Have We Given Up on “Happily Ever After”?

First, an admission: I have a guilty pleasure in costume dramas, especially the kind that show up on PBS. From Downton Abbey to Lark Rise to Candleford to Victoria to the endless adaptations of Jane Austen novels, I love to let my feminine side come out to play whenever a show set in the past comes along.

Like many PBS fans, I’ve enjoyed the recent series Sanditon, based on an unfinished novel by Jane Austen. And — apparently like many other fans — I was bitterly disappointed by the show’s decidedly tragic ending.

If you keep reading, there will be spoilers — and not only for Sanditon. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

A Soap Opera by the Sea

Sanditon tells the story of a farmer’s daughter, Charlotte, who visits the seaside village of Sanditon where an enterprising man named Tom Parker is hard at work transforming the town into a resort, hoping to lure the aristocracy and other posh Londoners to make Sanditon their favorite beach getaway. Naturally, we meet an assortment of characters, with a variety of storylines all revolving around either love and romance (this is Jane Austen, after all), or the financial and social challenges of creating a truly world-class resort.

The first episode pretty much exhausts Austen’s unfinished manuscript, so the remainder of the eight-episode series features the story as envisioned by writer Andrew Davies. This pairing of a nineteenth century literary master with a twenty-first century screenwriter makes for some interesting bedfellows — incest, human trafficking, and racism are among the topics explored with a frankness that seems more common to our age than to Austen’s (not that such things didn’t exist, mind you, but that they weren’t discussed in polite company).

Against this backdrop, several romantic relationships and possible-relationships get explored. Will Charlotte end up with the moody and mysterious Sidney Parker, or the humble yet kindhearted foreman, James Stringer? Will the Caribbean heiress Georgiana Lambe ever escape the clutches of her overprotective guardian to find happiness with her spendthrift beaux Otis? And what about poor Lord Babington, who keeps pursuing the narcissistic Lady Denham who only has eyes for her rakish stepbrother? And will Tom and Sidney’s jovial brother Arthur finally shake off his clinging hypochondriac sister and just come out of the closet, for heaven’s sake?

So that’s the setup. And pretty much for everyone involved, it ends badly.

Okay, Arthur made the pragmatic choice of staying an eternal bachelor, which was probably pretty realistic for the time. And Denham finally says yes to Babington after he assures her that he just wants the chance to make her happy — a case of a male savior complex if there ever was one, but that seems doomed to failure since there’s no indication that Denham would be anything but beastly once she got bored with him.

From there it just gets worse. Georgiana, stung into submission when it is revealed that Otis had a gambling addiction, is left at the end of the series bitter and lonely. As for Sidney, he enters into an unhappy engagement in order to raise money for his brother after a disastrous fire threatens to bankrupt Sanditon. And since that fire also claimed the life of Stringer’s abusive father, it left him nobly sacrificing an opportunity to better himself in London, just so he can rebuild what his father destroyed. As for Charlotte? After most of the series artfully played off her flirtatious friendship with Stringer against a tempestuous interaction with Sidney, she decides late in the game that Sidney is the one, but once he dashes her hopes because he’d rather marry for money than for love, she leaves town sobbing — after barely bothering to say goodbye to the self-martyring Stringer.

The whole thing is just a big fat downer.

The Question is, “Why?”

Now, I suppose one could argue that Davies was leaving everything open for a possible second season, which apparently won’t happen thanks the cruel calculus of low ratings. And I think some critics and viewers have appreciated the fact that it doesn’t end all neatly tied up in a bow — with, presumably, Charlotte left tied down in a marriage that will eventually grow stale. There’s a bit of gender-swapping here, in that it’s the boy, not the girl, who gets stuck in a loveless marriage (or should I say boys, if my prediction about Babington is correct). But I think if the author is just trying to be postmodern in how he tells his story, he’s done a poor job compared to other films or shows (Educating Rita leaps to mind as a great story that ends without a kiss, and that’s 40 years old).

But I think what’s really going on is that there is a trend that maybe started with the critically acclaimed 2016 musical La La Land: that it’s just not cool to believe in “happily ever after” any more. Such is the cynicism of our age.

If you haven’t seen La La Land, it’s the story of two aspiring young professionals in Los Angeles: Jazz pianist Sebastian and actress Mia, who meet, and fall in love against the beauty and romance of Los Angeles — and who fall out of love, just on the verge of their careers taking off. Mia eventually makes it as an A-list actress, and the movie ends with her and her husband sneaking into a Jazz nightclub to hear Sebastian perform. The ex-lovers’ eyes momentarily lock, but then she slips away.

At least La La Land suggests that if love won’t work out, you can always find your joy in your career (or, presumably for Mia, with your next romance). But that movie bugged me for the simple reason that if I’m going to suspend disbelief enough to groove with dozens of aspiring dancers shutting down a freeway to do their choreographed flash mob, then I know this is a fantasy — a mythic story rather than an attempt at verisimilitude. And myth does more than just entertain — it charts out our hopes and dreams and aspirations. And the myth of La La Land seems to be that two high-functioning creative types cannot sustainably love one another.

Stories are Myths — They Show Us Who We Are

We love our fairytales to end with “they lived happily after” not because we are all sexist or heteronormative or classist. We want happy endings because we all want to create happy lives for ourselves and our loved ones. Myths are not cages that lock us into a patriarchal prison; they are stages that help us to envision all that is possible and to make it real.

And movies like La La Land or television shows like Sanditon, with their carefully crafted endings that undermine, rather than aspire to, any message of “happily ever after,” seem to be saying that it’s no longer possible to have happy endings.

If happy endings are embedded in sexism or classism or homophobia, then sure, I think that needs to deconstructed. But dismantling how social privilege gets enforced through our myths and stories does not require us to abandon our aspiration for happiness, for joy, for love.

I think this also points to why Star Wars: The Last Jedi was so controversial among fans, even though the critics loved it. Fans rightly understood that this is mythic entertainment, not “great literature” (whatever that is). And watching two hours of the bad guys killing more and more of the good guys, while the main hero of the entire story arc is stuck having a self-pity tantrum, is not good myth (I don’t think it made for good cinema or literature, either).

Everyone knows that not every story ends happily (that’s why there’s such a thing as tragedy in literature). But tragedy still has a mythic function in that it offers us a sense of meaning in what might have been. La La Land is hardly a tragedy; it just chooses a poignant longing over  happiness, as it obeys our secular dogma that career matters more than relationships. As for Sanditon, it’s more nihilistic in its mythic messaging. It ends with a marriage that seems doomed and an engagement that most certainly is doomed, while all the various other characters represent an assortment of unhappy or unfulfilled souls. This isn’t tragedy, it’s a sneak peak into hell.

Call me old fashioned or naive, but I think our myths reveal our soul, and in today’s world, the most impactful myths come to us through television or the cinema. Whether it’s the endless conflict where every-fight-gets-bigger-than-the-last-one of superhero movies, the subtle (or not-so-subtle) put-down humor of shows like Friends or The Big Bang Theory, or the can’t-trust-anybody angst of shows like Riverdale or Star Trek: Discovery, it seems that too many of our cultural myths just keep getting darker and more chaotic.

To each his own. But this is why I like watching old movies and old TV shows — not to mention exploring the great myths of the ancient Celts or the mythic consciousness embodied in the teachings of the mystics.. I’ll take my myths — and my entertainment — with equal measures hope and meaning, thank you very much.

Featured photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash.

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Carl McColman
Soul Friend and Storyteller. Lay Cistercian, Catechist, Author, Blogger, Podcaster, Speaker, Teacher, Retreat Leader.