In 1981, Stanley Cavell wrote that “the central drive of the plot is not to get the central pair together, but to get them back together” (Cavell 1981, 2). What happens when you are rooting for them to break up?
What Cavell introduces is a formulaic plot structure used in many a romantic comedy. The couple gets together but then hits a speed bump, often causing the audience to cling to the hope that they will reconcile. Ultimately, the film’s conclusion shows the happy duo reuniting, and all is right once more in the name of love and clichés.
This procedure comes undone when there are obvious cracks in the couple’s dynamic. The audience is full of people with their own backgrounds and understandings of love, sex, and dating. They use that experience to inform decisions they think characters should make, thus assuming the role of both an audience member and a critic of behaviour; viewers do not blindly root for love.
In recent memory, I have never had so much disdain for an onscreen couple reuniting as I had when I watched Clea DuVall’s Happiest Season. I was not alone; there were public outcries from the public about the decision to reconcile the relationship between Harper and Abby, played by Mackenzie Davis and Kristen Stewart respectively, instead of the latter winding up with Aubrey Plaza’s Riley. An online Change.org petition was even started to break up the couple in a sequel, all in the hopes of Riley and Abby ending up together (Duncan 2020).
Plaza’s character provided a healthy alternative to an unhealthy relationship. Excluding Riley’s involvement entirely, it would have been more than justified for Abby to step away. I agreed with the opinions I was seeing online. Harper’s character, while clearly struggling with how her queer identity could ostracize her from her family, caused Abby pain in the process. While I was certainly empathetic to Harper’s position, I was hoping the characters would go separate ways; there would have been nothing wrong with Abby stepping away from the relationship for her own well-being. In the case of Happiest Season and many other films, the reconciliation comes after a grand gesture, and while likely well-intentioned, proclamations of love do not erase toxicity and pain. My own romantic experiences have made it evident that no matter how much romantic comedies want us to believe that love is enough, sometimes it is not. Sometimes it is imperative to prioritize oneself and draw a line in the sand.
I was so excited when I saw this film was being released. As a queer woman, this film validated a part of my identity in the genre of holiday rom-com that is overwhelmingly straight. My issues with its ending do not erase the importance of its release. However, Cavell’s formula simply did not work for me here. Here’s to hoping a sequel is produced. #abbyandrileyforever.
Happiest Season love proclamation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oRfmYtaP7fE
Sarah Duncan, “Sign the Petition.” A Petition for a Happiest Season 2: Riley and Abby Get Together, Change.org, 2020, www.change.org/p/hollywood-the-internet-kristen-stewart-and-aubrey-plaza-a-petition-for-a-happiest-season-2-riley-and-abby-get-together?source_location=topic_page.
Stanley Cavell, “Introduction: Words for a Conversation” and “Pros and Cons,” Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage (Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 1981), 1-42.