Recently, my daughter began telling me about her watching of the classic episodes of the Twilight Zone, lamenting that so many of them had endings that were, in her words, “not done yet.”  When I tried to explain that the ambiguity was half the fun, she wasn’t entirely sure, and proceeded to try and figure out what would have happened to poor Burgess Meredith, suggesting that he find the nuked optometrist’s store for a new pair of cheaters.  While I admit that the child has a point, it got me to thinking about whether or not the nature of those endings was part of the show’s longevity.  (Though, I’m sure the superb writing didn’t hurt.)  I have often considered whether the syndicated shows of my youth, like Gilligan’s Island and original series Star Trek, didn’t benefit from never having a series finale that wrapped everything up with a big bow, leaving their characters in an endless cycle that occasionally restarts, but never decisively stops.

The MS-QOTD (pronounced, as always, “misquoted”) likes the ambiguous ending of the short story ‘The Mist,’ while loathing the movie’s last 15 minutes, asking: Does a creator actually need to tie up all the loose ends of a given tales, or can a ‘Twilight Zone’ ending actually be better?

The Author

Matthew Peterson

Matthew Peterson

Once upon a time, there was a young nerd from the Midwest, who loved Matter-Eater Lad and the McKenzie Brothers... If pop culture were a maze, Matthew would be the Minotaur at its center. Were it a mall, he'd be the Food Court. Were it a parking lot, he’d be the distant Cart Corral where the weird kids gather to smoke, but that’s not important right now... Matthew enjoys body surfing (so long as the bodies are fresh), writing in the third person, and dark-eyed women. Amongst his weaponry are such diverse elements as: Fear! Surprise! Ruthless efficiency! An almost fanatical devotion to pop culture!

And a nice red uniform.

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  1. January 27, 2013 at 12:05 pm — Reply

    No they shouldn’t need to and sometimes an ambiguous ending can be better. The problem occurs when the creator answers absolutely no questions. This leaves an empty feeling for the audience and sometimes a feeling like you wasted your time.

  2. Larry pilat
    January 27, 2013 at 12:36 pm — Reply

    I don’t believe a show needs a definite end. It’s the Jaws theory. The shark was scary because our minds made it so. It is this way with show ending, where you think the characters end up after words, in your mind will always be more satusfing then anything the creator can come up with.Most of the time.

  3. January 27, 2013 at 12:49 pm — Reply

    I think theres no need to tie all the loose ends. Latest example of ambiguous ending that i really liked was in All-Star Superman, where he died while reigniting the sun and saving the world one last time. Or did he? Lois believes he will return. How about that Superman dna? Will there be a clone of Superman? Great stuff, any ham fisted conclusive ending would have been inferior and probably wouldnt have been left such good impression in the end.

  4. Frank
    January 27, 2013 at 2:34 pm — Reply

    In regards to the original Twilight Zone, unambiguous endings would have spoiled the effect. If Burgess Meredith did get another pair of glasses, it would have killed the ‘twist’ ending that Twilight Zone is known for.
    Thinking about two recent series, Fringe and Lost; if every loose end was tied, the mystery that was the series would have been lost.
    Sometimes, it is best to leave something to the imagination.

  5. GeorgeDubya
    January 27, 2013 at 4:38 pm — Reply

    My favorite series finale of all time, Star Trek: The Next Generation’s “All Good Things” ended with the perfect ending. The crew sat down to play cards (a normal occurrence for the bridge crew) and were joined by Jean Luc.

    I guess what I’m saying is, no, loose ends don’t need to be conclusively tied up. Now, if the point of the show has been a mystery (ie. Lost), leaving loose ends is annoying.

    If The Walking Dead ended without all the loose ends being tied up, I’d still probably be happy. If Locke and Key ended without loose ends being tied up, I’d be frustrated.

  6. Oldcomicfan
    January 27, 2013 at 6:35 pm — Reply

    It entirely depends on the show or episode. Would Star Trek TOS have been better with a final episode? I believe so. Would Gilligan’s Island been better with a final episode. Just about anything would have improved Gilligan’s Island. Back to the Future series ended with the time machine destroyed and everything back to normal – except Doc Brown shows up with a flying steam engine time machine… Most television series would have been better with a final episode. I remember when M.A.S.H. finally ended, the last episode was the highest rated and most highly watched TV episode of its day. Too often, though, series were cancelled without any sort of explanation or wrap up. Shows like Mr. Ed and My Mother the Car certainly didn’t need or deserve a final episode, but what about a show like Firefly? That show certainly did.

  7. January 27, 2013 at 7:33 pm — Reply

    I need something at the end of a story. TV and comic books are the descendant of cavemen telling each other stories around a campfire. Good storytelling should have an obvious purpose, an ultimate point to get to. Otherwise, why is Zog wasting my time telling me this story that doesn’t go anywhere? If Zog wastes my time with a non sequitur, the rest of us cavemen are going to throw rocks at him and send him away from the fire.

    With a serial though, I think it’s the Thousand and One Nights trope. They keep ending with unanswered questions, because the audience will come back next week, hoping for more answers. The creators keep it going because if they don’t, we will chop off their head in the morning and find a new bride. Or cancel them, as we do in modern times, which is more cruel than beheading, in my opinion.

    So you’ve got to strike a balance. Answer enough questions so your caveman buddies don’t stone you. But don’t answer so many that your Arabian Prince has no more use for you and slits your throat.

  8. January 27, 2013 at 7:41 pm — Reply

    I think Twilight Zone might have worked despite its endings. That is to say, the good writing makes up for the poor endings. The worse the overall writing of a project, the less you can get away with unanswered questions like that.

    Because when you end with an unanswered question, a sizable portion of your audience might think you’re going to get back to it in the next episode, and even in those that know better, there is still unconscious hope for a resolution of a previous episode. But if the writing is consistently good, and continues to be thought-provoking, the viewer can forget the last question, and focus on the next one. After all, there is no shortage of mysteries to explore in fiction, especially if you’re open to science fiction.

  9. AllenBT
    January 27, 2013 at 8:25 pm — Reply

    There’s a difference between ambiguity and wrapping up loose ends. Many series end at a natural story point and that’s fine. You can leave the audience with a sense that there are untold stories still out there and they will be able to pick up the plot lines, in other media or just in their imaginations. But that is very different than deliberately leaving important plot threads unanswered, whether because of cancelation or writer’s ineptitude. That always leaves a bad taste. Back to the Future hit a natural story end, and leaves satisfied, even if you wonder what’s next for Marty and Doc Brown. Angel ended with a dramatic scene that seemed like a cliff hanger but wasn’t. Both of these ending left the viewer with a satisfied end that didn’t preclude more stories. But Lost, which was built as a series on asking questions and promising answers left a very poor ending of open questions as did Twin Peaks and Xfiles.

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