A while back some friends were talking about payoffs, or that sense of satisfaction at the end of a series, whether bookish or television. How did people define payoff? I think of it as dramatic catharsis. Because my brain doesn’t do literary deepthink, the best I can offer are examples to explain what I mean.
Way back when I was just finishing high school, those of us who loved The Prisoner waited with gut-tightening anticipation for The Last Show. I was intensely puzzled, and kind of disappointed, except for the last three seconds. My dad was impatient (though he’d liked the series overall, or we wouldn’t have been watching it, as he controlled the TV) and my sibs bored. A week or so after, there was a Mythopoeic Society meeting, at which it became a spontaneous topic of discussion once we were done with the book chosen for the meeting. I listened with intense interest; I’d thought I was too stupid to understand what was going on, and that everybody else would have Gotten It. What I heard can be summarized this way:
“What a rip!”
“Did you ever see anything so stupid?”
“They obviously didn’t have any idea what to do.”
“I am SO SICK of psychedelic stuff that’s supposed to be all symbolic, instead of anything that makes sense.”
“Not even the last five seconds—and those were good—was worth sitting through all that for.”
Not one person liked it, as I recall, though most agreed that those last few seconds were cool (and a lot of people asked, “What did it mean?” causing the typical late sixties rodomontade about the military-industrial complex and Big Brother, etc etc)
Now segue up a few years. It’s the last episode of M.A.S.H. Again, everyone we knew was glued to their tube, for in those days, no TiVo or VCR (or maybe VCR was around, but only the rich had ‘em) and so if you missed it, you had to wait until summer for the rerun. At a gathering a few days later, I was part of a conversation that went something like this:
“Pretentious! They forgot they were, you know, doing a comedy.”
“Oh, that was an Emmy bid, you can just bet.”
“Maybe that %$^! about the baby, but all that kissy poo at the end? That’s just losing control of it–they stopped being characters and turned back into actors.”
Segue up to just a few years ago, when the extended edition LOTR came out, and a lot of people I knew bought them, in spite of some ambivalence about how the trilogy ended. This time I overheard a conversation among teachers and kids, basically to the tune of: “Most of the extras on the last show was just the actors going around hugging each other telling each other over and over how awesome they were. Even more boring than the five separate dumb endings with them all standing around grinning at each other!”
When watching the exhausted faces and the tears of the LOTR actors on that same Extended Edition Extra, I was struck by the intensity of emotion in their faces. They’d been through something tough, challenging, and exalting together. And I thought about that sense of having endured something—anything—the making of an art work or the survival of an energy-consuming event of any kind—imbues those who shared it with passion that brings meaning to the smallest gesture and word. I wonder if that powerful, overwhelming emotional catharsis is what drives some Last Shows or last books to end up being stinkers—the makers’ emotional catharsis is mistaken for dramatic catharsis.
Here’s how I see the difference between the two: an emotional catharsis is primarily felt by the creator(s). A dramatic catharsis is felt by the reader/viewer.
Sometimes writers, in their efforts to have The Last Battle top all previous efforts, put forward a climax that is just bigger and louder and vaster (pile on the superlatives here) but otherwise pretty much the same sort of climax as previously explored. Nothing is really changed, outside of the heroes having to fight for their lives against the Big Bad. Then . . . rest! And the same sort of fight at the end of the next book or episode.
A dramatic catharsis that works for me is not just a climax with a meaner Dark Lord in a deeper dungeon prolonging the most horrible tortures evah, after the nasiest gloating speech in the history of villainous speeches, before the Sword of Light comes to the rescue. The best dramatic catharsis for me furnishes something new. Even if it’s relatively small, like an insight not visible to anyone else . . . like at the end of “The Scouring of the Shire,” when Frodo understands that in saving Middle Earth, it was not saved for him. Compared to the blowing up of Mordor and the last-ditch saving of Gondor, this ending is very small, but the dramatic catharsis is just that much more intense a payoff.