An Ode to The Watcher
The Watcher (2022) is a mystery/thriller series (available on Netflix), based on true events from a 2018 article by Reeves Wiedeman. The show revolves around a couple who had spent just about all their savings on their new house, only to then be mailed alarming letters from “The Watcher.” The show — as in real life — ends unresolved, depicting the main characters watching their own muse from a distance.
Then it cuts to black and explicitly spells it out for us: “The Watcher case remains unsolved.” The End.
Some people didn’t seem too thrilled by that.
Something worth remembering
It makes me wonder if ‘based on true events’ is ever a promise to do anything. Or if it’s just part of the entertainment, just the show business chugging along. Interestingly, The Watcher is a tale of two true stories. (1) The Watcher story (which is unsolved), and, (2) the John Graff/John List murders (which is solved). Thing is, most of the audience probably wanted these reversed, at least in fiction. But that’s not what we got.
What we got was an ending that depicted ambiguity. The ambiguity of the ‘true events.’
Ambiguous doesn’t mean bad. We can describe series endings as disappointing, and even frustrating when they retreat just when they are called on to reward. Some endings are confusing when they resolve too little. Other endings we can’t help but call cheap: endings for the sake of. But many of them are also primed for discussion, inviting viewers to make connections or question things one last time. All the messages of a story link together to the bitter end. Let’s call ambiguous endings that feel interactive and expand stories: “open” endings. And those that simply end stories: “clean” endings (whether successful or not).
Either way, a greater indicator of success would be if people stayed along for the ride, intrigued enough to see the entire story through. And I look at The Watcher as simply another case of a well-made show about a family and a stalker, albeit with a divisive ending.
Away from the ending, some people look at the show as “campy,” for having “kooky” characters played by a strong cast. How the show could have been tense in the hands of another. I am a pro wrestling fan. I’m not trained to think campy and kooky are bad things, nor that they suggest the absence of tension. So I don’t really know what to say to that.
It was midway through The Watcher that I realized how easily wooed I can be by fictionalized mysteries, thrillers, and horror. Some employ more drama (The Stranger (2020), Two Summers/Twee Zomers (2022), The Perfect Mother/Une Mére Parfaite (2021)). Others, a lot more humor (Anxious People/Folk med ångest (2021), Unsuspicious/Nada Suspeitos (2022), The Woman in the House Across the Street from the Woman in the Window (2022)).
But the endings are almost never my favorite part. (From the list above, I can point to only The Perfect Mother and The Woman in the House… as having standout endings. Both were “clean” in terms of the perpetrator.) And so, despite my enjoyment of the “kooky” mystery and commentary on superficial dreams, I pre-empted the same disappointing finale for The Watcher. But I was wrong. The final sequences — characters essentially being absolved of suspicion — are built on top of the other, like stressed vertebrae. Then, we see Dean; then Nora. The End.
Maybe the problem isn’t so much “clean” versus “open.” Or true events versus fiction. It could just be the problem of a yes-or-no question translated into a sub-genre of fiction. The problem and allure of maybe.
As in maybe mysteries are meant to disappoint.