The Sense of an Ending: Stories, Shapes, & Scenarios During COVID-19

Doesn’t it feel as if this pandemic might go on forever? Do you have any sense of whether we’re at the end of the beginning, or the beginning of the middle, or the beginning of the end?

Doesn’t it feel like everyone is yearning for something that gives these events shape, an arc, a trajectory, a sense that we will come eventually – by vaccine, or treatment, or policy, or simple resignation – to something that we can label as “the end of the COVID era”?

Even the phrase “the new normal” seems somehow plaintive, as if it only wished that we could settle on a final state of affairs which would mark the end of all this flux and uncertainty. Even if a single, solid “new normal” ever arrives, we’ll be paying the price for COVID for years to come.

I was talking with the British comics creator Neill Cameron recently. He explained how his X365 comic, which has appeared daily, one panel at a time, during 2020, started before it was clear that the pandemic was going to upend life as we knew it. He thought, at the time, that the comic would simply take on the familiar rhythms of a standard calendar year, tracking the seasons of the northern hemisphere. Instead, both his characters and their creator fell ill, self-isolated, and suffered in ways which disrupted the shape the story was meant to take.

Endings are so important to the stories we tell; flub them and they can spoil all that went before. While life can feel like “just one damn thing after another”, endings are one of the things that let you know you’re experiencing a story. Even before you arrive there, you have the thinning mass of pages remaining in the book you read, the knowledge that the final ad break has passed and the television episode will resolve inside of a quarter-hour. (In this digitalised age, both e-readers and streaming services can erase these markers of an impending ending, luring us into a full immersion which can feel delightful, or like a swampy wallow).

With movies, especially, my favourites have always been the ones where you get so lost in them, you’ve no sense of when or how they might end. That can happen in several different ways. Celine and Julie Go Boating and Les Amants du Pont-Neuf offer such seductive fairytales that you’ve no sense of when you will be sent back home from Dreamland. Claire Denis’ Un Beau Soleil Intérieur brings up its end credits unexpectedly as a kind of cruel joke, revealing that our hero Isabella’s quest to find true love in middle-age will not be resolved before our eyes. (She is condemned indefinitely to Paris’ romantic purgatory). Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite taunts us with an ending that keeps adding “Just one more thing…” until it has twisted its knife more fully than we had ever foreseen.

One of my friends has watched all but the final episode of the Japanese TV series Cowboy Bebop. Knowing that only a single season was produced, and that all evidence in the penultimate episode points to a tragic conclusion, she prefers to live in a world where the story is still unfinished, frozen on the cusp of resolution.

But we don’t get to press pause on life, or to refuse the next episode when it comes our way. We move forward willingly or otherwise, the future becomes the present, and the present becomes the past, the raw material of all our storytelling as we seek to mould and make sense of it.

Hindsight gives shape to stories, lives, and even pandemics. The payoff, handled well, gives us a new perspective on all that went before. One of the most ambivalent endings to a TV show in recent years came in the third season of Fargo. Its final episode concludes with a scene set some years after the main action. Our hero, the humble and shrewd cop Gloria Burgle, finally gets herself into an interrogation room with the predatory and mysterious antagonist, V.M. Varga.

Burgle is sure that she finally has the guy she’s been chasing bang to rights. He is equally sure that his powerful connections are going to contact Gloria’s higher-ups and demand she let him go. What happens when the interrogation room’s door opens will decide the issue, and tell us what kind of story we’ve been watching – one where goodness triumphs and villains get their just desserts, or something more cynical. The show then ends before we ever find out, with a final shot of the characters facing one another across the table, waiting.

These viewing experiences all toy with endings in ways which upset the Hollywood norm, where threats are dealt with, villains vanquished, lovers brought together, and order uncomplicatedly restored. Their unsettled sense of where a story ends speaks to our own experiences of the COVID-19 pandemic in which, however competently governments in one part of the world or another have managed the outbreak, there is still no sense of “how this will all ultimately shake out”.

Will there be a vaccine? How effective will it be? If the answer is “less than 100%”, what ongoing mitigations will be required – locally, nationally, globally? Who will be the vaccine “haves” and “have-nots”?

What is the post-COVID future of air travel? Of public transit? Of the office? The theatre? Family gatherings? Buffet bars? The ridiculous and sublime are all warped by this crisis whose endpoint remains unknown.

One of the reason we craft scenarios – stories of the future yet to come, intended not as predictions but as challenges to received expectations – is to help us give the future a sense of shape, even though time is unwritten and we are not (as far as we know!) characters in some wider fiction. The imagined futures built through scenario planning provide different possible payoffs to the situation we currently inhabit; different vantage points from which to understand the fix we find ourselves in today.

Scenarios, by their provisional, hypothetical, and multiple nature, remind us that there is always another narrative that can be shaped from the events we witness in the present. Good scenarios unravel the old stories we have been telling ourselves about what is going on – but that doesn’t mean they leave us unconsoled in a shapeless uncertainty.

Instead, they show us some of the varied ways in which the future might come to pass – focussing not on our expectations, hopes, or fears, but our blindspots. Scenarios are best worked on collectively; the process is as important as the product. They can be the narrative equivalent of clay models or maquettes which we invite others to sculpt collaboratively, working together until we look back on our handiwork and say: Yes. This is one future which might be waiting for us. And it’s something we didn’t expect; rich with opportunity as well as threat.

And these imagined endings can help us, even when the real end is still nowhere near in sight.

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