Aang in the Avatar State from The Last Air Bender.

While satisfaction should be present throughout a story, the most potent dose of satisfaction is delivered by the ending. Or at least, it should be. When an ending fails to live up to expectations, it reduces satisfaction as well as the chances that audiences will read the next book in a series or watch the next film in a franchise. Satisfaction can be lost in a lot of ways, from plot holes to pushover villains, so today we’re looking at some serious offenders to find out what we can learn.

1. Star Wars Rebels

Two characters standing with a space whale.

The series finale of Star Wars Rebels starts out promising enough. Our heroes plan to signal a fake withdrawal order for all Imperial forces on the planet Lothal, then blast the evacuation ships to smithereens. It’s surprisingly ruthless for a kids’ show, but it’s a good plan. I’m not convinced it’ll end the Imperial occupation like the heroes think, but it’ll at least cost the Empire dearly.

Everything is going well until Grand Admiral Thrawn shows up with a fleet of Star Destroyers and interrupts the plan. He says that unless protagonist Ezra surrenders, he’ll wipe out all civilian life on the planet. Naturally, he’s going to wipe out all civilian life anyway, but he’d really like to capture Ezra too. Ezra agrees to surrender, but after resisting some temptation from the Emperor’s long-distance hologram, it’s revealed that this was all just to buy time for a hidden plan.

What’s the hidden plan, you ask? Well, I’m sure you’ll agree it’s very cunning: summon a pod of space whales and have them kick Thrawn’s ass with their space whale powers. If you’re wondering how Ezra could summon a pod of space whales, you aren’t the only one. He did team up with these whales in an earlier episode, but being able to summon them on command is a new one.

Other than the confusion over how this is even possible, the main issue is that the whales are just too powerful. They make short work of the Empire’s mightiest warships, shrugging off turbolaser fire like it’s nothing. A hidden plan is one thing; this is a hidden autowin. The space whales are so strong that they render all the heroes’ previous efforts meaningless. They could have simply led with the space whales and saved themselves a lot of trouble. Plus, it’s just hard to believe that living creatures, no matter how large, would be so impervious to laser fire.

This ending also runs into a common problem with hidden plans: Why was it hidden in the first place? Here, the storyteller’s desire for a twist clashes with their characters’ motivations. Ezra has no reason to keep the whales a secret, and it’s so obvious that the writers even put in dialogue to lampshade it. When another character asks why Ezra didn’t tell them, he says that he “wanted it to be a surprise.” Sure, Ezra. It’s a good thing none of your friends got hurt taking risks they didn’t actually have to because you had space whales on call. This contrivance isn’t unique to Rebels, but the sheer number of lives put in unnecessary danger makes it stand out.

The final issue with Rebels’ ending is Ezra’s conclusion. For unknown reasons, the space whales grab both him and Thrawn, then hyperspace-jump away to a mysterious destination, never to be seen until they make a Disney+ live action show about it. The other characters beg Ezra not to go, but he says he has to. Why does he have to? No one knows. It’s not clear if this is some favor he’s doing for the space whales, if he needs to restrain Thrawn, or if he just can’t get off the ship in time. It can work to end your story on an ambiguous note, but this is just utter confusion. It’s impossible to tell if we should be sad for Ezra’s sacrifice, if he’s going to a space whale party, or if we’re not supposed to know. Really, it feels like the writers are struggling for an excuse to get rid of a character with overpowered whale-summoning abilities.

The rest of Rebels’ finale is still an exciting battle with the Empire. It’s great to see our heroes finally take their fight to the enemy after four seasons of being on the back foot. There’s drama, action, even some decent comedy. But once the space whales arrive, everything becomes a confusing mess.

2. Sky Without Stars

A stylized globe from Sky Without Stars' cover.

In this scifi dystopian novel by Jessica Brody and Joanne Rendell, everything is set up like pre-revolutionary France, but in space! By which I mean everyone speaks English with a French accent, and people are divided into estates, with the third estate making up the poor and downtrodden. And oh boy are they poor and downtrodden. Will a hero stand up and fight for these huddled masses? Let’s find out!

Rather than one hero, we have three. There’s the cunning thief Chatine, privileged officer Marcellus, and the secret book nun Alouette. If that last one feels a little out there, it’s because Sky Without Stars has a whole subplot about reading being banned, which seems to be included just so that Alouette can be from a secret order of book nuns. While the three characters do interact, they’re also largely sectioned off into their own stories, which is already a red flag. It means each character only gets one third of the novel to develop, and that often isn’t enough.

As the end approaches, the natural expectation is for our three heroes to unite and do something about the evil regime that’s oppressing everyone. That doesn’t happen. Instead, each character does their own thing until the book abruptly stops. Chatine decides to face prison instead of helping the regime hunt down rebels, Marcellus decides that the regime isn’t so great after all, and Alouette decides to stay with the other book nuns instead of leaving with her father.

Taking these three endings together, it looks like the authors were trying to use character arcs as a substitute for a real climax. Unfortunately, only one of the three has a real arc: Chatine. She starts off as an amoral con artist who only cares about herself, and by the end she’s sacrificed her own freedom to protect the anti-regime rebels. There are some technical issues with the arc, like doubt over whether betraying the rebels would actually have benefited her, but it gets the job done. We can’t say the same for the other two.

While Marcellus does at least appear to have a change of heart, that change is never tested. In an arc about changing sides, the character has to actually change sides. Unlike Chatine, Marcellus doesn’t do anything to prove his new beliefs; he just tells us he has them. Alouette is even worse off. The book treats her decision to stay as a big moment, but the conflict over leaving is only introduced near the end. There simply isn’t enough time to turn that into a character arc.

Zooming out a little, even if all three character arcs had worked perfectly, this book’s ending would still have been weak on satisfaction because the highest stakes problem isn’t addressed at all: the evil regime. Oppression of the third estate isn’t some subtle background problem; it’s clearly killing people right now. With that level of urgency, a problem needs some kind of resolution, whether that’s a total victory, a tragic defeat, or a partial win that sets up the next story. With no movement on the regime plot, it feels like most of the book was spent running out the clock. It would be like ending Star Wars with Luke still at the Rebel base, deciding that he should probably trust in the force after all.

3. Discovery Season Three

Osyraa and Burnham aiming phasers at each other.

Discovery’s season three finale actually has two major plot threads, but we’re only going to look at one of them today: defeating Osyraa. We’d be here all day if I tried to comment on both. Anyway, Osyraa is the big bad of season three, a ruthless syndicate leader who wants to control everything she can get her hands on. As the finale starts, Osyraa has captured Discovery and is using it to infiltrate Starfleet headquarters, oh no! Nothing like handing your villain a win at the episode’s start to really ratchet up the tension – my hat’s off for that one.

Now the whole episode hinges on what Osyraa will do next, as she seems to have Starfleet completely tricked. The characters even talk about how Osyraa used a similar trick to destroy a previous enemy. So when it’s time for Osyraa’s next move, she naturally… announces that she wants to negotiate with Starfleet. Wait, what?

Okay, I see what’s happening here. The writers wanted the most surprising twist they could think of. Admittedly, it is a really surprising twist, but only because I didn’t expect something that makes so little sense. Osyraa opens negotiations with the overtly hostile act of stealing Discovery, so Starfleet is unlikely to trust her. But then, instead of using Discovery as leverage, she flies it into the center of Starfleet’s armada, putting herself completely at the good guys’ mercy. Starfleet could just arrest Osyraa if it wanted to, but in a contrived bit of good luck, the head admiral decides to negotiate instead.

The negotiations are more than a little surreal because we have no context for what they’re talking about or what the stakes are. Despite being the season’s main villain, all we know about Osyraa is from a scattering of evil plans, so it’s hard to judge how reasonable her offers are. Are we supposed to want these negotiations to succeed, or should we be worried that Starfleet will sell its soul for peace? No one knows, and the show doesn’t do anything to help us figure it out. This whole scene goes by without any tension, other than the vague fear that Osyraa might have an even more secret plan, despite how little sense that would make.

When the negotiations finally fail, it’s time for a battle. This fight is also completely devoid of tension, as Osyraa has two ships* against what looks like at least a dozen Starfleet vessels. Then a fleet of Starfleet’s allies show up to make the battle even more one sided, which is exactly the opposite of what this scene needed. I’m a huge fan of the surprise reinforcements trope, but even I let out a sigh of exasperation as the odds went from strongly stacked against Osyraa to incredibly stacked against Osyraa.

In another curveball, protagonist Burnham convinces Starfleet to let the captured Discovery go because Osyraa is threatening to unleash her cargo of pesticides as a weapon. Why this would be more effective than an actual weapon is anyone’s guess. A few scenes later, Burnham and Discovery’s other captured officers disable the ship’s warp drive so Starfleet can catch up and surround Osyraa a second time. No one mentions the pesticides, so I guess they aren’t a problem anymore.

But before the good guys can win via overwhelming force, Osyraa and Burnham have a fist fight for control of Discovery. It’s well choreographed, but it also feels a bit empty, as the two of them don’t have much dramatic history with each other. Then Burnham wins because, for some reason, Osyraa thought that pushing her enemy into the programmable matter computer console would be deadly. It isn’t, and Burnham uses the opportunity to grab a phaser. The heroes also blow up Osyraa’s own ship for good measure, even though they don’t have to by that point. I guess Discovery being captured put them in a bad mood.

While Discovery’s effects are beautiful and its action is polished, the show still has major problems with consistent plotting. Osyraa and Burnham are the main planners in this episode, and because the plotting is all over the place, their plans are obviously absurd even as they’re still being formed. It’s difficult to enjoy an ending when you’re stuck trying to figure out why the characters are doing what they’re doing.

4. Lock In

Cover art of John Scalzi's Lock In

John Scalzi’s 2014 novel is a near-future scifi story where a global pandemic* called Hadens has given millions of people locked-in syndrome, both in the United States and around the world. Fortunately for those who catch Hadens, this is a world where the U.S. government actually invests in healthcare, so locked-in patients can still interact with the world through remote-control robots called Threeps* or live in a virtual environment called the Agora.

The story begins as government funding for Hadens programs is being sharply downsized, causing an understandable political furor. In the midst of protest marches and passionate debate, someone starts committing murders. Worse, these murders seem designed to inflame the political situation even further. Enter our hero, FBI agent Chris Shane. They’ve* got to solve the case and bring the killers to justice!

Most of the book is a competently executed mystery story full of investigations, law enforcement procedure, and shady suspects. I’m not a fan of how it portrays defense lawyers as obstacles to justice, but it’s way better than most police procedurals, so I can’t complain too loudly. But then it’s time for the big reveal, and things start to unravel.

The first problem is that when it’s time to reveal the bad guy’s identity and his motivation, it takes a long conversation with a ton of technical jargon that’s difficult to follow at the best of times. Ideally, a mystery’s big reveal should make previous information click together and form the whole picture, even if it takes a clever detective to explain it all. In Lock In, we get a ton of brand-new information, mostly because the bad guy’s plan is extremely complicated. This reduces satisfaction already, because it’s a struggle to keep track of what’s happening.

Once that’s done, we get down to business: a billionaire CEO named Lucas Hubbard is behind the murders, and it’s purely for financial gain. He’s trying to destabilize the Hadens market so he can buy up his competitors and make an absurd profit when Hadens tech like Threeps is made available to everyone in a few years. That’s a solid evil plan, but it has one problem: the market trend he wanted was already happening because of lost government subsidies. At best, the murders will help it along. While it’s believable that Hubbard would want to increase his profits even further, it’s less credible that he’d risk his own freedom by being so personally tied to the crimes.*

Worse, at this point the good guys have essentially won. They can easily stop Hubbard from committing the final murder necessary for his plan, so the only question now is if they can successfully charge him. That’s a hard question to answer because despite all the talking, the story is really vague on how much evidence they actually have. At this point, Chris starts on their “hidden” plan, by which I mean they go around setting up the coup de grace but use first-person narration to conceal the details from us.

When they finally bring Hubbard in, it feels like a forgone conclusion. Despite being a billionaire CEO, Hubbard is just one man, while the heroes have a powerful law enforcement agency backing them. Then they spend several dense pages concocting an elaborate ruse that I think is intended to trick a confession out of Hubbard, but it might just be to mess with him. I’m not sure because they already seem to have all the evidence they could want, including a boatload of search warrants, so I can’t tell if they even need a confession. I’m also pretty skeptical that such a confession would be admissible in court,* but that’s just speculation since the book spends no time considering the ruse’s legality.

Taken together, everything from the big reveal onward feels like an extended victory lap. This goes on for over an hour if you’re listening to the audiobook, and it far outstays its welcome. There’s no tension at all, both because the villain is impotent once revealed, and because the heroes don’t have any clear time limit. There are a lot of great ways to end a story, but watching the heroes moonwalk across the finish line isn’t one of them.

5. Avatar: The Last Airbender

Zuko and Katara standing together.

Enough chit chat, I know why you’re really here: you want to know how I could dare use an Avatar screenshot as the featured image for this post. Well, I’ll tell you. As much as I love this show, it’s not perfect. It’s got problems like every other story, and the ending is one of those problems. Speaking of which, the ending can generally be broken down into four fight scenes that the narrative intercuts between:

  1. Iroh and his White Lotus buddies liberating Ba Sing Sei
  2. Toph, Sokka, and Suki attacking the airship fleet
  3. Azula vs Zuko and Katara
  4. Aang vs Ozai

Fights one and two are fine, but fights three and four have some explaining to do. Let’s begin with the Azula battle, some of the most beautiful animation I have ever seen. That fire is something to behold, and the music choices are just so perfect… Oh right, I’m supposed to be critiquing. Ahem. The problem with this fight is that the writers didn’t know what Katara should be doing.

First, Zuko and Katara are supposed to fight Azula together. But Azula has an emotional debuff, so Zuko decides to fight her himself, leaving Katara to watch. That’s not a great start. Then, when Zuko is about to win, he has to sacrifice himself* to save Katara from Azula’s lightning strike. Not only is it weird that Zuko has time to react and Katara doesn’t, but now we have a situation where Katara is actively hindering Zuko with her presence. She deserved better. From there, Katara defeating Azula is great, and I’d prefer to keep that in any rewrite, but she really needed something to do before that. Besides being the reason Zuko loses, I mean.

Now for the big one, Aang vs Ozai. This fight starts out fine, with Aang struggling against a supercharged Fire Lord. The animation is also beautiful, though it doesn’t have the same visceral thrill as the Azula fight because Ozai isn’t nearly as big a presence in the show. Then we hit the first very strange choice: Aang regains the Avatar State by hitting his back on a rock in just the right place. Huh. I thought it was a spiritual or emotional issue, I didn’t think it could be fixed with deep tissue massage. Thanks for nothing, Guru Pathik!

After this completely unearned reversal, Aang chases Ozai around for a while, brushing aside the Fire Lord’s attacks with ease. This goes on for nearly three minutes by my count, which is an incredibly long time in a fight scene. Aang has already won at this point, so the only source of tension is the question of whether or not he’ll kill Ozai. This is hard to care about unless you’re really invested in Aang’s character arc, and even if you are, it’s easy to forget. In nearly every other fight, the heroes defeat their enemies without inflicting any serious injuries, let alone killing, so it’s work to remember that this is supposed to be life or death.

And then it’s time for the lion turtle moment. Aang restrains Ozai in rock, and then we cut away to some lion turtle dialogue that’s really difficult to understand without subtitles. This is supposed to clue us in on Aang’s new spirit bending powers, but it’s more confusing than anything else. Then Aang and Ozai have a glow battle, where at first Aang is losing, but then he’s winning, all without any idea of why. Combined with the low tension from Aang’s Avatar State rampage, it’s hard to take any satisfaction in his victory, since the entire battle is a black box.

If you were invested in Aang’s dilemma over killing Ozai, then this is the worst possible outcome. It’s perfectly valid for heroes to earn a third option when presented with two impossible choices, but Aang doesn’t earn his solution; it’s gifted to him by a wandering lion turtle. Why does the lion turtle even care if Aang kills Ozai? No one knows! It’s a classic deus ex machina, and Avatar only gets away with it because everything that comes before is so good.

Fortunately, Avatar doesn’t rely entirely on its final fights for satisfaction. Even if defeating Ozai is a letdown, winning the war after three seasons still feels great, especially when the heroes all gather for a friendly cup of tea afterward. But the climactic battles are still a weak point in the show’s writing, something we should all keep in mind if we ever want to emulate this story of elemental martial artists.

Endings are when a story’s various plotlines must come together into a cohesive whole, which means there’s a lot of pressure. And since the ending determines the story’s lasting impression, it’s critical to get them right. The more we learn about endings that did not perform well, the better prepared we are to write our own. Plus, we have an excuse to make fun of space whales.

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