You may have noticed something: most fictional stories have happy endings. The bad guy is defeated, the lovers are together, the world is saved. Yay, confetti and champagne! The reason for this, of course, is that fiction offers an escape from real life and we want it idealized. We want to reassure ourselves that happy endings are not only possible, but probable. There’s nothing wrong with that. BUT, sometimes a downer ending can have a considerable impact, even if we kinda wish we could rewrite the tale. Here are the feel-bad story resolutions that I most love to be depressed by!
DANG-BLASTED’S TOP TEN UNHAPPY ENDINGS
(WARNING: GIANT SPOILERS ABOUND, OBVIOUSLY)
And Then There Were None: One Helluva Murder-Suicide Plot
You expect a murder mystery to end with a devious solution, and Agatha Christie always delivers, but you don’t expect it to also end with absolutely everyone dead. The Grande Dame of crime yarns threw a wrench in the works by introducing a parcel of victims who, for one reason or another, all deserved to die, then sticking them on a remote island to be picked off one by one. (I think we’re all grateful that the novel’s original title got changed, yeah?) I’m not gonna go so far as to tell you who the killer is, but I will spoil this: the killer isn’t sparing him/herself the same fate. After everyone is indubitably deceased, we learn that the mastermind faked their own death, kept on murdering from behind the scenes, then committed suicide in a way that made it look like they’d been dead the whole time. BWUH? Needless to say, there’s plenty of clues throughout. But it’s a pretty epic way to end a story on a nihilistic note. No heroes, just one giant bastard who out-murders even themself.
Bloom County: This is a Comic Strip; Why Do I Feel Dead Inside?
Comic strips and existential grief don’t go well together, but Bloom County was always ready to grace convention with a giant middle finger, which is why it remains my favorite newspaper comic of all time. You knew author/artist Berkely Breathed was gonna end things on a surreal note, and did he ever: Bill the Cat gets Donald Trump’s brain implanted in his body, buys the comic, and fires all the other characters. Last-minute save, though, right? Nope. Although Breathed did create sequel strips, Bloom County was over forever. The cast is forced to go their seperate ways, and lovable penguin Opus finds himself wandering through a bleak, bullet-ridden skeleton of the world he once knew and loved. The final Bloom County strip shows Opus trudging away from the viewer as the beloved, abandoned environments of Bloom County fade to white. Holy shit...that’s, like, the bleakest thing ever, and it’s what newspaper readers had to deal with one Sunday in 1989. Wonder if the national alcohol consumption stats went up that week.
The Dark Tower: Better Luck Next Time, Roland...*RESET*
It is ballsy as fuck to spend decades writing an epic saga of dark fantasy and end it by dicking over the hero...but this is Stephen King. He actually included a disclaimer within the final Dark Tower novel, warning the reader that haunted gunslinger Roland Deschain was not destined for a happy resolution...or even any resolution. After finally reaching the legendary, quasi-metaphysical Dark Tower, after losing all his loyal companions, Roland climbs to the top of the Tower, opens the final door, and......is transported back to the beginning of the entire narrative, with no memory of having undergone the quest before. It is implied that Roland is doomed to repeat the whole thing over and over and over until he hits some sort of karmic plateau. I think many Dark Tower fans would have preferred Roland to die in a hail of bullets in the final paragraph. But you gotta admit, it’s sort of profound. And there is a note of hope, almost an easter egg, implying Roland’s journey is nearing its true end. But we’ll never see that end. Mr. King...you fucking suck and you’re brilliant.
Don’t Look Now: That’s Not Your Daughter, Donald
Don’t Look Now is a movie that really should be better known, because it’s a minor masterpiece of atmospheric suspense and dread. It stars Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie as a grief-stricken couple living in Venice; both are mildly psychic, and Sutherland keeps catching glimpses of a small figure in a red raincoat...possibly the ghost of his drowned daughter. Meanwhile, someone in the city is committing murders. In a slow build-up of tension and eerie images, the hero casts aside his skepticism and chases that little figure in red, ignoring the pleas of his wife and friends, who realize the truth: it’s not a ghost, it’s a warning. In one of the creepiest WTF moments in movie history, Sutherland catches his “daughter,” who turns around to reveal the visage you see above. And then she slashes Donald’s throat and he dies in agony. If only he’d paid more attention to the signs. Although this ending doesn’t entirely make sense, the overall dream logic of the film adds more heft to such a shocking, gruesome punchline.
The Empire Strikes Back: Is Everybody Fucked or Is It Just Me?
This has lost a bit of its impact because these days, we treat the Star Wars movies as a single entity. But when you really think about it...damn, the ending of the second film is just sucky. Luke has lost his right hand, his lightsaber, and his entire understanding of good and evil -- knowing as he now does that Darth Vader is his father and saintly Obi-Wan lied to him. Han’s been frozen in carbonite and his friends utterly failed to rescue him. The Rebel Alliance suffered a crushing defeat and now has to somehow pull itself up from the ashes. The final shot of the film has a huge, ominous question mark hanging over it: how the HELL can things get better for our beloved heroes? Compare that to the ending of the first film, with Luke and Han sporting gold medals and goofy grins. Everything’s looking up, NOT. This is why The Empire Strikes Back is the best Star Wars film, and why a downer ending can sometimes ensure the fans will drool for more.
Ex Machina: Happy Birthday, Mr. Friendless Vice President
Brian K. Vaughan is a comic book writer who always takes his stories to their logical conclusion, no matter how harsh it may be. He gets a lot of deserved praise for Y: The Last Man, but don’t overlook Ex Machina, which focuses on Mitchell Hundred, the world’s only superhero (he can talk to machines), who becomes mayor of New York City after his failed stint as a crime-fighter. The comic contains a stellar balance of politics, witty dialogue, and sci-fi, as Hundred attempts to not suck as mayor while gradually discovering that we’re under attack from a bunch of parallel universes. With that comes the realization that being a savior means being unhappy...and alone. By the end of the series, Hundred has alienated himself from his loyal sidekicks and become Vice President, knowing he must do whatever it takes to protect our world. And the comic implies -- merely implies -- that Hundred might be gay, and doesn’t dare reveal his true feelings. Ever. This isn’t what’s supposed to happen to superheroes. But the real world is cold, cold, cold.
Gyo: Dead Fish Take Over the World. Seriously.
Speaking of comics, let me introduce you to Junji Ito, an author/artist whose warped imagination would make Lovecraft go, “DAMN, dude.” In his Gyo series, Japan suffers one crazy-weird crisis as dead fish, mounted on metallic spider legs, begin rising from the sea. Turns out that during WWII, the Japanese military attempted to design war machines fueled by the gases of necrotizing tissue. As usual, the experiment ran amok and has been quietly evolving under the ocean, and now...payback time. Moving from fish to sharks, whales, land mammals, and finally humans, the machines continue to develop, forcing humanity into a nightmarish symbiosis where we become their engines, like The Matrix but a thousand times more disgusting. Like all the best horror-apocalypse tales, Gyo ends on a note of grim ambiguity. Is this our ultimate fate, to die and become stinky fuel cells for robo-bugs? Eh, could be worse.
His Dark Materials: Better to Have Loved and Lost....?
Phillip Pullman’s infamous fantasy trilogy has its share of controversy -- the Catholic Church is evil, there are gay angels, and the climax includes the literal death of God -- but at least the two young heroes, Lyra and Will, have each other, right? Sadly, there was no happily ever after for our lovelorn leads; they had their sexual/spiritual awakening only to learn they had to separate forever. See, Lyra and Will are from different universes, and it turns out that spending too long in the wrong ’verse causes you to sicken and die. Worse, all means of traveling between the worlds must be sealed off, or else the End of Everything might occur (it’s complicated). Not only was this heartbreaking for the couple, it was tragic for everybody, because how awful to know that there are a million other worlds to map and explore, but you can never visit them! All you can do is close your eyes and imagine them brushing up against you...which is all Lyra and Will have at the end. Sniff.
The Snowman: Innocence Melts
Oooh, can’t forget to include some childhood trauma! Let’s see...Bambi’s mom, Mufasa, Fox and Hound...eh, screw Disney, I’m going indie! The Snowman is a gorgeous book by Raymond Briggs that became a gorgeous animated film by Dianne Jackson. Wordless, it tells the tale of a young boy whose snowman comes to life on Christmas Night. It’s funny (they explore the kid’s house together) and magical (they fly to the North Pole and meet Santa), aaaannnd you can totally see where it’s going, can’t you. Next morning, the boy wakes up and finds the snowman has melted. That lifeless pile of snow with a hat and some coal scattered atop it is about the saddest visual in any cartoon ever. Suddenly, it’s not a happy story about whimsy and magic, but a rumination on how precious -- and fleeting -- childhood innocence is. Hell, maybe the boy dreamed the whole thing. And maybe the memories of one marvelous night will last him into adulthood. Hope so; otherwise life sucks and then you die. Merry Christmas!
The Thing: You Still Human, Friend-o?
Horror movies are often allowed to get away with unhappy endings because, well, they’re horrific. And you can’t kill off the monster/slasher/ghost when there are so many jump-the-shark sequels to be wrung out! The Thing is unique in that it ends on a note of fearful uncertainty, yet has no sequels (prequels don’t count). No sense of safety or closure. A shape-shifting alien attacks an Antarctic base, just about everyone is killed and/or assimiliated, and by the end, the two survivors have resigned themselves to death once the rubble stops burning. But are they human? Despite a few fan theories (Childs’ earring? Gasoline in the scotch bottle?) there is really no way to tell. Was the Thing destroyed, or is it biding its time, knowing it can survive freezing? We want to know that the hero at least didn’t die in vain (even though I wrote a whole post on how he might not be the hero), and we are denied that knowledge. And that is scary as fuck. A good unhappy ending leaves you checking your locks at night.
This might be a downer post, but don’t worry...I plan to make a list of my favorite happy endings. As well as a list of happy endings that made me want to drink paint thinner and forget I ever saw them. Stay tuned, spoiler lovers.