Last time we talked about the sequels to the movie Tangled. But I didn’t say anything about the music. One song in particular deserves a comment of its own.
Music in the Movies
“I See the Light”
Disney generally gets good composers to do the music for its major movies. Tangled was especially productive; I already had on my playlists the charming love song “I See the Light” (video here), and the end-credits song (is there a name for that niche?), “Something That I Want” by Grace Potter.
The theme song for the TV series actually premiered in the short film Tangled: Before Ever After. “Wind in My Hair” deftly expresses Rapunzel’s excitement as she anticipates continuing to discover the wide world outside her tower—the “endless horizon.” And there’s a bit of humor in the title: who, after all, is more suited to having the “wind in her hair” than Rapunzel?
“Put On Your Sunday Clothes”
“Wind in My Hair” falls into a category that TV Tropes calls “Setting Off Songs,” like “We’re Off to See the Wizard,” or “Put On Your Sunday Clothes” from Hello, Dolly!. There’s always a certain excitement when people are getting started on a journey, be it an epic trip to the Emerald City or just a Sunday jaunt to New York City. In keeping with Rapunzel’s character, “Wind” is upbeat and optimistic, adding to its charm.
But Rapunzel has much farther to go than we see in the short movie, or the first season of the series. Most of those stories remain inside the Kingdom of Corona. It’s at the beginning of the second season that Rapunzel and company set out into the real terra incognita outside the kingdom. And at that point we get yet another expeditionary song, one that simply knocked me over. Hence the inevitable reflection: why do I love this song?
“Next Stop, Anywhere”
“Next Stop, Anywhere,” by Alan Menken and Glenn Slater, is a Setting Off Song squared and cubed. It appears initially in Season 2, Episode 1, at about 3:23.
Rapunzel has a mission: to backtrack the ominous black rocks that began to appear in the short film. The prologue to S2E1 gives us some rather grim history hinting at what she’s going to find. But when we flick back to Rapunzel and her True Companions in the present day, she’s mostly excited about venturing into the outside world (“It’s our first big city outside of Corona!”).
The song starts with a fast, steady beat, and a series of flute trills, which suggest movement and vigor along with the sunny lightness characteristic of our heroine. The visuals of a hummingbird and a field of flowers reinforce the musical cue. Rapunzel leaps out of their ambling caravan and races around in a montage, observing the heavens, using her hair to climb a giant tree, dashing off her signature paintings, turning cartwheels. The refrain comes in with a bouncy drumbeat that bears out the lyric: where might we be going next? Anywhere!
The steady beat continues throughout the following mix of dialogue and singing. Rapunzel’s enthusiasm is indomitable. Her romantic interest Eugene is not quite as keen on following “a bunch of creepy rocks” into the unknown; but at Rapunzel’s wry loving look, he has to admit that of course he’s excited: “I’m with you! What else could I be?” He alternates lines with her in the next verse, and they both participate in the next series of acrobatic misadventures. The theme of first love is an additional source of excitement.
The pointy black rocks turn up from time to time as they cross the landscape, but Rapunzel and Eugene ignore them; at this point their grim purpose seems trivial. That theme of leaping over the difficulties to focus on the adventure is refreshed when the caravan, driven by the wary Cassandra, catches up with them (2:05). Cass admonishes Rapunzel for running off and warns her that “the real world isn’t all fun and games.” Doesn’t matter. The song resumes, and even Cassandra can’t resist singing a line or two. Rapunzel is going to seek out her destiny, but that will cause her to grow: “find the best in me.”
As the canny viewer may have expected, Vardaros, the “first big city” they encounter, falls disastrously short of expectations. One character narrowly dodges death, and another, marriage. The mystery warrior Adira turns up with more ominous warnings about where they’re going. They’re not ready to move forward again until the end of the second episode (listed on the Web pages as Part II of Episode 1). (Actually, they spend another couple of segments in Vardaros anyway, but the reprise of “Next Stop” occurs in the second episode at about 20:50.)
The music starts with a tensely suspended organ tone. Then, over a somber bass note, Eugene begins singing more slowly—but his words are expressing determination to continue. Rapunzel joins in, and they clasp hands. As the music speeds up and brightens, they invoke their faith in each other. By the time we reach the refrain, we’re back to full speed and full strength. The “with you close to me” line expands visually to include Cassandra and the others: they can overcome the coming obstacles with not only the power of love, but the power of friendship. Even the serious aspects of the journey give way to the boundless exuberance with which the original song started. The music, as well as the lyrics, firmly rejects somberness in favor of joy—like the opening passages of the fourth movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony: not by ignoring the dangers and difficulties, but by acknowledging and surpassing them.
The theme of exploration and discovery is a favorite of mine, and the Setting Off Songs tend to live and move in that theme. “Out there . . .” is exactly how “Put On Your Sunday Clothes” begins. We don’t yet know what’s out there, but we’re eager to find out.
The theme isn’t confined to songs, of course. The iconic opening of the original Star Trek series and its Next Generation sequel hit exactly that note, invoking the “sense of wonder” SF is famous for: “The final frontier . . . To seek out new life and new civilizations.” To my mind, the intro to the “Star Trek: Enterprise” series is even better, with its sequence of daring steps in exploration (real and fictional) over inspiring music. Similarly, the best scene in the unfortunate first Star Trek movie occurs at the very end, at about 1:30 in this clip.
‘Let’s see what’s out there.’ That attitude, it seems to me, is highly to be prized: with the sense of incipient wonder, the expectation of finding amazing things, and some degree of confidence in our ability to deal with them. (Chesterton said, “Man must have just enough faith in himself to have adventures, and just enough doubt of himself to enjoy them”—Orthodoxy, ch. 7.)
It’s important that we be able to see the trials and perils of life as an adventure, not merely an imposition. That attitude is one of the essential factors in a mature human personality, and it merits perennial refreshing and reinforcement. That’s why “Next Stop, Anywhere” is so pleasing: it hits just the right note.
So, okay, I gave in and signed up for Disney+. It’s not as if I needed the streaming service to see the Disney fairy tales, or Star Wars, or the Marvel movies; I have those on disc. But there were these other things. First, I wanted to see the Hamilton movie (just as impressive as it’s cracked up to be). Then, since I was already subscribed for a month, I figured I’d check out The Mandalorian, if only to keep up my geek cred—it had taken me a while just to figure out where all the “Baby Yoda” memes were coming from.
By the end of the first month, I’d scanned the offerings and marked down a bunch of other things that I’d sort of wanted to see, or that I hadn’t known about but looked interesting, and now could get without paying more than I already was. And I was off and streaming . . .
One of the unanticipated things I turned up was a set of ancillary videos related to the 2010 fairy-tale adaptation Tangled, Disney’s version of the Rapunzel story. And thereby hangs a blog post.
A Tangle of Sequels
I’ve always been fond of the Tangled movie. But the continuing story also turned out to be remarkably good. As a rule, sequels to Disney princess movies tend to be humdrum affairs dashed off to exploit the movie’s popularity—though I must admit that I say this without having seen very many of them; ventures like The Little Mermaid II or Cinderella II: Dreams Come True never seemed to deserve even a look. (Frozen II is a decided exception.)
But the Tangled folks managed to pull off some impressive work in the follow-up media. To discuss it in detail, of course, I’m going to have to deploy detailed spoilers.
In 2012 Disney released a six-minute cartoon, Tangled Ever After, which is basically a comic bit about the exploits of the animal characters during the wedding of Rapunzel and her romantic interest, Eugene Fitzherbert (who previously used the name of legendary rogue-hero “Flynn Rider”). Nothing of interest there.
However, in 2017 the Disney Channel debuted a 55-minute short film, Tangled: Before Ever After. As the title indicates, this story takes place before the wedding sequence. The day before Rapunzel’s coronation, her lady-in-waiting, a tough-minded and capable girl named Cassandra, helps her sneak out beyond the kingdom’s walls to get away from the stress and chaos of the preparations. At the site of the magic flower that originally gave Rapunzel’s hair its healing powers, they find a stand of mysterious pointed black rocks. When Rapunzel touches one, more rocks suddenly sprout from the ground, forcing them to flee. But Rapunzel’s hair, which was cut short and returned to its natural brown in the original movie, suddenly turns blonde again and reverts to its 70-foot tower length.
This business with the black rocks is the story’s “One Ring,” the MacGuffin that links the old story to the new and provides the plot driver going forward. It isn’t explained or resolved in Before Ever After, but serves as the hook for the three-season TV series (2016-2020) that followed. The series was initially labeled “Tangled: The Series,” but in its second season was rechristened Rapunzel’s Tangled Adventure. Season 1 follows Rapunzel’s experiences in her parents’ kingdom; Seasons 2 and 3 take her and her companions on the road on a long-running quest. Wikipedia has a handy list of the episodes.
The series is where most of the plot and character development occurs. It concluded in March 2020. At this point it’s pretty clear that no further follow-ons are necessary, though one can’t rule out the possibility (“never say never again”). There’s also a stage musical (a version of the movie) and a video game, which I haven’t seen and assume are not in the continuity. Wikipedia’s convenient overall reference for the Tangled franchise is here.
Opening Out the Ever After
The first challenge in making a sequel to a fairy-tale movie is what to do about the ending. Traditionally, these stories end in a romantic happily-ever-after. If the main characters marry at the end (or immediately afterward), we’ve resolved the romantic tension. In addition, it may be hard to reconcile the vague vision of enduring happiness with the kinds of perilous adventures that would give life to a sequel.
The “before ever after” notion is thus productive. The characters can have further adventures even before their happiness is, as it were, sealed. We can stave off the fairy-tale ending, without subverting it entirely. To ruin the romance would be opprobrious, diminishing the appeal of the original story; but there’s no reason it has to come to fruition (presumably in a wedding) at once.
It’s particularly easy to take advantage of this idea if the couple hasn’t actually become engaged in the original story (even though the audience knows perfectly well that’s going to happen). Some reduced degree of romantic tension remains if the character still has to work up the nerve to propose, though the issue becomes more comical than dramatic. (A similar tactic was used in Frozen II.)
Thus, Eugene proposes to Rapunzel several times in the course of the sequels. She doesn’t accept at once. She wants to marry Eugene, but she isn’t quite ready yet. This brings out the familiar “moral” that a girl’s future is not solely bound up in marriage. It also makes psychological sense—and this is one of the ways in which the Tangled sequels intelligently carry forward the original storyline. As other characters point out, Rapunzel has spent almost all her life locked up in a tower, never meeting another human being but her “mother” captor. It seems hardly appropriate to expect her immediately to enter into a marriage.
Of course, Rapunzel could marry and still have adventures. The story thus plays around with the notion that “happily ever after” means the end of adventures and of our interest in the characters—a notion I’ve criticized elsewhere. It both dodges, and runs into, that trap.
The World and the Plot
Since the continuing story takes Rapunzel into new territory, both within and later beyond the Kingdom of Corona (which turned out to be a somewhat infelicitous name for this year, however appropriate for a princess), it was also necessary to expand the world. The writers carry out this worldbuilding exercise with enough novelty to earn some credit. For example, one of the new secondary characters is a young alchemist named Varian. Although his alchemy is technically magic, he firmly takes the position that it’s science, not fantasy. He thus adds a sort of steampunk vibe to the whole business.
The second season of the series introduces a secret society of crack warriors who are in some way protecting or defending the source of the black rocks. An enigmatic woman named Adira provides them with clues, along with ominous nonspecific warnings, and occasionally ends up sparring with the suspicious Cassandra. She and other members of the “Brotherhood of the Dark Kingdom” sometimes end up opposing or challenging the main characters, though they are basically on the same side. This secret society’s stance is reminiscent of the Brotherhood of the Cruciform Sword from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
The most striking element of the plot is the long-running plot arc, which begins with the black-rock episode in Before Ever After and isn’t completed until the final episode of the series. The black rocks are tied in with the “sundrop flower” that originally gave Rapunzel her powers, so they link back neatly into the original movie. Keeping such an über-plot going over sixty episodes is a challenge, and the writers lay in enough complications and reversals to make it work.
This long-term development isn’t perfectly uniform. There are one-off episodes sandwiched in, often with throwaway plots (Max the noble steed is threatened by a competing evil horse! The queen’s annoying sister shows up for a visit!). Nor do the “side quest” episodes always make sense. In one show (Season 2 Episode 6), Rapunzel and Eugene decide to go off on a “date” while the group is encamped on the road in the middle of nowhere. (Butterbur in The Lord of the Rings: “Well, you do want looking after and no mistake: your party might be on a holiday!”) At the same time, these one-offs do sometimes have a point. The “date” introduces some characters who eventually turn out to be crucial to the plot. For another example, in a primarily silly episode (S2 E18) which turns most of the characters into toddlers, we get a fairly interesting lecture on parenting styles, courtesy of Rapunzel and Eugene.
The metaphysics, the “theory of magic,” is somewhat murky. Rapunzel’s “sundrop” and the “Moonstone” source of the black rocks have a sort of yin-yang relationship, but the Moonstone power is sometimes presented as evil, and sometimes as merely complementary. Rapunzel’s long hair, as restored in Before Ever After, has lost its power to heal, but has now arbitrarily become invulnerable—uncuttable—just like the black rocks. The conclusion of the story does make some degree of sense, though, so this particular worldbuilding weakness isn’t fatal.
The story is willing to deal with serious issues. For example, the story introduces some genuine moral dilemmas, as when Rapunzel has to break a promise to Varian in S1 E16, which leads to no end of trouble for everyone. Some cogent sociopolitical points are raised, unlikely though that seems in a cartoon, in the second and third episodes of Season 2. Rapunzel and her followers want to reform the city of Vardaros, whose citizens have collapsed into a state of mutual distrust and predation. Rapunzel’s effort to use sheer niceness to show the inhabitants a better way doesn’t work: the locals don’t trust these strangers. Instead, Rapunzel and company have to convince the former “sheriff” everyone trusted to come back out of retirement and lead the reform. The success of this strategy is still a bit cut-and-dried, but for two 24-minute episodes, it’s handled pretty well.
Other character developments can also be surprisingly sophisticated. The scheming girl Eugene was supposed to marry ends up being reformed—but she still steals the party’s money; she doesn’t suddenly become sweetness and light. An entire episode (S1 E2) is devoted to showing that, even though Rapunzel is so adorable that everyone loves her, there’s one old guy in Corona who doesn’t—and he’s a good guy, respected by everyone, kind and helpful; he just doesn’t especially care for Rapunzel. And the moral of this story is that you don’t have to make everyone like you—a good thing for a young viewer (or even an older one) to recognize.
The sequels are thoroughly genre-savvy—a good platform for ringing new changes on the stock fairy-tale conventions. In S2 E 23, the characters are threatened by “…lethal, inescapable traps.” An array of nasty spikes springs up—and immediately crumble into ruin. “They’re old,” one character remarks, pinpointing one of the silly aspects of Indiana Jones-type adventures where centuries-old mechanical devices work perfectly without deterioration. And at the end of the second season, the characters walk into a whole series of classic Star Wars and Lord of the Rings tropes in succession—surely on purpose.
Carrying On the Characters: Rapunzel
The most interesting aspect of the Tangled sequels is the treatment of Rapunzel herself.
Rapunzel’s role in the movie is that of a “fish out of water” character—the naïve newcomer to the world, to whom everything is new and fascinating. That’s one of the things I like about the movie. Another is that she faces this brave new world outside the tower with kindness and wonder, though not without a sensible caution that’s sometimes deployed against the wrong targets, for comic effect. It isn’t by accident that Eugene calls her “Sunshine.”
Although she has to deal with progressively more fearsome and even heartbreaking problems as the series goes on, Rapunzel doesn’t lose that essential innocence. Yet, imperceptibly—and that’s the artistry—through the second and third seasons, she develops into the genuine leader of the group. She becomes capable of making difficult decisions. She isn’t intimidated by threats. When she has to take over governance of the kingdom, she falters at first, but later on becomes perfectly capable of running things without her parents. The changes are highlighted in the “dream trap” episode, S2 E19, where the matured Rapunzel speaks with her earlier self.
She even becomes a capable fighter in her own right. Rapunzel uses her long, indestructible hair like Indiana Jones’ whip, as both a weapon and a tool. Of course, this is cartoon physics. This slender girl hurls around what’s essentially a 70-foot rope without any issues of strength or leverage; it catches onto things and releases them just as she wishes, like Indy’s whip. The hair only gets in her way, or is used against her, when the plot requires it. It never frizzes or becomes unruly (fortunately for everyone nearby). Nonetheless, her trademark feature, which seems a romantic beauty mark at first glance, transforms her into a melee fighter, who can hold her own in a scrap.
While Rapunzel is no longer a magical healer, she does gain the ability to use ‘sundrop power’ over time. This power is erratic and not dependable, but it does rise to cosmic levels at the point where she can blow up an entire landscape at the end of Season 2. TV Tropes rightly cites her under the Films–Animation section of Badass Adorable.
The really remarkable thing about this maturing process is that Rapunzel is not altered out of recognition. She retains that essential sweetness of character that made her so likable in the movie. To depict a character who is both powerful and “nice” is difficult, and rare. When we have a chance to see the character visibly grow into that maturity, with both continuity and change, the writers’ achievement is noteworthy.
Romantic interest Eugene, in the sequels, gets somewhat dumbed down or, in TV Tropes’ term, “Flanderized”: turned into a caricature of himself. His vanity, a nicely balanced flaw in the movie, becomes tiresome when played out in every episode. His capability is uneven: sometimes he’s clever, sometimes clueless; sometimes he’s a formidable fighter, sometimes ineffective—as the plot may require. This is a classic problem in a continuing series, where different writers may produce inconsistent characterization.
Rapunzel’s parents, also, are not too well managed. In the movie, they’re merely props: the welcoming family to which Rapunzel can finally return at the end. In the series, we’re told that her mother, Queen Arianna, was once a sort of adventurer herself—but we see little of that. Her father, King Frederic (what a promising name!), tends to play the overbearing, irrationally restrictive father, generally as an obstacle to Rapunzel’s self-assertion. The two of them tend to fade out almost entirely toward the end of the series to give Rapunzel sole center stage.
The great prize among the new characters is Cassandra. Her edgy but loyal personality makes her a perfect foil for the sunny Rapunzel. That same sardonic cynicism makes it plausible when she veers from the path of righteousness and aligns herself with the enemies at the end of Season 2, a development that is carefully shaped over much of that season. In particular, she highlights an aspect of hero-stories that doesn’t get much attention. What happens if you’re not the Chosen One? If the whole motion of the plot is toward Rapunzel’s destiny, how does the henchperson feel whose role is simply to support the main character? Doesn’t she have a destiny too?
The series as a whole shows a certain bias toward what we might call the “Arthas Effect,” a plot staple in the World of Warcraft game: an initially good character becomes corrupted and turns into a major villain. The two most prominent secondary characters, Cassandra and Varian, are both subject to this kind of transformation at different times. The basically positive tone of the Tangled story is borne out by the fact that each eventually repents and returns to the side of good. But the “turn to the Dark Side” motif helps keep the tale from becoming too optimistic or Pollyanna-ish.
The Tangled sequels honor the original movie’s romance. We see from the very beginning that Rapunzel and Eugene do get married eventually. But that aspect is sidelined in such a way that the impetus of the romantic interest is largely lost.
During the entire first season, Rapunzel and Eugene hang around the castle, waiting for—what? We noted above that Rapunzel puts off the wedding, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But her reasons remain rather vague, and we don’t see much of the longing or attraction I’d expect from a couple of young people who are very much in love. It’s as if the writers every now and then remember that there’s supposed to be a love affair going on, but mostly take that to be understood.
The diverging development of the two characters also creates a somewhat unsatisfying disparity. While Rapunzel develops in power, competence, and maturity, Eugene has no comparable character arc. As a result, by the end we may ask ourselves whether he’s really sufficient for her. The lovers are “unevenly matched,” a problem I’ve noted before.
The key theme of the extended Tangled story, as I see it, is that power and innocence are compatible. You can be a consummately nice, caring, pretty, cheerful sort—and still have the determination, endurance, capability, and courage to fight what needs fighting.
Rapunzel is not the only example of such a seemingly-paradoxical character. But the writers were able to take advantage of the extended development of the TV series to showcase in detail how a person can grow to take on that mantle. It’s something we always need to see more of.
I’m going to assume that by now, everybody who wants to has seen Star Wars IX, The Rise of Skywalker (“TROS”). So we should now be able to discuss the plot freely, though I will hang out a
just in case.
And we are now in a position, after forty-odd years, to reach conclusions about the story as a whole. We can consider the main storyline or central arc of Star Wars complete. That universe is already expanding (for the second time) into side stories and prequels; and it’s quite possible that we’ll see more stories set after the end of TROS, even including some of the same main characters. (Personally, I wouldn’t mind seeing about four separate spinoffs from the ending of TROS—for reasons discussed below—as long as there are NO MORE DEATH STARS.) But it appears we’ve seen a conclusion to the main story.
There are, of course, a lot of things one might say about the nine-movie saga. The one I want to consider here has to do with love stories.
Star Wars and Romance
Star Wars isn’t primarily a romance. But adventure stories, particularly of the swashbuckling sort that Star Wars set out to revive, frequently do end up with a pair of characters getting together romantically. Sometimes more than once; I’m looking at you, Indiana Jones. Even James Bond movies always end with a sex scene.
So it’s not unreasonable to expect a sweeping space opera like this to include, as a minor element, at least some romantic achievements. Do you recall how many successful romances, in the sense of “happy ever after” (“HEA”) endings, we see in the entire Star Wars saga?
Not one romantic combination in the entire series leaves us relatively content with a couple’s life story, despite the number of such combinations that are teased over the course of the movies. This fact strikes me as remarkable, and it’s puzzling how to account for it.
The Original Trilogy
The original Star Wars movie (the title later changed, for those of us too young to remember, to A New Hope) did suggest a conventional romantic development—although with some ambiguity.
Luke is recruited into the Rebellion through seeing an image of a beautiful damsel in distress. He’s clearly infatuated with her (I always enjoyed the fact that even in stormtrooper armor, you can see the bashfulness in Luke’s tilt of the head when he finally meets Leia in her prison cell). Just before they swing across a pit, she gives him a quick kiss “for luck.”
And then there’s Han. Though he starts out merely kidding Luke about taking an interest in Leia (“Do you think a princess and a guy like me—”), by the end of the movie, one imagines the interest could become real. The three of them exchange characteristic glances at the final ceremony, showing a certain affection, but leaving it up in the air whether a genuine romance will develop in either case.
When the first movie became a howling success and Lucas decided to continue the trilogy, he had to pick a side. Empire gives us a pretty straightforward Han-Leia romance, albeit one interrupted by a cliffhanger. (“I love you.” “I know.”) In Return of the Jedi (“ROTJ”), the writers terminate the competing Luke-Leia possibility permanently by making them siblings. To all intents and purposes, the finale of ROTJ includes a traditional HEA conclusion, in which we can expect a successful marriage between Leia and Han.
Nobody else in the original trilogy has a romance going on. Lando doesn’t get a girl, at least not onscreen. It would be entertaining to imagine a Madame Yoda (especially now that Baby Yoda is a worldwide favorite), but we don’t see that either. But at least we did have Han and Leia. From 1986 through 2015, we could assume that the series had achieved one HEA ending.
The Prequel Trilogy
A romance is in some degree central to the plot of Episodes I-III. Anakin Skywalker’s troubled attraction to Padmé Amidala is a major motivator in his descent into the dark side.
One of the things for which I admire the prequel trilogy is a convincing depiction of how a basically decent, if unstable, person can gradually be corrupted into an evildoer. There are a number of factors involved, some of which could be attributed to “the system.” I’ve never been convinced there was a good reason for the Jedi order to take children away from their parents when barely toddlers, or to forbid them to marry. And the fate of Anakin’s mother Shmi is another strong driver. But his fixation on Padmé is where we see his “Face-Heel Turn” working itself out in action.
For a nine-year-old, the boy Anakin is already oddly focused on Padmé in The Phantom Menace (episode I). Attack of the Clones (episode II) lays out a burgeoning love affair between them as young adults, culminating in a secret marriage at the end. Unfortunately, this star-crossed romance is handled ineptly by the movie-makers, IMHO; there is absolutely no chemistry between the characters on-screen. Nonetheless, the plot requires us to consider this a compelling romance, in order to set up the third episode.
In Revenge of the Sith, Anakin is besieged by nightmares of Padmé dying in childbirth. His desire to protect her makes him more and more obsessed with acquiring forbidden powers to save her life. In a well-managed ironic turn, this obsession takes him down a path that ends with Anakin killing Padmé himself.
Given the backstory we already knew from the middle (original) trilogy, it was clear that the Padmé-Anakin romance was fated to fail. Anakin would become Darth Vader, and something was bound to happen to Padmé, since the children (Luke and Leia) were raised separately by foster parents. So no HEA for the main characters was in store. While there are various side characters involved—most notably Obi-Wan Kenobi, who seems to have faithfully carried out the marriage proscription by never having a romance at all—none of them contributed anything to the tally of Star Wars love stories.
When the new third trilogy opened, the writers of the first movie, The Force Awakens (episode VII, “TFA”), made a crucial decision: to sour the one romance standing by undermining the ending of Return of the Jedi (VI). In the intervening years, Han and Leia’s son Ben (Kylo Ren) has turned to the dark side. Lucasfilms might have depicted this tragedy as pulling his parents closer together. Instead, it apparently shattered their marriage.
TFA shows Han and Leia meeting each other again after a long separation, in which both of them have gone back to their earlier selves. Leia is leading yet another rebellion, while Han has returned to pointless smuggling. The characters have regressed rather than progressing. The character arcs we thought had been completed in the original trilogy have been reversed.
More important for our purposes here, Han and Leia’s love affair in retrospect seems limited and bitter. One hopes they had happy years together while Ben was a child. But we don’t see any of that. And any hopes for a long-term return to a life together are eliminated when Ben kills Han.
One must admit this outcome is realistic. It could happen that way. But it’s also unsatisfying, in a particularly frustrating way: it undoes the happy ending of the middle trilogy. This is a classic fault in sequels—to negate or deconstruct what the characters achieved in the previous episodes. And that fault occurs in the Star Wars saga in more than one way.
We might expect that at least some of the numerous new characters introduced in the sequel trilogy might find love. But while the writers tease us with all sorts of possibilities, they never deliver on any of them.
Thus, TFA suggests that Rey and Finn will end up a couple. But they don’t. In episode VIII, The Last Jedi (“TLJ”), Finn is involved with another new character, Rose Tico, who at least is clearly in love with him. Nothing comes of it. The final episode, TROS, hints that Finn might become involved with still another woman, Jannah, who like Finn is a former stormtrooper. But there’s no suggestion at the end that they’re actually going to get together.
Meanwhile, we keep getting hints that Rey is eventually going to get together with Kylo Ren, the redeemed Ben Skywalker. They are supposed to be a “Force dyad,” whatever that means. But Ben gives up his life to save Rey, as they share one kiss. There’s thus no real Rey-Kylo romance (fortunately, in my view; I never liked Kylo anyway). Nor does Rey get together with anyone else. She doesn’t have to; she’s a great character regardless. But it’s one more romantic potential that came to nothing.
Poe Dameron, the third main character of the sequel trilogy, finally gets a possible soul mate in the last episode. This is new character Zorii Bliss, an armored fighter with a grudge against him from earlier events. He actually extends an invitation to her at the end—and she turns him down.
It’s not impossible that some of these tenuous relationships might turn out to develop into something later. I wouldn’t mind seeing Poe and Zorii continue their prickly antagonism into some kind of romance; or Finn getting together with somebody; or Rey having further adventures, in the course of which she might meet that special someone. But as far as the nine-movie main storyline goes, we’re left with nothing.
Of course this isn’t a universal rule. Early SF authors could be so focused on imaginary technology and adventure that romance wasn’t a consideration. For example, John W. Campbell, a close competitor to Smith with galaxy-spanning adventure tales in the thirties (later a formative editor in the field), not only eschewed romance but seldom even included women in stories like The Black Star Passes.
Why were romances common in old-time space operas? A HEA ending was part of the reward for the hero, who “gets the girl.” (Or vice versa, in principle.) More than that, I think, the preservation and fulfillment of beauty and love is part of what save-the-world stories are trying to achieve; they show vividly what is at stake. Thus a romantic commitment, or even a wedding, is a natural part of the celebratory ending of an upbeat adventure story.
By and large, then, one tends to associate colorful, sweeping space opera with a romantic element, even if it’s not very sophisticated or central to the story. So why is that factor absent from this nine-episode extravaganza? All the lonely Star Wars people: where do they all come from?
We can ask this “why” question in two ways. Internally, from a narrative standpoint, what is it about this universe that seems to discourage HEA endings? And externally, from the writers’ point of view, why didn’t they put some in? Of course, we can only speculate about either matter. (If anyone knows of an explanation from the screenwriters or showrunners that would shed light on the latter question, I’d love to hear about it.)
In terms of the narrative itself, maybe the answer is that the Star Wars universe just isn’t hospitable to happy endings. It’s a very violent world, for one thing. Slavery on the outer planets, the ascendancy of tyrannies on the more civilized worlds. When you come right down to it, how many people do we see living happy, contented lives anywhere in the Star Wars ’verse?
This cheerlessness is itself an odd thing, given the way the series started out. The relatively lighthearted original trilogy, and especially A New Hope taken by itself, gave us the sense that once the Death Star was destroyed, the galaxy could prosper in some kind of freedom. But the more detail additional episodes added to the background, the grimmer the universe seemed to become. In the end, post-Episode IX, it just doesn’t seem like a very nice place to live.
In terms of the authors’ intent, it seems to me that changes of directing or authorial handling may have taken a toll. The J.J. Abrams–Rian Johnson team that handled the final trilogy is a different ‘voice’ than that of Lucas’ original trilogy. Johnson’s middle episode of the last trilogy, TLJ (VIII), seems to have devoted itself deliberately to deconstructing all the expectations created in TFA (VII). And Abrams’ partial re-reversal in TROS (IX) didn’t save the love affairs. Apparently the third-trilogy directors simply didn’t want a HEA romance.
But why was that? I don’t know, of course, but I think part of the answer is simply that times have changed—again.
The original A New Hope in 1977 was a blockbuster precisely because it broke a long string of jaded, cynical movies in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It invited us to enjoy a kind of upbeat adventure story that had long been out of fashion. And that atmosphere was one in which a relatively light, upbeat romance could also flourish.
But any romance in the prequel trilogy, as noted above, was bound to be downbeat. And the sequel trilogy directors/writers seem to have felt that audiences today wouldn’t buy a sentimental HEA ending—or to have been so bent on defeating expectations that they were unwilling to close the deal on any romantic interest, because a romantic happy ending is something we expect.
Personally, I think the sequel trilogy would have been better off with one or two successful romances, out of the several possibilities. But that isn’t the story we’ve got. So, until someone decides to remake the whole Star Wars saga from scratch—and at the current turnover rate of remakes, maybe that’ll start in another ten years or so—we’ll have to enjoy Star Wars for virtues other than those of the happily ever after.
I never saw Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical The Phantom of the Opera on stage. But I am fond of the 2004 movie. I can’t compare the two formats, so I’ll have to duck quietly out the back door if people want to debate their relative merits. But the movie does bring up an entertaining, if minor, point.
If you’re not familiar with the story of Webber’s musical, check the Wikipedia link at the top of this post. What we need to know here is that around 1870, a reclusive villain haunts the Paris Opéra House; he’s obsessed with a young singer named Christine Daae, who is in turn mesmerized by the Phantom’s music; and the partially-masked man lives in extensive caverns under the opera house, which form the backdrop for scenes in the movie.
When I say “caverns,” you may be picturing some dark, gloomy retreat. Not at all. The Phantom’s lair is not only pretty plush; it’s brilliantly lit by what seem to be thousands of candles.
The Phantom’s well-lit lair
My family was watching the movie one time and started speculating about exactly who manages these candles. To begin with, someone has to have lighted them all before the Phantom spirits Christine away to his hideout. Did the Phantom himself spend a couple of hours going around with a Bic lighter beforehand? It’s not as if he has a crew of minions to do it for him. The Phantom is strictly a one-man operation.
Nor is it enough simply to turn a light on, as might be the case for, say, a gas lamp. Candles burn down and have to be replaced. One imagines the Phantom singing the languorous lyrics of “The Music of the Night” while breaking off every few lines to change out a guttering candle for a fresh one. It would kind of ruin the effect.
It gets worse. Where do all the candles come from? Even if we assume the mystery man can afford them (he demands regular protection money from the opera in exchange for not killing people), remember that this is a secret hideout. If a big lorry pulled up outside the cellar doors every week—“Order of 5,000 candles for Mr. P.”—someone would eventually notice.
Of course, The Phantom isn’t exactly a model of realism, and we don’t begrudge the producers another minor lapse in logic in exchange for the visual spectacle. It’s an example of what TV Tropes calls “Fridge Logic”: the plot holes that occur to you half an hour after the movie is over, as you’re rooting around in your refrigerator.
Still, it’s surprising how common this particular anomaly is.
In Disney’s 1993 version of The Three Musketeers (still my favorite version), the primary villain is Cardinal Richelieu, hammed up to the hilt by Tim Curry. He too has an underground lair: a dungeon somewhere near the palace, which can only be reached by rowing a boat across a subterranean lake.
The path to the dungeons is lighted by plenty of torches; no doubt the Cardinal’s numerous henchmen can take care of those. But in addition, there are firepots spaced strategically around the lake, presumably with wood or coal feeding their bonfires.
Cardinal Richelieu’s underground lake
I suppose there must be minions whose sole job is to row around the lake, periodically replenishing the firepots’ fuel. And I expect they are under strict orders to skedaddle off the lake whenever the Cardinal himself comes to take a boat across, lest their mundane tasks interfere with Richelieu’s august progress. Still, it seems a rather elaborate, not to mention wasteful, setup.
It might well be more economical, instead, for Richelieu to hire a contractor to come in and handle the job. That method would solve the minionless Phantom’s problem as well. Clearly, there’s a market niche here in providing this key service for villains.
But why shouldn’t heroes also get in on the game?
Carroll’s Oil Troughs
In National Treasure (2004), Our Heroes spend most of the film searching for a fabulous hoard of valuable artifacts originally collected by the Knights Templar, passed on to the Masons, and eventually hidden by Charles Carroll, one of the Founding Fathers of America. They finally discover this treasure in—you guessed it—an underground cavern, this one under Trinity Church in New York City.
This vast array of shining gold would be unimpressive if it were lighted by a single torch. Fortunately, Our Heroes find that the designers of this particular display hall have run troughs filled with oil down from the entry and across the whole expanse. All Nicolas Cage has to do is touch his torch to the basin of oil at the top, and flames race along the entire network of open tubes, providing them, and us, with a wonderful view of the goodies.
Treasure cavern in National Treasure
This neat bit of eighteenth-century construction still works perfectly after all these years, reminding us of the kind of Durable Deathtraps Indiana Jones is always running into; except that this isn’t a deathtrap, just a convenient lighting effect. At least we don’t have to imagine fires that have been burning continuously for two and a half centuries. We needn’t worry about plausibility as long as we don’t wonder why the oil hasn’t evaporated or leaked away long since.
If those fridge thoughts do occur to us, however, clearly the answer has to be that Carroll got in touch with the Phantom’s lighting contractors to renew the oil supply every so often. The movie has already presented us with several secret societies functioning for centuries; what’s one more?
This particulat subtrope seems to occur mainly in the movies, since it’s primarily a matter of visual spectacle. A verbal description can more easily skate around the problems, though it still wouldn’t be quite as satisfying to write about the wonderful sight of a vast treasure if it were almost entirely shrouded in gloom.
It’s primarily in a historical context that we need the lighting contractor’s services. A story set in the present or future would face less daunting challenges if it merely had to explain long-lived electric lighting rather than candles or other fires. And of course it’s in underground settings that we tend to need the light most.
A little stretching of the imagination was always needed when visualizing exploration, not to mention swordfighting and such, in underground areas without an obvious source of light. One could stipulate that Dungeons and Dragons adventurers were carrying torches in one hand while wielding swords in the other—but at best that always seemed like something only a master swordsman could pull off. I was rather relieved when the players in my D&D campaign came up with the idea of casting Continual Light spells on coins that they could hang around their necks. The wildly shifting shadows as they darted around in a melee, lanyards swinging, would be headachy to imagine; but at least they could get rid of the dratted torches.
What really justifies (and I use the term loosely) these candles and firepots is what TV Tropes calls the Rule of Cool: we’re willing to grant some logical leeway to a storyteller to allow a really impressive effect.
But I’m still tempted to add to the traditional Evil Overlord List an additional bit of advice: If you want cool lighting effects, and the technology level is such that it’s not just a matter of making sure your utility bills are paid up, look up the Phantom’s lighting contractor.
I can’t recall who suggested I start watching The Good Place, which recently released its finale after four seasons. I do remember being warned not to look up the show on Wikipedia or anything first; and that was good advice. The series’ twists and turns are entirely unexpected and it would ruin the effect to know they were coming. So, at the top of this post, I need to point out—
The Slapstick Element
A TV series about the afterlife is, to the best of my recollection, a novel idea. There’ve been shows that featured regular visitations from the afterlife, such as Topper or My Mother the Car. But these were’t about the afterlife, any more than My Favorite Martian was about life on Mars. They were about events here on earth when visitors from the afterlife intruded. Those who know more than I about the history of TV may be able to provide other examples; but The Good Place’s approach is at least fairly rare.
The second unexpected thing about The Good Place is the transcendent silliness with which Michael Schur and the show’s other writers imbue the series. Almost invariably, if something seems profound or weighty, there’s a pratfall (verbal or otherwise) waiting just around the corner. Even when typical afterlife tropes are invoked, such as torture in hell, they are so exaggerated or understated that one can’t take them seriously. The characters are also drawn very broadly, to the point of caricature—no one could be quite as perfectly airheaded as Jason, as status-conscious as Tahani, as indecisive as Chidi—except for Eleanor, who serves as our Everywoman hero.
This perpetual wackiness makes the show entertaining, but it also accomplishes some other things. The silliness of the events and characters prevents us from taking the theology seriously. It would be hard to present a serious visualization of heaven or hell in an era when there is no general consensus about such things. But we can all laugh along with the notion that a heaven featuring a really, really great yogurt shop is a bit of a letdown—even if you like yogurt. It’s hard to be offended or galvanized to argument when the theological features are clearly not meant seriously.
In the moments when the show actually does get serious, the surrounding wackiness also keeps it from getting preachy. The levity of the overall atmosphere lends the genuinely moving moments a sort of innocent sincerity. (A fan of G.K. Chesterton, of course, will find that sort of atmosphere immediately congenial.)
I’ve seen some lively comments online on how the show ended. Several people have said they hated to see it end. It’s true that one is always reluctant to say goodbye to favorite characters and situations. On the other hand, it’s better for a TV series to close before it’s worn out its original premise and goes into that long slow decline. Exhaustion of the premises is especially likely to occur when the premise is as bizarre as that of The Good Place. So I was kind of pleased to see the writers were bringing the show to an end after four good seasons.
Is it a good ending? Dramatically, yes. I’m content. That’s the essential criterion for the show’s creator: “there’s really only one goal ever for a show finale, in my mind, and that’s to make people who have been watching the show and invested time and energy and emotion in the show feel like it’s a good ending.”
However, the completed work does leave some questions hanging. Appropriately enough, the leftover puzzles are big issues about the fundamental things. I don’t mean that the show should have tried to deal with them: it can best to leave some mystery. However, it’s entertaining to look at what some of these holes were. I present them, of course, from my point of view; those who approach the fundamental questions differently may see the gaps in somewhat different ways.
(Since I flew the spoiler alert above, I’m going to assume that anyone who makes it this far has a pretty good acquaintance with the series.)
The more we find out about The Good Place’s underlying machinery of the afterlife, the more we may wonder: Who put this madhouse in place to begin with?
Nobody seems to be in charge of the whole shebang. The demons who run the Bad Place don’t have complete power, or they’d have simply gone on happily torturing humans indefinitely. The Good Place, apparently, is run by a committee of nonentities, who show up only once or twice, make some entirely ineffectual remarks, and flee at the first opportunity to abdicate their responsibilities. Disputes between the two are resolved by Judge Gen, an irritable, easily distracted entity who seems annoyed by the whole business.
We never do find out who dreamed up the point system that’s used to evaluate human actions. As Sam Adams’ article on Slate puts it, “Introducing a painless exit from the afterlife allowed The Good Place to punt on some of its biggest questions, like who created the universe (the highest-ranking figure we ever meet, the nearly omnipotent Judge Gen, still feels like she’s enforcing someone else’s rules) . . .”
As the setup comes to seem more and more arbitrary, an inquiring viewer is likely to become more and more perplexed about why this particular cockamamie system should exist, rather than any other. (Much less “why there is anything at all,” the fundamental question of metaphysics.)
These are the kinds of questions addressed by the traditional “First Cause” arguments for the existence of God. Why is there this universe rather than some other? Why is there this universe rather than nothing? Ordinarily we sail along day to day without bothering much about the matter. But because The Good Place is showing us (in its own wacky way) the entities that ought to have the answers, the questions become hard to avoid. Once the main characters get backstage, you might say, the God-shaped hole in the overall system becomes more and more evident.
A related issue appears when at one point the judge proposes to wipe the slate clean and start over—annihilate all humans who have ever lived and start the new system from scratch. I found myself wondering, what is the judge trying to accomplish? What are her motives? If the idea is to find a better way to deal with the ongoing human population, that’s fairly clear. But if she’s going to eliminate the humans and start something different, why go to the trouble? Is there some sort of cosmological imperative that there be a human race, or a life-and-afterlife system? We don’t have any idea what her motives might be, because we have no earthly (or unearthly) idea why the existing framework is there in the first place.
One of the most interesting moral speculations in the show turns up when the main characters are trying to figure out why no humans for centuries have succeeded in qualifying for the Good Place. The reason, it’s suggested, is that the modern world is so complex that an ordinary human can’t know all the consequences of an action. If I buy a Coke, I have to consider not only the effect on my budget and my waistline, but also the bottle’s carbon footprint, whether it was produced using child labor or unfair business practices, and so forth. Every choice is laden with unknowable results—and apparently these are mostly bad, bringing people’s point scores down.
It’s an interesting idea, with at least superficial plausibility. The modern world is more complex than our pre-technological world, and maybe it’s just grown beyond our ability to manage. Today we are constantly being told that it’s our obligation to take into account all sorts of remote consequences, becoming so scrupulous that the slightest decision is weighted with ponderous political and moral consequences.
This argument itself is based on some significant moral assumptions. For instance, it takes for granted that actions are to be evaluated on their results—“consequentialism,” of which the most popular form is utilitarianism. That’s not the only possibility. Chidi, for instance, apparently embraces a “deontological” or rule-based ethics. And then there’s the Aristotelian virtue-based ethics. What actually drives the main characters’ decisions in the end seems to be the worth or importance of persons, which has something in common with Kant’s deontological ethics (every person must be treated as an end in itself) or, more directly, personalism.
One might also wonder whether the problem of unforeseen consequences is really unique to modernity. Life has always been complex, and actions have always had ramifications stretching out far beyond what we can anticipate. It does seem plausible, though, that in a highly interconnected world (“the world is getting smaller”), the effects of a given cause propagate faster and further.
There’s an additional complexity in the The Good Place’s point system insofar as it uses these remote results to judge the person who is acting. There’s a difference between judging the results and judging the agent. Traditional axiological (good-based) or consequentialist theories of ethics would not normally hold us responsible for consequences we can’t reasonably foresee. If someone does something terrible (or, for that matter, something heroic) we take into account the pressures that person was under, which may include their history and experiences; the limits of their knowledge; the effects of outside conditions like drugs or alcohol; and many other factors that might diminish (or enhance) responsibility.
None of this seems to be considered in the point system with which The Good Place begins. And no wonder: the point system is presented from the beginning as a caricature of real moral judgment, an oversimplified and somewhat unfair scheme. But the “new system” we’re given at the end doesn’t really solve that problem either. Giving the poor humans many lifetimes to become better people is kind, perhaps, but how does it take degrees of responsibility into account (much less resolve the issue of unpredictable consequences)?
Eternity and the Good Life
The driving force of the series’ last episodes is the notion that an eternity of pleasure is itself intolerable. We get bored, and, we’re told, the tedium gradually degrades our faculties, so that the esteemed philosopher Hypatia of Alexandria shows up as a shallow airhead (“Patty”), to the main characters’ dismay. The series’ answer is that the system must provide the opportunity to end this eternal lassitude at a chosen time—“die the real death,” as Zelazny might have put it. The option of ending it all somehow removes the tedium of eternal pleasure and allows us to enjoy the Good Place until we walk through the final door.
The idea of eternity as a bore presents a valid question. It isn’t a question restricted to the afterlife, either; it points back to the classic philosophical issue of what is a good life for human beings. The good life, in the classical ancient or medieval sense, isn’t just the absence of wrongdoing or the ability to score arbitrary points; it embodies the idea of a life that is worth living.
For this reason, it’s worth taking a closer look at what The Good Place has to say about the good life. From the perspective of that question, the show’s final solution looks a bit superficial. Sam Adams, again, says: “The idea that going through the door would simply allow a person’s energy to rejoin the universe—as Eleanor took the fateful step, she dissolved into otherworldly fireflies that wafted down to Earth—felt more like New Age goop than moral philosophy, or maybe just a midway point between Immanuel Kant and Dan Brown.”
It’s true that “[t]he way to love anything is to realise that it might be lost,” as Chesterton says (Tremendous Trifles (1909), ch. 7). But the idea of loving something is curiously muted in The Good Place. The Good Place as we see it in the show does look boring, but that may be because the writers built it that way. The focus on simple pleasures like milkshakes lends itself to this—an eternity of sitting placidly and drinking even the best milkshake would be a bore. With admirable consistency, the screenwriters do apply the same argument to other goods like learning and reading. But it’s not quite as clear that something like learning is as inherently limited as ordinary (and genuinely good) gustatory pleasures.
Even with respect to the simpler pleasures, The Good Place doesn’t take into account the possibility that becoming bored is a a human weakness—a physiological or psychological failure to continue appreciating something that remains worthwhile in itself. That weakness isn’t necessarily incurable. Chesterton remarks:
The thing I mean can be seen, for instance, in children, when they find some game or joke that they specially enjoy. A child kicks his legs rhythmically through excess, not absence, of life. Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. . . . It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we. (G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (Image 1959), ch. IV, p. 60)
The one factor in the depiction of the Good Place that seems to be understated, oddly enough, is love and friendship—relationships. The show does make something of personal interactions, mainly in the two romantic relationships, Eleanor and Chidi and Jason and Janet. But none of the four main characters becomes involved with any other interesting people—despite the plethora of historical figures that might be called on. (As we noted above, the interesting Hypatia has been deliberately dumbed down for the episode to make a point.)
Outside the central four, together with Michael and Janet, there’s no sense of camaraderie or community. We do not see the potentially unlimited constellations of True Companions—just the one cluster of main characters. And of course the one big relationship is missing: that God-shaped hole. In traditional Christian thinking, at least, God is infinite, and our relationship with God is one time can never exhaust. Because The Good Place adroitly sidesteps the whole question of divinity, that line of solution to the problem of eternity can’t be explored.
Moreover, the show cheats a little when it suggests that a final dissolution is the real end. At least one character uses the conventional phrase “moving on”—which undermines that notion of finality. And what one commentator refers to as “a complete and unknowable end” isn’t quite what we actually get.
For a while, it seems as if Michael Schur is no more prepared to answer existence’s ultimate question than anybody else. But when it’s Eleanor’s turn, the camera doesn’t cut away. Instead, it pans up to the sky above her, a group of ethereal lights floating up into the frame, suggesting that this is what the person that was Eleanor Shellstrop has become. . . . . What that gorgeous final scene suggests is that the best possible reward would be the ability to continue to touch the lives of those we left behind . . . (Rolling Stone)
Even the series’ best attempt at agnosticism about the good life seems to recede before a sense of good action as in some sense eternal.
The Good Place has been a great show, and I’ve enjoyed it throughout. Simply giving us an opportunity to think about such matters as these is way beyond what most TV series achieve. And to do it in a way that’s consistently entertaining is the cherry on the top of the frozen yogurt.