Tuesday, August 09, 2005
Good-bye and Thank You
"(HOUSTON, TX) -- Romance Writers of America has outlined two elements -- a central love story and an emotionally satisfying ending -- as the crux of their association’s official definition of a romance novel."
I always thought I understood the emotionally satisfying ending part of this definition. It was the loophole that allowed stories that ended with the hero and heroine not together in the traditional sense to still be considered a romance. If the entire story centered around the hero and heroine coming to terms with their love for each other and overcoming the obstacles standing between them, but in the end they had to part ways for whatever reason, the story could still be called a romance.
In Green Card, when the Gerard Depardieu character is deported back to France after finally breaking through the icy exterior of the Andie MacDowell character, we still feel hopeful that these two will find a way to be together. In almost every young adult love story, you kind of know in your heart that the characters are too young to settle down - teen marriages have a very high failure rate - and assume some more living needs to be done before the final, final happily every after. But you feel good about any ending that shows them together for at least the short term.
If the obstacles have been overcome, if the characters have realized, accepted and admitted their love, and if it looks like their future together is pretty much certain even if there will be a hiccup or two along the way, I think it's safe to call the ending emotionally satisfying. Even if they can't be together, if they've shared much and they part with the prospect of future happiness for both characters, I would argue the ending can still be emotionally satisfying in a bittersweet way.
On Sunday night, Queer As Folk aired its final episode after a great five-season run. Since the writers knew going in that this would be the last season, they had a lot of opportunity to tie things up into neat little bows. I think most of us loyal viewers had expectations to get emotionally satisfying endings for all of the regular characters. And for the most part, I think this end was met.
If you've read me regularly, you already know that I've long enjoyed the romance played out between bad boy Brian Kinney and wide-eyed artist Justin Taylor. Those two characters have suffered more to be together than many a romance novel hero and heroine, and the two actors had such great chemistry that they lit up the screen in nearly every scene they had together. I suffered every high and low in their relationship and have rooted loudly for their well-earned happily-ever-after.
Except, all along a Herculean obstacle existed in their path in the form of Brian's attitude. Brian is an out and proud gay man who has always felt that the institutions adopted in the heterosexual world were ridiculous and hypocritical. He disdained marriage, laughed at monogamy, and pretty much rejected the entire concept of love as just a way for straight people to get laid on a regular basis. It took an awful lot for Brian to fall in love with Justin, and even more for him to actually admit it.
When Brian proposed marriage to Justin and Justin accepted - after a bit of expected suspicion - I was a mix of joy and disbelief. My own definitions of happily every after include things like marriage, or at least some commitment that ensures the couple will be together until the ends of their lives. It also involves monogamy. Somehow, though, I could not wrap my brain around the idea of Brian remaining monogamous. It went against everything the character had represented, and despite the countless examples in romance land where the rake becomes reformed by the love of the right woman, in real life this just didn't seem possible. (Yeah, I know this isn't real life either, but go with me, okay?)
Sure enough, from pretty much the moment Justin agreed to marry him, Brian became a shadow of his former self. He lost all of the spark that made him Brian. He walked around with a somber look on his face, used words and expressions he'd mocked in the past (cuddle being something he'd snort at both literally and figuratively until after he became Justin's fiancé). In trying to play the part of what he envisioned being a married man would entail, he was no longer the no apologies, no regrets, balls-to-the-wall character I'd grown to love.
Nor was he the man that Justin had grown to love.
So they called it off. Both of them determined that neither of them wanted the other to sacrifice personal happiness in the name of love. Justin didn't want to be married to a man who no longer acted anything like the person he'd come to love. Brian didn't want Justin to sacrifice a promising art career in New York City to remain in Pittsburgh as Brian's spouse.
At the end of the show, Justin left for New York, and we viewers were led to believe that it was a mutual decision that resulted in mutual satisfaction. The writers had set things up so well - showing us so completely how marriage would change Brian into a walking zombie and how much Justin would be losing in settling down so young - we knew things could happen no other way.
Ta da. There's your emotionally satisfying ending. Right?
Right and wrong.
Right because from a long while back, I knew - knew in my heart of hearts even though I didn't want it to be true - that marriage between these two characters would be impossible. In fact, had the show's executive producers and lead writers, Ron Cowen and Daniel Lipman, taken Brian and Justin down that aisle, I would have accused them to caving into fan demands and committing character assassination. As much as I wanted these two together forever, it wasn't what was real for the characters as I had grown to know them. So I have to give applause to Cowen and Lipman for remaining true to the characters in spite of the possible outrage doing so might create.
And if it couldn't be between these two, the way that it ended was at the very least something I could accept. The door wasn't shut completely - Justin assured Brian (and us viewers) that they'd see each other often. That they didn't need vows and rings to prove how much they loved each other. The two parted after a poignant love-making scene that brought tears streaming down my face. We are left to believe that if these two aren't together in the right now, there's no reason to believe that it might not happen five or ten or twenty years down the road.
But this is where the "wrong" comes in, because I don't really believe that they will ever be together again.
Neither did Brian.
Justin is very young. He's heading off to NYC, supposedly to fame as a great artist. He'll be meeting lots of people, and he's a loving, generous person who will find love easily. Chances are he'll find his life partner in NYC and Brian will move into his history as the first - and maybe the best - love of his life. Justin will be happy.
Brian, on the other hand, will presumably return to his old ways. Granted, he's now a different person than he was before. He's much more giving. He knows what it is to really care about someone, enough to sacrifice even the very person you are for the one you love. He understands that things must change, that he can't remain a perpetually young club boy forever, and that happiness comes from accepting such change. He also sees that life can be so much better when it's shared.
I don't think Brian can go back to being happy and satisfied in his aloneness. I think Brian has learned that needing people and being needed in return is not an evil to be avoided but rather something that makes life richer. Sweeter. Better.
That's why this wasn't an emotionally satisfying ending.
Brian isn't happy. Despite the last scene that showed him dancing in the club that defines the kingdom he's always ruled, I felt like Brian will always be pining for Justin. Love came so hard for this guy - so difficult to attain and so deeply felt once it was - he strikes me as that once in a lifetime kind of person. It's as if he's now a widower, his one true love lost to him forever. And this is a blow struck so severely that he will never truly heal from the pain of it. He loved Justin begrudgingly but deeply, and his is a soul that will never be complete again now that Justin is gone. I just cannot see how he will ever be at peace with his life again.
My point in all of this is that I firmly believe that a good romance doesn't always have to end with the hero and heroine (or other hero) walking down the aisle. I don't need to see them in rocking chairs surrounded by fat grandchildren. If they must part ways because of circumstances or because of who they are, I can accept the bittersweetness of it all. Because life isn't always perfect, and sometimes love isn't enough.
But for a story ending to be emotionally satisfying, I have to believe that whatever happens, both of the characters have the potential for future happiness. Not just resignation or eventual acceptance or even satisfiction with their lives as they must now be led, but real, true happiness.
In the case of Brian and Justin, only half of that equation was met.
On Sunday night, my heart didn't break because one of my favorite couples didn't end up together. It broke for Brian Kinney.
I do want to thank the cast, crew, producers and everyone involved in the show for giving me five wonderful years. You all deserve a standing ovation. Bravo.