SPOILER WARNING for Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, Game of Thrones, Avengers: Endgame, and Breaking Bad.
This year was a big one for the world of fandoms, with some of the biggest sagas and stories coming to a close - The Infinity Saga of Avengers, Game of Thrones and most recently the Skywalker Saga of Star Wars. For better and for worse.
And they’re not the only final moments on the cards - Supernatural is due to end next year after fifteen years, The Good Place is coming to a neat close after just four years, and many other shows are following suit.
After writing an article about the best shows of the decade, it occurred to me during research that there was a bit of an ongoing theme. The phrase “great show, disappointing ending” came up multiple times. In fact, one of the main praises of our favourite show of the past ten years - Breaking Bad - is that it is one of the rare franchises to have a nearly universally agreed perfect finale.
With all the hype going around this year about the end of eras - and the split opinion on The Rise of Skywalker - it began to make me think; what are the odds of success for a franchise to end well? What audiences do writers and directors have to take into consideration to end on the right terms, and not tarnish a reputation for the rest of time?
I’m going to try and break that down now.
The hardcore fandom purists
Whilst I make that title sound scary - it’s not really. Members of a fandom are usually far more invested in a story/universe than any casual viewer. They’ll consume anything and everything to do with their favourite fictional world to understand every detail. From comics and accompanying novels, to off-hand comments from the directors/writers/actors to stay fully immersed.
In doing so, expectations are often high, and details are put under the microscope. Many shows and films have actually been caught out by fans before as having inconsistent plots, or OOC (out-of-character) choices that don’t seem necessarily in-line with what has come before. Therefore, although members of fandoms are the biggest cheerleaders, they can also be the harshest critics.
The Rise of Skywalker faced the task of ending not just the sequel trilogy, but all other eight films that came before it. How did JJ Abrams approach that? By trying to do everything possible to make every single viewer happy, including fans that preferred different things.
In doing so, LOTS was crammed into this film. It was like clinging to the side of a freight train whilst trying to count the sheep that flew by - and whilst I found the film to be an enjoyable cinema experience, it certainly wasn’t consistent with a lot of the lore that had been built up. By trying to please everyone, Abrams alienated lots of other fans with conflicting information. And of course, the fast pace of the film meant that it was littered with plot holes.
The casual viewers
Whilst fandom members may not agree with this (I include myself here), the most arguable audience to appeal to are the casual viewers. They make up the biggest portion of sales and viewing figures, and therefore they normally take precedent over any other audience members.
Films/TV shows need to be accessible to someone tuning in who doesn’t know all the lore, or even the characters. It needs to be visually stunning, explain details enough for people to get by, and include enough fun and action-inducing sequences that don’t need you to be super invested in the series.
Although members of fandoms rely on expanded universes for full context of a story - like Star Wars - casual viewers can be left in the lurch when it comes to certain plot points. It’s all about striking that delicate balance between these audiences, which is not an easy thing to do when a franchise gathers a cult following.
It was actually a Marvel (pysch) that Avengers: Endgame managed to pull off. Despite relying on ten years worth of narrative, I’ve met people who knew the bare minimum about the Infinity Stones before going into this film, but they still had a great time watching it. Why? Maybe because of the kickass battle at the end, or two Captain Americas facing off, or chunky Thor who provided the comic relief. Whatever the reason, the Russo Brothers nailed it on this one.
Before you groan, hear me out. One of the things that often grows a fandom is the intrigue behind certain pairings - even if they’re not originally intended to be written in a romantic way. People watch for meaningful interactions, to see two characters build on what they have, without it feeling shoehorned into the story or ‘pandering’ to the shippers.
For me, Game of Thrones was a show that did fall victim to this. Though it granted a new relationship with Jaime and Brienne - two characters with a long history of helping each other grow - the writers immediately snatched it from our noses, sending out one of the characters on the most disappointing final arc possible. People have also argued that the same happened for Rey and Ben (AKA Reylo) in TROS.
On the other end of the scale, writers have been known to string shippers along with no intention to actually follow through. Supernatural has come under fire for queerbating with Dean and Castiel - with the writers teasing fans with hints of a possible love story, only to dismiss these theories when they’re brought up by audiences, which I personally feel is a shame.
I’m a firm believer that if Castiel were a woman, he and Dean would have long been together in some capacity by now - with their profound bond, intense staring sessions and multiple break-ups that feel like boyfriend quarrels. I’m about 90% certain that the show won’t make Destiel canon. But think about the power that the show would have by making two leads have a queer and meaningful relationship. It would put Supernatural down in the history books.
Stans (the name rather crudely taken from Eminem's 2000 hit about an obsessive fan) fall into a similar bracket as shippers - in that they’re invested in a series for a character specifically. These audiences above all want a worthy arc for their favourite character - which usually correlates with a successful and happy ending for them.
Though Avengers: Endgame was received mostly well across the board, certain stans were not in agreement. I found this out during a panel at MCM Comic Con, where I had a Twitter thread go viral that was all around Sebastian Stan - the actor who plays Bucky Banes, The Winter Soldier.
Investigating more, I began to see how stans of the actor weren’t particularly satisfied with Bucky’s role in the last film, as it lacked so much in content. He only had around two lines, and a lot of extra context was confirmed by the Russos to have happened off-screen, as there just wasn’t time to fit it into the final cut.
From a narrative perspective, it’s easy to see why Bucky’s character was sidelined in Endgame. He wasn’t integral to the plot, and he was amongst a cast of over 30 actors. However, if you examine his arc in the last two films, it’s pretty disappointing, and you can see why fans of this character would dislike this film overall by having their favourite character cast aside. Equally, TROS limited Adam Driver's lines as Ben Solo in the final part of the film - which was not only damaging to stans, but to the overall plot as well.
The critics and media
Most mass media content - especially those owned by Disney - aren’t usually contenders for awards like The Oscars or The Golden Globes. But this has changed recently, especially with the recognition of visual art and costumes. Having awards and accolades can do wonders for people's careers, but sometimes a title can try too hard to be geared specifically just for that.
This point was ultimately Game of Thrones’ downfall. It was easy to see that the writers were positioning themselves for Emmys, with the meta script and subverted plot that sacrificed a good story to shake things up and surprise everyone. You can even see by their reactions at the ceremony that they weren’t too happy about being snubbed by the critics after also being panned by viewers.
It’s also worth noting that critics and audience views don’t always necessarily correlate. The Rotten Tomatoes score for both The Last Jedi and The Rise of Skywalker is proof of that - though of course we have to keep in mind that these scores are only portions of the representation.
Personally, if a franchise is coming to a close then awards and critics scores shouldn’t be the driving force behind a plot. They’re a nice bonus at best. We've also seen opinions on films change over time - Stanley Kubrick's The Shining being a classic example.
So, how does a franchise strike a balance?
In all honesty, this is pretty hard to answer. When you look at all these audience types, it’s virtually impossible to please everybody. But let’s look at how Breaking Bad managed to achieve that revered ending.
This was a show that stuck by the Chekhov’s Gun approach. Every single detail that was laid out in the show paid off, right until the end. The creator of the show - Vince Gilligan - was upfront from the start that he knew exactly what the ending shot should be, he just didn’t know how exactly they’d get there. That was the job of the writers - to fill in the gaps and interconnect everything. The narrative came above all.
I found Gilligan’s honesty to be refreshing - because we seem to be in an age where directors and writers like to spout how they ‘always knew’ how the story would go, when that’s blatantly not true. J.K Rowling especially has a habit of adding in extra fluff to a narrative that’s already finished, pretending like that was what she’d always planned, and I just can’t believe it.
Equally, Gilligan also honoured everything that his writing team came up with, they were a united front. This was what the Star Wars sequel trilogy fell victim to. Clearly JJ Abrams and Rian Johnson were not on the same page when it came to these films arcs, as there’s so much conflicting information between The Last Jedi and The Rise of Skywalker. The backlash on these films may not have happened had there been a consistent plot that flowed throughout, and an understanding of where everything was supposed to go.
Finally, Breaking Bad was at times a slow burn. But this set-up meant that the climax felt earned. Other shows and films can easily fall into the trap of rushing plot points to get to the end (looking at you, GOT). But doing that can mean that characters will feel like they’re making rash decisions, or that the action is coming from nowhere. An ending should be built from as early as possible.
Whilst writers can include elements that please fans, shippers, stans, casual viewers and critics - all of these moments should come as part and parcel of a narrative that feels true to the story and the characters. So as we go into 2020 and say goodbye to some huge franchises, I hope that we can see another series achieve this with success, confidence and flare.