We unpack the recent fascination with “Möbius Strip narratives” and take a look at the many examples of embracing this niche direction of storytelling
“And in real life endings aren’t always neat, whether they’re happy endings, or whether they’re sad endings.” – Stephen King
“Our lives are Möbius strips, misery and wonder simultaneously. Our destinies are infinite, and infinitely recurring.” – ― Joyce Carol Oates, (The Corn Maiden and Other Nightmares)
“This Möbius stripper is taking forever…” – Megan Ganz, Writer (Community, The Last Man on Earth)
WARNING, THIS FEATURE CONTAINS MANY SPOILERS REGARDING THE WORKS BEING DISCUSSED, INCLUDING RECENT PROJECTS LIKE MOTHER!, TWIN PEAKS: THE RETURN, EPISODES, AND A GHOST STORY
Endings are a bitch.
Sometimes endings can beautifully come together or even be the spark of inspiration that gets a story started in the first place. But a lot of the time an ending can be a messy, stumbling experience. How many movies or television shows have you watched, eager for a satisfying conclusion, and only becoming devastated in the end? Of course, a project shouldn’t live and die by the quality of its ending, but it certainly becomes a lot more important when it’s the last element that the audience is left with. Hell, any sort of reputation that Dexter once had as a “golden age television” was demolished once its final lumberjack-tastic minutes played out. Endings are serious business.
One of the more ambitious, creative ways to end a story is with the principle behind a Möbius strip. Möbius strips are continuous loops that have no ending and therefore no clear discernible beginning, either. Pulling this off in a narrative sense is obviously a difficult maneuver, yet there are still stories that go the extra mile to have their endings loop back to the beginning, deciding to close things out in a cyclical nature. This technique, which was once purely a tool for the most experimental and avant-garde of storytellers, is popping up in Comedy Central cartoons and summer blockbuster horror films. In lieu of this narrative style not only seeing a strange resurgence as of late, but in many mainstream films and television shows no less, it seems worthy of investigating this trend and what the explanation could be for its newfound popularity.
A recent film that’s been stirring up a considerable amount of debate is Darren Aronofsky’s latest feature film, mother! Much of the ire that the film is generating stems from the film’s “artistic” ending that sees Jennifer Lawrence’s titular character perishing in flames, only for her to return to life and “reset” moments later. Aronofsky’s latest is a Bible parable that certainly lends itself to an atypical ending like a Möbius strip. The entire film is about Javier Bardem’s God-like surrogate failing in his mission, so to speak, and having another go at the whole thing. Will he be successful in his next go around at things? That’s not really the point. What is important is that the beginning is the ending and vice versa. What’s important is the process and the journey. It’s a conclusion that’s not at all unlike what’s currently going on within NBC’s subversive comedy, The Good Place. Ted Danson’s super deity continually resets reality and starts things over again, hoping to see different results in his mission. mother! Might not find those results but the message present in The Good Place is that change is possible. The larger story beats continue to be the same, but the smaller details are full of changes. Going down the same path repeatedly isn’t always the definition of insanity.
Another major television series that wrapped up not that long ago was David Lynch’s ultra-ambitious Twin Peaks: The Return. This is a series (or rather, an 18-hour film) that’s literally been 25 years in the making. Lynch’s quirky series experienced a crushing cancelation back in the ‘90s, resulting in one of the most infamous cliffhangers in television history. With Lynch finally able to end the series on his own terms and do his characters and universe justice, there was obviously a lot of anticipation over seeing how he would close the door on all of this. With Twin Peaks: The Return largely acting as a love letter to Lynch’s entire filmography, rather than merely his influential television show, it’s oddly appropriate that the story would ultimately loop into a Möbius strip.
This latest season of Twin Peaks spends a lot of time blurring the lines between the past and the future, with its ending being the strongest example of this. The show’s relentless protagonist, Special Agent Dale Cooper, finds himself stuck in an alternate reality of sorts and at one point even given the ability to prevent the very murder that kicks off the series in the first place. It’s an ending that’s all about having an unreachable goal and forever being on a neverending cycle that’s not unlike purgatory. It’s a complicated conclusion that a lot of the show’s audience met with reservations and frustrations, but in a lot of ways it’s the only way that such an epic story is capable of ending. The storytelling components of a Möbius strip are also something that Lynch has played with for decades. It’s absolutely no coincidence that his film Lost Highway both begins and ends with the foreboding line, “Dick Laurent is dead,” but that also Bill Pullman’s character is simultaneously both the one hearing and delivering the line. Years later he would employ similar mechanics in the structures of both Mulholland Dr. and INLAND EMPIRE. All of these are stories where the endings are inexorably interwoven into the beginnings.
Even the recent independent picture, A Ghost Story, ultimately dips into this territory. In the film, the protagonist’s spirit ends up existing for so long that time ostensibly loops back to the beginning and starts to play the events of history over again. It certainly borrows a lot of concepts from this cyclical idea, like how mysterious events will happen in the first half of the film, only for Casey Affleck’s spectre to discover in the second half of the film that he’s the one causing them.
The reason that there’s an increased amount of Möbius strip endings, especially in more mainstream works as opposed to fringe titles, could very well be because we’re living in the ultimate time of the audience being the author. Based on where media and technology have moved through the years, viewers have never had more authority and ownership and so to see this translating into cyclical storytelling is only appropriate. The story concludes itself by returning right back to the beginning and letting another hypothetical author have a go with it. In a convoluted sense, every time an old property sees a shiny new reboot, it’s going through a Möbius strip in some sense. Things might not literally be looping back to beginning, but every time a new Peter Parker learns that his Uncle Ben dies, it sees the franchise returning to its starting positions for a fresh take on the same story.
One of the most impressive examples of pulling off a Möbius strip narrative in a massive sense is in Stephen King’s eight-book, decades-spanning The Dark Tower series. With King working on this series for literally over thirty years, it’s understandable that a lot was riding on how the sprawling quest of Roland Deschain and his ka-tet was going to conclude. Much like in the case of Lynch’s magnum opus, this cyclical nature is really the only way that King’s saga could end. Something that has been a part of so much of King’s life, as well as his audience’s, deserves to continue on forever, with its ending merely being another go at this journey. The immortal words that begin the first book of King’s series, “The Man in Black fled across the Desert, and the Gunslinger followed,” are also the words that the final installment goes out on. Suddenly all of the series’ statements regarding “ka being a wheel” hold a lot more poignancy.
While all of these major works have been turning to Möbius strips as answers to their stories, a number of smaller, yet relevant films have also been attempting to popularize the device. Films like Triangle, Predestination, Primer, Timecrimes, and bigger works like Looper have used Möbius strips to punctuate their stories. What’s telling here is that while this device is often used to bring about a sort of symmetry in resolution, these are movies that explore the horror in the idea of being caught in an endless loop. While the lack of an ending can sometimes mean that characters don’t necessarily have an unhappy ending, no ending at all can often be even more devastating. No one wants to figure out that they’re the universe’s punchline, yet Möbius strips are exploring a mature idea of horror.
Superheroes were brought up earlier, but the popular CW superhero series, Arrow, originally had aspirations of turning its entire narrative into a Möbius strip until the show outlived its creators expectations. Arrow is a series that heavily incorporates flashbacks to Oliver Queen’s struggles in the past as the show juxtaposes them to his present. For awhile Arrow’s plan was to run for five seasons, at which point the show would have turned to this loopy storytelling structure. Series creator Marc Guggenheim has expanded on this by saying, “We always thought that we would intercut the final moment of the series with the first moment of the series, that it would form one big Möbius strip.“ As Arrow slowly started to outgrow its five-year plan, Guggenheim’s vision changed accordingly, yet it remains a missed opportunity for him. Guggenheim adds, “There’s still a part of me that wishes we could do that.”
Former courtroom drama The Good Wife might not seem like the sort of show to dip into this sci-fi friendly territory, but it surprisingly turns to a similar place. The Good Wife might not show time physically looping back to its start, but thematically and visually it still goes there. The Good Wife both starts and ends with a slap to the face. During the series’ pilot, Alicia Florrick slaps her husband when his adulterous secrets come out and she realizes that her life isn’t what she thought it is. Seven seasons later in its series finale, Alicia is the one getting slapped across the face by Diane, who suddenly realizes that Alicia is always going to put herself on a pedestal. The show’s morals and themes come full-circle and something like the round nature of a Möbius strip allows for a degree of catharsis that typically isn’t possible.
Many people might harp on the ending to Seinfeld, but it’s hard to deny that the show’s final lines of dialogue are utterly perfect. The series concludes with the following exchange between Jerry and George:
“The second button is the key button. It literally makes or breaks the shirt. Look at it, it’s too high, it’s in no-man’s-land.”
“Haven’t we had this conversation before?”
“I think we have.”
“Yeah, maybe we have.”
This dialogue isn’t important because it’s especially funny. It’s significant because it’s the exact same dialogue that the show’s first episode fades in on. These miscreants who have spent nine seasons talking “about nothing” have finally run out of things to say to each other. They’ve looped back to their conversational origins seen in the show’s pilot. Showtime’s meta Matt LeBlanc vehicle, Episodes, is a show that’s all about the art of adaptation and how much things can transform—for both better and worse—throughout the creative process. Episodes goes one step further than both The Good Wife and Seinfeld by retroactively turning the entire series into a new fictional series. The future of the characters within Episodes becomes the same stories that we’ve been watching them go through for five seasons. Episodes makes this point explicitly clear by choosing to end the series by having a mirror version of its opening title sequence plays out. The familiar footage is identical to the show’s credits in every way—right down to the title Episodes—only the cast’s names are replaced with their fictional counterparts.
It’s worth drawing attention to the fact that even comedies of the most extreme slacker nature, like Comedy Central’s Workaholics, are turning to Möbius strip mechanics to cap off their stories. The final moments of the juvenile comedy seem to imply that the entire show that you’ve been watching is going to become the fuel for a stoner comedy starring the show’s leads. This becomes even more meta when you consider that this is more or less the origin story behind how the actual Blake, Adam, and Anders got their television show in the first place. The lines between fantasy and reality begin to blur to a ridiculous degree.
In terms of television embracing Möbius strip narratives as a way of wrapping up programs, the trend also surely has much to do with audiences becoming increasingly trained to binge content. Now even the laziest viewer is still an eagle-eyed audience member due to advents like Netflix. With it becoming that much easier to watch entire seasons—or even series—in big chunks, viewers become better at detecting the dot connecting nature of Möbius strip narratives. It’s now easier than ever before to pull off huge stylistic gambits in storytelling, especially when going back to the first episode is just the click of a button away.
All of these make for incredibly strong examples of Möbius strip narratives, but perhaps the most polished execution of this idea in recent years comes from the frustratingly brilliant Futurama. Futurama, while never truly receiving the appreciation that it deserved, is a comedy that was constantly trying to re-invent the wheel and get as nerdy with structure as possible. This is an animated series that actually has genuine scientific theorems published in its name. Not even Rick and Morty is pulling that off. Futurama’s near-perfect (final) series finale, “Meanwhile”, tragically finds the series’ hapless lead, Philip J. Fry getting stuck in an unusual time loop. In what looks like a math problem designed by The Twilight Zone, Fry is hurling towards the ground, where he’ll surely die. Fry’s time travel device would be able to continually push time back ten seconds, but because it also takes ten seconds to charge, Fry is stuck in a ten-second time loop that appears impossible to break free from.
“Meanwhile” has a lot of fun digging into the horrors of this time paradox as it turns to some drastic territory, like killing most of its cast. The results of all of this time manipulation inevitably see Fry and Leela having to face the decision of remaining together in their isolated, broken reality, or ostensibly resetting the universe and running the risk of never encountering each other again. The series beautifully concludes this weighty idea with this simple, poignant exchange between Fry and Leela:
“What do you say? Want to go around again?”
This in itself would be a strong way for Futurama to end, but the series truly goes above and beyond to achieve the necessary symmetry of a Möbius strip. After Futurama’s final episode aired on Comedy Central, it was specially synced up to the show’s pilot episode. As soon as the flash that happens in “Meanwhile” finishes the episode immediately flows into the opening dialogue of “Space Pilot 3000.” This is a level of seamlessness and fluidity that can’t even be accomplished on the Netflix/DVD versions (it’d be a nice touch if the DVD had a version of the finale that has the pilot built right into its end). I’m curious if more examples of Möbius endings have ever been able to achieve something as thorough and seamless as this, but this truly seems to be the apex.
As mentioned before, Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series—one of the most Möbius of strips of all time—brilliantly recreates this experience by the final book’s last line being the same as the first book in the series’ opening line. However, I wish it would have gone even further with the idea by going as far as reprinting the first chapter of The Gunslinger at the end of The Dark Tower, only with slightly different punctuation and diction choices this time around to show a new rotation is afoot.
An extra step that The Dark Tower does take in this regard rests in the emotional breaking of the fourth wall that Stephen King does towards the end of the final book in the series. King addresses the readers directly and is basically like, “Hey, you don’t have to keep reading because things are going to get messy for these guys…” What King is doing here is essentially putting the reader exactly in Roland’s shoes. Readers reaching the ending of this series is their Dark Tower. They’ve been on this journey for just as long as Roland has and they’re just as obsessed to reach it—even if that means letting the characters die to get to that point. Roland gives into his obsession and goes on, and likely most readers do too. This meta passage in the book is surely just blown past by most readers, but it’s another really great way to actually simulate the experience the characters are in. It’s a maneuver that’s kind of like what Futurama does with its ending, but in a wholly different respect. Rather than the narrative’s ending simulating the process of a Möbius strip, it gives the audience the power of fulfilling this Möbius strip or breaking the chain. For once it’s possible to create an ending and avoid this continuous loop, it just comes at the risk of sacrificing the entire goal in the process.
Möbius strips are even seeing service outside of films, television, and literature as they extend into the realm of music. Two recent albums, Joanna Newsom’s “Divers” and Arcade Fire’s “Everything Now” both structure themselves around never-ending natures. Whether they’re executing this concept lyrically or in the structuring of the tracks, these impressive albums continue on this complex idea of a non-stop narrative. Obviously audiences are getting comfortable enough with this sort of ornate, cyclical storytelling if it can be done entirely through sound and still leave a lasting impact. Whether audiences are picking up on the many examples of this sort of narrative that are happening around them, it’s still subconsciously seeping in. Möbius loops are becoming increasingly normalized as the heady concept sneaks up on audiences wherever they turn.
As narratives continue to become more and more complicated and attempt for more ambitious endgames, this fascination with Möbius strips will likely keep on growing and evolving. At the very least, the general public seems to be becoming aware of this idea that until very recently was only on the radar of niche sci-fi aficionados. As major film studios and tentpole network programs continue to demystify the structural device, who knows what pivotal works will employ this concept next? Will The Simpsons finally end its multi-decade run with the family attending the Christmas recital that kicks off the series in the first place? Will The Big Bang Theory conclude with Sheldon and Leonard’s nerdy offspring seeing an attractive, boundary-pushing neighbor moving next door? Probably not, but the odds are now suddenly stronger than ever.
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