[Hello Whedonesque-y types! Good, bad, indifferent, please leave a comment somewhere - I'm following and commenting on the Whedonesque thread if you're at all interested.]
This post isn't really about a Joss Whedon show. A few paragraphs down we get to our real topic. But we start with Joss, almost out of habit.
Joss Whedon's Angel was cancelled in 2004, one year after Buffy the Vampire Slayer shut down. The David Boreanaz-centered spinoff ran for five seasons on the WB, playing to the usual small-but-rabid audience. The cancellation came as a surprise to all involved, it seems; ratings were up, critics were raving about the fifth season, and fan enthusiasm was at an all-time high (particularly since Angel was, at that point, the only Whedon project on the air). The WB had given Whedon and his co-showrunners an ultimatum during Season Four: retool the show to cut costs, lighten the tone, and focus on standalone stories, or you're done. (This made sense after the knotty self-referentiality and tortured soap-operatic melodrama of Season Four, which was restructured around an unexpected actor pregnancy that left the show's various seasons-long arcs in a bit of a shambles and prompted a complete rethink of the Season Four plot.) Various explanations have been floated for the cancellation; according to David Fury, longtime Buffy and Angel writer, Whedon approached the network for an early renewal (to grant a bit of security to the actors, crew, and staff), and the network didn't want to be pushed, or didn't want to commit yet, and pushed back too hard.
None of which is terribly important, though it's unfortunate. The bottom line is, Angel's fifth season was nearly as strong as its previous best (Season Three), blending strong one-offs (a technically dazzling muppet episode, the most illuminating flashback stories of the whole series, and the heartbreaking return of a deceased character in episode #100) with a host of ongoing story arcs (the fall of Charles Gunn, Fred's death and the appearance of Illyria, the Lindsey/Eve intrigue, etc.) as tightly constructed as anything in the show's five-year run. The cancellation notice came with the show operating at an undeniable peak.
The final three episodes covered a huge amount of series-mythology ground in a short time: drawing the central Buffy/Angel/Spike love triangle to a melancholy but satisfying close, tying off the show's most important single piece of backstory (the prophecy, introduced in Season One, that Angel's eventual reward for his heroic work would be rebirth as a human), winding up the year's various loose plot threads (including an intriguing romance for Angel himself), and bringing about all-out war between the remaining heroes and the show's villains, evil organization Wolfram & Hart. By the time Season Five was over, several principal characters were dead, and a couple of others were likely about to buy the farm - decisions that (the writers have since said in interviews and DVD commentaries) were made after the cancellation, as a way of raising the stakes to a point of finality. The finale, 'Not Fade Away' (written by creator Joss Whedon and showrunner Jeff Bell) was as affecting as any previous Angel episode - not least because it left the four remaining heroes in the middle of a fight for their lives, facing certain death. The last line of the series - 'Let's go to work' - was a very conscious decision by Whedon to show life going ceaselessly on (as it has a habit of doing - though not in TV shows or comics, particularly superhero stories where resets and timeskips and so forth are common tropes).
And the fans, well...
...for some reason, many of them wanted to know what happened next. For some reason, many still do. They say they need to know.
Which is to say they're missing the point.
There's news this week that, with the (very) early sales success of the new Buffy Season Eight comic book (overseen and partly written by Whedon, an official or 'canon' continuation of the TV series), comics publisher IDW is in loose talks with Whedon to produce an official Angel Season Six along the same lines. The news hit popular fansite Whedonesque this weekend, spawning a long comment thread with fans excitedly wondering how the story would move on and whether it was in fact a good thing that it do so. [As I write this the site is experiencing database problems, so no direct links or quotes, I'm afraid.]
A number of commenters have offered notions of how dead characters might be brought back for Season Six; several have speculated as to the identity of the presumptive Big Bad. A few have commented that the end of the show was perfect, a testament to the characters' strength and courage, but several more have responded that they had to know what happened next, that despite the implausibility of the heroes winning their final battle (which would make it, er, not final in a way, no?) they needed more stories about Angel and his cohort. Implying that the ongoing story was in some sense not finished, or finished improperly.
That discussion has clarified something about fans, for me, and about narratives in general.
I propose the following for the sake of argument, surely not the first time such an argument has been made but the first time it's been made on this weblog: Narrative isn't merely a device for structuring desire (and a mechanism that defers its satisfaction), but a device by which conflicting desires are established and brought into conflict and confluence. The more complex the story, the more complex the interface between desires, and the more potential for the fulfillment of an individual desire. Moreover, the writing of a story (the production of a narrative) produces satisfactions in the writer/storyteller/filmmaker/author, which resolved by a commitment (or left unresolved due to a failure to commit) to craft, i.e. to structure, to structuring logic. The logic of authorial satisfaction isn't the same as that of readerly satisfaction, though a long-term commitment to craft (or certain natural talent) can bring them quite close; this is what it is to be a 'natural storyteller' or, indeed, Joss Whedon: to resolve, seemingly naturally, the competing pulls of audience-satisfaction and personal-satisfaction. Complex storytelling increases the variety of ways that the audience can be satisfied, combines audience desires in new or untraceable ways, and (often) ends the story with still-suspended desires held in tension against those that've been satisfied.
Reading the story Hansel and Gretel, we want the kids to make it home safely. There is peril and we want the peril to be lifted; we sympathize with the lead characters, almost unconsciously, because they're children; certain narrative details (like their parents wishing well, say) increase sympathy. We wish we had our childhood back, and do not wish to see our fantasy childhood sullied. OK?
But frankly, we also want to see the little motherfuckers get hurt. If Hansel and Gretel walk into the woods and there is peril and then suddenly the peril is just gone - turns out there was no wicked witch, or her oven doesn't work so she lets them go, etc. - we feel disappointment of a certain basic desire/expectation. We lean forward as the story is told, tap our feet as we read; we want to get to the good part. That terminology is telling: the 'good part' isn't the part that establishes the story's internal moral good, it's the part of the story that endangers it. What's 'good' for us as readers is (always) what's bad, in one or another way, for the story's established order.
Readers desire conflict. Readers desire safety.
An extension of the latter point is that readers desire (more generally) order; they want to trust the story and its narrative integrity, in no small part because that trust is a necessary precondition of sane reading. Without the security afforded by the magic circle (a term used most often in game studies, roughly meaning 'contract with the fiction') we'd never do most of the crazy things we do on a football field, nor wish for the events that occur in a Stephen King novel or A Tale of Two Cities. We make for ourselves a space without 'official' consequences. You can still break your leg on the football field; you can still get nightmares about Cujo or Carrie. But when if you beat your boss at a game she's still your boss, and the nightmares are wiped away by the day-to-day.
When Buffy and Angel broke up right before the prom, the fans didn't all turn off the TV. No one wanted them to split up, and probably few fans were self-deluding or cynical enough to think that they'd get back together. But fans love the moment of their breakup, and that episode. Why? We enjoy hardship as long as it's happening to an avatar. One curious feature of narratives is that they push us to enjoy things we don't want. That's a crucial paradox of fandom: fans are distinguished by the specificity and intensity of what they want from the text, but are most rabid about shows that demand a form of masochism from them. You can turn immediately from wondering 'Will they ever get together?' to wanting to see the breakup scene again. And here is where structural integrity comes into things: the Buffy/Angel love story (for instance) was doomed from the start. Had it not been doomed - the 'great forbidden love of all time' and all that - then the writers of Buffy would've had to put imperil it to generate narrative tension anyhow. The threat has to be real. The way to show the threat is real is for it to come true. That's why I can't care at all about, say, old Star Trek episodes: there's absolutely no chance that anything will change. The show is offering a different satisfaction: it's a comedy. (And we're not really talking about comedy here.)
Authors are readers, and authors desire order and satisfaction as well. But the job of an author is to suspend satisfaction, that is, to sustain the reader's desire so she'll finish the story. Therefore the author's discipline is to resist the narrative path-of-least-resistance - in simple terms, to put off the happy ending. In order to balance security and risk/conflict, the author plays on generic expectations, so that the reader is simultaneously reassured (by the appearance of familiar tropes and structure) and challenged (by some appearance of newness - the fiction that this time it might be different). I've written about this at length before, in the context of NaNoWriMo:
What you get out of the writing process is one thing, but what the reader gets out of reading your work is something else entirely. The reader doesn't give a damn that you got a Flash! Of! Inspiration! from your 'muse' or whatever you call the cognitive misfiring and rewiring that goes on while writing. The reader wants: a story that makes sense.
So what makes an enjoyable story? That's the thing: tons of stuff. We dig allusion, momentum, rhetorical cleverness, sonority, relatability, simplicity, comfort, thrills, critical insight. The best stories, I think, combine a number of these pleasures and play them off one another. I enjoy the formal wackiness of Ulysses, but I love the story of Leopold and Molly; the formal devices distance the reader from the human reality, for the most part, but it's not like you complain, because you're being taught to want something else, an encyclopedic experience. I want their marriage to work out, but it's not important to find out whether it actually does; what's importance is the reader's gift to Joyce's characters (sympathy) in exchange for Joyce's writerly offering (empathy, relatability), facilitated by the transporting beauty of the form. The reader is brought to that offering by a pattern of frustrated desire. Very simple example: we want to know what happens to Stephen, as well, but the story leaves him behind temporarily after three chapters, and though we trust that Joyce will get to the damn point already, the shift in perspective leaves our expectations confounded somewhat. The 'Telemachiad' climaxes with Stephen's reverie on the beach, and by shifting to comparatively flat narration for the start of Bloom's day, Joyce sets up curiosity, resentment, and (especially) a feeling that his story is prosaic in comparison to the loftiness of Stephen's dialogue with the cosmos - a feeling Joyce slowly does away with, as Bloom's character grows fuller and richer over the course of the day. He wins, you know - after a fashion. And you're happy for him. In part because of where you started.
There's no 'correct' way to desire a story-outcome. Stories offer an opportunity to engage with new desire and the author's work is, in part, to anticipate those desires and deal with them (sometimes by refusing to acknowledge them). But this isn't done consciously. That's why you can't write a novel with a Mad-Libs book.
Long way around the barn to get here, I know.
Oh yeah. The finale of Angel. Briefly, it's like this...
Whedon once (infamously!) said, re: the death of a beloved Buffy character, that his job wasn't to give the fans what they want, it's to give them what they need. A number of fans reacted to this statement with great hostility, and no surprise: who are you to tell me a damn thing about what I need? Isn't that the meaning of, um, freedom? But Whedon was making a subtle point: within the storyline, from a position of fan-desire, an inability to admit the structural requirements of the story, the structure with the greatest integrity, is precisely the ideal readerly position. If I watched the last half-dozen episodes of Angel's final season saying to myself, 'There's going to have to be sacrifices to demonstrate the dramatic stakes in these final stories, they can't kill Angel or Spike, therefore one of the others needs to die in the finale...' then I'd miss the emotional logic of those episodes, which starts from: I hope the good guys win. Now, if you think depressed badass Wesley is better off, say, without his longtime unrequited love Fred, then maybe you won't get much out of the Wes/Illyria storyline (in which Wesley acts as steward for the parasite that consumed Fred's body). In which case there is, I should say, something quite wrong with you, all else aside. But whatever you want, the basic premise is, I hope the good guys are OK. You've been with those characters for a long time, you want the story to continue, you want their goals - which have become to a certain extent your goals, in a complex way, at slight remove but nonetheless shared - to be fulfilled. But if someone doesn't die, if loss doesn't occur, if order isn't deferred again, then you'll know the story is inauthentic.
But again: if you've given yourself to the story, if you've suspended disbelief and invested in keeping track of the various plots, you're not capable of asking for that. You don't need to be taught about suffering (well, you do, but it's not Joss Whedon's job to teach you). What you need is for the storyteller to maximize dramatic impact, to provide you with an extreme aesthetic experience. Because you're not capable (most likely) of providing it for yourself. Indeed, you're incapable by definition. (Art is a surprise.) Fans 'know more' about the shows they watch than anyone but the writers. Sure. But fish don't know what water is until they're hooked. Something 'happens' after the final battle in the alley in 'Not Fade Away', sure. Maybe someone lives. But fans care about that outcome precisely because it's denied them - because they've been set up to want a certain outcome while the story has been written to require (in the name of integrity, which fans/readers are similarly incapable of asking for directly) a different outcome. Namely: that the heroes go out in the middle of the fight. 'Let's go to work.' That really is the end.
But it wouldn't have been the end had the show not been cancelled.
And there's the painful part: fans tend (here's the broad brush for you) to have a hard time making distinctions between what amplifies the story's dramatic impact or meaning, and what would satisfy them as fans. Get the difference? A fan isn't just a heavy reader: 'fan' is a social category. Wanting the story to continue isn't the same as wanting to know what happens next - one desire takes the text itself (the edifice, the mechanism) as its object, one takes the world of the narrative, the series of (unfortunate) fictional events. One frustrating feature of fan discourse is just this: a lot of the time fans fail to make this distinction. Does this mean Jossholes are all delusional? Well, I'm inclined to say 'yes,' benignly so, by necessity. But not in the bad sense the question implies. Rather, we're saying something here about fan culture, which is that it blurs this line between the text and the fiction in a way that's intoxicating for the fan but deadly to analysis. And it means this: there might be more stories to tell in the Angel universe, and maybe Joss Whedon really does have more to say with and about those characters, but the narrative of Angel is done. Angel himself might have done more, but the story entitled Angel ends in an alley. The events afterward weren't really supposed to exist, not even in fictional representation; they were supposed to be implied, and that's all. They exist in the viewers' minds for a purpose, and that purpose is only to heighten the drama of the final moments of 'Not Fade Away'.
No one needs to know what happened in the alley. To make that claim is to (understandably) dismiss what Joss Whedon calls the 'holy emotion' of confrontation with the unknowable. That's not an unfortunate side effect of cancellation; we're not fans of the institution that produced the story of Angel, we're temporary occupants of the fictional world. When the story's done, the reader is owed absolutely nothing, and the contract between reader and author is opt-in.
I don't mean to make fun of wanting more story. (Hell, I'm curious to see what Whedon would have done with a post-apocalyptic story, and the Angel principals would make a good focus for such a tale. And I do wish Wesley and Illyria had gotten more time together; Amy Acker's performance as Fred/Illyria was the best thing about late Season Five.) What I'm criticizing, specifically, is giving in to that desire - that is, not knowing the limitations of the story and of readership, not restraining one's urge to demand more, more, more. It's the whining - the tone of demand that's not the request of a lover of art, but the demand of someone who's learned the wrong lesson from Angel and texts like it. Cult shows, fan-lust-object shows, aim straight for the emotional centers of fans; that's part of what we love about them. I see a little of myself in many of Joss Whedon's characters (that's one of his Big Themes in Buffy, if you missed it - go rent The Breakfast Club for the two-hour 80's version of the same idea). But that doesn't mean we're owed anything by their creators; it certainly doesn't mean that there's an inevitability to the act of reading, that it speaks directly to us in a literal way, that anything is meant for us. To the contrary: we're lucky we turned up at 'Once upon a time...' at the right time. (And in a time-shifted TV era, it's getting easier and oddly less meaningful.)
But the very features of cult shows that make them so, er, cultish, make it hard to accept that they're done. They existed to address an emotional need; I'm not in a position to know that my emotional need has been addressed (in part because it's been replaced by new ones); therefore I perceive that a failure or impropriety or injustice has occurred. There must be something wrong because I don't know everything yet.
But that was never the point. We're not logging into a message board to share our excitement at the new edition of the encyclopedia. Stories end; in many ways that's what they're for. They establish a world, change it, recontextualize. We keep doing work after they're done. And it's not the storyteller's responsibility to lessen the work. To the contrary: our feelings at story's end are the storyteller's gift.
I loved the first issue of Buffy Season Eight. I'll definitely read the rest. Was it necessary? Nah. I was totally satisfied by the final moments of Season Seven; that's what they were meant to accomplish. The story was done. This is a new story. And I feel a little detachment from it, as much as I'm loving it, as much as I can't wait to know what happens next. Maybe I could've predicted this feeling, maybe not; I've had a lot of time to react to the end of Buffy. Probably I could've known, but wouldn't have admitted it to myself. I'm not in a position to say, really; I'm in the story and out of it, poised in a very specific position as regards the fiction. I'm able to say this: I don't need to know what happened to Buffy and her friends. But I want to, and can. And twenty-odd pages into the storyline, I'm back to the question that goes to the heart of human identity as the Creature Who Dreams: 'What happens next?'
'I need to know what happened.' 'What happens next?' They're not the same demand, and the latter shows a brave humility that the former lacks, I think - it has a generous spirit. We don't actually need to know 'what happened' - nothing happened. We weren't there; there's no there to begin with. But stories are dreams we don't get the luxury of waking up from and forgetting, so both demands get made as ever. Which may, I think on darker days, be the reason the goddamn Internet was invented.