Epilogues are a critical component of all but the shortest stories. Once the climax and falling action are over, audiences need a little bit of extra time to confirm that the problems are resolved and their favorite characters are okay. But that doesn’t mean all epilogues are created equal. Some shirk their important responsibilities and undermine the preceding story instead, leaving a bad taste in everyone’s mouth. As a well-documented lover of epilogues, I obviously need to tell you about that.
Book two of Patricia C. Wrede’s Enchanted Forest Chronicles features a romance between Princess Cimorene and King Mendanbar alongside its main plot.* Once the bad guys are defeated, it’s only natural for the epilogue to feature a wedding, firmly tying off the love story. Cimorene quickly fills out her side of the ceremony. Her majesty Kazul, King of the Dragons,* is the matron of honor, as Cimorene and Kazul go way back. The witch Morwen, also a good friend, is a bridesmaid.
That might be a little sparse,* but Mendanbar has it significantly worse, as he is never established to have any friends or family. Fortunately, he does have a close advisor named Willis, who basically runs the kingdom for him. Throughout the book, Willis is always the one taking care of logistics and organization while Mendanbar runs off to have adventures. Willis is also eager to see Mendanbar married, as it will ensure the kingdom’s political stability.
A political advisor might not be most people’s choice for best man, but it’s the obvious choice for Mendanbar. Instead, the wise king picks a random magician he’s known for less than a week. This is Telemain, and not only are the two of them barely acquainted, but Telemain’s entire personality can be summed up as “annoying know-it-all.” It’s surprising that Mendanbar invited him at all, let alone gave him such an important position in the ceremony while making Willis only a groomsman.
Beyond questions of why Mendanbar would do this, it also leaves the karmic scales unbalanced. Without Willis, Mendanbar’s kingdom would be in absolute shambles, and the humble advisor never so much as asks for a thank you. It feels like he deserves some kind of recognition, and a prominent place at the wedding ceremony would have been just the ticket. It would have shown us that Mendanbar does actually appreciate all of Willis’s work and been a nice way to end the story.
I’m guessing Wrede chose Telemain as best man because he’s onscreen more than Willis. Gotta make it seem like the epic adventure forged an equally epic bond, even though there’s little evidence that Mendanbar has more than mild affection for the loquacious magician. If that’s the case, why not have Willis officiate the ceremony? There’s no mention of who does that, and since Willis loves organizing things, that would have been the perfect place for him.
Other than leaving the Korrasami romance ambiguous, Korra’s final epilogue is pretty good. We see the characters moving on with their lives and the world starting to rebuild itself after four seasons of conflict. Plus, the Earth Kingdom becomes a democracy, so that’s nice.
However, that’s not the show’s only epilogue. The first season also has one, possibly because the writers weren’t sure if there would be a second season, and oh boy is it a doozy. After defeating Amon, several of our heroes are left without their bending, something that there’s no immediate cure for.* That’s a downer ending for sure, but it seems to be permanent, at least for now. Perhaps the second season will see our heroes discover how to restore their abilities.
Or Aang’s ghost could just appear to Korra and restore her bending. And it could also give her the ability to restore other people’s bending. It’s conceivable that Aang would know how to do that, since he learned spirit bending at the end of The Last Airbender, but why would he appear now? According to Aang, it’s because Korra has hit her “lowest point,” which makes her more “open to change.”
That’s really weird, because I don’t remember Aang getting any closer to his past lives when he found the body of Monk Gyatso or when he thought an Earth Kingdom general had killed Katara. He did go into the Avatar State, but only as a brief expression of his rage and not to gain any new abilities or knowledge. Were those situations not bad enough to count as a lowest point?
Beyond the poor logic, this means the solution to Korra losing her bending is to… be really upset about losing her bending? If she’d been better adjusted, she wouldn’t have been open to change, and she’d never have gotten her bending back? What is happening? This also implies she’d have gotten her bending back even if Amon wasn’t defeated, since she’d still have been upset about losing it.
Such an easy victory is profoundly unsatisfying, and it cheapens all the conflict that came before. Even if there was a more earned way of restoring the character’s bending, popping it in the epilogue would be bad manners. That’s when the story is supposed to wind down, or perhaps give a hook for next time, not pivot to solve a major problem.
Behold, a second middle-grade fantasy novel about dragons. What are the odds? The first book in Tui T. Sutherland’s Wings of Fire series tells the story of five dragonets who are prophesied to end a bloody war and bring peace to dragonkind. To prepare them for this glorious purpose, the dragonets are trained and watched over by an adult dragon named Kestrel,* who can most generously be described as antagonistic to her charges. Less generously, I’d describe her as super abusive.
In Kestrel’s view, as long as the dragonets are alive, she’s done her job. She has no qualms about verbally cutting them down when they make mistakes, physically beating them up in training, and forcing them away from the environments they need to feel comfortable.* Also, when one of the dragonets seems to be an obstacle to the prophecy, she has no problem with a little child murder.
Fortunately, the dragonets escape before Kestrel can kill anyone, but this arc isn’t over. Later, they’re all captured by a common enemy, and this second escape takes up most of the book. During this section, the dragonets decide to free Kestrel so she won’t be executed. This requires a lot of extra effort and puts them at considerable danger. Once everyone is free, some of the dragonets even reconcile with their former mentor.
How well the book handles this is up for debate. On the one hand, it never fully confronts just how abusive Kestrel was. On the other hand, Sutherland clearly shows that this is an act of magnanimity from the dragonets, not something Kestrel is entitled to. Some of the dragonets even refuse to go along with it, especially the one Kestrel planned to kill. Regardless, this is the conclusion of a major relationship arc. Kestrel even admits that she may have made some mistakes and pledges to help the dragonets in the future.
So it’s jarring when the epilogue rolls up and Kestrel is unceremoniously murdered by a couple of villains. The problem isn’t Kestrel’s death in itself; she’s horrible and deserves whatever she gets. It’s that the big arc of rescuing and reconciling with her now feels pointless. She could have just died during the escape instead and saved us all a bunch of time.
Worse, her pledge to help the dragonets now seems like false foreshadowing. Maybe she has some friends who will help instead, but that’s not what the story promised. It’s questionable whether an author should ever pull a stunt like this, as it tells audiences not to expect satisfying conclusions to various plot threads, but it certainly shouldn’t happen in an epilogue. That makes it feel like cheating, like the character was killed off behind our backs.
The seventh Final Fantasy game ends with a 10-minute cutscene that you could reasonably expect to be the epilogue, but it isn’t. At that point, you’ve already defeated the big bad in battle, but there’s a giant asteroid about to smash into the planet. This cutscene shows some magic you’ve just activated reflecting the asteroid. You also get some beyond-the-grave help from a party member who died back in act one. Thanks, Aerith!*
Then the credits roll, and it seems like the game won’t have an epilogue at all, which is too bad because it would really benefit from one. The final cutscene leaves a lot of questions unanswered, like what happens to the people of Midgar, who will run things now that Shinra is gone, and whether there’s an alternative to unsustainable mako energy better than coal. You’re probably also invested in the story’s central characters. What is Cloud and Tifa’s life like after all they’ve been through together? Will Barret get to reunite with his daughter? Will Yuffie steal everyone’s materia again? So many questions unanswered!
Just when all seems lost, a new cutscene appears. Perhaps our hopes have been answered? Ha. Instead, you see an older version of Nanaki,* one of your party members. If you’re not familiar with the game, he’s some kind of lion-like creature. In this second cutscene, he’s significantly older and has a couple of cubs with him.
This is confusing, because one of the few things you learned about Nanaki’s people is that he was the last one. That makes babies an unlikely proposition. Perhaps he wasn’t the last after all, but if so, that’s something we should have seen before the cubs were suddenly there.
More importantly, this is disappointing as an epilogue. Nanaki isn’t a bad character, but he’s far from the most important. It’s like watching a Lord of the Rings epilogue that only features Merry, with no mention of Frodo, Aragorn, Sam, Eowyn, etc. The cutscene is also incredibly short. All we see is Nanaki and the cubs make a quick dash through a canyon, then look out over the ruins of Midgar. I guess that explains what happened to the city, but are the people okay?
We get no closure on any of the story’s lingering questions, which is especially weird in a game that takes around 40 hours to complete.* Maybe the developers didn’t include a real epilogue because they hoped to make sequels and didn’t want to lock themselves into anything. Even then, surely it’s not too much to ask to show just a few minutes of the important characters with their loved ones? Considering how half-hearted the sequels actually were, it seems like the least they could do.
5. The Stand
Stephen King’s 1978 novel has been adapted twice for TV: once in 1994 and again in 2020. It’s the second one we’re concerned with today, and while I won’t go so far as to say it’s cursed, releasing a pandemic story in 2020 probably didn’t help its odds.
The most common epilogue problem is simply not having one, and this show avoids that by devoting an entire episode to it.* With only nine episodes total, that makes The Stand over 10% epilogue, which is probably more than what’s needed. It’s an understandable choice, though, since devoting only part of a TV episode to epilogue is tricky. What do you do with the rest of the run time?
Rather than length, the main issue with this epilogue is execution. After the big climax where most of the main characters are killed by God* setting off a nuclear bomb, we’re left with just Stu and Frannie to follow up on. They have a tearful reunion, Frannie has her baby, and the baby doesn’t die from the worldwide super-plague. So far, so good.
But then, Frannie decides that she and Stu should take their infant daughter* away from their relatively safe community of survivors and live in Maine instead. I know Stephen King characters naturally return to New England on a long enough timeline, but really? Their reasoning is that this town of maybe 1,000 people is too crowded, and also the local safety patrol has started carrying guns.
The first concern is inexplicable, and I honestly can’t tell if they’re joking. The second is a bit more understandable, until you remember that Frannie and Stu are the community’s main leaders. If they don’t want the patrol to carry guns, they could probably do something about it. Even if that wasn’t true, their trip is so reckless that it easily qualifies as child endangerment.
Outside of their Boulder-based community, most of the United States is uninhabited, on account of everyone being dead. That means there’s no one to help if they get sick or injured, let alone if the baby gets sick or injured. They have a single truck for transportation and no way to repair it if something breaks. What will they do for food once they reach Maine? Canned food won’t last forever, so I guess they’re just rolling the dice on being able to figure out subsistence farming or a hunter-gatherer lifestyle before they starve. What’s more, the few people still out there have been firmly established as a bunch of rapists, since that was all the writers could think of to generate conflict early in the story.
I guess none of that matters anymore though, as our heroes grab their infant child and head out like it’s a fun camping trip. But then the writers try to have their post-apocalyptic cake and eat it too, as they clearly want us to be worried despite there being no obvious source of danger. You can tell because they keep playing danger music and using spooky camera angles to imply there’s a monster watching them. The climax was last episode, writers. Why are you trying to stress us out during the epilogue?
The only actual danger comes from the Dark Man, who is either Satan or Satan’s son, depending on where you are in the show. He’s not a physical threat, though. He shows up to tempt Frannie when she’s dying from a predictable accident. When she refuses, God appears and heals her anyway, so that’s done. This is extra annoying because as far as we know, the Dark Man is supposed to be dead. He got divinely smote right before the nuke went off. Apparently that didn’t even slow him down, which makes the entire climax feel pointless.
Admittedly, a good epilogue would be difficult for The Stand, since most of the main characters are dead by the end. The best option would probably have been to focus on Boulder as a whole rather than just Stu and Frannie. Show the town getting its act together and rebuilding, offering us some assurance that one bad winter won’t wipe them out. Or I guess we could watch two supposedly intelligent adults put their baby at risk for no reason.
In most cases, the best use of an epilogue is to wind the story down and give your audience time to let go before you turn off the lights. Alternatively, if the story is ongoing, you can use the epilogue to hint at future threats. What an epilogue shouldn’t do is undo what happens in the main story, or introduce an urgent problem that needs to be solved right away. Both of those paths lead to nothing but a frustrated audience.
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