Last night, one of my favorite shows aired its series finale. Something lesser known to people outside my inner circle is that I am irrevocably obsessed with network television. As a writer, I like to think that I’ve learned nearly as much from TV as I have from books: about plot, character development, and dialogue for sure. I’ve studied CBS programming long enough that I could write a dissertation on all the shows they should never have cancelled.
God Friended Me is one of those shows. Besides the fact that it was uplifting and emotionally resonant without being dark, it was a masterclass in the craft of writing. Yes, we as viewers knew that Miles was always going to get a friend suggestion from the God account. We knew he was going to keep helping them until whatever problem they had was resolved. It’s the same kind of formulaic as a police procedural, where one minute in they have a new case and a Gibbs “grab your gear” moment, and fifty-seven minutes in the case is solved and we’re staying tuned for scenes from their next episode. The spine behind the typical police procedural is the idea that crime is never going to stop. The characters fight an uphill battle against lawlessness, and the show can go on forever. The reason behind God Friended Me’s difference was the ambiguity of its spine. At its core, this show is about finding out who is behind the God account and why they picked Miles to do their bidding. That thread was running through each and every one of the show’s forty-two episodes.
Now, here’s where I’m going to talk about the ending. So, if you’re interested in feeling the gut-wrenching emotion of the finale on your own, avert your gaze.
In the last minute of the show, we see Miles on top of a mountain in the Himalayas. As the screen fades to black, we still don’t know who’s behind the God account. We were steps away, just a few trudges through the Himalayan snow. The last words were “she’s waiting.”
And it was perfect. To me, there is magic in ambiguity. There’s a multitude of worlds that live in negative space.
Here’s what I love about an ambiguous ending, no one is wrong. Whoever people think is behind the God account is behind the God account. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but writers aren’t God. We aren’t these all-knowing beings that withhold information because it gives us a sense of power. Okay, maybe some of us are, but I’d like to think that the majority of us aren’t. What we do is put our stories into the world, and make them strong enough to tell themselves.
Spoiler Alert: Rainbow Rowell’s novel (and future movie) Eleanor and Park does this beautifully. At the end of the book, there is a piece of mail received with a certain number of words written on it. The words are never revealed, and Rainbow Rowell has stated on many occasions that she’s never spilling what they are. The reason I love this so much is that I personally have at least three different ideas of what those words could be, and if Rainbow ever made this grand announcement revealing those all-important words, I’d be wrong at least twice. If the movie tries to tell me what those words are, we’re going to have a problem.
One of the most iconic YA novels of our generation, John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, has a subplot surrounding Hazel’s need to know what happens to a character in her favorite book after it ends. She goes all the way to Amsterdam to find the reclusive author, because she just has to know. Spoiler Alert: He’s a really awful person, and he won’t tell her. Should he have been a decent human being? Definitely. Should he have given her an answer? I don’t think so.
See, after the book ends, it’s my belief writers don’t know anymore than readers. We have our own ideas, our own thoughts and opinions, but they don’t matter anymore than that of someone who read the book once and hated it. Don’t get me wrong, I love the occasional tweet from my favorite authors confirming that their characters are still happy and living their lives. Even if those authors didn’t tweet those things, it would be okay because their characters are just as happy living their lives in my mind. If we’ve done our jobs, we don’t need to write these overly conclusive endings. They write themselves in the minds of those who consume the content we put into the world.
If characters don’t jump off the page and live with readers long after they’ve closed the book, then was the book even worth reading? They need to haunt our dreams and be the reasons behind our smiles. I talk about the characters in my favorite books like they’re living, breathing beings because to me they are. They’re real, and they’re as much mine as anyone else’s. I take them with me long after the book is shelved or the show disappears into oblivion, no longer a blissful part of my Sundays.
That’s what God Friended Me did right. As long as I don’t know who is behind the God account, I can keep thinking about it. I can keep carrying Miles, Cara, Rakesh, and the rest of these incredible characters with me until I figure it out. Then, I can change my mind and start all over again. Next Sunday, when something is on CBS in its spot, I can imagine Miles still out there walking the streets of New York and making people’s lives better. God Friended Me was a story of miracles, and because of the way their brilliant writers and producers chose to end it, those miracles didn’t end on that mountain.
The beauty of an ambiguous ending is that everything isn’t taped shut into a cardboard box for storage. Instead, everything is laid out perfectly behind the veiled plastic of a photo album, waiting for the people who love it to remember exactly the way they felt in the moments pictured. Waiting for those people to pick it up and carry it with them until they’re ready to put it down.