“The Promised End” (season 3, episode 6; originally aired 8/28/2006)
In which our little life is rounded with a sleep
If you are lucky, you will get to be a part of something you truly believe in. If you are lucky, you will find a place you belong. If you are lucky, you will find a person who makes you better than yourself. If you are human, you won’t realize what you had until you don’t anymore. Suddenly, the thing that was at the center of your existence will become its opposite, an absence akin to a star collapsing in on itself and forming a black hole. There will be a chalk outline where once there was a thing, a photo negative where once something brighter and better existed. And your life will be changed, and you will keep chasing that thing you once had, and you will probably never find it again. Like so many other lives, you’ll live yours in silhouette.
“The Promised End” never fails to reduce me to tears, which is unusual. I don’t cry easily—that Midwestern stoicism gets in the way, and I’m too used to a life lived with emotions as a theory. Other episodes of other shows—and even other episodes of this show—will bring me to a point where I’ll notice that if I cried, I would be crying right here, and I’ll make a note of that and move on. But “The Promised End” breaks through the stone, into the immense reservoir beneath, into all of the things I’ve had for a moment and then lost, all of the tiny moments of happiness that felt as if they would continue forever until they simply dissipated as all things must. I’ve seen the episode five times now, and it still destroyed me, perhaps even more than it ever has before (perhaps because I, of late, have felt more than a little of what Geoffrey and Ellen and Anna feel so acutely in this episode). There is a simple and quiet dignity in “The Promised End,” and it wins out for a moment. But in the long run, it loses, and it loses badly.
Before settling in to write this review, I went back and read some of your comments on the whole of the series, and if there was a common thread to them, it was the idea that season three is almost too painful to bear by the end, that watching these last three episodes where everything we’ve come to love so much utterly falls apart is something like ripping off a Band Aid. I can see that. I usually watch season three all in one gulp, and having to delay my viewings every week became almost torturous, both because of the plot momentum the show builds up and because I had a week to let the things happening at New Burbage stew away in my brain. What makes it even worse is that nobody here is a bad person.
Richard comes closest to being a villain, but everything he does is perfectly understandable, and when you look at the story of the season from his point of view, it’s easy to see why he feels so hurt and betrayed. And even in this episode, Richard protests Geoffrey’s forced resignation, at least at first. There’s a part of him that loves these people, a part of him that would like nothing more than to be a part of their club, a part of him that would simply love to be Geoffrey, to have his talent. But he can’t be that person. He doesn’t have it in him. He is not a bad man, but he is a man who lacks vision, who lets others make his vision for him, and as the episode comes to its end, he’s pushed away everyone who had preserved the festival’s artistic soul or who had simply been a good friend to him. (The moment when Anna tells Richard she doesn’t think they’ve ever really been friends is quietly devastating, and the look on Mark McKinney’s face is of sudden, intense heartbreak.) So, no, I don’t believe Richard is a villain here. He is just a man doing his job, and his job means pushing away other people we’ve come to care about.
“The Promised End” succeeds precisely because it doesn’t demonize anyone within its sphere. Even Megan, who comes across as such a dolt in her night out drinking with Sophie and Paul, gets to seem at least really energized and alive when she discusses her approach to her own technique. (Well, maybe the episode demonizes Darren, but he’s always been the devil on the show’s shoulder, someone who only loves the theatre for what it can say about Darren Nichols, not the human condition.) It’s so evident as the episode proceeds just how much the series’ creators love every single one of these characters, even the ones we might find slightly difficult, just how much they want those characters to find an appropriate ending, not necessarily a happy one, which is the best gift a fiction writer can give to any one of his or her creations. This story ends with a wedding, yes, meaning the ending is ostensibly a happy one, but it also ends in a place where every single person in the cast is brought to a point of reflection and healing. Their time at New Burbage allowed them to mend old wounds and open new ones. And now they’ll move on.
The finale also succeeds because of how beautifully constructed it is. Where season two’s somewhat messy plot points all came together in a finale that sometimes seemed frantic to hold all of them in place, this season’s scope has always been smaller and more manageable. In this final episode, everything comes together so beautifully that I’m always deeply impressed by how thoroughly the show was laying the groundwork for story points I didn’t even know were story points. Every conflict of the season, from the major ones (Charles’ struggle with death) to the minor (Ellen and Barbara’s feud), gets a perfect grace note, a capstone to leave these characters in a memorable and moving place in our memories. This is just elegant writing, direction, and acting all around, and it’s even more impressive for how stealthily it sneaks these moments of catharsis into several significant portions of the performance of Geoffrey’s Lear.
And finally, “The Promised End” succeeds because it becomes about the larger story the series has always been telling—that of Geoffrey trying to heal his relationship with Oliver and build his relationship with Ellen anew. All of the philosophizing about death this season could feel like something straight out of Religion and Philosophy 101, like the sort of bullshit you swap around a dorm room late at night while getting high. (And, indeed, Charles does much of his thinking out loud about death while high.) It all works, I think, because Oliver is always there to ground all of this in something believable and, well, almost human. And what really nails the landing here is the fact that Geoffrey and Oliver step back for a moment and realize all of this was never really about them. They were trying to work out their issues on some sort of grand scale, yet all they were ever really doing was putting on a play, creating a series of images that existed for brief moments, then flew away just as quickly, building a living ghost that only one audience could see for one particular moment in time. It didn’t matter whether that audience was one of the giant crowds on Broadway or the tiny group that fills the church to watch Lear. The ghost was born, it lived, and it skittered away in the space of a few hours, a cobweb swept away by a broom in favor of something new.
And so Geoffrey and Oliver are finally able to put some piece of their past behind them, to lay some version of their time together to rest (and notice how perfectly the show does this in the guise of having Oliver direct Geoffrey through a role that very nearly sends him over the edge). This turns out to be all it takes for Geoffrey to finally move past everything holding him back and pull him into a more lasting commitment with Ellen, who quits the television show she didn’t really want to be a part of in the first place. When he goes to see her at her new job, I love the old familiarity that floats between them, enough that he instantly knows she’s trying to talk herself into liking her new job. But Ellen’s not cut out for the faster pace of television. She wants the time and thought put into something that might happen at New Burbage. Like everyone else, now that she no longer has it, Ellen’s realizing just how much she’s going to miss it.
That’s the point, though, right? Life is a series of passages, a bunch of brief acts and scenes that take us from one location to another, to interact with new characters and find ourselves sharing the scene with different people. As Geoffrey and Oliver realize in that moment where Oliver convinces Geoffrey he can be up there on stage because he has to be, because he is no longer the lead but a supporting player in Charles’ story, and his job is to be there for a man who has become his friend. We attach great significance to the things that happen to us because we are forever damned by the fact that we can only see things through our own eyes, perceived by our own brains. We go through our lives insisting we are the protagonists, when we only are at times. At other times, we are the love interests. At still other times, we are the supporting players. And sometimes we just pop up in the background to hold a spear or deliver a message. When we constantly place ourselves at the center, we miss so much that is going on all around us, a rich life that begs us to climb out of our own perceptions and swim through deeper oceans. Geoffrey and Oliver were just putting on a play, ultimately, but, then, that’s all any of us are doing.
There is occasionally talk of reviving Slings & Arrows. While I dearly hope this happens—to the point that this is essentially the only show I would ever donate to for a Kickstarter campaign—I also find myself hoping the creators are able to understand how beautiful this ending is and preserve it somehow. Or maybe the reason I want the show back is because I, too, am selfish, because I want to rebuild something that I loved so much, if only for a little while longer, to see what’s happened to all of these characters in the time since they shuffled off of our television screens. Nostalgia for a better time—even a fictional better time—is one of the most powerful feelings there is, not because we want to bring back a thing we once loved but because we long to become the people we were when we first saw it, because we want to return to the place we can never go back to.
Is it any wonder, then, that “The Promised End” so perfectly captures these feelings of loss and possibility as it reaches its end? Death is the only inevitability in life, the only thing we know is coming for us sooner or later. Until that point, there is so much life to be lived, so many experiences to be had. We will have leaders we believed in taken from us. We will have mentors frustrate us. We will build new relationships out of the ashes of old ones. And at every turn, there is so much potential, so many chances to grow and change and better know ourselves. To wallow in the worlds we once had is to miss the other point of this episode: For every passage of our lives that comes to an end, there is another to follow it up and guide us toward some other day that must happen to us. Endings and loss are to be mourned, but they’re also to be embraced. New possibilities and new versions of ourselves will always be waiting to greet us when we’re ready to meet them, until we look into the mirror and see a face waiting for us with a smile, and know that it is time to go forward, ever into the mystery.
- Sophie and Paul finally get together, and I’m always surprised by how much this moves me when their relationship is usually the sour note in this season for me. I think the turn for me comes when Sophie is allowed to gently mock Megan over drinks, which reminds me what a fun and engaging actress Sarah Polley can be. I wonder if maybe she wasn’t just written as a little too mopey throughout this season. This more assertive Sophie is so obviously someone Paul belongs with that it makes the whole love story snap into place.
- While I appreciate that the show doesn’t transition from Geoffrey’s forced resignation to the theme song, I did greatly miss hearing Frank and Cyril sing “A Walk In The Rain” and “Call The Understudy” in this episode (though “He Played The Part” is a terrific capper to each season and perfectly ties into the idea of life being a series of passages we all have to go through).
- I like the idea that Richard’s only real sin is passing by the three potentially interesting candidates we see for Geoffrey’s job in favor of Darren. If he’d picked anyone else, there would be a glimmer of hope for him, but with Darren, even Anna—usually the audience surrogate character—gives up on him.
- Stephen Ouimette is fantastic in this episode but perhaps never better than when he’s standing in the light booth watching the play and mouthing the words along with the actors.
- Playing out so much of the final scene of Lear turns out to be a fantastic choice. We finally get to see so much of William Hutt’s storied performance, and we also get to see how Geoffrey is able to shift into the supporting role. That it ends with the graceful little gag about Charles faking dead is even better. (I also love how the scene allows for Charles and Sophie to cure the bad blood between them.)
- I do think that maybe somebody in the Lear company would express some regret at leaving New Burbage behind entirely. I get that it’s a wholly mercenary place now, but actors aren’t exactly known for having job security. That said, I love the loyalty they all show to Geoffrey. They realize how lucky and unusual it is to have a director like that in their lives, and even if it means their futures are endangered, they’re going to follow him to the bitter end. They, too, need to bring this part of their lives to a graceful end. (And people like Richard are always underestimating how much people like Geoffrey can inspire others to devote themselves to a larger cause, perhaps because people like Richard are always finding themselves under the sway of whomever’s voice is loudest in their ear.)
- I have so much more I could say about this episode and this series, but it’s probably best to leave things here, both because that’s enough pretentious twaddle as is and because I’m emotionally exhausted after all of that. Thank you so much for sticking with this week after week. This was routinely one of the two or three least-read TV Club features, but if this show has taught us anything, it’s that the size of the audience is less important than the quality, and your comments were always thought-provoking and on-point, and I’m so glad your passion for this show roughly mirrored my own. You’ve been some of the best readers I could ask for, and I hope you keep an eye out for my interview with the creators, which will run late next week in two parts. (I’ll send out a link to it via Twitter, if you don’t make a habit of visiting this site.) And if you like good TV, I hope you’ll join me next week, as we tackle another of my favorite TV series ever made, Paul Feig’s wonderful, funny paean to adolescence, Freaks & Geeks.