WTF Is With the Ending of The Graduate?
September 10, 2013
(The shortened opening)
NC: Hello, I'm the Nostalgia Critic. I remember it so you don't have to. Well, we've all heard about The Graduate.
(Cut to footage of The Graduate)
NC (vo): The comedy staple of the 1960s that launched Dustin Hoffman's career and practically coined the term "cuckoo". And arguably...
Mr. McGuire: Plastics.
NC (vo): A whole generation of hippies and hipsters loved its artistic style and rebellious nature.
NC: (holding up index finger) But many seemed to be split on the relevance of the ending.
(The iconic ending of the film, Benjamin and Elaine on the bus, is shown)
NC (vo): Some saying it's a happy end to a happy adventure; others saying it's a sad conclusion to a series of life mistakes.
NC: (faux Southern accent) Now, I may be just a humble critic, but (normal) I too have my own opinion on what I think this ending means. (eagerly) Would you like to hear it, boys and girls?
NC: Well, too bad, you clicked on the damn thing!
NC (vo): Now, keep in mind, this is an analysis of the film's ending, which naturally means we have to analyze the rest of the film, too, so there will be some major spoilers. With that said, Benjamin is a college graduate who doesn't know what he wants to do with his life. All he knows is he wants to be different.
Benjamin: I want it to be...
Mr. Braddock: To be what?
NC (vo): Things certainly do take a different turn when his parents' friend, Mrs. Robinson, proposes that the two of them have an affair. At first, he's terrified. But under the demeaning control of his eccentric parents, he finds breaking the rules of authority suddenly sounds very promising. So he visits her off and on throughout the summer, never letting anyone, especially her husband, ever find out. Overtime, he finds out more and more about her, like why she married her husband if she obviously is not interested in him.
Benjamin: Oh, no, you had to marry him because you got pregnant.
Mrs. Robinson: Are you shocked?
NC (vo): And by society rules, and even a fair case of logical reasons, the couple found themselves stuck. This doesn't bother Benjamin too much until her daughter Elaine is said to be coming into town. Mrs. Robinson forbids him to see Elaine, but he accidentally gets roped in. Once again feeling his inner rebel coming out, he defies Mrs. Robinson's harsh orders and decides to keep seeing Elaine anyway, resulting in her finding out about them and the family splitting up. But that can't stop what Benjamin now feels is love meant to be, so he takes a road trip to Elaine's school and proposes that they keep going out. In fact... he proposes that he proposes. That's right, he asks her to marry him! Taken back by his offer, she finds herself confused and not really sure what to do. Her parents know, though! She's going to marry another boy who has his life ahead of him and all sorts of high expectations. But when Benjamin interrupts the wedding, she sees the true face of her parents' control and decides to run away and be with Ben, hitching a ride on a bus and riding off into the sunset, living happily ever after. (pause) Or... are they? If they just got onto the bus and it ended with them laughing, maybe this could be considered a cheesy romantic comedy with maybe a bit of an artistic edge. But it holds on them riding the bus in silence as their smiles slowly fade away. Why include this if this was just supposed to be your typical happy ending?
NC: Well, let's really look at the story again.
NC (vo): All throughout the film, both our lovers fight against parental authorities that clearly want to have them under their control. But when does the movie ever say that what they're doing is a good idea? Look at this film through the goggles of rebellion. Rather than doing something because it's what they want to do, they're doing it because they can strike back at their parents and society's social statuses. Wouldn't that make more sense as to why Benjamin would want to marry Elaine after only going out, what, a date and a half? Yeah, a little weird, isn't it? Wouldn't that make just as much sense, as she didn't have much interest in Ben after she found out about the affair, but then seeing her parents trying to control her results in her inner rebel coming out as well? The two get so wrapped up in fighting what they don't want that they rush toward something that they slowly realize maybe they didn't want, either. A date and a half, and then they're ready to get married, huh? Maybe in this ending scene, it all suddenly hits them what they've done and what they've committed to, and when there's no more authorities to fight against, they suddenly start to question whether or not this was the right choice.
NC: The very famous song "Sound of Silence" is played a couple of times in this movie. You ever wonder why?
NC (vo): It's played once in the opening when he returns from college, another while having the affair, and then at the very end when he crashes the wedding – literally. So, why these three moments specifically? Was it because they just realized they had a popular song and they should put it in to sell the soundtrack more? Well, here's a crazy fucking idea that more movies should catch on to! The song actually serves a purpose. "Sound of Silence", as many of you know, is not a very happy song; it's about the emptiness that surround us and whether or not there's a way to escape it. All three times it's played in the film, Benjamin is debating whether or not he's content with his life or miserable with it, as he himself is not really sure. Remember, this is a kid right out of college: he has his whole life ahead of him and no idea what he wants to do with it. His only friends are his parents' friends, who have less interest in him than they do making themselves look good. He's barely done anything risky in his life, so the first time something different comes along, something dangerous, something new, something exciting, he understandably jumps at it, whether it's really in his best interests or not. He confuses this fighting back for his destiny, what he really wants, rather than young rebellion that just needs to run its course.
(Cut to footage of the climactic escape on the bus)
NC (vo): He's so passionate about it, though, that he convinces Elaine on her wedding day that she should have the same passion, too. So, when they run away together at the very end, are they in love? Well, they think they are, but that emptiness still seems to be there, that same "Sound of Silence" that was played in the opening. Only this time, unlike the opening, rather than having all these possibilities ahead of them, they're both stuck. Neither of them would tell the other that they want to back out now, especially after making such a grand escape like that one. Whether out of pride or fear, the two are bound to each other with no way of escape, just like Mrs. Robinson. If you remember, she also made some rebellious mistakes and had to spend the rest of her life dealing with it. And ironically, the more she tries to push Ben and Elaine away from making the same mistakes, the more she forces them to do the exact same thing. Does that make the parents right in this film? Not really. Both are still overprotective and overcontrolling, but that doesn't make our young lovers right, either. Both fight for their independence so much that they never really question what they wanted to do with their independence. Both rushed in not really sure of what they wanted, but rather than figuring it out slowly and patiently, they grab the bull by the horns, never asking themselves why they were grabbing those horns to begin with. So there is no real good guy or bad guy in this story. It's a cautionary tale of what happens when the natural act of young rebellion is not allowed to be explored.
(Cut to a clip of Romeo and Juliet with Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes)
NC (vo): Much like Romeo and Juliet, when it's delayed...
(Cut back to The Graduate)
NC (vo): ...too controlled or built up to a point beyond logical reasoning. In all likelihood, Benjamin and Elaine are probably doomed to repeat the exact mistakes that Mrs. Robinson and her husband did, demonstrating how too much control and responsibility can result in a longing for too much freedom and too little responsibility. Many still look at this film as a charming love story...
(Cut to various images of various Disney couples)
NC (vo): ...the same way Disney characters can only go on a few dates and suddenly get married.
(Back to The Graduate)
NC (vo): And if that's what you see, eh, who am I to stop you? But for those who don't think it isn't anything more and that the film should be criticized for being nothing but that, I ask that you look at your own rebellious youth and the choices you made. Question how similar that desire to fight back was to Benjamin's, and how if you were restrained even more, how would you naturally want to fight back. Maybe you'll see that bus ride a little differently. Maybe you'll see the symbols like the signs saying "Do they match?" a little differently, or the empty drifting and drowning of the water constantly surrounding him a little differently, or the placement of the famous song, not just being there because it's a famous song, a little differently.
(Cut to the bus ride, where Benjamin and Elaine look on uncomfortably)
NC (vo): For me, this is the bus ride I always saw, and maybe you saw it, too, or maybe you saw it differently. But in my world, it's a constant reminder of how it's always best to slowly figure out what you want, rather than rush into something you're unsure about, because fighting too quickly for your freedom can result in making your prison bars even stronger.
NC: And if you're still not convinced that what he did was the right choice, take a look at how he turns out a few years later.
(A clip of Rain Man is shown: Dustin Hoffman's character Raymond Babbitt having a nervous breakdown and screaming like a little girl)
NC: Life's a bitch. I'm the Nostalgia Critic; I remember it so you don't have to. (gets up from his chair and leaves; credits roll)