as well as bad. There's no question that you can tell if a film or show is going to be good or bad just from the first few minutes. However, while a piece of media can start out on way it's possible for things to turn around (for good or ill) as things play out. Nowhere is this more obvious than at the end, that moment when the thing you're watching has to bring it all together and get the story over the finish line. When a film or series nails it, everything just clicks and there's this moment of pure elation. When it drops the ball, though...
There are certain endings that absolutely stand out as the worst of the worst. As big of a hit as it may have been at the time, most people will agree that the ending of M. Night Shyamalan's Signs was utterly idiotic. A dying wife having a vision that makes her say, "swing away!" so that, years later, the brother of a priest can swing a baseball bat at water to destroy a race of aliens that are allergic to water (coming to a planet that is at least 80% covered in water, and rains all the time) boggles the mind for it's stupidity. Or there's Alien: Resurrection, which did a decent job resurrecting Ellen Ripley, only to then give the Alien Queen a human reproductive system, followed by introducing the worst looking, and least scary, alien in the series. Ugh. And who can forget How I met Your Mother which spent an interminable decade in getting to said mother, only to kill her off quickly in the last episode so Ted could pursue Robin all over again. That was a total waste right there.
however, while it's easy to find any number of bad endings for films and shows, I want to instead focus on a set of movies that managed to have good endings and, more importantly, focus on why they worked. These movies specifically managed to not only build a solid and cohesive world around their protagonists, but then they gave tight and focused endings that really felt rewarding (in their own way, in some cases). They built up to their ending and then, once the climax was reached, knew to get out of their own way and let the film end.
The general rule for a Hollywood production is that once you've resolved all the various major plot lines of your film and reached the climax, it's time to wrap things up. Don't spend more than ten minutes on the film after the major threads are complete lest you bore the audience and drag things out. An example of a dragged out ending: Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings. I know these films have their fans, but once the One Ring is dumped into the volcano, we then get one ending after another, with each celebration just padding things out, and The Return of the King doesn't end for close to 40 minutes after the actual main quest ended.
A common example I've also seen is the Daniel Craig-starring Casino Royale. The whole point of the film, as is laid out early, is to get into the high stakes poker game and take on evil criminal leader Le Chiffre. That plot line resolves itself in quick around 40 minutes before the end of the film, and then we get a long, sub-plot about Bond lady love Vesper Lynd and her actually being a double-agent. Now, don't get me wrong, this is an interesting plot line but it would have made more sense for a second film instead of cramming it into the last act of an already long movie, especially when everything introduced in this film feels superfluous to what happened in the first two acts of the film. It's a fine story, but it doesn't really feel connected to Casino Royale and just pads the runtime of the film.
If we're talking a film that knows how to resolve all it's various plot lines in one go, there's no question that the original The Matrix (and not it's sequels) knows how to do this right. This is another commonly referenced example, on the good end of the spectrum, because the whole film is tightly engineered to lead to the ending. We get Neo on his quest of discovering, the question of "Who is the One", Trinity and why she believes Neo is "The One", and the pursuit of our heroes by the agents (namely Agent Smith). The ending resolves every single one of these plot beats in a final fight (that followed essentially a half an hour of constant, rollicking action), and then within a minute later Neo is giving his speech to the Agents (and the audience) before flying off into the sky. It's an ending that does everything it needs to do and then gets the hell out of it's own way.
In a similar vein, there's mad Max: Fury Road. This is another film with a long, climactic action sequence, although in this films case the argument could be made that the entire film is essential one long action sequence. The film culminates, though, in a fraught drive back to the original starting point, with the whole of the war band chasing down Max and Furiosa in the war rig. The leaders of the war band die, including Immortan Joe, and Max finally shows he can open up and trust some one. This all happens right before the truck returns back to its home, and in the final scene, we see our heroines rise up to the fortress in the sky, raining water down on the rest of the populace, while Max wanders off to some new adventure. Start to finish the ending is only about three minutes, and it immediately happens after the climax of the film. That's smart, right editing.
I also feel like we should single out David FincherStarting off as a music video director, David Fincher has gone on to become one of Hollywood's great, visionary directors with a cool, perfectionist style like none other., a director who knows not only how to get well shot, tightly plotted films put together, but also knows the value of a strong, quick ending. Although many a college age douche-bro misunderstood the message of Fight Club, there's no arguing that's a film with it's own frenetic directorial style. The ending is no different, culminating in a climax between the Narrator and his imaginary friend, Tyler Durden. It even tells us exactly how long we have until the ending, with a timer on the climactic bombs that will trigger explosions of all the major financial institutions in the world (and it's not just once city but all the cities Tyler visited which... is all of them, more or less). The Narrator may win the battle, and eliminated Tyler from his mind, but as he rejoins with Marla (his love interest), he watches as all the bombs everywhere explode. That's quite an ending, with the credits rolling seconds after the stated goal of the story is complete.
You get similar timing in Fincher's other lauded opus, Se7en. This one is a dramatic thriller that pulls no punches on its subject matter: a serial killer executing all his victims in the style of the seven deadly sins. This then reaches the climax where the killer, John Doe, sends the cops, Mills and Somerset, out into a field where a package is delivered. When the package is opened it's revealed to hold the head of Mills wife (or, at least, it's implied that's what's in the package). Mills's wife died for Doe's Envy, Mills kills Doe as his Wrath, and all seven sins are complete. Then we get the last scene of the film which last just a couple of minutes and the credits roll. The whole case played out just as Doe wanted, and the film ends on that dark, gut-twisting note.
As we can see, the films that have proven to have staying power tend to have the best endings. Arguably we can say the same for TV shows as well. Did we need to see Angel and his crew of monster hunters really defeat a dragon, or was watching them go out in a blaze of glory in Angel the best way that series could have ended? I'd argue the blaze of glory was better (while the comic continuation of the series was just middling at best). Could The Wire do anything except show that while the major players in the Baltimore drug war changed, everything else remained exactly the same? You can't change the truth. Would Party Down have been as good if, instead of ending on the hopeful note with Henry going to his first audition in years, it had just continued on with the members of the crew constantly changing but the parties staying the same? Well, we'll get an answer to that one when the series comes back for a third season.
Oh, and let's face it: when it comes to TV shows, no series has proven to have a better grasp of it's own pieces, and a better way to end its story, than The Good Place. That was a series built on the concept of constantly reinventing its own conceit and never letting the characters get a moment's rest. One would assume that the finale would, in fact, let them rest, and it does... for one episode before it moves on into the bittersweet hereafter. It's hard to get anything other than chills from such a perfect ending that knows, exactly, how to usher itself out.
Sure, the rules of TV shows are a little different. You get an episode to tie things up, and not just ten minutes or less, but if you're building to a climax, that last great moment has to come in the last act of the last episode. This is what your series has been building to. If you don't seal it, if you don't manage to keep the energy going and tie everything off perfectly in that last little act, you risk drawing everything out and ruining the ending. Then you just get another How I Met Your Mother and no one wants that (as evidenced by the failure of the pilot for How I Met Your Dad, and the seeming disinterest of most of the general public in How I Met Your Father).
The ending is key. It can redeem a middling show or ruin a great one. If you don't do it right, that's the end of the line for your magnum opus.