You are on Érudit's new platform. Enjoy! Switch to classic view


Serials and Satisfaction

  • Sean O’Sullivan

…plus d’informations

  • Sean O’Sullivan
    Ohio State University

Corps de l’article

Please, sir, I want some more.

Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist

“We all grumble at Middlemarch.” So began Richard Holt Hutton’s review, in the Spectator, of the fourth installment of George Eliot’s novel. The first two sentences of the review, from 1 June 1872, are worth considering in full—as indeed are all the sentences of Hutton’s beautifully rendered bimonthly responses to the serialization of this book.

We all grumble at Middlemarch; we all say that the action is slow, that there is too much parade of scientific and especially physiological knowledge in it, that there are turns of phrase which are even pedantic, and that occasionally the bitterness of the commentary on life is almost cynical; but we all read it, and all feel that there is nothing to compare with it appearing at the present moment in the way of English literature, and not a few of us calculate whether we shall get the August number before we go for our autumn holiday, or whether we shall have to wait for it till we return. And yet does it really add to the happiness of its readers or not?

Hutton 297

With a few minor adjustments, we could easily substitute “Mad Men” for “Middlemarch” and produce an assessment equally applicable to the Middlemarch of our moment—that is, a serialized story set 40 to 50 years in the past, about social change, gender roles, the vicissitudes of desire, and the opacity of cultural meaning. (Indeed, the title of Hutton’s review—“The Melancholy of Middlemarch”—precisely anticipates what Matthew Weiner, the creator and showrunner of AMC’s Mad Men, has recently claimed as his favorite word: melancholy.) For my present purposes, I want to spotlight in particular the collective grumbling—articulating as it does the culture of complaint that even the most beloved of addictive serials typically produces—and the melancholy question about whether such narratives contribute to the happiness of their audiences. Grumbling and unhappiness—or, more precisely, grumbling and insufficient happiness—both speak to conditions that are relevant not just to Middlemarch or Mad Men, but to serial narrative itself—or, more precisely, to those serial narratives invested enough in the problem of seriality to aim for grumbling and insufficient happiness. Grumbling and insufficient happiness represent the symptoms of something missing, and one way of defining what is missing here is satisfaction.

The claim of this essay is that satisfaction, an often-cited term of measurement for the consequence of serial narratives, is not only problematic but antithetical to the structure and attractions of seriality as a practice. “Satisfaction” speaks, among other things, to the values of unity, harmony, and fully integrated design—values that champion precisely the forms of art that serial narrative works against. Unity and harmony represent rote norms that privilege the well-made play, the symmetrical picture, the clockwork story. Serial narrative, at its most compelling, taps into those norms as its raw construction materials in order to create its own modes and rhythms, its distinctive commitment to the multiple rather than the single, the broken rather than the whole, that which frustrates rather than that which completes. The peculiar yen for satisfaction is all the more acutely peculiar at the end of a serial, when cries for satisfaction are at their loudest and most insistent. The end of a serial is the destruction or abandonment of a community—a community of characters and a community of readers or viewers. Why should such a destruction or abandonment be gratifying, or satisfying? Does the need for satisfaction not run counter to the fragment, to the partial, to the incomplete that are the defining elements of serial art? Every narrative creates more questions, more byways of potential plot and character investigation, than the narrative itself can contain; and no narratives lose containment more than serials, whose alternating rhythms of appearance and disappearance, or the fluctuation between presence and gap, generate universes of possibilities that become exponentially more difficult to resolve. Dissatisfaction is the natural consequence of serials, and we need to embrace it.

Let’s briefly consider some ways in which satisfaction appears in the language of both the recipients and donors of serial narrative. Returning to the moment of Middlemarch, here is Sidney Colvin, in the Fortnightly Review of January 1873, following the novel’s completed serial run.

In the sense in which anything is called ripe because of fulness and strength, I think the last of George Eliot’s novels is also the ripest. Middlemarch is extraordinarily full and strong, even among the company to which it belongs. And though I am not sure that it is the property of George Eliot’s writing to satisfy, its property certainly is to rouse and attach, in proportion to its fulness and strength. There is nothing in the literature of the day so rousing—to the mind of the day there is scarcely anything so rousing in all literature—as her writing is.

Colvin 331; emphasis added

The suggestion that George Eliot’s writing is not naturally satisfying points specifically to a question of style, as well as content. In other words: to what degree is dissatisfaction the result of how a fiction is made, and to what degree is it the result of what happens in that fiction? Colvin’s counterproposal is to offer “rousing” and “attachment” as the principal barometers of the success of this serial—the serial’s ability to provoke, and to create bonds, even as we recognize that rousing and attachment may necessarily work at cross-purposes: the one inflaming and the other connecting, one sparking individual inspiration and the other stitching collective belonging. [1]

Colvin, like all the best critics of serials, finds his own language, his own values for determining how and why they work, rather than borrowing nostrums about how art should operate. Here he is, a few pages later, following a discussion of the “physiological conditions in human life” and the “medical habit in the writer” that mark the prose of Middlemarch: “So that, apart from the presence of rousing thought in general maxims and allusions, we know now what we mean when we speak of the fulness and strength derived, in the dramatic and narrative part of the work, from the use of so many instruments as we have seen. Then comes the question, do these qualities satisfy us as thoroughly as they rouse and interest? Sometimes I think they do, and sometimes not” (Colvin 334; emphases added). That lovely, equivocal, declaration of uncertainty (“sometimes I think they do, and sometimes not”) foregrounds a suspension of judgment that seems discouraged in today’s blogging culture, where certainty—about the themes of an episode, about the unity of an episode, about how it is obviously the worst or best episode of the season—is often the default mode. Colvin again opposes the results of satisfaction to the energies of the rousing and the interesting within Eliot’s serial art. Rather than imposing a vocabulary that may be not just irrelevant but counterproductive, Colvin recognizes here the particular properties that make MiddlemarchMiddlemarch—its language, its formal properties, its imagined community—and teases out how they operate on us.

In the conclusion of his review, Colvin articulates exactly this call for a reappraisal about how we discuss such art—throwing in, for good measure, a classic English attack on artists of a certain Continental provenance:

That these and such like questionings should remain in the mind, after the reading of a great work of fiction, would in ordinary phrase be said to indicate that, however great the other qualities of the work, it was deficient in qualities of art. The fact is, that this writer brings into her fiction so many new elements, and gives it pregnancy and significance in so many unaccustomed directions, that it is presumptuousness to pronounce in that way as to the question of art. Certainly, it is possible to write with as little illusion, or with forms of disillusion much more cynical, as to society and its dealings and issues, and yet to leave a more harmonious and definite impression than is here left. French writers perpetually do so. But then George Eliot, with her science and her disillusion, has the sense of bad and good as the great French literary artists have not got it, and is taken up, as they are not, with the properly moral elements of human life and struggling. They exceed in all that pertains to the passion of the individual; she cares more than they do for the general beyond the individual. That it is by which she rouses—I say rouses, attaches, and elevates—so much more than they do, even if her combinations satisfy much less. Is it, then, that a harmonious and satisfying literary art is impossible under these conditions? Is it that a literature, which confronts all the problems of life and the world, and recognises all the springs of action, and all that clogs the springs, and all that comes from their smooth or impeded working, and all the importance of one life for the mass,—is it that such a literature must be like life itself, to leave us sad and hungry?

Colvin 338; emphases added

“We’ll leave you sad and hungry”—a slogan that every American television network is sure to embrace at the start of the next broadcast season. As with so much of Hutton and Colvin’s critical work in response to Middlemarch, there is far more here than can be unpacked briefly. But I would underscore in particular the recognition that Eliot—as a practitioner of serial art—produces not harmony or satisfaction but problems, that her fiction is invested in the “springs of action, and all that clogs the springs,” that it “rouses and attaches”—with all the contingent, uncertain consequences that rousing and attachment bring. The interplay of “new elements” and “unaccustomed directions” speaks directly to the core attributes of serial narrative, its perpetual integration of fresh matter and shifting possibilities; we crave the possibility of change, even as that change destabilizes familiar worlds and styles. These contemporaries of Eliot understood that the unsettled, rather than the fixed, served as the distinguishing, alluring marks both of her own serial practice and of seriality more broadly as a system of narrative.

It would appear, then, that by 1873 satisfaction had been smoked out as a false god of seriality, liberating us to probe for the less convenient, less programmable effects of individual serials, to look askance at the idea of serial narratives as unitary entities. And yet. And yet, if we look at the paratextual discussions of television serials today, the s-word is everywhere. Here are two recent examples, selected from many, both in the context of first-season finales, when anxiety about satisfaction typically reaches a climax. First, Mike Kelley, creator and showrunner of ABC’s Revenge, in the spring of 2012: “I think we set a record for storytelling pace, so I don’t think fans would have been satisfied—or I would have been satisfied—if we didn’t turn over some pretty significant cards by the end of this season.” Kelley elaborated his understanding of the fictional contract: “The audience trusts us to tell a satisfying story without dragging it out for 100 years” (qtd. in Stransky; emphases added, here and throughout this section). Second, also from 2012, Kyle Killen on the season finale of his NBC series Awake, in the wake of the series’ cancellation: “It’s a really satisfying conclusion, and I think it will be a satisfying way to leave the show” (qtd. in Bierly). Apparently, according to Killen, the show was always conceived as a one-season, thirteen-episode narrative, and even if the ratings had been astronomical, Killen would have refused the offer of making a second season because the first season was so ideally satisfying. Surely this is a kind of nonsense. But the serial community seems too addicted to the desideratum of satisfaction to question its implications.

In the context of longer-term series, here are two selections from Vince Gilligan, creator and showrunner of Breaking Bad, talking about the ultimate conclusion of that AMC show. In the wake of the third season, he said: “I want to satisfy the audience as much as I humanly can. But I think it would be more satisfying for people to say, ‘Jesus, I wish they ran a little longer,’ than for them to say, ‘Man, that show used to be good, and then I just lost all interest because it became the same old thing, week in and week out’” (qtd. in Sepinwall). Note the contradiction here—it would be more “satisfying” for the audience to be dissatisfied (“Jesus, I wish they ran a little longer”). So dominant is the language of satisfaction that we have to pay tribute to it as a holy grail, even in recognizing the limitations of that prize. When Breaking Bad was officially renewed for the two-sequence final season, here was Gilligan, via an AMC press release:

It’s a funny irony—I’d hate to know the date of my own last day on earth, but I’m delighted to know what Walter White’s will be (episodically speaking). This is a great gift to me and to my wonderful writers. It’s knowledge which will allow us to properly build our story to a satisfying conclusion. Now, if we don’t manage to pull that off, we’ve got no one to blame but ourselves.

qtd. in Poniewozik

But nothing might be more disappointing than a “satisfying” conclusion to Breaking Bad—because such a conclusion would necessarily deny the engines of surprise and invention that have been crucial to the show’s serial particular; it would substitute a teleology of total resolution, or character simplification, for an array of less harmonious “combinations”—to adapt Colvin’s description of Middlemarch. Serial narrative is the art of combination, and not the art of synthesis; its hallmark is the discrete, and not the integrated. [2]

Two things, before I proceed. First, it is clear that a significant portion of the mania for satisfaction is driven by marketing. That is, it seems to have been determined that the one thing that audiences need more than anything else is satisfaction; and the makers and distributers of serials are going to keep telling their audiences that they will be satisfied, whether we think satisfaction is attainable or desirable or useful. Of course, the obvious psychological result of this—of constantly telling an audience that it will be satisfied, that satisfaction is just around the corner, that satisfaction as they’ve always imagined it will be theirs very soon—is to create a far more voracious appetite than any show can possibly deliver. “Was that it?” is the inevitable consequence of a surfeit of promises of satisfaction. Second, we need to step back and remind ourselves of the etymology of “satisfaction.” To satisfy is to “make enough.” Enough of what, I ask? Under what conditions are we sated? Many times, in our daily lives, when we speak of “enough” it is in the pejorative sense: “Enough already.” “I’ve had enough.” “Enough talk.” In its positive meaning, I would suggest that “satisfaction” is infantile—and I mean that literally. When we see a baby that has had enough to eat, that is cooing and ready for slumber, that gives the impression of satiety, we see a picture that is alluring, an image of fullness and blissful contentment. It is a picture that has nothing to do with how we read or watch serial narrative, however. That we should want to graft a model of alimentary completion, measurable in cubic centimeters of milk, onto the rousing and attaching devices of serials speaks to the immaturity of our conversation. Sad and hungry, not happy and full, as Sidney Colvin suggested 140 years ago, is the fit and healthy consequence of serial consumption.

No discussion of serial satisfaction, in recent television, can avoid the story that was engineered to produce dissatisfaction as a condition of business—by which I mean the story of ABC’s Lost (2004-2010). The anxiety of anticipated dissatisfaction dogged the series from the first season, indeed perhaps from the first episode, when a polar bear appeared on a tropical island, and someone somewhere started fretting, nursing the expectation of an unfulfilling explanation for this tantalizing event. The pitch of that anxiety turned more and more acute, from episode to episode; it became part of the show’s soundtrack, alongside its musical score. In March 2010, as Lost was embroiled in its final season, the Society for Cinema and Media Studies (SCMS) conference in Los Angeles included a panel on Transmedia Studies that featured several prominent showrunners, including Lost’s Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof. The very first question directed at the panel was for Cuse, who was asked about wrapping up a show with so many tentacles of plot, mystery, and people. He framed his reply with these words: “We wanted the audience to understand that every small, little, niggling question that you have about Lost would be impossible to answer in the course of the show. Our role as storytellers was to tackle the big questions and to try to bring the character stories to a satisfactory resolution” (Cuse and Lindelof). So, immediately, the vocabulary of fan and artist alike turned to the language of satisfaction. Cuse’s answer foregrounded one way of considering satisfaction—that, despite the word’s claim to totality, to “making enough,” Lost would be providing only partial satisfaction, another version of the oxymoron of not-enough and too-much addressed by Vince Gilligan. In this model, on one side we have questions—specifically “niggling questions”—and on the other side we have characters. Cuse suggests here that narratives are primarily about what happens to whom—about arcs and psychology, rather than about ethics, geography, structure, or detail. “There’s no way,” Cuse continued, “when you tell a story, that you can tie up all the loose ends.” In this disparaged sense, satisfaction would signify housekeeping, a kind of dutiful neatness that leaves things in decent shape—rather than a thorough attention to the emotional core of a narrative.

Later in that SCMS panel, Cuse’s co-showrunner, Damon Lindelof, said that he and Cuse were asked two questions, above all others, when they meet fans. The first was, “Do you make it up as you go along?” (Cuse and Lindelof) The desired answer was always “no”; this fan perspective, which I would call strict constructionist, wants desperately for the text to be completely stable at all times. This preference is more or less absurd, given the million contingencies involved in constructing any multi-year serial narrative, much less one performed and constructed by a large number of actual human beings. But it is understandable—a kind of counterweight to a commitment to the unknown that investing in a serial entails. This is an end-driven energy, that pitch of anxiety I mentioned before, the kind that voices the fear that, if the conclusion is not satisfactory, the viewer will have wasted five years of his or her life—as if only the last moment of the last day mattered. The second most common question, according to Lindelof, was: “Do you guys go on the boards and see what the fans think?” The desired answer in this case was always “yes”: in this perspective, which I would call loose constructionist, the text is always breathing, changing, responsive to the possibilities of time, space, and event. If I am going to commit five years of my life, I want to know that you care about me—and that I can be a co-author of the text. As Lindelof spelled out, these two questions are in direct tension with each other, and indeed contradictory. Behind each question is the dread of dissatisfaction. In the first case, the dissatisfaction that there is no God; in the second case, the dissatisfaction is that there is a God, but that he’s not listening to you. It would appear that the incapacity for satisfaction may be the defining condition of the serial audience.

To what degree does satisfaction, when achieved, assuming it can be achieved, trigger an act of amnesia, an erasure of the memory of the state of dissatisfaction, or anticipated dissatisfaction, that preceded the act of fulfillment? The idea of amnesia is, of course, a staple device of nighttime serials’ sometimes-discredited ancestor, the daytime soap opera. That context is, interestingly enough, shrinking year by year, as the demise of Guiding Light, after 72 years’ run in radio and television, and As the World Turns, after 54 years, attest. The amnesia victim offers writers of daytime drama the opportunity to re-boot a character, to make old material look, at least temporarily, new. But soap opera has no destination point, unlike nineteenth-century written serials or twentyfirst-century nighttime television, and satisfaction would seem to be beside the point; hence the option, for both characters and viewers alike, to forget and start over. There is perhaps a precedent, in terms of collective amnesia, in the case of the third season of Lost. That season put satisfaction-anxiety into overdrive, as viewers started announcing that the show had jumped the shark—a phrase that has interesting connections, and disconnections, with satisfaction. I have argued that third seasons are recurrent sites for this claim of consumptive trauma, the juncture in the life cycle of a series when a show is claimed to have stopped being itself, stopped behaving as the essential, the true, the faithful version of the show that each viewer contains in her or his mind; or the third season can be the point where a series starts to parody itself—by exaggerating its eccentricities, or repeating behavioral or narrative tendencies beyond some acceptable limit (O’Sullivan, “Reconnoitering” 326). While it is difficult to calculate the precise validity of such laments, it is less difficult to posit that there is some correspondence between third seasons and the laments’ volume and violence. Partly, we can attribute this phenomenon to the weight of nostalgia, which kicks in once we are distanced enough in time, and once we have fetishized enough memories, to provide a powerful counterweight to the latest generation of material. The existence of a third season means that the first season—the beloved object—is now officially outnumbered, and will get increasingly outnumbered as the seasons increase; so the beloved object must either be rescued from the increasing sprawl (by mourning the diminishment of the first season), or the sprawl must be allowed to re-contextualize the meanings—the possibilities and necessities—of the first season. In the case of Lost, that third season was apparently rescued in its final episode, which instituted the new device of the flashforward. The new device was widely hailed as an earth-shaking breakthrough in narrative technology, and that pivot point itself became a juncture of nostalgic reverie for those subsequently mired in what came to be seen as the horribly dissatisfying endgame that was season six. The season-long dissatisfying material that preceded the move to the flashforward was not forgotten but the affective freak-out that accompanied it essentially was.

We should introduce into this conversation the voice of David Milch, the showrunner of Deadwood (2004-2006), a series whose relationship to cancellation and ending is somewhat vexed. Whatever the original circumstances of the show’s cessation, Milch returned to the set, for a featurette on the complete DVD collection of the show—and he used that venue to lament not only the premature demise of the narrative but also the fetishization of ending that we’ve been considering.

The idea of the end of a thing as inscribing the final meaning, the pressure that fixes the mark . . . is one of the lies agreed upon that we use to organize our lives. . . . As an artist in this medium, you have to assume that every episode in some way or another is the end of things. . . . The biggest lie is the idea that we are entitled to a meaningful and coherent summarizing, a conclusion of something which never concludes.


Milch’s observation that every serial episode is the end of something precisely describes one of the problems of satisfaction in this mode of art. On the one hand, serials keep deferring satisfaction, by holding out the promise of conclusion, and by stoking the desire to keep watching, to keep reading; so serials keep conclusion as a faraway reward. But, on the other hand, serials are always concluding—most prominently through the short term of the episode, and (in television) the middle distance of the season. We’re always starting and stopping; we always want to linger, and we always want to move on. [3]

I’ve previously suggested that some of the most intricate, challenging serial narratives of the last decade or two have, whether by design or accident, engaged John Keats’ negative capability—“that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason” (O’Sullivan, The Decalogue 220). This is the exact opposite of the satisfaction model that I’ve been tracing. Serials are both one and the other—tending toward the open, hinting at destination. We might think of this as an interplay between the line and the circle—serials as moving “ahead” week by week or month by month but always moving “back,” returning us to the same environments and situations, through the same kinds of paratextual apparatus. Serial storytelling describes both the line and the circle, and it illustrates how the two movements alternately work together and work apart. I’ve also argued that the three defining features of serials are the new, the old, and the gap. The new is the allure of the next installment, the enticement of the just-manufactured and potentially transformative; the old is the familiarity of code and experience, which makes us want to return, week by week or month by month to an experience that we think we know. The gap, or the between, is the animating energy, the time and space separating publications that distinguishes serial fiction from every other form (O’Sullivan, “Old, New” 116). This is where satisfaction, and dissatisfaction, are bred and fostered. But it’s also a territory of uncertainty, mystery, and doubt; to commit to a serial is to commit to long stretches in this landscape, and to a perhaps masochistic immersion in ignorance, in the unsettled: that which could be more than one thing, at the same time. Satisfaction offers the allure of focusing the multiple into the single; whether that is a transformation that we really want remains open to question.

I will use the rest of my space to consider a novelist and a TV series. The novelist is Charles Dickens, who is most responsible for stoking the frenzy for serial deliveries—or as responsible as anyone might be who started writing The Pickwick Papers, in 1836, just as clueless about the ramifications of the serial as any of his readers. [4] I’ll spotlight here two instances where dissatisfaction, and his response to it, underscore what might be called the Milchian perspective, or negative capability. Both of these moments were triggered by manifest evidence of readerly dissatisfaction, and both show the author’s ambivalence about satisfaction and seriality.

The first begins in 1840 and ends in 1841. In 1840, frustrated by the structure of serial publication—the slew of unauthorized rip-offs that aimed to conclude, or re-route, his narratives before he had finished issuing them—and by the intense demand of weekly and monthly schedules, he started a miscellany, a journal called Master Humphrey’s Clock. Whatever the anticipatory desires of his readership, the first few installments of the Clock succeeded in dissatisfying them. Rather than a venue for the latest ongoing fiction from Britain’s most beloved author, the Clock offered sketches and oddities, bits and pieces of varying tone and genre, with no serial dimension whatsoever. With sales plummeting, Dickens was forced—by his dissatisfied readers—to start a new story, called The Old Curiosity Shop, as one segment within the cluster of fragments in his enterprise. Soon the Shop engulfed the Clock completely, eventually becoming one of his most beloved novels; as soon as the Shop ended, Dickens started Barnaby Rudge—again, the sole proprietor of the space of the Clock. In October of 1841, with Barnaby Rudge on the verge of conclusion, Dickens decided to cut and run—having been held hostage long enough, or so he may have thought—by the demands of his public. The open letter that he wrote to that public is among the richest meditations on seriality ever written, on which I can only touch briefly. He laments the “close confinement” of weekly publication, with its “cramped” and “confined” installments—serial parts that he terms “jerking confidences which are no sooner begun than ended, and no sooner ended than begun again.” He claims that the weekly form is inherently unsatisfying for its creator, whether or not it succeeds in satisfying its readers. It has to do with the particular dynamic of “Parts” and “Numbers,” the language of fraction on which serials both depend and potentially perish.

Dickens concludes his address by promising to go back to the formula that launched his career:

On the First of November, eighteen hundred and forty-two, I propose, if it please God, to commence my new book in monthly parts, under the old green cover, in the old size and form, at the old price.

I look forward to addressing a few more words to you, in reference to this latter theme, before I close the task on which I am now engaged. If there be any among the numerous readers of Master Humphrey’s Clock who are, at first, dissatisfied with the prospect of this change—and it is not unnatural almost to hope there may be some—I trust they will, at no very distant day, find reason to agree with

ITS AUTHOR. Dickens, Master Humphrey’s Clock 3. [before]409; emphases added

Here we have an explicit articulation of the serial promise as some kind of combination of the new and old—the new book in monthly parts, with the old cover, size, form, and price. That combination may represent a marketing success story; but it contains the seeds of its own undoing, since old and new are more likely to chafe than merge. The old connotes knowledge, familiarity, domestication; the new mystery, the unknown, the untamed. Can they ever be finally conjoined? Dickens’s use of litotes—“not unnatural”—befits his characterization of his readers’ potential dissatisfaction, since he both gives and takes away, in the way that any new serial installment offers something concrete while simultaneously withdrawing all the other possible somethings that the installment might have provided. Change, as Dickens recognizes here, is always necessary and desired, and feared and dissatisfying. The fact that he would choose this moment of leave-taking to acknowledge the limits and frustrations of serial conclusion demonstrates how soon, and with what career-long effect, Dickens understood what seems so little recognized in television today: sad and hungry, not happy and sated, are the natural side effects of consuming serials.

The second Dickensian instance has to do with another novel that he was forced to write by a dissatisfied public. Almost twenty years further on, in 1860, Dickens was running another journal, All the Year Round. The journal had begun one year earlier, in 1859, and by this point Dickens was under no illusion about what would satisfy his public. Each weekly number began with an ongoing serial; the miscellany, revived as a mode of authorial interest, would have to be tucked in the back pages, in the wake of the installment’s serial selling point. The first serial in All the Year Round was his own ATale of Two Cities. The second was Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White. The third was Charles Lever’s A Day’s Ride: A Life’s Romance. One of these things is not like the others. A Day’s Ride: A Life’s Romance proved a tedious journey, and sales dropped dramatically week by week—effectively putting Dickens in the same position he had been in two decades earlier with Master Humphrey’s Clock. Once again, he was forced by a dissatisfied public to write a serial—a story he’d been thinking about, but not necessarily in terms of the cramped, confined, and jerking space of the weekly. The novel he produced, that bumped poor Charles Lever into the deeper recesses of All the Year Round, was Great Expectations—a title that of course operates as an announcement for the terrible demands of serial consumption.

My spotlight here falls on the famous house on which the imaginative world of the novel depends. It is worth remembering that, whatever the excitement and danger of Pip Pirrip’s brush with “his” convict in the first chapters of the novel, the boy’s life soon settles back into a quiescence unsuitable for serialization. Only when the crazy woman in town asks him to pay her a visit does the novel’s momentum, and its serial necessity, truly commence. Here is the moment when Pip, upon that first visit, learns about that house from a cold and tempting young woman:

“…As to strong beer, there’s enough of it in the cellars already, to drown the Manor House.”
“Is that the name of this house, miss?”
“One of its names, boy.”
“It has more than one, then, miss?”
“One more. Its other name was Satis; which is Greek, or Latin, or
Hebrew, or all three—or all one to me—for enough.”
“Enough House,” said I; “that’s a curious name, miss.”
“Yes,” she replied; “but it meant more than it said. It meant, when it was
given, that whoever had this house, could want nothing else. They must have
been easily satisfied in those days, I should think.”

69-70; emphases added

So the house of fiction that will initiate Pip into desire—his ambition to become a gentleman—is Satis House, the house of putative satisfaction, although Estella is clearly unimpressed by the claim of the name. The fact that its current resident, Miss Havisham, is someone whose frozen life stands as a monument to dissatisfaction, to an uneaten cake, is no accident. This entire novel is arguably an extended investigation of dissatisfaction, dissatisfaction caused, as almost every critic of the book has observed, by a young man attempting to inhabit an anticipated fiction of his own devising. Pip’s formative experience, in relation to Satis House, is itself serial—that is, regular and by appointment, since he goes there “every alternate day at noon” for a “period of eight or ten months” (103). This model in effect combines something like two eventual televisual models of seriality—the alternate day at noon resembling the daily midday appointments of soap opera, the eight or ten months resembling the traditional lengths of prime-time serial seasons. The house appears to promise the old much more than the new—unless we consider the transformation of Pip, over this time, as the new or novel. The gap between those alternate days, the between of serial fiction, is of course where anticipation, expectation, and the lure of satisfaction will grow.

If Master Humphrey’s Clock retrofitting into The Old Curiosity Shop, and Great Expectations replacing A Day’s Ride: A Life’s Romance, represent the two most prominent moments when Dickens responded to the collective dissatisfaction of a public to which he was beholden, surely the end of Great Expectations represents the most prominent moment of his response to the dissatisfaction of a specific, individual reader. That reader, of course, was Edward Bulwer-Lytton, who saw the denouement that Dickens intended for his narrative, was painfully dissatisfied, and succeeded in persuading its author to change course. (We might call Bulwer-Lytton the patron saint of serial dissatisfaction.) The helpful consequence is neither that we got a better, more satisfying ending the second time around—the apparent fulfillment of the wish of every mid-Victorian “shipper,” namely that Pip and Estella would get together—nor that we have the lost original to champion, as evidence of a truer, more authentic conclusion—the gratification of a modernist inclination toward the unpleasant—but that we have the dissatisfying prospect of the two endings’ cohabitation. The paratextual documentation of Dickens’s changes allows us to see Great Expectations as a novel that does not end with an either/or of gloomy or hopeful, or sad/hungry and happy/sated. Rather, the book exists as a bifurcation into alternatives—not quite a “Choose Your Own Adventure” model of readerly selection but a simultaneously overlapping of mutually plausible storyworlds. That simultaneity, as we will see, would prove particularly relevant for two of the endings of one of the twenty-first century’s most discussed works of television. [5]

The “new” ending, or the Bulwer-Lytton ending, itself exists in a few minimally (though importantly) varied versions. This ending is particularly rich, in this context, because it bears explicitly the evidence of the problem of serial conclusion, and of serial dissatisfaction. The original version offers a chance encounter in the London street, where Estella—now remarried—seems to mistake Biddy and Joe’s son for Pip’s own child; one Pip being confused with an imaginary other, in a perhaps fitting anticipation of the bifurcation that was to follow. The new version has the considerable virtue, and acumen, of returning to the site of Satis, which has appropriately been demolished. We had learned earlier that the house has been torn down, sold in pieces: “The House itself was to be sold as old building materials and pulled down.” Satis, Pip tells us, has been subdivided into lots, principally Lot 1 (the brewhouse), Lot 2 (the part of the main building which had been so long shut up) and “other lots were marked off on other parts of the structure” (430). Something that had appeared to be whole—even if as problematic a whole as Miss Havisham’s residence—is dismantled into lots and parts, into bits and pieces. That process essentially describes the reversal of serial practice, where bits and pieces are gradually seen to constitute a whole. But, as I have been arguing throughout, the language of “whole,” or entirety, or completion, or integrity, does not really work with serials—no matter how well the parts might be bound or how beautifully the DVD case contains the episodes. This enactment of Satis-unfaction—the unmaking of the enough—operated effectively enough in the final chapter of the book’s old version. But it becomes even more central to the book’s effects in the story that Bulwer-Lytton helped tell.

In the revised version, Pip returns, in another act of happenstance, to the space formerly occupied by Satis House, on the same day that Estella has also chosen to revisit this undone space. There is, Pip tells us, “no house now, no brewery, no building whatever left, but the wall of the old garden” (437)—just the perimeter to demarcate the absence, the form to indicate the absent content. Here are the novel’s last six paragraphs, with one particular word boldfaced for emphasis:

“I little thought,” said Estella, “that I should take leave of you in taking leave of this spot. I am very glad to do so.”
“Glad to part again, Estella? To me, parting is a painful thing. To me, the
remembrance of our last parting has been ever mournful and painful.”
“But you said to me,” returned Estella, very earnestly, “‘God bless you, God
forgive you!’ And if you could say that to me then, you will not hesitate to say
that to me now—now, when suffering has been stronger than all other teaching,
and has taught me to understand what your heart used to be. I have been
bent and broken, but—I hope—into a better shape. Be as considerate and
good to me as you were, and tell me we are friends.”
“We are friends,” said I, rising and bending over her, as she rose from the bench.
“And will continue friends apart,” said Estella.
I took her hand in mine, and we went out of the ruined place; and, as the
morning mists had risen long ago when I first left the forge, so, the evening
mists were rising now, and in all the broad expanse of tranquil light they
showed to me, I saw the shadow of no parting from her.


Estella’s leave-taking of Pip, like Charles Dickens’s leave-taking of his public 20 years earlier, is all about the problem of parts. The house, like Estella, like serial narrative, is “bent and broken”—possibly, but possibly not, “into a better shape.” Not for the first time in the book, Estella seems wiser to the logic of storytelling, and especially serial storytelling, than the protagonist; parts, bent and broken as they are, require separation rather than fulfillment, and the promise of the possible rather than the certainty of the fixed. The argument between the two characters here is, among other things, an argument about how we respond to serials. Estella’s last piece of dialogue—an affirmative declaration—may indeed hold as much predictive value as the closing line that has been more often taken to be the story’s “true” resolution—Pip’s vision of “the shadow of no parting.” I would argue that the famous, maddening “shadow” in the last line is itself a sign of serial activity: a shadow is the image cast by one object onto another, a visual memory of presence, analogous to the ways each part of a serial narrative casts a shadow on its successor, something both there and not there. By this reckoning, “I saw the shadow of no parting,” more than the alternative version “I saw no shadow of another parting” (from the 1862 one-volume edition), shows Pip seeing something that isn’t there, in two different ways. At the end of this serial, of this part publication, this character—essentially a reader who wanted to be a main character—thinks he’s arrived at the end of parts (“no parting”). But what he sees is in fact seriality’s inevitable lien on completion, its refusal to let things be. And it takes place on the site where the idea of “enough” has been packed up and sold off, where satisfaction has literally been disassembled. [6]

In the final phase of the essay, I will point to three analogous moments, at the ends of the first, fourth, and fifth seasons of Mad Men (2007-present). Mad Men, in many ways like its forebear The Sopranos, is a television serial with an ambivalent relationship to seriality, and particularly to seriality’s supposed promises of momentum and collation. The third season, for example, raised many of the classic third season complaints I cited earlier—in this case, the show had become too much itself, specifically too slow. Then, as with the third season of Lost, a sudden change of events—and even more importantly, a sudden change of narrative tactics—in the final episode miraculously “rescued” the season, and there was a consensus that the show, by giving us the red meat of change and possibility, had “found itself” again. Specifically, the final episode of the season—“Shut the Door. Have a Seat”—staged a kind of heist movie, with Don Draper and other principals of Sterling Cooper meeting in secret to whisk the guts of the company away from their new overlords-to-be, McCann Erickson. (In effect, they scheme to leave only the wall of the old garden.) The rhythms and tones of the episode felt new, in comparison with the familiar languors of the season to this point; here, the friction between new and old made the episode appear successful—again, to those who championed this conclusion. But that success, if we can call it that, was the result of a change of gears, and not the coming together of a long-elaborated set of narrative maneuvers; what may have made it “satisfying” was the episode’s refusal to satisfy the kind of season Mad Men appeared to have been at that point.

Let’s work from the beginning, or rather the first ending. The final episode of the first season takes place as Thanksgiving approaches, in 1960, and it is called “The Wheel”—a figure of the intertwined circularity/linearity of serial narrative that I cited earlier, the image of a circle bringing the series to a temporary, linear end. The marriage of the central couple of the series—Don and Betty Draper—has grown increasingly fragile, as a result of Don’s perpetual emotional distance (aggravated by his affairs), and Betty’s immersion in what Betty Friedan, three years later, would call “the problem with no name”—the plight of anomie, of dissatisfaction, of the suburban housewife in mid-century America. More specifically, to set the stage for this ending, Don has told Betty that he will be unable to join her and the children for Thanksgiving with her family in Pennsylvania. Does he join them, or does he not?

Clip 1

“The Wheel”

As with Great Expectations, we have a scene of coming back to a home that is no more. Another house that might be called Satis House, since, by the standards of 1960s economic values, Don and Betty seem to have enough; a purely economic valuation would suggest that people—in Estella’s words—must have been easily satisfied in those days. A moment of apparent connection, in the first version—Don’s “Hello?” answered by Betty’s “Don?”—offers the hint of satisfaction. A moment of disconnection, in the second version—Don echoes the question of his first “Hello?” by stating it as repetition—juxtaposes the specter of satisfaction with the inevitability of dissatisfaction. As with the end of Great Expectations, this is a scene of coming together conjoined with a scene of parting. And we have another image of parts—in this case, the stairs on which Don sits, segmented like the parts of a serial. Once again, the parts don’t add up to anything, just like the parts of Satis House. As with the end of Great Expectations, we have the problem of two endings cohabiting in the same text; these are two moments that we are asked to consider simultaneously that we know cannot be simultaneous. This impossible simultaneity is also inscribed in the tension between the 1960 of the show’s fiction—a 1960 that the show has famously and obsessively documented within the bounds of serial verisimilitude for 13 hours—and the 1963 conveyed by the selection of Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.” So many meticulously synchronous details are apparently tossed away in an act of unnecessary anachronism. There is something unsatisfying about this rupture in representation. Indeed, the last two lines of that song express exactly the perpetual fear of the inevitable dissatisfaction of serial fiction, and its surrender to negative capability: “You just kind of wasted my precious time.” “Don’t think twice, it’s all right.”

The problem of satisfaction is explicitly raised in the finale of the fourth season, “Tomorrowland.” The context for this moment is Don’s revelation that he and his secretary, Megan Calvet, are engaged—after, among other things, her able service as a nanny during his trip with children to California, including the delights of Disneyland (as advertised in the episode’s title). Here are Peggy Olson and Joan Harris (née Holloway) discussing their shock at the announcement, followed by Don’s awkward phone call to Faye Miller, the woman he now must dump:

Clip 2


Here we see satisfaction and its discontents in action. Peggy calls “bullshit” on Joan’s attempt to narrate a version of herself that depends on a separation of work from life—specifically, a separation of the working self from what Joan explicitly terms “satisfaction.” It is worth remarking that Joan categorizes her male bosses as all “just between marriages,” emphasizing precisely the alternation among the new, the old, and the gap (or the between) that defines serial process. Even outside the holy bonds, a description of Don as a serial womanizer would underline the ways in which the serial processes of discovery, familiarity, and desuetude organize his status as a character; indeed, such a description would apply to his attitude toward his work as well. Faye’s warning—unheard by Megan, of course—that Don “only like[s] the beginnings of things” speaks to the thirst for that which is new, or beginning, voiced by impatient serial audiences, whose wants seem to gravitate to the extremes of the process, either the just-minted or on the satisfactorily resolved. The title of the episode points to Mad Men’s refusal, or complication, of those desires; “Tomorrowland” is the advertised destination of the next installment of a serial. But do we ever reach it, and do we want to? Disney’s tomorrow is a commercially rendered array of possibilities, just as the tomorrow promised by a serial is a commercially rendered array of possibilities. The theme park’s tomorrowness can always be replaced by another tomorrow, present but always optative. Serials, if they are not soap operas or comic books, may seem to offer more permanent gestures of finality. The semi-permanence of the serial season—a narrative category unavailable to the Victorians—allows Mad Men to tinker with ending, with the problem of satisfaction, while nonetheless withholding its supposed pleasures.

“Tomorrowland,” and Mad Men more broadly, is a spectacle of unhappiness, rather than one of fulfillment. Indeed, happiness—the condition that Richard Holt Hutton found wanting in the consumption of Middlemarch—has been offered as suspect from the first hour of the series. Faced, in the pilot, with writer’s block as he tries to devise a new campaign for Lucky Strike cigarettes, Don comes up with a last-second prestidigitation in front of his clients—a distillation of what his profession is apparently all about. “Advertising,” he opines, “is based on one thing: happiness. And do you know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car.” What, we might ask, is the smell of an old serial? Later in the episode, dining with department-store boss and incipient lover Rachel Menken, Don offers a darker version of the meaning of life: “You’re born alone, and you die alone, and this world just drops a bunch of rules on top of you to make you forget those facts. But I never forget. I’m living like there’s no tomorrow because there isn’t one.” If there isn’t a tomorrow, what is the Walt Disney Corporation peddling? We might posit “happiness” as, among other things, the word for describing what happens when a desire meets its object—say, a consumer’s nose and the leather of a back seat, or a reader’s mind and serial satisfaction. But while the first may be mass-produced daily, the second is a trickier operation. Advertising, perhaps more than any other art form, represents the core of serial self-presentation; serials, by their nature, are works of capitalism, and they succeed (by basic financial measures) to the degree that the advertisements manufactured by their industries keep us coming back for more. But the fact that serials are always in pieces, while new cars appear to be unified wholes, means that the advertising is always deceitful. Rachel, taken aback not only by Don’s frankness but by his portrait of solitude, refers to her position as both a woman and a Jew in replying, “I do know what it’s like to feel out of place—to be disconnected.” That out-of-placeness, that disconnection, is the language of parts, rather than of wholes; to be in a serial is to be always at least temporarily disconnected, to be distinct more than linked, like Don Draper in the final image of “The Wheel.”

I have elsewhere argued that we get a distillation of that language of parts at the end of the sixth episode of Mad Men’s first season, “Babylon.” The closing tableau of Joan Holloway and Roger Sterling, discretely waiting for cabs outside the Park Grand Hotel after their evening tryst, both flanked and separated by columns, makes explicit the alternating presence, absence, and presence of seriality. The columns of the hotel, and the bays they create, allegorize seriality’s process of separating stories into distinct parts, with a space between each segment; the space, or gap, is represented here by the unpopulated central bay. It is our job to connect, or to decline to connect, the pieces (O’Sullivan, “Space Ships and Time Machines” 128).

Figure 1

The human, the architectural, and serial design in season 1 of Mad Men.

The human, the architectural, and serial design in season 1 of Mad Men.

-> Voir la liste des figures

We get an iteration of this picture in the penultimate scene of the fifth-season finale, “The Phantom,” a scene that precedes one of the series’ most self-dramatizing showstoppers:

Figure 2

The human, the architectural, and serial design in season 5 of Mad Men.

The human, the architectural, and serial design in season 5 of Mad Men.

-> Voir la liste des figures

“I think this is where the staircase goes,” posits Joan, reminding us of the staircase as a serial representation at the end of “The Wheel.” The subsequent lining-up of the partners, which feels as forcefully stage-managed as any piece of business we have ever seen in Mad Men, brings us instantly back to the serial illustration of the Park Grand Hotel at the end of “Babylon.” Five characters for five seasons of the show? Perhaps. Certainly this offers us a stark reversal of the conditions of the moment in “Babylon”—day instead of night, indoors instead of outdoors, the characters positioned away from us rather than toward us. Fittingly for a season-ender, the columns are now on the outside, flanking these individuals within the separate boxes that constitute a serial season—by contrast with the interior columns of “Babylon,” more relevant for an episode roughly halfway through its year. Being alone, or being disconnected, are evidenced here as the material substance of seriality.

That language is plainly emphasized in the episode’s final sequence, and final piece of dialogue.

Clip 3

“The Phantom”

The young woman’s question for Don—“Are you alone?”—is rewarded with a typically enigmatic look from our protagonist, after we have seen so many other major characters—Peggy, Pete Campbell, Roger—in different states of aloneness, through the additive logic of montage. [7] It isn’t just an obvious question about sexual restlessness or spiritual dislocation; it’s a rhetorical affirmation of separation as a key component not just of this character’s ethos but of the illusory nature of contact, whether between people or between the parts of a serial like this one, or of one like Middlemarch.

The look-at-me sequence that concludes the season effects the transition from the serial array at the office building to the come-on at the bar. Don’s magical translation here, from the illusion of a fairy-tale set to the “actuality” of a production studio to the illusion/reality of a bar somehow connected to that studio, can be read as a lampooning of connection. It is manifestly absurd that these environments could be physically adjacent in the same storyworld; this operates, among other things, as a satire of seamlessness. Plainly, the fantastic and the real are at odds here, as they are throughout Great Expectations; part of the difficulty of serial satisfaction has to do with the impossibility of reconciling these two, of bridging the imaginative allure of fiction and the distinct particularity of a world rendered week after week, month after month. If the ending of “The Wheel” bifurcates into two simultaneously plausible events, both within the multi-dimensional storyworld that we call Mad Men, the ending of “The Phantom” bifurcates into two simultaneous (though not simultaneously plausible) spaces. Bob Dylan’s song of doubling—“Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”—turns into Nancy Sinatra’s song of doubling—“You Only Live Twice.” [8] In both “The Wheel” and “The Phantom” the image of familial bliss is followed by the image of solitude. In “The Wheel” the fantastic or less-likely ending appeared first, with Don magically reconciled to his domestic role; in “The Phantom,” the fantastic or less-likely appears second. But, really, both are conjoined all along, and that conjoining is the source of dissatisfaction. How can we be happy, if we don’t know what Mad Men “is”? More than any other show of our era, this one has picked at the limits and difficulties of how serials work, and of how we live in these storyworlds. Of all the phantoms of this episode, and of this series, there is one that haunts its viewers most persistently. It is the same one that haunts Estelle and Pip, at the end of Great Expectations, and that haunted Sidney Colvin, as he wrestled with Middlemarch. What would be enough, and why would we want it?

Parties annexes