Last night, after six wonderful seasons, Downton Abbey wrapped up its run as my favorite television show. I’m planning a post in the near future about my favorite moments from the show, but for today I thought I’d take a few minutes to talk about the ending of the series and about happy endings in general.
I imagine that for TV writers, the series finale must be the most difficult episode to write. Not only do you have to wrap up each character’s story line (and in Downton Abbey there are a lot of story lines), but you also have to decide how you will leave things for your audience.
When your show has such a following as Downton does, audience expectations must run very high. Nobody wants to see the show end on a depressing note, even though big houses like Downton were dying all over Britain in the 1920s. Nobody wants to think too much about where the world and characters of Downton are headed, to think that little George might be fighting in the trenches just like his father Matthew did. Any of these would have been viable options for Downton. The Crawleys might have had to leave Downton forever, Edith might not have had found her millionaire husband. So why did Julian Fellowes and his team choose a happy ending? Well, aside from millions of angry fans, I think it has something to do with our innate desire for a happy ending.
All of this got me thinking about what happy endings mean to us, and why we love them so much. I’ve done a little bit of research on happy endings, and I’ve found a couple of great articles on the subject. I’ve included the links and my thoughts about each.
First up is this BBC article about the history of happy endings in film. This article traces happy endings from the Greek Tragedies to Shakespeare to Blade Runner. The author states the pros and cons of happy endings, and lists plenty of examples in which the sad ending from a book was made happy for movie versions of the story. After describing the pros and cons of “happyendingfication,” the article just sort of stops. I was really interested in looking for why we want happy endings, not just how film directors make endings happy, so I turned to two of my favorite sources: The Gospel Coalition and The Rabbit Room.
The Gospel Coalition article I found, “3 Ways Movies are Searching for the Gospel” was exactly what I was looking for. The Author, Gavin Ortlund, draws on Acts 17:27, Paul’s speech at the Areopagus.
God has determined human lives so that they should perhaps “feel their way toward him” (17:27). In their own way, I see movies depict something of that “feeling their way” struggle.
I think this is true of any art form–film, books, fine art, music, any attempt at creation and expression is an attempt to feel our way towards God. As crazy as Hollywood often seems, many of their films strike at the heart of what it means to be human. All of those actors giving speeches at the Oscars are working to create something that is true to life. They don’t realize what they are searching for, many of them, but I think Ortlund’s article sums it up nicely. After drawing on this Scripture, Ortlund begins to talk about good triumphing over evil and the common idea of “they lived happily ever after.”
Does the idea of a “happily ever after” connect to anything in the real world, the Story each of us inhabits? Once again, in a naturalistic worldview the answer is no. The universe will ultimately wind down and run out of energy.
But for the Christian, harmony → tension → resolution is the basic paradigm of reality. We call it creation → fall → redemption. If Christianity is true, in other words, the reason the endings of movies make us feel the way they do is because it’s going to happen one day.
I love his connection between to the fall and redemption in this quote. I think there is a reason we desire happy endings–we like happy endings because we are human, and we know that we were designed for a happy ending.
Over on The Rabbit Room, Josh Bishop takes this one step further by describing “The Holy Longing of Happily Ever After.” I think this quote speaks for itself.
By telling stories in which our heroes and heroines and repentant villains live happily ever after, we can create in our children an expectation that this is how good stories should end. True, these stories will leave them profoundly dissatisfied with Real Life. And when they confront the fact that the world doesn’t really work that way, we can show them how their disappointment points to a better story, a deeper reality. Happy endings create a holy longing for the kingdom come. That hunger is a kind of grace that we must feed, even as we point to its satisfaction in Christ.
In truth, the world will have a happy ending. Our stories resolve with a feast and a wedding, where we will share the buffet line with such fairy tale characters as soldiers turned tillers and a lion that eats straw like an ox. On the final page, the bear and the cow sit down together for a cup of tea. At the restoration of all things, we will find that the knight has slain the dragon and has made the fair maiden his bride. These are the true endings.
And that’s why, to make a long story longer, I’m glad Downton ended happily. It’s always nice to see echoes of eternal truth here on earth, whether Julian Fellowes meant it that way or not.
P.S: Mom and I will be re-watching the show starting with Season One next week. Because what’s Sunday night without a trip to Yorkshire?