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October 4, 2013

STAWAR: Is this your final answer?

— Last Sunday, more than 10 million viewers watched the finale of the AMC television series “Breaking Bad.” This final episode capped off five seasons that tracked the transformation of mild-mannered high school chemistry teacher Walter White into Heisenberg, a brutal and notorious drug lord. The interest shown in the finale goes beyond the media hype and reflects the inherent need for closure we all experience.

Human beings generally find uncertainty quite distressing. Back in the 1970s, Harvard psychologist Jerome Kagan asserted that the drive to resolve ambiguities and relieve the anxiety of the unknown was one of the most important determiners of human behavior.

University of Maryland social psychologist Arie Kruglanski coined the term, “cognitive closure” and defined it as the “individuals’ desire for a firm answer to a question and an aversion toward ambiguity.”

Kruglanski believed that the need for closure is reflected in our desires for decisiveness, order and predictability. Not only do we seek closure, but we usually want to achieve it instantly. This wish can easily lead us to jump to conclusions.

Under the pressure of uncertainty, people grasp onto the first available information for answers, and often try to preserve that closure for as long as possible. Some believe that this desperation for closure is the reason for much of the speculative and erroneous reporting that occurs in emergent situations, like the Boston Marathon bombing.

The intensity of the need for closure varies depending upon the individual and the ambiguity of the situation. The more uncertainty in the environment, the more people seek some sort of resolution. The need for closure manifests itself in many ways, ranging from the relatively inconsequential ending of a television show to major life traumas involving divorce, injury and even death. We often believe that closure is necessary in order for us to move on.

National Post columnist Robert Fulford has said that in the popular media, the term “closure” has come to signify “coming to terms emotionally with tragedy, or rapidly ending the misery caused by grievous loss.” For example, back in 2001, Attorney General John Ashcroft expressed his hope that broadcasting the execution of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh to his victims’ families would help them achieve some sort of closure.

In this context, some researchers believe that the idea that people can readily achieve therapeutic closure is unsubstantiated. They believe that, like other kinds of recovery, achieving closure is a process that can easily be never-ending.

American Prospect writer Wendy Kaminer says, “People seek closure in books, support groups, talk shows and courtrooms. Civil and criminal cases are supposed to bring closure to the victims of bad marriages, unfair employers and violent felons. The law is now expected to provide therapy, as well as justice.” According to Fulford, “The idea seems to be based on a belief that we can sort our feelings into separate chapters that won’t leak into each other. Nothing in human experience supports that notion.”

Literature frequently challenges the idea of closure, as in Morley Callaghan’s 1930 novel “It’s Never Over” — a story about a man hanged for murder and how that incident continuously reverberates through the lives of all the people associated with it. In the same vein, William Faulkner once wrote, “The past is never dead; it’s not even past.” Kaminer believes, “For people who experience tragedy, stoicism offers more than talk of closure. What’s needed is the strength for tolerating sorrow.”

In a letter of condolence to a grieving friend, Sigmund Freud once expressed his opinions on closure, saying that while acute mourning usually subsides, to some degree people will always remain inconsolable, adding “and this is how it should be. It is the only way of perpetuating that love which we do not want to relinquish”

Whether or not closure is possible in some situations, the desire for it has historically remained a powerful individual and cultural force. People who constantly pursue definitive answers are more likely to seek out authoritarian leaders, meticulously follow rules and be suspicious of others who differ from them. The need for cognitive closure is at the root of many prejudices.

People with a high need for closure often surround themselves with others who are very similar, to reduce ambiguity and unpredictability. In his book “Escape from Freedom,” German-born psychoanalyst Erich Fromm posited that freedom can be accompanied by feelings of emptiness, anxiety and especially uncertainty. He suggests that the German people’s strong need for closure in the face of the political and economic turmoil of the prewar era goes a long way in explaining the rise of Nazi fascism. Nazi ideology cut through the uncertainty by offering the clarity of an authoritarian viewpoint, through over simplification, inflexibility and use of dangerous stereotypes.

Closure is very difficult to achieve in many major aspects of our lives, perhaps that’s why we often seek it in less significant arenas, which brings us back to “Breaking Bad’s” finale. So how did this award-winning series do so far as closure? Will Breaking Bad’s ending join the roll of all-time finale favorites, such as “M*A*S*H,” “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “Friends,” “Seinfeld,” “The Fugitive,” “St. Elsewhere” and, of course, “Newhart?”

According to Variety television columnist Brian Lowry, the “Breaking Bad” finale “got the chemistry just right.” He likens it to the end of “The Godfather,” where “all accounts were squared, all debts settled.” In this way, it was the polar opposite of the ending of “The Sopranos,” which ended abruptly mid-story, with literally nothing resolved.     

Television critic Rob Owen of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote that the “Breaking Bad” ending was “a conclusion worthy of one of the few TV series that never jumped the shark.” He said it “wasn’t a finale for the ages — like ‘Newhart’ or ‘St. Elsewhere’” ... but if offered a “satisfactory wrap-up to the show, one of the few in TV history to never make a serious misstep.”

For most fans, the “Breaking Bad” finale was satisfying, especially when compared to the ending of the also popular “Dexter” television series a few weeks earlier. “Dexter” featured a protagonist who was a serial killer, who preyed on other serial killers. This antihero ended his dubious career by being improbably transplanted to the Oregon north woods where he becomes, of all things, a lumberjack. Fans and critics alike squawked that the show had fallen apart and ultimately betrayed all of it characters.

After the final “Breaking Bad” episode aired, series creator Vince Gilligan said, “… we knew we needed to dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s ... In some cases unanswered questions are good, but in this case ... we needed resolution.”

Don’t we all?

— Terry L. Stawar, Ed.D., lives in Georgetown and is the CEO of LifeSpring the local community mental health center in Jeffersonville. He can be reached at tstawar@lifespr.com. For more closure checkout his Welcome to Planet-Terry blog and podcast at www.planetterry.wordpress.com

 

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