Posted on Thursday, August 11th, 2016 by Jacob Hall
This post contains spoilers for Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.
We live in an age where pop culture never dies.
No one mourns the loss of a beloved show – they wait for Netflix or Amazon to rescue it. Beloved movies from decades past are granted sequels that double as soft reboots. If something does come to a definitive end, you can always count on the comic book series to fill in the narrative gaps, or the fan conventions that keep the spirit alive. Nearly 50 years ago, a letter-writing campaign saved Star Trek from cancellation after its second season. Today, it’s hard to imagine anything with a passionate following completely slipping through the cracks. It will find a way to live on, to endure. We don’t need to fight for what we love anymore, because everything finds a way of staging a return.
And the past year has seen the return of two of the most popular titles in recent pop culture history. Last December, Star Wars: The Force Awakens opened to record-breaking box office. More recently, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child opened on the London stage, continuing the former boy wizard’s adventures in a new medium while fans snatched up millions of copies of the play itself. And while one of these is a space opera and the other a fantasy tale of magic, these projects have a great deal in common. They’re bound not by creators or parent companies or even the same audience, necessarily. They’re bound by similar intentions and goals and executions.
Most importantly, they both take the concept of a happy ending behind the shed and shoot it dead.
Happily Never After
You remember the end of Return of the Jedi. The second Death Star has been destroyed, the Emperor is dead, Darth Vader has been redeemed, Han Solo and Leia are finally ready to get it on, and everyone is all smiles. Their victory over the Empire is presented as an absolute. It’s time to relax in a treehouse city and sing Yub Nub with a bunch of flesh-eating, droid-worshipping teddy bears who aren’t that bad once you get to know ’em.
You remember the end of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Voldemort is dead, Hogwarts (while devastated) still stands, the main characters all conveniently split up into couples, and the Elder Wand is no longer a threat to all magical and muggle life. In the epilogue, a grown Harry has a heart-to-heart with his middle child, Albus, telling him that it’s totally okay if he gets sorted into Slytherin. After all, “the bravest man he had ever met” came from Slytherin. His scar hasn’t hurt in 19 years. Everything is peachy. Everything is fine. The book literally ends with the words “All was well.”
Star Wars: The Force Awakens let viewers live with that happy ending for over thirty years before it soaked it in gasoline and lit a match. J.K. Rowling‘s readers got less than a decade to imagine Harry Potter enjoying an unexciting life before Harry Potter and the Cursed Child destabilized his entire existence yet again. These chapters don’t simply introduce another chapter in their respective sagas. They go out of their way to pull the rug out from under the original ending. It’s not enough for these characters to have another adventure – the “Happily Ever Afters” they previously experienced have to be hollowed out, transformed into temporary respites from pain and suffering.
In The Force Awakens, we realize that conflict continued following the Battle of Endor, that many more people died, and that the embers of the Empire continued to burn before reigniting in the roaring fire that is the First Order. Han and Leia are no longer together, with the former retreating to his smuggler ways and the latter fighting a never-ending battle that has taken an obvious toll on her. Their son has turned evil. Luke Skywalker has simply vanished. Even R2-D2 has become a shadow, deactivating himself and remaining idle for years. That final tableau in the Ewok Village has been shattered. It’s no longer a promise of the future, but a snapshot of a single happy moment that didn’t last long at all.
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is a less grand in its disruption of Deathly Hallows‘ happy ending, but its personal nature cuts a little deeper. Because Albus Potter is sorted into Slytherin and despite the assurances from his father, everything is most certainly not okay. Unlike his dad, Albus hates Hogwarts and is a thoroughly miserable outcast. Harry, despite his best efforts, is far from Father of the Year and completely fails to address the emotional needs of his son. The epilogue of the final Harry Potter novel promised that the title character was older and wiser, that his experiences had prepared him for the complicated world of adulthood and fatherhood. The Cursed Child reveals that he’s in over his head, out of his league, and unprepared at best. Send Harry on an adventure and he gets the job done. Ask him to reason with a son he can’t connect to in any way and watch him struggle. Oh, and his scar is hurting again, because of course it is.
However, neither The Force Awakens or The Cursed Child is cruel for the sake of being cruel. These daggers to the heart are carefully calibrated. This is pain at its most efficient. Because if the Star Wars saga and J.K. Rowling’s Wizarding World are going to live on forever, if they are going to keep on producing new stories for decades to come, happiness needs to die. Great serialized storytelling never comes from people getting along and being happy. If you want to build a story, you need to regularly burn everything down.