Saying goodbye is hard and nobody understands

Tags: homestuck

After seven years, Homestuck came to an end on April 13th. And like so many other demanding and rewarding stories, its final scenes left fans confused and divided.

Spoilers for Homestuck, and for — oh, come on, it's a whole article about endings! Spoilers for everything

"We will eat and drink later," he said. "Let us remain together a little, we who have loved each other so sadly, and have fought so long. I seem to remember only centuries of heroic war, in which you were always heroes — epic on epic, iliad on iliad, and you always brothers in arms. Whether it was but recently (for time is nothing), or at the beginning of the world, I sent you out to war." G. K. Chesterton, The Man Who Was Thursday

The Homestuck finale: [S] Act 7

For the past few years, Homestuck has been the story I wanted everyone to read so I could talk to them about it. It's endlessly quotable, inexhaustibly clever, with a huge cast of distinctive characters (all of whom I love in different ways1) and a hypnotically complicated time-travel plot. And even beyond those immediate pleasures — pleasures far beyond what so many stories have to offer — Homestuck takes on bigger questions and deeper themes.

The first half of the finale is perfect. The Genesis Frog's birth in a triumphant burst of music is simultaneously surprising and satsifying. Our heroes blink in wonder at the new universe they've created, the reward for which they have fought and suffered. The frog puffs up serenely, scattering light in the darkness. Et viderunt John Karkatque quod esset bonum.

And then ...

Homestuck readers already know what will ultimately happen to those heroes. Caliborn told us in his spoilers. And whatever you think of him as a narrator, the finale confirms the most important parts of his account.

Caliborn said he deploys his juju ...

... and captures the beta kids ...

... trapping them forever ...

... and turning the juju into a weapon that can be used against him.

In the finale, we see Vriska use the juju as a weapon against Caliborn, and the beta kids' symbols are visible inside. They are, as Caliborn promised, trapped.

Used as weapon against him
Beta kids inside

So [S] Act 7 confirms the most important parts of Caliborn's story, while disproving none of it.

What's more, the finale is careful to link the kids' Sburb victory to Caliborn's defeat: both by intercutting the characters, and by juxtaposing visuals like the door in the Sburb logo and the juju. See how the two images look like opposite sides of the same door — down to the position of the doorknob? Those doors aren't tiny details you have to freeze-frame to see. They're shown seconds apart, bursting with light.

Whatever your in-universe interpretation of that door, as storytelling, it reminds readers of the tragedy that, sooner or later, is apparently2 coming for the main characters.

I warned you, bro. I warned you about spoilers

As I said, other great stories had divisive endings. And I often enjoyed them. I don't need to have every single loose end tied up. Some stories are so big they can only be resolved in broad strokes. Trying to answer every niggling detail would obscure the larger question of what it all meant.

Let's talk about divisive endings for a moment.

The Prisoner turns fifty this year, and its finale was so controversial Patrick McGoohan allegedly had to go into hiding. I've watched the series more than once, and every time, that last episode means something different to me. Even if I made a case for a single unified interpretation, I know I might see things differently next time.

But even among all the surreal symbolism, some themes are clear. From the first minutes of the series, Number Six and the organization that captured him pose questions ("Why did you resign?" "Who is Number One?") while withholding answers. Their mind games escalate from episode to episode, culminating in the nightmare logic of the revelation of Number One's face. (Perhaps the rest of the surrealism in the finale is only there to set the tone for the final revelation.) "Fall Out" might raise more questions for the audience than it answers — but it's a logical and fitting endpoint for the story.

Similarly, the Lost finale didn't solve the show's mysteries — but its sideways dream logic completed the characters' stories, granting them their rewards and their punishments.

Well, here's the thing. Answers don't give you everlasting satisfaction

I know some people felt that Lost's ending didn't fit the show's larger themes, and while I don't agree, I would say exactly that about the Battlestar Galactica finale. Individual characters meet their final ends, some kinder than they deserve, some crueler. And, on the largest possible scale, the characters sacrifice civilization itself to end the ancient cycle of war between Cylons and humans.

Some viewers have argued that this solution isn't plausible or isn't necessary. I'm fine with it; for me, endings work best when they're about the characters and the themes, and it's okay if some details drop out of focus.

But for all the BSG finale's character moments, the final scene was jarringly out of place. The characters' sacrifice is undone with a cheap montage suggesting that their world is ours, and 21st century humans might start the whole thing over. "IT'S THE END — OR IS IT?" Fie upon it.

There's another type of ending that isn't ambiguous, but withholds certain information that the audience is expecting. You think you're reading one kind of story, only to discover you were reading another.

For all the profanity and cruelty in Glengarry Glen Ross, what shocked me most was the cut to the credits. A robbery was suggested and carried out, the culprit was revealed, I braced myself for the arrest — and the movie ended.

And then I realized that, all along, Glengarry Glen Ross had been about the slow emasculation of Shelley Levene. In the last scene we see the final cut, and who makes it, and why. The story is over. Showing Levene dragged away in handcuffs is unnecessary.

Dan Simmons's Hyperion is a vastly different story, but stops at a similarly surprising point. In Hyperion's far future, an inscrutable, godlike alien — the Shrike — will receive a small group of pilgrims, grant one's deepest wish, perhaps, and kill the rest terriby. (We don't know the details, but in the real world, a shrike is a bird that impales lizards and mice on thorns or barbed wire.)

The pilgrims tell what brought them to the point of making such a desperate bargain, whether it's love, or justice, or art; they set out to meet the Shrike at last, and ... the book ends.

You think you're reading the story of who gets chosen by the Shrike, and why. That remote and alien figure will sit in judgment, and we might disagree with its choice, but we're not implicated in it.

But when Hyperion ends, we find ourselves asking who should be chosen — and, by implication, who should die for nothing — we step into the Shrike's position as judge.

Why don't we focus on the matter at hand?

Homestuck ends with the main characters about to enter their new universe. We see them relaxing in the newly lush landscape — whether those scenes are fantasies or the real future, we don't know. John reaches for the doorknob, and ... thanks for playing.

I've enjoyed plenty of ambiguous, allusive, and bittersweet endings, but I felt let down by Homestuck's. Not because there are story details I'm still curious about (there certainly are), but because it's missing the one thing I most want to know:

what does this ending mean to these characters?*

Maybe a second after John touches that doorknob, maybe tomorrow, maybe in a century (for time is nothing), John and Rose and Dave and Jane, who set out to play a game and wound up creating a universe, will be trapped in Caliborn's juju forever. What does that mean for them? What does that mean to them? I don't need a soliloquy; I don't need a Flash animation; a glimpse would be enough, but I don't even get that.

The lead-up to [S] Act 7 was filled with smaller moments — often wordless — that let us connect in some small but important way with the characters. Take the brief scene with Dad Crocker and Nannasprite, for example: we have a sense of what Dad Egbert meant to Nanna, and what Jane means to Dad Crocker, and fascinating as it might be to see these two talk, a glimpse is enough.

But I felt as though the last few minutes of [S] Act 7 were willing their way to the finish line, like the first marathon runner gasping "Joy, we have won" before falling down dead, too exhausted to say more.

1. Except Cronus (back to article)

2. I don't doubt that some readers shrugged and said "Caliborn made all that up." Every English class seemed to have one guy who'd offer precisely that explanation for every single reading and then sit back as if he'd just won the discussion and we could all go home.

If you want to ignore big chunks of a story that don't fit your preferred interpretation, be my guest. It's a free country.

I prefer explanations that deal with what's on the page. That doesn't mean every word has to be taken at face value3. But it does mean that I generally assume characters did what we see them doing, and said what we see them saying, unless there are cues within the story that this isn't the case.

For example, Caliborn's not a neutral observer, and he's terrible at interpreting what other people think and feel. When he says I CAN TELL THEY ARE PSYCHED ABOUT THIS, that might not be how the Beta and Alpha kids actually feel. (Which is important for knowing whether they were prepared for this battle, or thrust into it by an unexpected activation of John's time-hopping powers.)

Are John's powers about to transport him to Caliborn? Or is that blue glow just what happens when you touch the Sburb doorknob?
It doesn't look that different from what happened to Karkat at the end of Sgrub

But when apparently objective depictions - like that shot of Vriska deploying the juju - confirm Caliborn's version of events, and the story doesn't offer a competing account, Caliborn's shitty animation is what we're left with. (back to article)

3. There's a complementary type of fannish silliness where you insist that some bit of daydream or hyberbole or conjecture must be taken absolutely literally. If Abe the Ankheg calls Bridget the Beholder a "retard" in a fit of pique, then we can whip out the clinical definition of mental retardation, apply it to Bridget, and declare it canon4. (back to article)

4. By "Abe", "Bridget", and "mental retardation", I mean "Karkat", "Nepeta", and "autism"5 (back to article)

5. There is no escape from the nested footnotes6 (back to article)

6.

TG: we are in THE SHIT now
TG: together
TG: for the long haul
AT: i,
AT: wHAT,
TG: we're motherfuckin entrenched in this bitch
TG: you and me
TG: welcome to nam
(back to article)

Written on April 20, 2016