A Flickering "Light": Thoughts on how the ending of "Guiding Light" could have been improved

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The last episode of Guiding Light aired on September 18, 2009. The show had been canceled, after a 72-year run that began on radio. Like many fans, I was heartbroken at losing it. But what I'd like to discuss here is my dissatisfaction with the ending - and ways it could have been improved, even with the relatively short time the writers had to resolve major storylines. To explain where I'm coming from, I'll begin by including, with minor changes, a short opinion piece I wrote soon after seeing the finale:

When I bought my first VCR in 1978, I immediately became a full-time viewer of Guiding Light. That was my only soap - I couldn't understand how anyone could fit in more than one on a daily basis. As the years passed, I fell in love with the Four Musketeers...was furious when Beth rejected Phillip in favor of Lujack...joined a crowd to catch Kim Zimmer and Larkin Malloy at my local mall, and shared Kim's disbelief when a young fan asked, "Who was Bert Bauer?"

I was a loyal viewer until 1998, when the infamous clone storyline drove me away. I considered that an unforgivable insult to viewers' intelligence, and vowed that I'd never look at the show again. I switched to One Life to Live, mostly because its producers had the decency to rehire the ailing Michael Zaslow after Guiding Light dropped him.

But in January 2009, I couldn't resist giving Guiding Light another try, to see how they'd bring Phillip back. And I found myself hooked. I'm very thankful that I watched the show during its final months.

In many respects, I thought the wrap-up was excellent. I was glad the final episodes were devoted to resolving current storylines; despite my fond memories, I hadn't wanted to see flashbacks of departed characters. I regretted Alan's death. But when I saw all the happy-couplings that followed, I realized that without one sad occurrence, the ending might have seemed saccharine.

However...I felt cheated by not seeing Reva reunited with Jeffrey. This from a fan who'd never heard of Jeffrey before January 2009, when I was surprised to find Reva married to him! After seeing her heartbreaking grief over his "death," and learning he was actually alive, I couldn't wait to experience her shock - followed by ecstasy - when she'd learn the truth. I imagined various ways it might play out. I felt strongly that while she does indeed love Josh - always has, always will - she's passionately in love with Jeffrey. Even in the last seconds of the finale, I expected another car, driven by him, to come zooming into the picture.

I assume the writers meant the conclusion to be open-ended. Presumably, Jeffrey and Edmund are still furiously hunting each other - only that distraction keeping baby Henry and others safe. Jeffrey may yet return, at any time, to find and try to reclaim his wife and child.

But I'll always wish I'd seen that.

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Months later, I see the writers' intent somewhat differently. But that's part of the problem. Not only was the outcome for Reva, Josh, and Jeffrey unsatisfying in its lack of resolution, it was also confusing.

The "One Year Later" segment did make clear that Jonathan - who, the last we knew, had been in touch with Jeffrey - was aware of the choice Josh was asking Reva to make that day. In the immediate response, some fans argued that Jeffrey must have died, because Jonathan wouldn't have let his mother go off with Josh if her husband had still been alive.

I felt that if viewers were meant to understand that the status quo had changed that drastically, we would have been told about it. If Jeffrey had died, and Jonathan knew the details, there would have been no further need for secrecy. So characters could have discussed how he'd actually died, briefly, in the "One Year Later" segment.

Here's what I think now. We were meant to infer, from Jonathan's knowing about Josh's plan, that Jeffrey also knew about it. And in that situation, whether or not to risk telling Reva the truth would have been Jeffrey's call.

A possible further inference: Jeffrey, facing what might still be a years-long struggle to apprehend or kill Edmund, had decided that if Reva went with Josh, he'd let her go...permanently. He'd plan on staying "dead," painful though the sacrifice would be. Because by the time he finally defeated Edmund, he'd probably be hurting Reva and Colin if he disrupted their life with Josh.

Be that as it may, the ending we saw was a cheat for fans like me, who'd wanted to see Reva's joy at her husband's being alive. It was as if a waited-for "second shoe" had never been dropped. In terms of impact on the story, it seems the only point of having Jeffrey survive that plane crash was to create a plot device - an awkward one - for bringing Jonathan back to Springfield!

And it was unfair to all the characters involved.

Most obviously, of course, to Jeffrey. He's putting himself through God knows what ordeals, risking his life every day, to protect Reva and Colin and the rest of Reva's family. And he's rewarded by having Reva go off with her ex. Whatever his choice in the matter, he may have lost his wife and, for all practical purposes, his son.

But it's also unfair to Reva. How will she feel if she does, someday, learn the truth? Learn that she was having sex with Josh while the man to whom she'd been happily married was waging a lonely battle, enduring all kinds of risks and hardships, for love of her?

And it's unfair to Josh. The writers left him thinking he has no romantic rival. How will he feel if a living Jeffrey turns up, two or three years down the road, to disabuse him of that notion? How will he feel if Jeffrey wants to claim his son, after Josh has come to think of the child as his own?

Not to mention the fact that Reva, Josh, and their kin should still be worried about the unaccounted-for Edmund.

Some "happy ending."

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I write fan fiction, though I'd never previously written any in this fandom. So I consoled myself by penning a four-chapter story, "Out of My Dreams," and a shorter followup, "Homecoming" (both at fanfiction dot net), in which Reva is reunited with Jeffrey, and Josh finds a new focus for his life. (A later note: I eventually wrote a total of six fanfics dealing with Jeffrey's return. They can be found at both fanfiction dot net and Archive of Our Own.)

I seldom write AU (alternate universe) fiction. I prefer stories that, while hopefully surprising, are reconcilable with the established canon of the series I'm dealing with. So in this case, I wrote fics that didn't contradict anything we saw in the finale except the words "The End."

In the first two chapters of "Dreams," I tried to establish a different tone by exploring the thoughts of Reva, Shayne, and Jonathan on that fateful day "one year later." In a nutshell: They're all conflicted, all concerned about Edmund, but keeping their fears to themselves. Reva doesn't doubt that Jeffrey is dead; but her dreams and fantasies are still about him. She's troubled by the knowledge that while she does love Josh, she no longer loves him in the intense way he loves her. A major factor in her decision to go with him is her feeling that a boy needs a father figure in his life, and it would be wrong of her to deny Colin that because of her attachment to Jeffrey's memory.

In Chapter 3, she and Josh are barely out of town when they meet Jeffrey on the road. Reva faints, many tears are shed...but both men try to be gracious and considerate, and she winds up in Jeffrey's arms. (Of course, to write serious fan fiction in a case like this, it's necessary to ignore all the show's previous "returns from the dead," including Reva's own, and have characters find such an event as startling as we would in real life.)

Chapter 4 provides the necessary explanations: lots and lots of explanations! (For example: Since Jeffrey didn't die in that plane crash, whose body was pinned in the wreckage?) Jeffrey has killed Edmund, but it sure wasn't easy. He hadn't known about Josh's plan for Reva, and he hadn't been able to contact Jonathan for months. Finally, another "One Year Later" segment shows the reader where Reva and the men in her life will be then...and incidentally provides a happy ending for several other characters.

In both that fic and "Homecoming," I tried to refute criticism I'd seen in a soap opera publication. The writer had argued that it was completely wrongheaded to have one of the series' supposed heroes trying to hunt down and kill someone - sniping from a rooftop, and so forth. I made the point that no law enforcement agencies outside Springfield were willing to be on the lookout for the dangerous Edmund Winslow, because the people who claimed he was still alive had no proof. I also mentioned Jeffrey's having initially tried to make a citizen's arrest in North Carolina, and put my own spin on it.

Writing all that was an enjoyable experience. But then I began asking myself, how could the show's writers have tweaked their two-episode finale to make it work better dramatically? Given the closing scene they were bent on having, with Josh and Reva driving off in that truck?

I came up with two possibilities. If I wrote them as fan fiction, they would, ironically, be AUs. So I decided I'd just summarize the ideas here.

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Idea 1, which I call "All Fall Down":

In the next-to-last episode (part of the finale, since events are taking place on the same day), Jeffrey had initially had two handguns. As he delivers the line about how he'll "go home" after he eventually kills Edmund, he's stealthily drawing the second gun Edmund doesn't expect. But the attacker he'd briefly stunned has come to; he lunges at Jeffrey and pushes him off the roof. Jeffrey holds onto his gun, and actually manages to shoot and kill Edmund as he's falling to his death. (This could be done on TV, with footage of gun-in-hand taken from crazily shifting angles...the sound of a shot...and then, the corpses, with amazed Winslow henchmen staring at them and finally going off, leaving them and Jeffrey's two guns where they'd fallen.)

In Springfield, the events of that day continue to play out as we saw. What viewers don't see (Reva will summarize it later, for Josh): Jonathan is becoming more and more anxious. By nightfall he's online, checking crime reports from the metropolitan area where he knows that warehouse is located (I'll call it Miami).

The bodies aren't found immediately. But by the next day, the Miami media are reporting on this apparent double homicide. It's especially mysterious because neither victim's ID checked out. Seemingly, both men were using aliases.

A stricken Jonathan phones the Miami Police Homicide Division, and tells them that while he can't be sure till he sees the bodies, he thinks he can identify their two John Does. His stepfather and his uncle. He stresses that however it may look, his stepfather was the good guy, his uncle a monster.

One Year Later.

In the Josh-and-Reva lighthouse scene, the two of them discuss what they'd learned about Jeffrey's actual, heroic, death. His body had been brought home and buried. That, coupled with the knowledge that he'd succeeded in killing Edmund, has given Reva a better sense of closure.

Josh had come back to Springfield for the funeral, but felt he shouldn't approach her at that time. Later, he'd learned from Billy that she still expected him to come to the lighthouse. But he hadn't realized this was the exact anniversary of Jeffrey's death; if he had, he would have contacted her to ask if she'd prefer to postpone their meeting. He also hadn't realized, till Reva tells him, that Jeffrey had shot and killed Edmund as he was falling to his own death (rather than having been pushed off the roof after he'd fired). Police had determined that from the angle at which the bullet struck Edmund. Josh expresses awe.

Reva agrees to go away with him, but tells him she can't share his bed this night, on the actual anniversary of her husband's death. He's very understanding - tells her there's no rush about sex. It can be postponed until whenever she feels comfortable. But since she's been a widow for a year, and has the sense of closure initially denied her, it's clear that she eventually will take that step in their relationship.

The final lines are, as in what we saw:

"You ready?"

"Always."

If some variant of this idea had been used, the "One Year Later" concept would have been hailed as a stroke of genius: a way to make Reva a widow long enough that her pairing with Josh would be tasteful and believable. But arguments can be made against it. Some fans of Jeffrey would have been furious - even though he would have died a hero, and the actor obviously wouldn't have been deprived of a job that could otherwise have continued. And in terms of balance, too much of the "One Year Later" segment would have had to be devoted to discussing a death. Coming on the heels of another group of characters' dealing with Alan's death, that would have made for a sadder ending than the show's writers wanted.

I find myself wondering why Jeffrey had a handgun rather than the typical rooftop sniper's weapon, a rifle. Was a two-gun scenario ever considered?

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Idea 2, which I call "Everyone Up and Running!":

Jeffrey's encounter with Edmund plays out as it did in the version we saw; both men survive. All changes are in the "One Year Later" segment.

One Year Later.

As Reva's and Josh's kin are enjoying the park, we hear the conversation between Billy and Jonathan, which makes it clear Jonathan knows about the decision Reva will have to make this day.

Then Jonathan's cell phone rings. He glances at it, sees "Unknown Caller," and strolls off to a safe distance before taking the call. "Unknown Caller" often means Jeffrey - and he mumbles to himself that he hopes that's who it is now. If he can get Jeffrey's approval, he should still have time to phone his mother, and tell her Jeffrey's alive before she makes a commitment to Josh! Assuming that's what she intends...

I'll use only Jonathan's voice here, on the assumption that Bradley Cole wasn't available for the final episode. (Though the two participants in a "phone conversation" can of course tape their ends of it at different times.) This is the portion of the call viewers should hear:

Jonathan: "South America?" (looks around nervously and lowers his voice) "For Christ's sake..."

(pause)

Jonathan: "But she may decide to marry him, and she's already married to you!"

(pause)

Jonathan: "Except that you're not dead. Do you still love her?"

(winces; that question has evidently prompted a burst of profanity)

Jonathan: "Okay, okay. Of course you love her, or you wouldn't be putting yourself through all this. But..."

(pause)

Jonathan: "I could try to be more of a father figure for Colin..."

(pause)

Jonathan (unhappily): "All right. It's your call. I don't like it, but I'll keep my mouth shut." (concludes very solemnly, with deep meaning) "Jeffrey? As they'd say in South America...vaya con Dios."

Here, all Josh and Reva know in the lighthouse scene is what they knew in the version we saw. But the viewer knows Jeffrey is still in pursuit of Edmund, understands what's happening in Springfield, and has chosen, under the circumstances, to keep Reva in the dark and let her make her decision in the belief he's dead. As I mentioned above, this is what I think the show's writers actually intended.

What I'll have her say now is what I wish we'd seen in the aired version.

She tells Josh, "I'll go with you...on one condition. But it's a biggie. If you can't accept it, I'll understand, and hope we can always be friends.

"I don't have to tell you how many times I've been married. But I've never before been in a situation like this. Where a marriage that was still...blissfully happy...ended suddenly. Shockingly. With my husband's death. Where I never got to say goodbye.

"Jeffrey was healthy, vibrant. Before he left, he made passionate love to me on the kitchen floor, in the middle of the day! He knew we might never see each other again. But I thought it was just a crazy romantic impulse, that made me love him more than ever. And sometimes, it seems like yesterday.

"I can't bring myself to have sex with another man. I'll go with you if you're willing to accept me as just a companion - separate bedrooms. The three of us - you, me, and Colin - could be a family in every other way. Having meals together, doing fun things together, flopping on the sofa to watch TV together. Letting outsiders see you and me as a couple - I'd be fine with that.

"But no sex. I...I...gave myself to Jeffrey, and I still feel that I belong to him. Want, need, to belong only to him.

"With time, that may change. But I can't promise I'll be able to give you what you deserve next month, next year, or ever.

"Should I...go home now?"

Josh says quietly, "No."

He goes on to tell her, "I've had plenty of time to think, and I thought of the possibility you might feel this way. It's all right! I can live with it. I'd rather have you with me as a 'companion' than not at all.

"I'll do my best to be the father figure Colin will need. We'll tell him about his real father, too. And I promise I'll never try even to kiss you on the mouth. If you someday find that you want me to do that, or more, you can let me know."

They embrace...both quietly weeping. He gives her a gentle kiss on the forehead.

And here again, the episode ends with those predestined words:

"You ready?"

"Always."

Since I've included one item from my wish list, I'll mention another. I wish that instead of putting that cinematic "The End" on the screen, the producers had gone with a narrator's voice saying: "Not the end, but the beginning of the next chapter of our characters' lives...which cannot be chronicled here."

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Of course, the simplest solution of all would have been to forgo the "One Year Later" segment, leaving viewers in doubt as to what decision Reva would make, and what would have happened to Jeffrey and Edmund in the meantime. But the writers clearly wanted her to wind up with Josh. Their driving off, headed God knows where, was evidently a closing image the writers had fallen in love with. Even though they couldn't possibly have put a 17-month-old child in a proper car seat in that truck!

But their leaving Springfield only makes sense if it's meant as a way of eluding Edmund, keeping him from realizing they're together. (That works with my Idea 2, but not Idea 1, in which Edmund is known to be dead.) Why else, in a show that's been all about family, would they turn their backs on Reva's grown sons and grandchildren, some of whom are Josh's kin as well? Especially when they're on the old side to have a child as young as Colin - shouldn't they want him to remain close to the younger relatives who'd have to step in if something happened to them?

And yet, no one in town acts as if they're still worried about Edmund. It's a sadly flawed ending.

But for this fan, there's an upside. I've maintained my interest longer, and done some writing I'm happy with, precisely because I was dissatisfied with that ending.