Originally launched in 2012 as a fourteen issue serial, FATALE by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips eventually ballooned outwards, ending up at a 24 issues, the last of which comes out next week. But I’m writing this before having read issue 24 of FATALE. And I’m writing this essay—which I hope will serve as an exit essay of sorts for a series that I’ve enjoyed immensely over the past two years—before having read the ending because the ending doesn’t matter. That’s not to say that the ending of things is unimportant, but FATALE Is a book whose ending has been telegraphed. Like all good noir, a genre which FATALE fits snuggly into—no matter how much Lovecraft and Nietzsche Brubaker and Phillips try to infuse it with—the ending flows organically from the beginning and middle. The ending is inevitable. And it is the inevitability that gives the ending its oomph.
Some were surprised by the ending of BREAKING BAD—the death of Walt at the literal foot of the monster with whom he had a love/hate relationship; the freedom and escape (physical, emotional) of Jesse—and some even felt underwhelmed. But after five seasons of watching a man become an inhuman monster and another man go from drug dealing punk to tragic, tool who’s been manipulated into self-destruction, any other ending just wouldn’t have flown. Brubaker and Phillips have built for themselves a similar machine, one propelled by a knowledge of what’s coming, tension tightened by an expectation that grows nearer and nearer to being met. This inevitability leaves us with three possible endings:
The first is the death of Josephine at the hands of The Bishop with the possible death of Nicolas. While the death of Nicolas is unlikely, as he is the sort of Jesse character—the tragic bystander; the innocent whose death would be the most unwarranted in the series—it is a possibility, and while it would be surprising, his murder wouldn’t be out of character for The Bishop. But in this ending, Jo’s manipulations, unintentional they may be, catch up with her. She dies. The bad guy wins. It wouldn’t be out of place in a noir for the good guys to go down swinging and the bad guys to ride off into the fiery hellscape of their dreams; and the series has always had a Nietzschean fatalism-cum-pessimism. This ending extends that ethos to the very end, and it makes the series’ “message,” if you want to call it that, that you can fight for as long and as hard as you want/can but in the end evil wins. Again, it’s the bleakest of the endings, one in which the heroine/title character is killed by an eyeless Lovecraftian/squid-faced monster thing, but its possibility needs to be considered because of the way it maintains the series’ tone as well as the fact that the death of Josephine wouldn’t be unwarranted—she’s done bad things to good people for a long time, and as tragic as her life has been, she managed to largely avoid the consequences of her actions. (You can see her growing colder, more manipulative through the years, just as you can see the diminishing affect that the aftermath of her actions has on her) It also withholds from Jo—our tragic, sympathetic primary character—what is slowly becoming the only thing in the world that she desires. Think of HIGHLANDER; On a long enough timeline, the only thing an immortal wants is to die.
The second ending is just as likely as the first, though neither is as likely as the third, but they are possible and should still be discussed/considered. In this second ending, The Bishop is killed by Jo. Like the first ending, the death of Nicolas is a variation on this that, while possible, isn’t very likely. This is the most fan-serviced ending possible, which isn’t dismissive of its validity. This is the ending that the lead-up-to-the-end issues have been leaning towards, as Jo prepares for an assault on The Bishop, fighting fire with fire, and using dark magic to conclude her story. This ending is possible because it sees the good guys win. It proves that FATALE exists within an ultimately just world, because the horror movie villain is made to face the consequences of his actions. Over two years, we’ve been witness to The Bishops grotesque and unsettling perversions of humanity, and through this, we’ve grown to loathe/despise/hate him. This ending is the most fan-servicing because it gives the fans what they want, while withholding from the characters what they want. The bad guy dies; the good guys go on living to, presumably, have a long, full life replete with romance and love and all that noise.
The third ending, and the most likely, is also the most similar to the BREAKING BAD ending. In this ending, both Jo and The Bishop die. The Bishop, hopefully, killed by daggers through his throat—or something as equally befitting his gross, detestable character—Jo, hopefully, more…allowed to die—something she’s clearly been after for decades now. Though, the circumstance of their deaths isn’t really that relevant. This ending is also different from the other two because it’s the only one in which Nicholas dying isn’t an option. And these two things—Jo and The Bishop’s deaths as well as Nicholas’ continued survival—are the reasons that this ending is the most likely.
While the first ending carries with it the overarching tone of the book, the second ending gives the audience what they want. The bad guy? The squid-faced host of blood orgies? He dies. Though a bad guy who necessarily has to die is a convention of ‘80s action films that has withered and died in the age of morally gray and narratively complex villains, The Bishop is a callback to the binary motivations of ‘20s Weird Fiction villains; he’s a bad guy who has to die. The way Brubaker and Phillips have crafted the story around this man…he’s pure evil. He has no redeeming qualities, no understandable motivations; there is no gray here; he is pitch black and wants nothing but the total massacre of humanity. An ending in which this man doesn’t die is ultimately unsatisfying, because we don’t see the only death that we truly want to see. But more importantly, we don’t see the death of the only character in the book that actually deserves to die.
But an ending in which The Bishop dies and Jo continues living does a disservice to the tragic protagonist that we’ve come to love. We’ve watched Jo struggle with this thing that she’s been turned into, and we’ve watched her cope with it over the course of decades. Brubaker and Phillips have done an excellent job of creating a sympathetic bond between the audience and Jo, and as such, we (read: I) want what the character wants. And as the book has come nearer and nearer to its end we’ve seen how badly Jo wants to be rid of this life she’s lived. She wants to die. To withhold that from her would be as cruel as letting the bad guy simply win.
And then there’s Nicholas. While his death in the other possible endings could be used for dramatic effect (and affect), the likelihood of it actually occurring is slim. This is because he’s always been the audience surrogate. It’s been his story within which Jo’s has been recursively encased. While Jo is the main character—the driving narrative force; a character whose actions propel every ounce of drama—Nicholas is the protagonist. His are the eyes through which we, the audience, see the world of FATALE. In the book we’ve caught up to the present day and Jo’s story is no longer being told though mise-en-abyme, so while it wouldn’t necessarily break the Matryoshka doll structure of the book for Nicholas to die, it would be surprising because of the way that Brubaker and Phillips have positioned him within the story.
This third ending is the most likely because it’s also the most obvious. It serves the characters, the audience, the creators; it’s the most organic and sensible; it’s the most inevitable. The makes it the most likely because—as Brubaker himself has said—inevitability is such an important component of noir. You see the ending coming, but the characters and scenario are so well crafted that you knowing the tortuous ending heightens the tension…it pulls the noose tighter…
While these things—obviousness and high-probability of occurrence—don’t have an intrinsically by-conditional relationship, they do in this instance because of the relationship between obviousness and inevitability, and inevitability and noir, and noir and FATALE.
In most cases, an obvious ending is a bad thing. The ending should feel natural and logical, but the audience shouldn’t see it coming. But presuming a semantic equivocation of “obvious” and “inevitable,” in noir the most obvious ending is the best. You want to see the ending coming. The power of noir is in cutting to a dangerous obstacle in the road as a character speeds down an incline, realizing their breaks have been cut. The power isn’t in the surprise, the twist, the duplicity; the power is in knowing what’s beyond the corner but watching the character turn it anyway—and part of that is knowing that the character knows what’s around the corner (but turns it anyway). Because inevitability is such an important part of noir, it’s such an important part of FATALE.
The comic is a series that’s foundation lies in manipulation of noir archetypes. We’re taken through waveform of noir and neo-noir popularity, hitting the decades when it peaked: The ‘30s, the ‘50s, the ‘70s, the ‘90s. It takes place along the West Coast—the LA of James Ellroy and Robert Altman’s THE LONG GOODBYE and the small towns of OUT OF THE PAST and Jim Thompson—and the Pacific Northwest of TWIN PEAKS. Its lead character is the femme fatale–the, not a. She exists as all of them at once; she’s the template; the cypher; the archetype. The stories involve corrupt cops, drugs, back stabbing and treachery, post-war trauma and ennui. It hits all the notes—it sets out, like CABIN THE WOODS, to not fit the template but to explain and serve as the template. This is only heightened by the calloused, chunky linework and inkwork of artist Sean Phillips. His pages are dripping with darkness, and he manipulates shadows in emulation of films like TOUCH OF EVIL, THE KILLING, THE THIRD MAN. His covers are bold and striking; each one feels like a movie poster for some lost classic. Dave Stewart were colors are moody and atmospheric, with a muted, browned-out color palette that underlines the bleak content. When Elizabeth Breitweiser became the colorist with issue 12, her palette retained the oppressive hues that marked Stewart’s tenure.
All of these elements—from the dialogue and story to the lineart to the color work—converge on something that exists as something fresh and new within the noir sub-genre but also as something that feels like the ultimate noir, an encapsulation of the genre’s totality. As such, inevitability is an intrinsic component of FATALE, because it’s an intrinsic component of noir and noir’s components are inherently the components of FATALE. So using our established interchangeability of “inevitable” and “obvious,” the most obvious ending is the most inevitable, and as inevitability is such an important throughline of FATALE, the most obvious ending is the most likely ending. But I have no way of knowing if I’m correct, at least until the finale is released.
A veteran of comics retailing, Shea Hennum is a Texas-based writer whose criticism has appeared at Bleeding Cool, Comical Musings, and The Comics Alternative. His fiction has appeared in places like Loser City, The Fringe Magazine, and Schlock, and his writing about comics will be featured in upcoming issues of Keatinge & Del Duca's Shutter from Image Comics.
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