This weekend I had the chance to attend a conversation with Carter Bays and Craig Thomas, the creators of the hit comedy series “How I Met Your Mother.” The talk was held at Wesleyan University, where Bays and Thomas, both English majors, met as undergrads and became fast friends. They then went on to write for Letterman, and created HIMYM.
Audience members asked questions about how they got started, and the crazy number of scenes and flashbacks in each of the episodes, but the talk really got interesting when they took some heat about the series finale which wasn’t totally “upbeat.” I’m not going to go into details about the plot, but some fans were un-thrilled that they broke up two of the show’s central relationships in order to make another couple happen, and had to kill someone in the process.
Bays explained that the reason they ended the series this way is that they wanted the finale to reflect real life. Marriages between good people sometimes don’t work out. Diseases happen. One of them posed the question, “What do we think happens to Harry and Sally after the end of that movie? Do we really believe they never have any problems?”
I love unhappy endings. Some of the movies I hold in highest regard have downer conclusions. In many cases, I believe this is why they work so well.
Here are a few of my faves– CHINATOWN, DOUBLE INDEMNITY, HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG, THE BOY IN THE STRIPED PAJAMAS, AMERICAN BEAUTY, DEAD MAN WALKING, THE PERFECT STORM, UNITED 93 (brutal), and SEVEN (sorry you got your head chopped off Gwyneth.)
At the conclusion of each of these movies I was really upset. Things didn’t work out well for our hero. But I also felt strangely uplifted. And here’s why…
Each of these unhappy endings teaches us something.
In CHINATOWN, it’s that arrogant pride is destructive. In DOUBLE INDEMNITY, we learned that you can’t beat the system. Even if you’re smart, like Walter Neff. In HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG, Behrani is destroyed because he valued material possessions over human beings. THE BOY IN THE STRIPED PAJAMAS gave us a father who pays a terrible price for his Nazism. In AMERICAN BEAUTY, Lester Burnham dies, but not before doing the right thing and realizing that life is beautiful. In DEAD MAN WALKING, Sean Penn’s character finally reveals the truth about the role he played in the murders of two young people. Before he’s executed, he makes his peace with God. Everyone perishes in THE PERFECT STORM, yet we get to see these men put up the fight of their lives. We learn that nature is cruel, and we are small (but mighty) in the face of it. UNITED 93 has probably the most brutal ending (because it’s based on a true story,) and yet we see the power of human sacrifice. SEVEN, David Fincher and Andrew Kevin Walker’s serial killer masterpiece, teaches us that none are exempt from the seven deadly sins, especially wrath and envy.
Each of these unhappy endings opens us up to an insight. The lesson may be obvious (Nazis are bad!) but it’s revealed with such specific relatable characters, that it feels fresh and profound.
Take action! If you are considering writing an unhappy ending, how will you leave the audience with some fresh insight or powerful lesson? What will we take away from what happens in your tale? How can this deepen our understanding of humanity?
Carter Bays and Craig Thomas revealed the vagaries and realities of life in their ending to “How I Met Your Mother.” Some fans bought it, others didn’t.
For myself, I like that they tried, within a very prescribed genre, to leave us with more than just rainbows and unicorns.
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