Why it might be time to kill the post-mortem

At the end of the “Hannibal” series finale, I tweeted that it was a perfect end to that show. I don’t think it was a perfect finale, and I thought overall Season 3 was the weakest of all the seasons to date. But I thought the last ten minutes or so were gorgeously rendered and thematically stunning: The love/hate relationship between Will and Hannibal was consummated on all levels, and then Will took Hannibal into the yawning chasm of a world slowly consuming the living through merciless entropy. Even the coda, which to me suggested that Hannibal’s madness lived on even though he didn’t, felt like a nod towards some sort of continuity even though Hannibal and Will were no longer around anymore. Bryan Fuller, showrunner and mastermind of “Hannibal,” had done the impossible.

Then, five minutes later, he totally undid it.

Let me explain.

Almost immediately after the episode aired, several post-mortems appeared online, with various online outlines interviewing Fuller about what had just aired. These journalists/critics has seen the finale ahead of time and got to ask Fuller about both that episode and the show as a whole. I only made it through one, by HitFix’s Alan Sepinwall, to remind myself why I almost invariably never read these things. It’s not that Sepinwall’s questions were poor. Nor were Fuller’s explanations boring. It’s that some of those questions led to answers that not only did I not need to know the answer to, but in knowing them actually enjoyed the episode less in retrospect. The series was over. Fuller’s work was done. And he managed to damage to his show all the same.

What Fuller did, essentially, was deny my interpretation of the final events by more than suggesting that this interpretation (which Sepinwall shared) was a false one. Fuller didn’t come outright and say it, but he did pull that, “Why, that’s simply AMAZING that you think that, my WORD, isn’t that so INTERESTING” mode that many of us pull when we’re being arrogant and insisting the person’s theory couldn’t be more off-base. Fuller essentially corrected Sepinwall’s interpretation as if it wasn’t correct, but it’s not an interpretation to correct in the first place. Even in this era of auteur television, there’s no one answer. Neither Fuller nor Aaron Sorkin nor Nic Pizzolatto own their stories, anymore than any show with a traditional writer’s room, nor any book author or songwriter. The idea starts with the writer, but it sure as hell doesn’t end there.

And yet, increasingly, that’s what post-mortems do: They give the showrunner a chance to reframe the story they just told, or at the very least establish the “proper” vantage point from which to view it. I loved “Justified” during its run, but I never went within a country mile of Graham Yost’s weekly post-mortems with online outlets. Why? Because I didn’t need to, and I didn’t want to. If I was confused about something, I wanted to stay confused. If I was locked onto something, I didn’t need him telling me I was off-base. And even if our visions aligned, I didn’t need to know that either. Yost’s job was to help make “Justified.” It was my job, and the job of every fan of it, to find an entry point into that world and discover things for ourselves. That entry point needn’t be the one Yost intended, and that’s fine. Fuck intentionality. It’s the enemy of art.

Mind you, I’m all about post-mortems and discussions with the creative forces behind television because I enjoy how the sausage gets made, and I enjoy the different ways writers approach storytelling. What these men and women get excited about usually gets me excited. What does NOT get me excited is anything that limits my ability to extrapolate, to project, to prognosticate, to spin out unintended connections, to latch onto a particular line/exchange/look and figure out why it’s meaningful to me. Anything that gets in the way of that feels antithetical to the power of the medium, and increasingly these post-mortems are demystifying stories by providing the illusion of authorial control where it doesn’t exist.

It doesn’t matter for a single second what Fuller intended to evoke in the final moments of “Hannibal.” But it does matter that he created something into which audiences could pour themselves. That’s what I loved about the largely wordless final act: It was full of intuitive meaning that could still be debated ten ways by ten different people. Sure, you couldn’t say, “This is about the space program!” But you could approach it based on your own two eyes, your experience with the show, and your experience with life to say, “Here’s what this meant to me.” Fuller’s interview with Sepinwall essentially denied that experience, and thus denied audience involvement. All this from a show dedicated to the power and destructive nature of empathy. Interesting.

Had Fuller’s vision totally overlapped with mine, I wouldn’t be here claiming victory. I know that’s a commonplace thing on comment sections and Twitter feeds. Back in 2010, as “Lost” wrapped up, I stupidly tried to predict how the show would end. Several commenters got angrier and angrier with each passing week that my predictions didn’t align with theirs, to the point where one person said that his greatest pleasure in the finale would come when I was proven wrong. As if “winning” in this realm is either 1) desirable or 2) possible. I was an English major and later a pop culture critic because binaries bore me. I stopped trying to predict how shows will end, and I’m leery of stating the “meaning” of a show after it ends. Take “Mad Men”: People were so obsessed with answering whether or not Don Draper wrote the Coke ad that they missed the forest from the trees. Reducing it do “Did he or didn’t he?” strips away the power of Matthew Weiner’s gloriously ambiguous masterpiece. Any show in which people can argue its meaning for decades is doing things right, not wrong.

And yet, people grill Weiner about Don’s role in the same way they grill David Chase about the end of “The Sopranos,” or grill Ron Moore about the end of, “Battlestar: Galactica.” They don’t get that asking those questions is the important part, not getting the definitive answer. I can ask you if you think Tony Soprano died, and vice versa. But we can’t ask Chase, because Chase is the only one that can shut down that conversation. And why should he? He doesn’t benefit because we still talk about that show years after it went off the air. We benefit because that interrogation gets into moral and metaphysical arguments that help us understand out relationship to the people and the world around us. We need to work our way to the finish line, not have the shortcut magically revealed to us. Chase might seem like the only person to ask, but he’s in fact the last one we should.

TV critics, including myself, have been part of the problem, in that we have deified showrunners to the point where their voices shape the interpretation of shows above and beyond the content of those programs. Ideally, these episodes speak for themselves, and should provide all the information necessary from which to start a dialogue. Starting that dialogue opens up possibilities. Being told what that episode, season, or series meant inherently shuts them down. Such answers might provide momentary satisfaction but ultimately produce far more discouragement. The second that a showrunner provides an answer to a previously ambiguous event, that’s it. There’s no going back. You can disagree with the execution, but intent is now forever mixed, and the chasm between those two serves as an irritant.

(Bringing it back to “Lost”: If you never read a Lindelof/Cuse interview in Season 6, then you never heard the words “flash sideways,” and therefore could never have been steered towards that mental vision, and therefore probably weren’t nearly as mad when what was going on was revealed. Maybe. Maybe you’re still pissed. OK, you’re probably still pissed. Oh well. I loved that show and that season. And I still love you.)

In essence, showrunners lose their right to chime in the moment an episode airs. That’s it. That’s the statement. That episode should contain everything you want to say, or lay seeds for things you’ll present in later episodes. If you need to use the press to clarify your meaning, you’re might be a control freak or you probably did a shitty job at telling the story in the first place. Neither of which reflect well on you. For our part as critics and journalists, we can do better about gaining the unique insight these usually brilliant people have without steering into direct questions of meaning and interpretation. Analyzing theme, breaking down shot composition, getting into storytelling influences, sharing moments of storytelling breakthroughs…these are all worthy and vital pieces of information to share with the public. But when it comes to actually assigning meaning to the work, less is more. It’s their job to produce it. It’s our job to analyze it. No matter how singular the vision initially is, it ultimately belongs to those that witness it. Robbing us of that agency robs us of the single most important opportunity than art provides: To reflect and respond in a way that makes us understand ourselves better. Denying us that turns art into didacticism, and ruins the entire endeavor in the process.

In other words: Don’t tell me the answer. Help me find the question.

4 Comments

  1. Ahmad
    Posted August 31, 2015 at 11:31 am | Permalink

    So you basically hate post-mortems because they limit your imagination and diminishes them? Aren’t showrunners granted the right to explain their work, and inform us of what they are willing to accomplish? I highly and respectfully disagree with you on this point. Thank you for your post, had a good time reading it. Have a great day.

  2. Tim
    Posted September 1, 2015 at 11:50 am | Permalink

    Is it any surprise that this happens, really? Considering that the Internet community demands reviews and recaps literally the instant the show is over, critics have little hope of being given time to properly examine and analyze the shows they review. So they go to the show runners to grease the skids a little- and I have nothing but sympathy for that impulse.

    They’re also serving a culture of people that are told literally all the time that they can and should have everything they want. It has an effect of making people think they should always have everything exactly as they imagine it, and ambiguity is the enemy of that. You can’t be “right” if there’s more than one interpretation. Nobody gets a trophy if the score isn’t decided

    Basically, you’re dealing with an audience that very rarely can handle ambiguity or complex ideas anymore, and they want the spoon feeding. You can’t binge watch an entire season of a show of you have to- oh my God- think about the show you just watched.

    So I totally put this on the audience. You guys are giving us what we ask for- yes, I’m guilty of it too. But I love the idea of pushing back against it.

    Great write up, Ryan.

  3. FictionIsntReal
    Posted September 1, 2015 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

    I also prefer your interpretation to Fuller (and disliked how often this season retconned things), but I also like post-mortems. I want to hear the showrunner’s perspective. If this is really the end, I can stick with my view that they’re really dead, Fuller can’t stop me from doing that.

  4. FictionIsntReal
    Posted September 1, 2015 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

    I suppose I’ll also have to plead guilty for citing the Hannibal writers on the pig baby being sired by Will rather than Mason. I think that’s a better version, because Margot already once developed maternal feelings for it and learns of its existence only for hope to be snatched away. Much like Will & Abigail in Mizumono.