Happily Never After: The Death of the Happy Ending

Photo from The Guardian

On December 19, 2019, I walked into my local movie theater to see the ninth and final film in the Star Wars Saga– The Rise of Skywalker. I had been waiting for this movie since seeing The Last Jedi two years prior and had spent that time theorizing about how the film would play out. One thing was always certain in my mind: the film would end happily. I had all the details worked out. Ben Solo and Rey would get together in the end–two lonely souls forever connected by the Force. The Skywalker family, which had been filled with such turmoil and conflict, would finally find peace as Rey and Ben had kids of their own. They would correct the mistakes of the past and be present for their children. And, of course, they would watch the binary sunset on Tatooine together. Star Wars is, at it’s heart, a fairy tale and fairy tales always have happy endings.

But this one didn’t. Not only did Ben Solo, the last Skywalker, die at the end of the film, unforgiven by his parents, but Rey, who we discovered was the granddaughter of the saga’s big bad, Palpatine, stood alone on Tatooine at the end, watching the sunset in solitude. The villain won and the fairy tale was broken.

The ending of this film, which was forty-two years in the making, hit me hard. My grief stemmed not just from the fact that my favorite character reached an unsatisfying end, but because the story I grew up loving, the saga that had been a big part of my life, was forever ruined. I realized that Star Wars was no longer about all the things that made it special. Love. Hope. Redemption. Star Wars had been reduced to just another blockbuster franchise, void of any heart or emotion. Story telling and pathos don’t matter when you have toys to sell and Disney+ spinoff shows to market.

After the film came out, I spent a lot of time thinking about what went wrong. Aside from the sloppy writing, lackluster editing, and subpar performances, the most egregious offense The Rise of Skywalker committed was the ending. Yes, I know Star Wars has it’s dark moments and has ended on bittersweet notes before. But this was the conclusion to a nine film saga. This was the last time we were going to see the Skywalkers. It had to end happily.

But it didn’t.

In fact, it seems as though most Hollywood executives believe that happy endings don’t sell. The most important metric in which to measure the success of a film nowadays is how people react on Twitter. A happy and satisfying ending isn’t going to make your film a worldwide trending topic. But if you kill off a character or create a twist, regardless of how well it is executed, you will get people talking. Storytelling and character development play second fiddle to shock and awe.

Star Wars is not alone in this phenomenon. Popular shows like Game of Thrones and blockbusters like Avengers: End Game all concluded grimly.

Now, I’m not saying that movies and television shows cannot end tragically. Some of the greatest endings of all time are when the heroes “lose” (like in Gone With the Wind and Casablanca). The difference between these two classics and The Rise of Skywalker is that those films earned their endings. Everything in those stories built up to their downbeat conclusions. The writers didn’t take a left turn at the last minute, subverting audience expectations and guaranteeing Twitter engagement in the process. They trusted in their story and characters.

Before writing this post, I tried thinking about popular movies I had seen recently that ended happily, and I have to tell you, they were few and far between. The best example I could think of was Knives Out. This funny and old fashioned murder mystery is slightly predictable, but oh so satisfying. The bad guys lose and the good girl wins. The script, the performances, the direction all support this narrative. Other exemplars are Little Women and Emma.

The epilogue of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is often criticized for being too cheesy, but I always enjoyed it. After enduring seventeen years of loneliness, heart break, and conflict, Harry deserved to find love and family. It’s an ending that sticks with me because the hero I grew up with was happy.

In a world that constantly grows darker with every passing day, I turn to these stories for comfort. Happy Endings can sometimes be predicable, but they are imperative. We need the hope that happily ever after brings.

Unfortunately, I think the trend of dark, unsatisfying endings won’t stop any time soon. But, just like the original Star Wars film was a bright, shining beacon of hope in a time of great turmoil, I am hoping that another story comes along to lift everyone’s spirits.

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