As much as I love a happy ending, there’s something about love unfulfilled that I love even more. Heartbreak, thwarted souls torn apart by circumstance or fate… that longing and grief brings a whole different kind of satisfaction to me as a reader or a viewer. Because sometimes it’s not about happiness, it’s about being denied happiness and trying to find a way to live your life despite that. For most of us, I think that’s a more realistic proposition. Because, as the Rolling Stones once said, “You can’t always get what you want.”
One of the most romantic movies of all time is Roman Holiday. And, spoiler alert, there isn’t a happy ending. (Also? Rosebud is a sled, the ship hits an iceberg, he’s been dead the whole time and Darth Vader is Luke’s father.) I ache every time I see it, and I relish that ache. Joe and Ann cannot be together. We know this. It is impossible. He’s a reporter and she’s a princess. But their madcap adventures are no less gorgeous, and their love is made all the more poignant for it. When Joe drops her off around the corner from her quarters and they have that desperate moment…god, it kills me. And Gregory Peck is so noble, so very much the measure of a perfect man.
For more contemporary examples, there are couples like Firefly‘s Mal and Inara. He’s no Gregory Peck and she’s not a princess by any means, but in the 14-episode run of the series and the feature film that followed, we still know that they can’t work out. As much as there is a palpable attraction between them and a connection, they are just too fundamentally different to make a go of it. And unlike the battle of Serenity Valley, where Mal was willing to fight a losing battle to the end, the war for their hearts is one where they’ve laid down their arms and walked off the field. Mal thinks Inara is really just a whore in fancy clothes, Inara values her independence and her pride, and never the twain shall meet. God, that’s awful. But I can’t help but root for them, and Nathan Fillion and Morena Baccarin make such a visually stunning pair.
Then there are some of my favorite soap opera couples, for whom the intensity of emotion is so much that it, not class differences or prejudices, is what keeps them apart. ATWT’s Carly and Jack are a whirlwind of passion, dysfunction, judgment and impulse, and they don’t necessarily work together in the domestic sense. Happily ever after always seems to be just out of their reach. And my absolutely favorite World Turns pairing, Simon and Katie…? As much as they care about each other, he’s not cut out to settle down. He and Katie are at different places in their lives. I know he can’t stay, but that doesn’t make me love every time he returns to her life any less.
And I keep returning to these stories. Not because I suddenly expect the ending to change, but because even though they don’t quite “get there,” the journey these characters take is compelling enough.