As the credits rolled on the final episode of “Breaking Bad” a few weeks back, my husband, Brian, turned to me and said “That was just too much of a happy ending.” I gaped at him. Not to be a spoiler for those who haven’t finished the series yet, but when the series is called “Breaking Bad,” you know it’s not going to end well. After five seasons of Walter White’s well-crafted, well-written, and violent fall from grace, a fall that hinges completely on his own sinful pride, Walter White comes to the end of his reign as the meth king, and he has devastated everyone around him. It’s not pretty.
What Brian really meant was that the story was too neatly wrapped up for him; there were not enough loose ends left flapping in the wind by the violence of Walter White’s narcissism. He didn’t feel like it could all be tied up so well.
Another recent hit, the taut thriller Captain Phillips, is a story whose ending viewers already know before going into the theater, since the movie is based on real events. We know the captain survives because he wrote the book that informed the movie. Tom Hanks’s brilliant performance as the gruff, stick-to-business captain negotiating with Somali pirates is well-balanced by first-time Somali-American actor Barkhad Abdi, who brings to life a character driven to piracy by the extreme circumstances of his homeland.
While Captain Phillips is saved from the pirates, and the distinguished group of elderly veterans who attended the same showing that I did were satisfied with the heroism of the American military, the film ably demonstrates that Phillips has been profoundly affected by the experience. The “villains” are not inhuman monsters—they are also victims of a sort.
This is the modern happy ending. Justice (which is often just revenge) is served, but no one really comes out of it “happy.” Even in superhero movies, whole buildings full of people are destroyed before the hero saves the day, and no one walks away unscathed. Perhaps we realize that nothing is sure, nothing is secure. Perhaps terrorism has brought home to North America what much of the world has been clear on for centuries: we cannot take a day for granted. We cannot expect to come out on top, shiny and unmarked, from whatever conflicts we encounter or undertake.
My church book club has debated over the years whether or not we choose too many books that are dark or that deal with death. One year we even jokingly dubbed our reading list the Death List. We didn’t intentionally chose dark, somber books because that’s all we are interested in. Generally we search for books that give us something to talk about, books that have a certain gravitas—and often the books that provide fodder for discussion deal with heavy subjects that cannot be neatly wrapped up.
I’m on board with that, for the most part. I appreciate books and movies and TV that challenge me and make me look at things differently. And it is true to our experience here on earth that life is messy, people are broken, and things unravel rather than being tied up. When a mother of young children passes away from breast cancer, it is not a happy ending. When a young man takes his own life in the throes of depression, his death creates a whole new wave of pain and brokenness. Art should be true to life.
But these days I’m on the lookout for honest but hopeful art. I don’t want to stay lost in the darkness. Where the world sees the reality of brokenness, Christians also see light making a way through it. Our hope doesn’t come through revenge or wealth or Navy SEALS. Those “victories” are incomplete and transient. Our hope comes from the fact that we are not our own, that we belong to someone else, and that he is walking through this story with us, rescuing us from the darkness.