Saturday, March 15, 2014

In Praise of Endings

 My favourite graphic novel series is Y: The Last Man. My favourite book is (or was, for many years) The Stand. My favourite movies are by Wes Anderson, and my favourite board game is Pandemic. To me, each of these represents a certain pinnacle of their form, and I could watch, read, or play them over and over again. Each offers a lush and fully realized universe that connects with other parts of itself—how easy would it be to imagine the kids from The Royal Tenenbaums attending the same Khaki Scout camp as Sam in Moonrise Kingdom, or to see Richie Tenenbaum moping around the lobby of the Grand Budapest Hotel? And anyone who's read The Stand knows that, in those thousand-plus pages, the cast of characters becomes woven together in gratifying and unexpected ways.

I want to talk about True Detective. HBO's eight-part miniseries focus on two detectives, played impeccably by Matthew McConaughey (!) and Woody Harrelson (!!) who are trying to piece together a series of murders ranging from 1995 to 2012. It's moody: obsessed with the occult and the meaning of death and darkness and humanity, punctuated only by the driest, most occasional humor. But it is a masterpiece. The actors are perfect: McConaughey's Rust Cohle is a prickly sumbitch, more interested in solving the case than paying even cursory lip service to human kindness; Harrelson's Marty Hart is a flaccid, flabby cop happy to chase extramarital tail (at first I was like, "Woody Harrelson, who are you trying to fool?" but by the end my eyes would fill with tears every time his did). The boggy swamp of Louisiana bayou is the perfect hiding place for a monster's dark heart, and the good ol' boys who police it are more than happy to cover up whatever messes they find.

While I would gladly watch Hart and Cohle banter blackly at each other for days, going into the series knowing that it didn't have its eye on a second season gave it such an interesting texture. I felt genuinely scared for the detectives, because they might have been killed at any moment. The case might have gone unsolved. The killer might still roam free (the thought of that makes me feel penny-mouthed with fear; this was a very scary killer). But it also felt luxurious. This wasn't Game of Thrones, with approximately one billion different characters, all of whose lives are in danger 24/7. Nor did it feel like a Netflix show, which are designed to be binge-watched and whose "episodes" often just serve as breaks to remind you to eat. This was proper television: self-contained episodes that both carried themselves and built on the season-long story. Eight hours over two months was the perfect amount of time to dig deep on this sprawling story, bring it to life, and then—most importantly—end it.

An ending is one of the greatest gifts a story can it can give itself. It gives the author purpose: there, that's my finish line. It gives the audience peace: there, now I know as much as there is to know. And it gives the story form: there, this is what we've been building towards. Without an ending, there is no form. It's only long, meandering series of events. And if I want a long boring story with no point to it, as Seinfeld would say, I have my life.

When I first started reading The Walking Dead, I was captivated. In a post-zombie existence, good and evil were thrown into stark and palpable relief. But more than a hundred issues in, my interest started to wane. Without a clear narrative arc, it's just a soap opera, albeit a very dark and nihilistic one. I'm so glad the anthology format is become more prevalent among TV productions. Having a one-season purpose, even more than once, means that the writers and directors know their boundaries. We all know the TV shows that should have wrapped up long before they were actually done—your Dexters, your How I Met Your Mothers—and when they finally reach their finales, it feels more like a mercy-killing than a satisfying end. As it turns out, all the shit in the middle clogs a story up.

To serve the story is a noble cause, and it's one that more television shows should remember. I know the whole point of TV is to make money, but there's something to be said about the integrity of the story. Not padding it with fifth-season wedding plots, or giving a 24-episode season to a story that only needs thirteen to get itself told, ultimately makes for better TV. And better TV means that more people watch. It's a win-win situation, folks.

Personally, I can't wait for True Detective to come out on DVD. I want to know more about Cohle and Hart's story—not more story, per se, but more about the mechanics of how it got told. From episode four's now-legendary six-minute long shot, to deep background on the real-life occultists that helped inspire the madness, I want more to think about. But I also know that, for now, what I've already gotten is damned fine entertainment.

[Image via Vimeo]