Victory, at last! The Big Bad has finally been vanquished, the day has been saved, all the damsels in distress and innocent bystanders have been rescued and the heroes are ready to reap their reward, kiss their Love Interests and walk away toward the setting sun...
...victory, really? Then why does no one feel like cheering? Why is the atmosphere so heavy with melancholy? Why do you find yourself counting your losses as well as your gains?
Somewhere between Happily Ever After and a Downer Ending, the Bittersweet Ending happens when victory came at a harsh price, when, for whatever reason, the heroes cannot fully enjoy the reward of their actions, when some irrevocable loss has happened during the course of the events, and nothing will ever be the same again. A Bittersweet Ending is still ending on a high note, but one that is mixed with sadness and nostalgia. Often, such endings are the result of the plot making a completely happy ending impossible. (Looked at objectively, some Happy Endings have more things lost or irrevocably broken than some Bittersweet Endings. This trope relies more on the mood than on such objective weighing of matters.)
Some specific cases of Bittersweet Endings are:
- Did Not Get the Girl: When the Official Couple is broken for the right cause.
- When the hero fades into obscurity, gaining nothing in exchange for everything they sacrificed.
- The Big Bad is defeated, but they and/or The Dragon survives the Final Battle without pulling a Heel–Face Turn and there's no telling if, or more worryingly, when they'll come back to power.
- End of an Age: When an irrevocable loss happens, which removes the innocence of the hero or the world forever.
- Bittersweet 17: An ending of childhood, but a developing of selfhood at age seventeen.
- When the victory is only achieved at the sacrifice of people dear to the heroes (if not the heroes themselves) — or perhaps was attempted to be won at this cost, and the heroes had to soldier on to victory without any benefit from it.
- When Only the Leads Get a Happy Ending, and everyone else is still in a state of despair.
- The bad guys get away now, but their current plans have fallen through. The heroes will have to face them again, and they know it.
- The good guys feel unsatisfied and uneasy because they feel that they put on a poor showing and won by accident or dumb luck or realized that they unfairly misjudged a good personnote . Occasionally, this is when they are the intended recipient (as opposed to the usual deliverer) of An Aesop.
- Often the case in detective dramas where the mystery ends without the detective busting anyone. Instead, the crime has to be brought to them.
- The good guys accomplish what they set out to do, but at the price of compromising their integrity to win.
- Some endings include the normally Badass Pacifist hero lamenting to the effect that they had no choice but to use violence or take life in order to get the job done. Also occurs in many cases of Alas, Poor Villain.
- The protagonist or protagonists are the only ones left alive at the end. Even the likable guest or supporting characters get mercilessly killed.
- And occasionally, you will get a straight up Happily Ever After, but then the story will keep going, which leads to the inevitable conclusion of all the characters dying. Then Ghost Reunion Ending occurs.
- Stories featuring a Restricted Rescue Operation often end like this.
- The heroes succeed in their goals, but one or part of the group is forcibly separated from their companions as a side-effect of their heroics, with the remaining cast never being able to see them again. Very common in settings involving main characters hailing from different worlds or eras. Bonus points if the separation is sudden, occurs off-screen, happens in the heat of the final conflict, and/or neither side is able to give the other a proper sendoff before parting.
- A story in which a character becomes injured, sick, or traumatized, and ends with them improving, but not fully recovered.
- Some stories end with the protagonist(s) coping with the fact that there's a problem, rather than actually solving the problem.
Bittersweet Endings can fall on either end of the Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism. They come up frequently in High Fantasy, for obvious reasons — an epic that ends with the hero triumphing over the ultimate Big Bad and bringing peace and prosperity to the land, but at the same time defeating the ultimate Big Bad does not always come without sacrifices, whether it be most or all of the characters dying in the end or the characters are at a loss about what to do now. Sometimes these are worlds and stories where you can Earn Your Happy Ending, though it won't be Exactly What It Says on the Tin.
Also shows where too many romantic interests are introduced for one hero are doomed to end in this way or with No Romantic Resolution, since painless resolution is mostly impossible.
Sometimes the story's Aesop requires a bittersweet ending in order to be effective. For certain issues, this is the only way to get the point across without the effect being undermined by other tropes such as the "Everybody Laughs" Ending.
In short, if the characters are worse off than when they started, it's a Downer Ending. If they're better off (or at least status quo is preserved), but the work still ends on a melancholy note, it's a Bittersweet Ending. Another way to think of it is that if the story's main conflict is resolved in favor of the protagonists, but at great sacrifice, it's a Bittersweet Ending. A Downer Ending requires the heroes to fail, and the conflict resolving with nothing good happening in the end, if it's even resolved at all.
Compare with Pyrrhic Victory, where the day is carried, but the cost of winning is crippling to the victors.
Compare and contrast with "Ray of Hope" Ending, where the villain prevails but not all is lost. Also with Esoteric Happy Ending, where the author clearly meant it to be joyful, beautiful, and uplifting… but the readers don't see it that way. May overlap with Tear Dryer if more emphasis is placed on the "sweet" part.
Note that as an ending trope, the following entries are riddled with unmarked spoilers.
- Anime & Manga
- Comic Books
- Fan Works
- Film — Animated
- Film — Live-Action
- Live-Action TV
- Tabletop Games
- Video Games
- Visual Novels
- Web Animation
- Web Original
- Western Animation
Other examples:Asian Animation
- Happy Heroes: The end of the "Legend of a Hero" arc in Season 7. Sure, they drove out the invaders, but at what cost? Kalo's life, for he was the one who sacrificed himself to save the planet. Needless to say, the heroes (especially Careful S.) are still in tears despite the enemy being driven away.
- Hayop Ka!: The Nimfa Dimaano Story: Nimfa does not end up with either of her love interests, having dumped Roger for Inigo only to discover Inigo never cared about her, leaving her with no choice but to raise her baby by herself. But she strikes up a friendship with Jerry and seems to be doing fine as a single mother. She even patches things up with her sister who, along with her mom and Jerry, helps her out.
- Leafie, a Hen into the Wild: Greenie becomes the guard duck of his flock and is able to set out and see the world while Leafie lets herself be eaten by One-Eye so her babies can survive.
- Next Gen: Ares and the Q-Bots are destroyed but 7723 had to wipe his memory to fight him. However, Mai begins making new memories with him.
- Padak: The titular character and Spotty die, with the remaining presumed to meet the same fate, while the Master learns from his mistakes and Padak's efforts and actually escapes to freedom in the ocean.
- Sky Blue. Sure, Ecoban falls, but Jay will almost certainly die, and Woody isn't in great shape either. Oh, and they were wrong about Gibraltar.
- White Snake (2019): The snake hunting village is saved, antagonists are dead and Blanca is saved by Xuan but he sacrificed himself to do and almost has his very soul destroyed, Blanca manages to save his soul and he is reincarnated. However, this also means that Xuan couldn't properly part ways with Dudou or the villagers. And 500 years later, with the help of her now redeemed sister, Blanca manages to find Xuan's reincarnation with the implication that they will be together.
- The Elm-Chanted Forest: Emperor Spine is reformed, and the forest is saved... but the powers Peter received from the elm tree have worn off, and he must go back to his village, as he can no longer understand his animal friends.
- This also happens in the sequel, The Magician's Hat. While Frostkill is defeated, the fairy queen Sunchica's love for Thistle causes her to lose her powers and title, though the Dwarf King tells her that she and Thistle should continue to protect the forest.
- Gypsy Tales: "The Gypsy Woman and the Devil" ends with the devil cursing Vunida to turn into a cherry tree, never being able to talk to her children again, and the children never realizing what happened to their mother. On the sweet side, she gets to feed her starving children with her fruit, who all grow up to adulthood; and as a bonus the children cook and eat the devil in bird form too.
- The Pied Piper: While all of the corrupt and cruel townspeople were transformed into rats and fell into the lake to drown, the young innocent woman was murdered without the Piper being able to save her and the Piper himself vanishes after the townspeople have drowned and Hamelin is left empty. But the Fisherman is spared by the Piper and rescues a baby from the town and ends up taking the child to a better place to live in.
- Planetata na Sakrovishtata: The escaped John Supersilver managed to kill all the heroes besides Philip and set the ship on fire as revenge for losing the treasure before Philip could put him down, and the only escape pod can't carry both Philip and Flint's treasure at the same time. Philip chooses to put the treasure in the pod and release it to Earth while he remains trapped forever in the black hole. However, the treasure, which contains the remaining natural life on Earth, returns to the planet and restores the concrete world to its former ecosystem, and in some versions of the movie like the Czech dub, Philip (or perhaps his consciousness) gets to be reborn on Earth in different bodies.
- Scamper the Penguin: The poachers are killed and Scamper becomes the penguins' leader but Gilbert and several other penguins are dead, Mac leaves in search of his family and Don leaves with his owner without getting to say goodbye to Scamper.
- Son of the White Horse: The World Tree is restored and all the evil dragons are dead, the three brothers become princes and marry their wives, the Forefather reclaims his godhood and the Snow Queen is resurrected. "They got in an eggshell and rolled on a field of diamonds. They lived happily, as birds do... until they died." The ending narration implies the story is a cycle, the brothers will die and be remembered as constellations (the eggshell being the sky and the diamonds the stars), and the dragons will live on in the form of industrialization, urbanization and pollution, dimming out the stars and the Sun. In the final shot, the spirit of Treeshaker still exists in modern times and is slowly engulfed in smog.
- Strings: The Zeriths and Hebalon are at peace, but it doesn't change the fact that Jhinna died undeservedly.
- The Tragedy of Man: Just like in the play it's based on, Lucifer fails to get Adam to commit suicide and thereby deny God. Adam and Eve stay together to raise their newborn. But Adam lives with the knowledge that humanity will never find the right path, every philosophy and social system will fail. Humanity is doomed to a horrible fate when the next ice age sets in, but Adam realizes humans were never meant to thrive, their purpose is to struggle, suffer and survive. The end is bittersweet from Lucifer and God's perspective too: Lucifer lost his argument with God but put a wrench in his Creation by bringing self-awareness to humans, setting them up for progress that will end in failure, while God can only watch as they struggle.
- Hans Christian Andersen:
- The Little Match Girl: The titular little girl freezes to death all alone in an alley, but she's guided to Heaven by the spirit of her grandmother, the only person who ever treated her with any love and kindness, and is finally free of her miserable life with her abusive father. The people who find her the next morning realize how pointlessly tragic her death was, but note that she passed away with a smile on her face
- The Little Mermaid: The prince falls for the woman he thought rescued him. The poor transformed, mute mermaid sadly carries her train at the wedding. When offered a chance to become a mermaid again instead of dying by killing the man she loved, she decides not to take it. She does die physically, but God transforms her into an air spirit, a "daughter of air" with the prospect of eventually entering Heaven. This is because mermaids don't have immortal souls, and in fact the mermaid hoped to gain one by marrying the prince. As an air spirit, she will have the chance to shape a soul for herself, though it is clearly stated it will take centuries.
- "Reygoch": The titular giant is unable to stop the flood in time to save two villages, and most of people get drowned. However, Reygoch manages to save most of children and their cattle, which proceed to build a new village, hopefully free of the hate and envy which plagued their forefathers and caused their self-destruction. And although, the fairy Curlylocks cannot go back home because she sacrificed her magic veil to save the children, she has now a new home and many new friends.
- Interstitial: Actual Play sees two pop up during the Door to Darkness one-shots.
- A Touch of Darkness. Shego defeats Kim Possible, kills Betty, leaves Fred to die, and makes Archie so angry that she's able to take control of his Darkness and allow him to be Norted. Archie leaves with the Organization, but shortly after an amnesiac Nobody made from Betty appears and is able to rouse Fred from the brink of death.
- Lonely Hearts. The defeat of the Sheriff at Bright Eyes' hands helps dissuade a good portion of the xenophobia they had prior, and the Killjoys remain in Twin Peaks to help continue the healing. However, Bright Eyes and Calumon are separated and alone because Calumon wiped himself from everyone's memory and chose not to restore himself to Bright Eyes.
- Episode four of Mystery Show, titled "Vanity Plate." Starlee finds the plate's owner and learns that it refers to September 11th, which is the woman's mother's birthday, an occasion that saved her from being in New York on 9/11. The plate is a tribute to her mother and to the friends that she lost.
- A match seven years in the making (pretty much unheard of in wrestling) was "wrestled" at WWC Aniversario 2011, with the Universal Champion Carlito Caribbean Cool taking on the main he'd been teased as too scared to fight, Abyss, in a monster's ball. Carlito won, but was left lying prone after Abyss put him through a steel chair with a choke slam.
- The Bible from start to finish. Humanity gains knowledge, but loses Paradise. The Israelites are freed from slavery, but at the cost of thousands of Egyptian lives. Moses serves long and well as a prophet, but dies before reaching the Promised Land. The Jews build a magnificent temple, which is subsequently wrecked when the country is conquered... twice. Jesus preaches and wins many followers, but then he gets painfully executed. He comes back, but a month later goes back home (subverted with him promising to return someday). People start off happy, they sin, they get punished, they reconcile, they get redeemed, rinse and repeat, with the eventual death of nearly everyone (inevitably, since it all happened thousands of years ago).