Following Sanditon’s penultimate episode, yours truly – and, likely, several other people – wondered loudly more than once about what the show’s final episode still had left to do. At that moment, most of our outstanding questions seemed answered, or set up with obvious solutions, and all that was left to do was tie a bow on them all and roll around in the inevitable fuzzy joy that is the conclusion of a Jane Austen story.
Unfortunately, Sanditon’s final episode…explicitly does not do that. Instead, it seems to take great glee in stepping all over every trope it can find, leaving virtually every one of our leads in a state of abject despair or pained resignation by the end of it. Other than the newly married Lord and Lady Babbington, almost no one gets an ending that could even be remotely called happy. (I mean, I guess Tom’s resort is ultimately saved, but there’s a lot of public shame involved first and Sidney's life is ruined in the process.)
The show’s final installment is disappointing, a largely incoherent hour that feels like a bait and switch of what we were all initially promised, as viewers. Sure, you can read this ending as an obvious plea for a second season – look at how many stories we still have to tell! – but in a television landscape where renewals aren’t guaranteed even for the most successful of shows, it’s a risk that doesn’t seem entirely worth it.
There’s so much swoony goodness in the first half hour of this episode, too, involving everything from a dreamy fancy-dress ball, to Sidney and Charlotte’s adorable walk on the cliffs, and Esther and Babbington’s charming carriage ride. There’s so much of this that feels 100% Austen, that seems as though it’s building to everyone’s happiness, and slotting them into the relationships and positions that will allow them, one and all, to be their best selves. Even Edward Denham’s grossly embarrassing appearance at the party can’t put a damper on this fun, and ultimately just spurs Esther into the arms of a man who’ll treat her better than her (step) brother ever did.
“And let joy be unconfined!” Tom Parker shouts as the Midsummer Ball opens, and that’s the theme that much of this finale seems to embrace. Until it….doesn’t.
There’s no way to talk about this episode that doesn’t involve primarily talking about the ending, and how deeply unsatisfying it is.
Other bad things happen, of course. Old Stringer has a heart attack and dies, but not before starting a devastating fire destroys half the town. Tom reverts to his idiot ways, revealing that he didn’t insure any of the (many) new buildings he’d been paying to have put up and ran up eighty thousand pounds of debt besides. Young Stringer’s grief drives him to reject the chance to change his life – and social position – for the better.
But having Sidney break Charlotte’s heart in the last fifteen minutes of the finale – of a show that hadn’t yet, and still has not, been renewed for a second season is insane to me. Sure, the narrative reasons for this make sense – Sidney’s mean girl ex is both widowed and rich, and the self-sacrificing gesture of trading his life and happiness for payment of his brother’s debt is certainly noble. But like it or not, this is a Jane Austen story, and in that, we expect certain things – one of which is a happy ending for all our main characters, and the affirmation that love, indeed, does conquer all.
To be fair, given the limited discussion I’d heard of this prior to the U.S. airing of Sanditon, this ending isn’t as bleak as I’d feared. It’s obvious that Sidney and Charlotte still love one another, and are separated, for the moment, by circumstance. I fully believe that if there is/could be a second season, we’d see these two find their way back to one another. But part of me also believes that showrunner Andrew Davies shouldn’t have taken such risks with an Austen story if he couldn’t truly, fully give it an Austen ending.
Sure, okay, you want to subvert some established period drama tropes. Go for it. Give us more women like Esther who push the boundaries of accepted gender roles and behavior in stories like this. Give us more men like Babbington, who are open and kind instead of closed off and broody. Or give us more stories like Young Stringer’s, which questions the established social hierarchies of the world in which shows like Sanditon are set. Don’t throw over one of the most important parts of an Austen story in a quest to be shocking simply for its own sake.
The finale tries to paper over this fact a little in two completely contradictory ways. One, by overemphasizing the heartbreaking nobility of Sidney’s choice -- he’s thrown over his life to help his idiot brother, and is, with Charlotte’s encouragement, going to attempt to make the best of the devil’s bargain he’s struck. The other is by inexplicably throwing dirt on Sidney’s general status as a person, courtesy of Georgiana’s suddenly out of nowhere comments about how he’s completely untrustworthy and ruined her life.
Your mileage may, of course, vary as to how much you believe Sidney’s repeated assertions that Charlotte has changed his life – and his character – for the better. (Personally, I assume Sidney of old would have never used himself as a bargaining chip to fix idiot Tom’s mistakes.) But it’s hard to argue with the fact that he’s been trying, even with Georgiana, who for some reason still hates him and I don’t think has ever said thank you for, you know, the whole rescue from a vile forced marriage thing last week.
Georgiana's character arc over the course of this series hasn’t exactly been great either, if we’re honest. Since her sylvan meeting with Otis way back in Episode 4, we’ve seen relatively little of her, either in terms of her presence or her POV. Her friendship with Charlotte has essentially disappeared and her entire existence seems to be centered around crapping on Sidney because she’s unhappy with the state of her life. I’m unclear why precisely she thinks the middle Parker brother is such a bad match for her friend, and Georgiana has never offered any specifics beyond the fact that Sidney often refuses to let her do what she wants to do at all times. Which is hardly, oh, I don’t know, the same thing as gambling so much that your associates try and kidnap your girlfriend. Just saying. Georgiana’s concept of trustworthiness is really not great.
At any rate, there’s a lot to dissect in the utter collapse of the season’s final minutes. But at the end of the day, it seems worth saying: Sanditon’s unhappy ending wasn’t a brave choice, it was a manipulative one. And the people who are going to suffer for that aren’t the show’s producers, or the folks in charge at ITV. It’s the viewers, who have so clearly put their hearts into this show and the love story at its center, and who feel so betrayed now. Maybe that’s what I’m getting at most importantly: If this were the sort of show that broke all the rules and disrupted the genre, and upended all our expectations without fear, then maybe this ending would be worth it. But as it stands, the ending of Sanditon feels far too much like the show wants to have it both ways, a “shocking” ending padded out by the fact that all the context clues are there to let us know Sidney Parker is never going to marry Eliza Camption. We just won't be able to see it. And that's a real shame.
What did you think of the Sanditon finale? Let's discuss in the comments.