Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Episode 21: Franchise Finales with Jonathan Auxier

Hi guys! We will get back to non-podcast related material soon, but first let’s do another episode, featuring returning guest Jonathan Auxier, who wanted to stop by and talk about franchise finales, because he’s preparing to write one himself. It’s another long one!

By the way, I can’t believe I failed to bring up “Avatar: The Last Airbender” at any point! Definitely one of the all-time great American sagas with one of the all-time great finales, very much in the same vein as Return of the Jedi in terms of rising above the idea of killing the bad guy. It’s funny that “Game of Thrones” has so much sex and violence but is ultimately a pretty juvenile series, while ATLA is appropriate for four year olds, but is 10x more emotionally mature and sophisticated than GOT.

UPDATE: Jonathan wanted to add this, which, as you’ll see why, I’m more than happy to include:
  • After we finished recording, I realized that Matt had made a pretty genius observation on this topic that passed without much comment. Matt is 100% right that beheading Thanos in the first 5 minutes of ENDGAME was an attack on unhealthy audience appetites. The moment was especially jarring because virtually every other installment in the Avengers franchise had basically ended with “punch the villain into submission” as the final solution (which might explain why I haven’t liked earlier installments in the series). ENDGAME changes everything. It serves up violence right at the beginning ... but instead of solving things, it makes everything worse! That single move accomplishes so much in terms of plot and theme. It’s a huge escalation -- suddenly our heroes are encountering a problem that violence can't solve. It creates enormous uncertainty in both the audience and characters. AND it’s retraining our palates to crave deeper truth (what we need) rather than simplistic fighting (what we want). In the big finale, the movie is smart enough to give us some epic fighting. But all of that noise falls away for the true climax: Tony Stark's sacrifice. Killing off such a beloved character should incite riot -- but we accept it because we’ve seen where the simplistic solution lands us. Even better, Tony Stark in that moment is really reflecting the growth that the audience has experienced over the course of the movie. We’re right there with him as he realizes that this is not a problem he can laser-blast his way out of. The climax of ENDGAME isn’t happy; but it is deeply satisfying. And in the long run, that’s much more important.  
I agree with Jonathan: I’m awesome. 

I especially like in Endgame how Thanos is about to make some profound moral ruminations on his genocide and we in the audience are thinking “fuck this guy and his profundity!  He killed billions of people!”  Then Thor just chops his head off before he can finish his point and we’re like “Oh hell yeah” ...but then it’s instantly unsatisfying. 

Oh, and Jonathan, one more piece of advice: Don't overdo the loss-for-loss’s-sake in the final book.  The one thing I really hate about the Harry Potter books is that they killed off Fred in the finale, which felt like “final book sense of loss” just for the sake of “final book sense of loss”.  I think Rowling felt like “I’m killing off many beloved characters, but I need one that’ll really hurt even more than the others” and it was just too much.  It ruins the other books as you reread then, knowing how tragically things will turn out for Fred and even moreso for George, losing his twin.  You don’t kill off the comic relief!

(When I read the books to my daughter, I meant to cut out that death, but it snuck up on me.  Now that I’m reading them to my son, I’ll figure out how to snip it out.)


Anonymous said...

Yay! Another podcast! It's a good day.

Harvey Jerkwater said...

Have many things to say that I'll put up eventually - I'm only halfway through the episode - but first I gotta add to the talk on the end of The Sopranos

To tie a few things together from your discussion, its end is great because the episode answers the show's Great Question at the core of the show: "would any of the characters make it out of that world?" Would A.J. ever get his head out of his ass? Would Meadow fulfill the potential everyone said she had? Would Carmela walk away? Would Tony have a breakthrough in therapy and repent?

Carmela had been bought off by Tony early in the season. A.J.'s weak stabs at independence and a fresh start were ended easily by his father giving him a nice car and a flashy job. Meadow, the family's touted hope for the future, did no better. An old friend of hers turns up and we find out that while Meadow dithered about her future season after season, this friend (written off by Tony as a goofball) had completed graduate school and started a career. Also, Meadow gets romantically involved with a mafia guy and, worst of all, she starts making excuses for and defending the mob. At the end, she says she plans to maybe get a sort of law-firm job to "fight for immigrants," which is uncomfortably close her rhetoric that defends organized crime. At best, she's headed towards being a mob lawyer.

The series does show that escape is possible. Dr. Melfi dropped Tony as a patient on a minor pretext after friends of hers pointed out how sociopaths use therapy not to improve but to learn more sophisticated ways to manipulate. Her relationship to that world was fraught but she was in its orbit, and she rejected it. It felt awkward and a little pathetic, but she did it. The other escapee was Uncle Junior. Dementia robbed him of his memory and he did not know that he was ever in organized crime. He got out of that world, in a manner of speaking.

And at last there's Tony. At the end, we see him start the show afresh when he talks to A.J.'s therapist. The series began with him talking to Dr. Melfi about his issues. How has he grown in the years since? He has not grown at all. He's still chewing over the same issues, still framing everything through the lens of narcissism and self-pity, still a monster.

So when the screen cuts to black, is Tony dead?

It doesn't matter. Tony's story is over, the whole family's story is over, regardless of whether or not some dork in a Members Only jacket shoots Tony or not. The great question is answered. Anything else is superfluous.

What a great ending.

The Lost ending, now that was the worst. "A wizard did it!" is not a good answer to long-running mysteries.

Matt Bird said...

I think the finale was really all about Melfi realizing she shouldn't treat Tony because she was only making him a more effective psychopath, and ending the unhealthy relationship that began with the first scene of the story ...so I guess the real hero of the series was Peter Bogdanovich's character!

J Friday said...

Jonathan on the show again, yay! It was a great episode and gave me a ton to process. Will be listening again.

FYI: Without fail, I recommend Avatar to grown-ups who inevitably end up thanking me later if they take the plunge. Would love to see y'all use it as an example in the future.

Ishmael said...

I have to wonder if The Last Jedi would've been better accepted had it been the finale to the trilogy. It has the same re-examination of theme and the relationship of the audience to that theme that you discuss in successful finales, but for much of the audience it really didn't seem like what they wanted out of the movie.

I personally thought Episode VII was one of the best and most compelling films in all of Star Wars, but it's pretty clear there's a lot of division going on here. I thought it was interesting that a friend commented that he didn't like it (in part) because it felt less like the middle of a trilogy and more like the end of the series. Maybe they would've been better off bringing in Rian Johnson for Episode IX instead of Episode VII?

(To be clear, I'm not saying transplant the movie as-is as the final episode; I'm speaking more about transplanting the sensibilities of the film.)