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The Betrayal of Sex and the City’s Ending, Explained

The thesis of Sex and the City seems to be that women don’t need to be defined by marriage. From its premiere in 1998 through six subsequent seasons, the show suggested that women could get everything they needed from their friends. So, many viewers found it startling when the series finale directly contradicted the proposition the show had seemingly set out to prove. In the end, Carrie, Samantha, Miranda, and Charlotte’s storylines focus on their committed relationships with men. So what message did the show’s writers send with this rom-com fairy tale conclusion? Here’s our Take on how Sex and the City’s ending disproved the progressive argument that it initially proposed, and what it left us with instead.

How Sex and the City’s Ending Betrayed the Show, Explained


TRANSCRIPT

The thesis of Sex and the City seems to be that women don’t need to be defined by marriage. From its premiere in 1998, through six subsequent seasons, the show suggested that women could get everything they needed from their friends.

Carrie Bradshaw: “Did you ever think that maybe we’re the white knights and we’re the ones that have to save ourselves?” - Sex in the City, 3x01

So, many viewers found it startling when the series finale directly contradicted the proposition the show had seemingly set out to prove. In the end, Carrie finally lands the big prize of Mr. Big, the commitment-phobe who’s been giving her the run-around for years. And not only that: all four women’s storylines focus on their committed relationships with men.

Even the show’s creator, Darren Star, said, “I think the show ultimately betrayed what it was about, which was that women don’t ultimately find happiness from marriage.”

Darren Star: “For me, the show is really about the fact that women don’t need to be defined by men or by marriage” - Interview, Television Academy Foundation

Likewise, Candace Bushnell, author of the semi-autobiographical columns and book the show is inspired by, has said that Carrie and Big wouldn’t end up together in real life (as she didn’t end up with her Mr. Big).

So what message did the show’s writers send with this rom-com fairy tale conclusion? Here’s our Take on how Sex and the City’s ending disproved the progressive argument that it initially proposed, and what it left us with instead.

Sex and the Marriage Plot

The conclusion of Sex and the City speaks to a broader tradition in fiction that women’s stories must end in marriage. The “Marriage Plot” — which focuses on the rituals of courtship leading to the happy ending of a wedding — has long dominated stories about women, from the 18th to 19th-century novels of Samuel Richardson, Jane Austen, the Brontes, and George Eliot through to the iconic rom-com movies of today.

Sex and the City seemed to promise that it would disrupt the long-running trend of the Marriage Plot-ending. But for all its lip service to independence, the show ultimately reinforced societal fears of and prejudices against permanent singledom. The final season gives us a cautionary tale of what happens to the perpetually single party girl. In one of the series’ darkest moments, the writers show us the fate of the unmarried woman — playing into that old literary cliché that the only alternative for women who can’t find happiness in married life is death. Witnessing this incident is one of the things that fuels Carrie’s decision to follow Aleksandr Petrovsky to Paris, so it’s clear that her actions as the show nears its resolution are driven in part by palpable fear about how she’s going to end up.

Meanwhile, back in the show’s second season, the women discuss the idea of urban relationship myths. In this scene, and in the series as a whole, Sex and the City positioned itself as something of an anti-rom-com, espousing a cynical view of the hackneyed tropes often seen in on-screen love stories.

In the end, however, Big finally changing his ways and chasing after Carrie to Paris is exactly the sort of fictional “myth” the women were scornful of just a few seasons earlier. He embodies the urban myth of the man who never wanted to commit, but then suddenly, finally changes his mind. There’s a semi-absurdity in Big realizing Carrie is “the one” just in time to make a big romantic gesture to close out a series that largely set out to dispel relationship clichés.

Carrie Bradshaw: “The most exciting, challenging and significant relationship of all is the one you have with yourself.” - Sex and the City, 6x20

Then there’s the final scene of the show — let’s take a closer look. Carrie’s closing monologue attempts to encourage one of Sex and the City’s central ongoing themes: self-love. But the scene itself completely undercuts and undermines this sentiment — because in the exact moment that Carrie is telling the audience that the relationship they have with themselves is the most important one of all, she’s literally interrupted by a phone call from her boyfriend. The second portion of the final line may be phrased almost like an afterthought, implying that finding a partner is secondary to loving yourself. By ending on that note, though, the scene clearly puts the emphasis on the relationship with a romantic partner, rather than the one you have with yourself.

Carrie’s also not the only one who gets the typical marriage plot resolution. As she delivers her final monologue, we also see a short montage of her three best friends, each experiencing her own happy ending involving being partnered with a man. Charlotte has to overcome the overly rigid fairy-tale vision she initially had for her life, but once she does this, she ends up married to the man she really loves, with a baby on the way. This conclusion to Charlotte’s arc makes sense since marriage and a family have long been her deepest desires, but it does still reinforce a couple of common relationship myths, too — like the one (popular with men) that the gorgeous woman must fall for the traditionally “unattractive” guy. And in the first movie, Charlotte perpetuates the myth of the woman struggling with fertility who gets pregnant as soon as she stops trying.

Much more jarringly, Miranda and Samantha end up in similar places to Charlotte, and these endpoints represent major priority shifts from where they began.

Miranda Hobbes: “How does this happen four smart women have nothing to talk about but boyfriends?” - Sex and the City 2x01

Miranda, the most feminist and independent member of the group, has long been proud of her successful career as a lawyer and the fact that she’s able to support herself financially. She’s pushed back against a world that frequently challenges or tries to shame her for not being more traditionally feminine. But in the end, we might say her story corresponds to the urban “myth” that the career-minded woman must inevitably settle down to be a wife and mother.

By the series finale, she’s moved to Brooklyn in order to do what’s best for her family, and her story in the final episode revolves around caring for Steve’s ailing mother. While this ability to change and learn to care for others represents growth for Miranda, Miranda’s ending can also be read as a loss of the person she really is. And it sends the message that a woman’s growth has to equal her abandoning her autonomy in order to put others first and focus on becoming a caregiver.

Throughout the show’s run, Samantha has been even more independent than Miranda on the romantic front, intentionally resisting monogamy and marriage. But she, too, ends up succumbing to the pull of a traditional monogamous relationship with Smith. So we could interpret her conclusion as reinforcing the “myth” of the sexually adventurous woman who was just waiting for the right man to settle down with.

Like Miranda’s storyline, Sam’s arc of opening up to emotional attachment could be seen as growth, but this also implies that improvement means settling down with one person and that no woman really desires sexual liberation forever. In the first Sex and the City movie, Samantha’s problematic ending is rectified when Sam leaves Smith in favor of focusing on herself — and this resolution feels truer to her character.

Samantha Jones: “I love you, but I love me more. I’ve been in a relationship with myself for 49 years and that’s the one I need to work on.” - Sex and the City (2008)

The Marriage Plot ending of the Sex and the City finale begs the question of what audiences really want to see. Many viewers no doubt did enjoy seeing their beloved characters happily enjoying the comforts of devoted partnership and family. But is this in part because women have long been taught to fear remaining unmarried? Ultimately, by concluding all the characters’ storylines with a man at the center, Sex and the City just ends up adding to the countless voices that suggest a woman’s journey is only “complete” once she unites with the right guy.

Identity Crisis

A major focus of Sex and the City’s two-part finale is on finally resolving Carrie’s search for her own identity. When Carrie follows Aleksandr Petrovsky to Paris, she leaves her true self behind in New York. This is represented visually in her fashion choices, which are unlike the funky and offbeat outfits we’re used to seeing her wear. And it’s also symbolically underlined when she loses her iconic “Carrie” nameplate necklace, which (pretty obviously) represents the loss of herself. In a deleted scene she even leaves her laptop behind in favor of packing an Hermes scarf from Petrovsky. Considering how much of her identity is wrapped up in her career as a writer, this symbolizes her giving up her inner self to become purely a decorative item for a man.

In contrast to how much she’s erased herself for Petrovsky and Paris, her reunion with Big is supposed to read as a reunion with the person she really is. Big is equated with the city of New York repeatedly throughout the series, and this makes him, in part, a symbol of her love for the city where she truly feels at home and most herself.

At the same time, though, earlier in the series Carrie admits that she’s not herself with Big. She also expresses that he doesn’t “get” her and wants her to be something she is not. Over time, Big seems to confirm Carrie’s fears that he’s embarrassed by her and doesn’t see her as the kind of person he should be with. He refuses Carrie’s pleas to commit but rushes into marrying the superficially perfect twenty-something Natasha. And while he keeps coming back to Carrie and finding himself irresistibly drawn to her, he also repeatedly pulls away whenever the idea of a forever union gets too real. So in the finale, while it’s clear that Petrovsky doesn’t make room in his life for the real Carrie, she simply trades him for another man who has historically done the same thing, over and over again.

Throughout the show, we see Carrie crafting her own story as a writer, setting the expectation that she will be the one controlling the narrative. In “A Woman’s Right to Shoes”, Carrie declares that she is registering for a wedding to herself after realizing how much money she has spent on celebrating the milestones of others.

But Carrie’s marriage to herself is short-lived, and her ending contradicts the sense the show built of her as an individual shaping her own story. Big seeks her out and shows up like a knight in shining armor to surprise her—thus taking away her agency in how her story concludes.

The Antiheroine’s Ending: Falling Off The Wagon

The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum called Carrie Bradshaw the “first female anti-hero on television,” observing that Carrie was supposed to be an unlikeable protagonist — a role that female characters had rarely gotten to fill in fiction before this point. When viewing Carrie through this lens, you can argue the writers were not necessarily giving us a character to root for and relate to, but rather one who challenged us by being deeply flawed and not always sympathetic. Your typical rom-com heroine would not have an affair with a married man, while herself in a loving relationship with a devoted boyfriend. She also wouldn’t later push that same boyfriend to get back together with her, only to break his heart again.

Much of the time, Sex and the City portrays Carrie’s relationship with Big less as a story of true love than as an addiction.

Carrie Bradshaw: “Maybe all men are a drug. Sometimes they bring you down, and sometimes, like now, they get you so high.” -Sex and the City, 1x04

This relationship comes across like something Carrie is unable to escape, rather than something that truly fulfills her. In the second season, she herself explicitly questions whether her feelings for Big were real or if she was just obsessed with the masochistic pain of being with him. When it comes to Big, Carrie becomes anxious and obsessive. Both she and her friends are aware that he brings out the worst in her. And especially in today’s current cultural context, the scene where their affair begins is more unsettling than enticing. Carrie’s other major addiction is cigarettes, which she indulges in when she’s with Big — a link that underscores that this man is one of her major self-destructive tendencies.

By ending the series with Carrie and Big together, the writers are telling us that — rather than a healthy, secure love — what Carrie is actually looking for is pain, strife, and drama. Throughout her relationship with Big, Carrie expresses simply wanting him to commit to her and acknowledge his special feelings for her. And the payoff of the final episode is that, at long last, these desires are fulfilled. But while Carrie thinks this is what she wants, she’s actually shown on multiple occasions that she in fact thrives on Big’s constant rejections. When she meets Aidan, she’s put off by how kind and considerate he is, as well as by the fact that he willingly gives her attention. Aidan is not withholding, and therefore she’s bored — because she already “has” him.

Not surprisingly, Carrie and Big’s toxic pattern continues after the happily-ever-after they get in the show’s finale. In the first movie, Big shows he hasn’t really changed when he gets cold feet on their wedding day. However, despite having humiliated and hurt her, he again manages to win her over with a grand romantic gesture. Next, we see in the second movie that when she finally “has” Big, she becomes unhappy when their relationship inevitably dulls and she no longer has to “chase” him.

Looking at the story in this light, we can conclude that Carrie received an ending fitting of an anti-hero. We’re used to seeing antiheroic men on television get the endings they “deserve,” rather than a perfectly happy wish-fulfillment kind of conclusion. Maybe being with Big is likewise what Carrie “deserves.” It’s not the best thing for her, nor does it represent significant character growth, but it’s consistent with the person she had been for six seasons. And we can infer that she’s destined to keep making the same mistake over and over again.

Thus the once seemingly progressive Sex and the City joined the ranks of shows like Friends and Gossip Girl which depicted women finding a “happily-ever-after” in toxic relationships, romanticizing and normalizing the patterns of unhealthy partnerships. One could try to argue that TV viewers weren’t ready for an ending featuring a single female protagonist — but this had already been done, and been well-received many times before. In the years since Sex and the City concluded, more relationship-focused shows have gained the confidence to leave their heroines unpartnered.

The ending of Sex and the City, however, shows the writers weren’t confident in their own thesis, and they left viewers with an inconsistent message about the acceptable paths for women to take.

SOURCES

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