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Are happy endings an artistic cop-out?

The writer says she has not been this startled by the level of injustice in the world since she was a teenager. She now longs for nothing to happen

The last episode of ‘The Red Sleeve Cuff’ is unexpected—and tragic.
The last episode of ‘The Red Sleeve Cuff’ is unexpected—and tragic. (IMDB)

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Where is Daynoomon?” asked my friend soon after I got to her house. She was fasting. I wanted chai and food to deal with my cold and insomnia. This was fine by her but we needed to put aside half an hour for crying before we ate, she had said on the phone. This was fine by me. But now she was asking about someone who sounded like a distant Malayali cousin of mine. Or a cousin of Doraemon? Daynoomon?

Oh, denouement. One of those words I work hard at never having to say aloud. Good thing too, because I had no clue where our denouement was. Or more correctly, when it would arrive. My friend’s point was this: Between us, we had been witness to military dictatorships and fake democracies and riots and shootings and decades of globally sanctioned mass murders and starvation deaths. She felt we had had enough plot, now it was time for us to get to the ending. Specifically, the happy ending where the villains would get tight slaps. Doesn’t the happy ending require that? As my friend made me tea so strong it had abs, she might as well have been singing, “Tera dhyan kidhar hai/Ye tera hero idhar hai” to the elusive plot resolution.

Perhaps you are rolling your eyes because you don’t long for happy endings in stories. It’s possible that you don’t believe they are necessary. Or that a happy ending is an artistic cop-out because life, you know, is all about the gritty and unhappy. I admit that I have not been this startled by the level of injustice in the world since I was a teenager. Nevertheless, my commitment to happy endings is serious.

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Now religion (of the kind that will help you deal with the injustice of the world) reminds you that desire is the root of all suffering. However, art gives you infinite ways to drill down on desire and skip lightly over suffering. And mass-produced art, like books and TV shows, knows where the lines are drawn. Usually. For instance, commercial women’s fiction usually indicates through the cover art that it is a different genre from romance novels. The main difference between these two genres being the expectation of the happy ending. Romance novels require the uniting of the main leads in a happy ending. Mislead the reader and prepare for rage. (In an aside. Romance is not the only genre with rules about the Daynoomons. James Thurber’s gem-like story, The Macbeth Murder Mystery, is about a hotel guest who picks up a copy of Macbeth because the cover looks a lot like the detective novels she loves. And when she realises her mistake, she has nothing else to read, so she reads Macbeth. The next day she emerges with a revelation. She says, “I don’t think for a moment that Macbeth did it.” “Did what?” the narrator asks her. The woman says, “I don’t think for a moment that he killed the King… I don’t think the Macbeth woman was mixed up in it, either. You suspect them the most, of course, but those are the ones that are never guilty or shouldn’t be, anyway.”)

In December 2021, after months and months of terrible news, of unsuccessfully dodging videos of nausea-inducing videos of violence shot by young people like it was their show reel as they audition for power, the thing that finally pushed me into a trough of gloom was the unexpected ending of a TV show. I was watching The Red Sleeve Cuff, my first sageuk, a historical Korean show. The Red Sleeve Cuff had two bookish geeks as the main characters, even if one of them was a prince. In every episode, the female lead solved a problem with her bookishness, tact and wit. It was all good, even though I knew that in reality the heroine died in 1786 in her early 30s, in childbirth, months after witnessing the death of her first child. Clearly, she knew where her happy ending lay because in reality (and in the TV show), she resisted becoming an official royal concubine and giving up her limited freedom in a large cohort of court ladies.

Like many viewers of this show, I imagined it would end where the good-looking leads are happy in the brief respite, after his hard-won ascension to the throne and before the slew of family tragedies. You know, a nice group selfie moment in hanbok. But oh no, we had to be shown, in the last episode, her loss of freedom, her friends dying, her child dying without her being able to tend to him, her dying. I watched that last episode in utter disbelief. I wanted to yell at the writer, “What’s your damage, Heather? What did we ever do to you?”

When my friend was fervently wishing for a denouement with just desserts, I wondered to myself—what did I want?

At this point, I think, I would be satisfied for even the uber-villains to not get tight slaps and to go live on the tax shelter island of their choice. This might be because I don’t have the attention and focus required to be properly vengeful. Or because I have a heightened awareness that the villains include my relatives and women I went to college with and that they will never get punished, just slide into the next revenue model. I just want to stop living in a time where all political journalists have to report on is crime. I don’t even care about the denouement. I am terrified that this violent Insta reel we are living in is genuinely someone else’s happy ending.

I am more than okay with living in the slow part of the film where nothing happens. I long for nothing to happen.

Nisha Susan is the editor of the webzine The Ladies Finger and author of The Women Who Forgot To Invent Facebook And Other Stories.

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