The Most Sudden, Shocking Endings In Pop Culture
Mr Michael Stuhlbarg in A Serious Man, 2009. Photograph by Kobal/REX Shutterstock
We round-up the most frustrating cliffhangers.
It’s 10 years to the day since The Sopranos reached its unforgettable conclusion and we said goodbye to Tony and his dysfunctional family/Family. While it wasn’t quite HBO’s first attempt at prestige television drama (that accolade goes to the dated-but-still-very-good prison drama Oz), there’s little doubt that its critical and commercial success ushered in the golden age of television that we’re currently enjoying. Needless to say, rumours and fan theories were in full flow in the lead-up to the show’s ending, though surely no one could have predicted the (brilliantly) jarring way creator Mr David Chase chose to roll credits for the final time.
Whether a certain something did or did not happen after the screen cut to black is rather beside the point. Rather, its genius lies in its refusal to give audiences the neat moral “judgement” they were perhaps looking for – a way to feel less guilty after a decade or so of passively rooting for the show’s murderous, sociopathic antihero (which he was, at the end of the day, regardless of the fact Mr James Gandolfini gave the greatest, most emotionally complex performance to ever grace the screen).
Mr Thomas Pynchon (1973)
Gravity’s Rainbow is Mr Pynchon’s unwieldy epic about the production of German V2 rockets during WWII. It is a book that traverses the realms of high and low culture, of speculative metaphysics and straight-up profanity… before ending breathlessly, 800 or so pages later with bombs raining down from the skies, with the words: “Now everybody–”
It’s a notable entry in a number of novels that use mid-sentence endings to highlight the circularity of their narratives (Gravity’s Rainbow opens with the V2 “screaming… across the sky”). Finnegan’s Wake by Mr James Joyce is perhaps the classic example of this device: “A way a lone a last a loved a long the” literally recirculates to form a whole sentence when placed in front of the book’s opening line. Mr Bret Easton Ellis also utilised it in The Rules Of Attraction, both opening and ending mid-sentence, to highlight just how disinterested the narrator Sean Bateman is as he listens to two different women tell him a story.
Interestingly, Mr David Foster Wallace, the writer who is most frequently compared to Mr Pynchon, ends his novel The Broom Of The System mid-sentence, but for different reasons. Rather than creating a loop, it dissolves into an absence. “‘You can trust me,’ R.V. says, watching her ‘I’m a man of my’”
A Serious Man
Messrs Joel and Ethan Coen (2009)
Mr Michael Stuhlbarg in A Serious Man, 2009. Photograph by Focus Features/Allstar Picture Library
The Coen brothers masterfully traverse genre and style, but one common theme across their films is their often arbitrary ending points. It’s a technique that demonstrates the brothers’ commitment to highlighting the cryptic, random and inherently un-neat nature of life. No Country For Old Men was probably the most high-profile example of their refusal to end up with the climax an audience might be waiting for, though it is A Serious Man, their relatively under-the-radar black comedy from a couple of years later, that best exemplifies the trope.
A Serious Man is as inscrutable as it is hilarious, dropping into and then out of two hellish weeks for its protagonist, the Job-alike Larry Gopnik (Mr Michael Stuhlbarg). He frequently repeats the lines: “What’s going on?” and “I haven’t done anything!” throughout, and we’re never provided with a resolution to either exclamation. The film ends with the latest disaster Gopnik has to face (literally) appearing on the horizon. We do not get to see if this is the ultimate fate of Gopnik or simply another thing for him to clumsily navigate as he muddles through his life – the film simply ends.
“Untitled (How Does It Feel)”
The iconic lead single from D’Angelo’s 2000 masterpiece Voodoo really deserves to be experienced in its full-length LP form. Equal parts Messrs Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield and Prince, the song builds to a flurry of sexually explicit utterances – backed by the keening guitar of Mr Chalmers Alford and the offbeat groove of Mr Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson.
Suddenly though it’s over, mid-refrain: “How does it fee-” Presumably it’s intended to convey the sudden finality of a certain physical act, but one can’t help but think about the way this song directly led to the abrupt withdrawal of D’Angelo from public life and a spiral into serious drug addiction. Accompanied by an unforgettably explicit video that he was reluctant to film, it engendered an image of him as a pin-up rather than the serious, important artist he undoubtedly was (and has thankfully become again in recent years).
Messrs Richard Curtis, Ben Elton and Rowan Atkinson (1983-1989)
Mr Rowan Atkinson in Blackadder, 1989. Photograph by BBC/Allstar Picture Library
Mr Rowan Atkinson’s Edmund Blackadder, the titular antihero of this history-hopping British series, was so adept at escaping endless farcical situations that it seemed entirely plausible to see him reincarnated across the show’s first three seasons. Whether negotiating the Middle Ages, Elizabethan or Regency periods, death was never quite the end for Blackadder (nor, somehow, his hapless dogsbody Baldrick). That changes in the fourth and final season when Blackadder finds himself a captain on the Western Front during WWI – the series ends for good with a sudden freeze-frame as Blackadder and chums charge into no-man’s land.
Cut off from both continuity and conclusion, Blackadder’s failure to wrangle his way out is a poignant reminder that the sheer horror of WWI was unprecedented (and unmatched since). That this is encapsulated in the final unexpected moments of a beloved, absurdist comedy show makes it all the more powerful.