The Cake is a Lie: Why Winning Isn’t Always a Happy Ending
Sometimes I suspect I’m not truly American, because I harbor a dark secret. Unlike most of my countryfolk, I don’t much care for the neat, syrupy, happy ending. It just doesn’t do it for me. Oh, sure, we all need some escapism. Life can be awful, and in reality every life is a tragedy because at some point we all die. We need some heroes-win-good-folks-prevail stories to pacify our fears and anxieties in a world where, unfortunately, the good folks don’t usually win, and aren’t always happy.
But does winning always mean the ending is happy? Or can we win the day but lose everything that made us who we are, and sacrifice our happiness?
I don’t believe that a happy ending always means that the good folks win, or end up super happy about winning. For me, an ending can be happy even and especially if the heroes don’t hook up, if the world is still cracked and a little evil when the last of the evil is purged. These stories of folks carrying on even after evil is vanquished, tarnished and messed through the act of fighting, is a much more realistic “happy” or “winning” ending to me.
I look at the aftermath of great wars, like World War II where whole cities were bombed out, Britain was in ruin, Japan was upended, Germany was occupied, and an entire continent had to dig itself out of the rubble, and the horror, of what was done to them and what they did to others, and carry on. A burgeoning genocidal empire had been thwarted, but it came at a great cost.
Writing stories where we forget about that cost, or gloss it over, ring very hollow for me. There is something deeply unsatisfying about pretending that visiting violence and death upon our foes won’t change us in some way. We watch endless rounds of violence delivered to “bad guys” on the screen and on the page, but hear very little about how turning oneself into a person capable of such violence can make a true happy ending nigh impossible. We end these stories before we have to see the aftermath, before we explore what happens next.
I tend to get a bad rap for my endings, but the reality is that the protagonists tend to get what they want. They meet their goals. They win in the technical sense, but have been so changed by events, having been so ground down, that the overall feeling one has at the end is that we haven’t won something so much as we’ve endured it.
One of my British colleagues noted that for them, a “happy” ending is actually an ending where everyone is still alive at the end. And you know what? If everyone is still alive at the end, what more could you ask for?
Happiness means you carry on. Happiness means you’re still alive to heal yourself, possibly, and maybe help repair the broken world you saved. But it doesn’t mean that life is OK. Or that the work is over. In truth, the ending, whatever it is, means that the work of picking up the pieces after the violence and horror of the events of the story has just begun.