The current kerfuffle about the intended ending of “The Sopranos” —was Tony about to get whacked or wasn’t he, and, if he wasn’t, why did David Chase make us think that he was? —has sparked a few larger thoughts about the nature and variety of what happens last, in movies and books as much as in television. So let us try to set down some of the anatomy of endings right now.
As biology divides into the two great kingdoms of plants and animals, so endings divide into the Closer, which seeks for some chorale-like finality, reuniting characters set apart and recapitulating, in a new key, themes already fully stated, and the Clincher, which surprises us by tying story-strings together in an unexpected way, or else throwing a new, ironic light on the whole recent past. Within these kingdoms lie all the smaller, dependent species: the Cop-out, the Letdown, the Tie-up, the Wrap-up, the Aha!, and the Huh?, not to mention the two kinds of landings, Soft and Hard.
Those two large kinds, though symmetric now, stand in evolutionary relation. The Closer is essentially classical, the Clincher a later invention. Shakespeare’s last scenes, for instance, can be memorable, but his last lines and exchanges tend to be Closers, of the “You this way, we that way” or “ Wasn’t what just happened terrible?” variety—neat wrap-ups, doleful or delighted. (An ending is not a climax, though it generally hovers near one, as a halo near a saint.) Arresting endings, memorable in themselves, are a Romantic innovation. Just as the classical symphony slowly evolves to place the major weight of meaning in the last movement rather than the first, so the Romantic novel tips toward the final chapter and last sentence. Everyone remembers the first line of “Pride and Prejudice”—that “It is a truth universally acknowledged” business—but who recalls the last line of “Pride and Prejudice”? Indeed, it is rather flat and fatuous, a classically minded Closer: “And they were both ever sensible of the warmest gratitude towards the persons who, by bringing her into Derbyshire, had been the means of uniting them.”
But, thirty years later, the Romantics are in the saddle, and everyone can recall both the beginning and the ending of “Jane Eyre”—reader, she married him. Dickens, in the course of his lifetime, passed from the comic-classical end of “The Pickwick Papers,” where we are simply told that everyone we met will now be together forever, to the ideal symmetry of “A Tale of Two Cities,” with its great first line and even more memorable last line, uttered, as we forget, from the grave itself —a far, far better way of ending a novel. Indeed, on a well-wrought list of the hundred greatest last lines of novels, only two are from the pre-Romantic era, and those are both a bit of a cheat. (They are the last lines of “Don Quixote,” memorable only because it is a reward for getting to the end of “Don Quixote,” and of “Candide,” whose ringing “cultivate your garden” is merely a repeat for emphasis from the paragraph immediately before.)
The Wrap-up is the pop form of the Closer: everybody’s interests are taken into account and paid off; all are sent home from Korea or given a spin-off series. (A famous James Bond comic-strip adaptation of “Thunderball” that abruptly ended, not long after its beginning, in a publisher’s dispute included the ultimate Wrap-up panel: “Every agent in the world searches for the bombs. Bond finds them, and the world is safe.”) The Tie-up is the pop form of the Clincher, not just reconciling the cast of characters but neatly taking the trouble to tie together ingeniously, or with reverse spin, whatever strange, stray bits of plot are left over. Among failed endings, the Letdown is the inevitable form of the unsuccessful Clincher—most recently and outrageously seen in the last episode of “True Detective,” in which the Cajun-cosmic promise of the earlier episodes collapsed, and the sinister master of the Satanic human-sacrifice, child-rape ring, feeding on esoteric fin-de-siècle literature, turned out to be a standard-issue swamp-psycho, right out of “Kolchak: The Night Stalker.” The Cop-out, a near relation to the Letdown, is essentially a failed Closer: it involves not following through on the promise of the premise—on the most recent season of the modern-day “Sherlock,” for instance, the death and resurrection of Sherlock was left teasingly unexplained, or multiply explained, in a way that delighted the makers’ ingenuity more than the viewers’ desire for an end.
The Aha! ending then gives way to the ambiguous, or Huh?, ending of “The Sopranos.” This kind of ambiguity is often asserted to be a part of the toolbox of modernism in the arts, where ambiguity supposedly reigns, newly adapted for a pop form. In fact, modernist classics tend to have surprisingly clear Closer endings. The great modernist endings are frequently comic, not in the sense of being actively funny but in reconciling and reuniting the action just past and the characters who played a part within it. Joyce’s endings are almost sentimental: the ending of “Ulysses” is famously one big birthday-party-bright “Yes,” while “Finnegan’s Wake” ends neatly and hopefully, if dreamily, by returning to its beginnings. Proust more or less pins us by the ear to explain exactly and unambiguously what he’s been banging on about—to remember things is to live them, and to live is to remember things—while Hemingway and Fitzgerald came together on the idea of the ideal modern Closer as the unexpected soft landing, the dying fall, the anticlimax or banal fact-statement, more moving in its modesty than any melodramatic conclusion, as in the ending to “A Farewell to Arms”: “After a while I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain.” Or the even better, semi-colon-enclosed ending of “Tender Is the Night”: “In any case he is almost certainly in that section of the country, in one town or another.”
No, the ambiguous ending has always been a pop device, the “Sopranos”-style finale simply a slightly artier version of the cliff-hanger: no different in structure, though perhaps in effect, from leaving the heroine tied to the train tracks. Indeed, there is a close relation between the familiar twist, or the O. Henry ending, and the higher reaches of ambiguity. The Mike Hammer-style twist ending, beloved of pulp fiction, is simply a meatier version of the same.
What made the “Sopranos” ending unique, if not original, was not the absolutism of its ambiguity but the clarity of its choice. It was either a Clincher or it was nothing at all: it was a Huh? ending with a soft landing, the possibility of a Letdown. If the next thing to happen was not the whacking of Tony, or even the mass murder of the Soprano family, then nothing had happened, and the thing had just ended. It wasn’t ambiguous—it was perfectly clear, just not fully disclosed. A hit was the only possible ending; the other possibility was that it didn’t end, but just went on. This was subtle and rather moralistic—in the midst of life we are in whacking—but also rather fatalistic: in the midst of life we might well be in the midst of getting whacked, and we won’t know either way until it’s too late to do anything about it.
Endings haunt us because they are our mortality formalized. They give us a simulated symbolic version of our own endings, which are either the Clincher, sudden and unexpected and ironically right, or else the Closer, the deathbed gathering. The grim trick, of course, is that, as long as we maintain the sense of an ending, it isn’t over. In life we are all sitting in the diner, listening to Journey, as the Reaper in a tracksuit and sneakers slides across the linoleum floor. Like Tony in the diner, our consciousness is incapable of its own closure. Endings are what life cheats us of. As long as a sense of the ending hovers, the story goes on. We close the book, leave the theatre, shut off the screen, and return to the world, bewildered, maybe, but still breathing. In this way, a bad finish is a great gift, indignation at an unsatisfying ending being the surest sign of life.