The Brilliant Subversiveness of ‘Carol’s’ Conventional Ending

Spoiler alert: this piece is about the end of Carol. If you haven’t seen the movie yet, you might want to hold off on reading this piece until you have and take a look at our review.

A woman walks into a restaurant and pauses: on the other side of the uncomfortably upscale 1950s dining hall is another woman — one with whom she shared a history that led both of them to unique forms of heartbreak. Between them, rendered physical in the gabbing patrons of the restaurant and its uppity décor, are the murkiness, distraction and potential adversity of a softly smothering society. And within the two women themselves is the potential to harm, bore, and tire of one another. Most dramatic romances are ultimately torn apart by any or all of these factors; it’s hard to take a movie romance that ends “happily” seriously — likely because such a fate is often reserved for comedy courtships. Romances, sentimental as they already are, risk congealing into unadulterated, Spielbergian, Hollywood exec-satiating vats of schmaltz if they decide to end on a swelling note of reunion.

By contrast, pure disappointment (or at least ambiguity) so often seems key to prestigious drama — which is what this film is. Thus, as Rooney Mara’s Therese stands static, appraising the symbolic obstacle course of both the restaurant and the complications of love she’ll have to cross to reunite with her former paramour, it appears as though she’ll turn around, or that the story will end ambiguously, with her looking on, unseen, from the back of the restaurant. But right where the rules of potent, realist drama tell us the lovers in director Todd Haynes’ Carol should divide, the film sees Therese suddenly pushing forth towards her titular love interest, played by Cate Blanchett.

Therese slowly steps forward, bypassing waiters and audience’s expectations, gaze fixed on Blanchett across the room, with everything in the periphery melting away, until Blanchett sees her, too, and she similarly zeroes in on her lover’s gaze, shedding all notion of anything exterior to the two of them. Replicating the final passage of the stunningly forward-thinking 1952 novel it’s based on, Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt, Haynes’ film ends on a shot of  Carol — focusing on her adamantly unambiguous facial expression. Somehow, it is entirely unsentimental. It does not seem like Hollywood-style pandering. (The film and the nature of its leads’ somewhat clandestine love are, in this case thankfully, far too reserved for a furiously lip-locked ending.) Carol‘s unequivocally lucid — but also unequivocally restrained — reunion is somehow defiant, both of the ejaculatory triumph of sappy romance endings and, more surprisingly, of the typical ambiguity and/or tragedy of Good Dramas.

So how did it manage to feature a “happy” conclusion we’d otherwise attribute to, well, crappy movies, all the while augmenting its excellence and staunch evasion of the maudlin trappings of cinematic Romance? Much of how we read — and feel — the ending has to do with a subversion of the film’s own meticulous setup, and outside of that, a subversion of a larger film-historical setup.

Carol is interested in life existing in a series of loops. Carol herself writes in a letter — delivered as she abandons Therese — that “everything comes full circle.” Therese has a fixation on model trains, and early on we see her watching one go around and around in circles, confined in perpetuity to a repeating path. It’s not a happy image. But the film defies and transcends its own loop; its structure literally comes full circle, then shoots off in another direction, allowing itself and its characters to exit what seem like both societal and cinematic traps. Carol begins with a scene it comes back to later in the film. Here, Carol begs — with as much attempted reserve and elegance as begging can afford — Therese to return to her.

At the beginning of the film, this scene is displayed through the perspective of a man who interjects — and throughout the film, until it loops back to this scene, we’ll see patriarchal society’s continued interjections into their relationship. The second time we watch the scene, however, it’s seen through Carol’s and Therese’s perspectives: we see Carol say “I love you,” which we hadn’t heard the first time. Here, as in the actual conclusion, our notions of typical dramas and their/our ambiguity addictions lead us to believe the film might end at the close of this loop — with the man’s interjection, and with us never knowing whether Carol and Therese will actually reunite. But as with the pause in the actual final scene, the film continues, firmly veering from its looped track. Hereafter, it is up to Therese — not society, not Carol’s husband — to decide what to make of their future, or of whether they’ll have one. The film’s final 20 minutes become about Therese’s decision, following the film’s breakaway from its own internal loop.

As for the early conclusions film history might lead us to draw: Prior to Carol, the one iconic film centering on a same-sex romance — likewise set in a less accepting time for America — was Brokeback Mountain. At this point, we all probably know it ends in tragedy, with Heath Ledger’s cowboy character clutching his hate-crime victim former lover’s shirt. Due to the lack of (good, mainstream) dramatized LGBT romances, Brokeback Mountain has almost come to define the collective imaginary of queer relationships of the past: symbolically speaking, everyone was a lonely cowperson hiding out on a proverbial mountaintop — and inevitably some bigot would discover their whereabouts and drag them down from atop the fragile fortress of their love.

Looking at the other “historical” LGBT-oriented cinematic fare this year, one doesn’t exactly get the impression that queer relationships are meant to survive through these films, some of which seem to regressively fetishize hardship for sentiment. The framing relationship in Stonewall is so tragically morphed by bigotry that it sends the film’s (and certainly not the actual movement’s) protagonist out into the scary world of New York and activism. An adversarial society and cancer are far more important, it seems, in Freeheld than its core relationship, and while its court battle may be an ultimate victory, the film —and the true events it’s based on — end rather sadly. The Danish Girl, arriving in theaters this Friday, follows the story of Lili Elbe, one of the first recipients of sexual reassignment surgery, whose actualization of a female identity — itself an immense victory — was at odds with her marriage. Carol itself, while eschewing a focus on the turmoil society imposes on the central relationship, also doesn’t unrealistically neglect the fact that, for the time, hardship was nearly inevitable.

Its ending, that deceptively complex stare and abridged smile from Blanchett, pierces through the blockades other films have understandably examined, but perhaps accidentally reinforced, for queer romances. It similarly transcends the blockades Carol itself could have reinforced for its characters. Instead, Carol lays out those obstacles, but then it affords its characters the agency to decide whether or not they want to overcome them.

Alternately, as not so much a hardship as a diversion from its central relationship, the film dangles Carrie Brownstein — who we expect to play a Queer Role That Matters because she is a Queer Person Who Matters — in front of Therese’s face towards the end. It’s genius casting. She appears in a scene at a party right after the aforementioned looped scene where Carol proposes that Therese should come back to her. Suddenly, here’s Carrie fucking Brownstein of Sleater-Kinney, Portlandia, and public gay marriage officiating, flirting with Therese. She seems an intentional anachronism, a representation of liberation and defiance — as opposed to Carol, who exudes a calcified if stifling 1950s glamour. But instead of letting whomever Brownstein’s playing become a character at all, Therese chooses to return to Carol, leaving Brownstein to be a face at a party. Brownstein becomes a symbol of choice: an icon from a future era when people have (or can at least openly fight for) the agency to choose who they want to love openly, publicly, to choose how they want to self-define, or if they want to evade definition altogether.

As Therese forsakes all the potential of an evening, or a future, with Brownstein’s non-character for Carol, we become attuned to how much agency Therese has gained. The last glances between Therese and Carol, in the final scene that immediately follows, are teeming with the excitement and fear of their relationship being their choice. 

“All of our power comes from the act of looking, and what we project onto what we see,” Todd Haynes said in an interview with RogerEbert.com. It’s an important thing to consider when watching the film — and especially while staring out at the final scene, which boils down to the stares of its two leads. Because perhaps this film’s greatest strength is that it leaves it up to critics to mine that social import — never choosing a didactic path over a human one. I can say — because to me it truly seems — that Blanchett’s excited, insatiable, mischievous, and knowing glance looks out toward the camera as though gazing upon a more enlightened future. I can say that Carol looks out onto a time when same-sex relationships aren’t undermined by hardship, and one where the films about them don’t likewise undermine them by focusing too essentially on that hardship.

But while I’m here projecting a more accepting “future” onto Carol’s stare, the film only shows she and Therese simply staring at each other. Everything else melts away for them; they are not, in the moment, critically extrapolating. Their gazes furiously state that this is a film about their love, and about their choice to continue it. Right as the scene cuts to black, Blanchett’s lip begins to curl into something of a smile. There’s an earned smugness to it that says — if I may project this onto it — that these characters fucking win.