Of all shows set in New York, Sex and the City seemed least likely to hold up after Sept. 11. For five seasons, it's painted Manhattan single life as half fairy tale, half dirty joke—a carnal McLaughlin half-hour, with panelists battling it out over anal sex and "toxic bachelors." But it turns out that Sex and the City didn't need Sept. 11 to develop a soul. As the show wraps up its six-episode bonus season, filmed before the disaster, its stories have become surprisingly resonant, moving past bedroom etiquette into financial woes, marital dissolution, and an uncartoonish exploration of domestic intimacy. A growing sense of fragility has etched shadows onto characters that were once broadly drawn. The show has some of the best fights on TV: When Carrie and Aidan's initially comic spat over shared space ("You have six deodorants!") escalated into a spray of relationship shrapnel, couples cringed in recognition.
Best of all, each character has faced a messy and unlikely reversal: Miranda the workaholic is pregnant; Charlotte the marriageaholic is divorced; Samantha the sexaholic is monogamous; and Carrie—the smartass ingénue who spent the first two seasons bemoaning men's problems with commitment—ran from her own engagement. Is Charlotte a chicken (for running after the "safety" of marriage) or is Samantha (for never risking love)? Was Carrie brave for refusing to marry Aidan just because it would have been easier (financially, socially) or adolescent and immature for refusing to see a good thing when she had it? Like a magic eightball message (or one of Carrie Bradshaw's trademark questions), the underlying theme seems to have floated up from under the show's Cosmo-pink-tinted surface: What, in a single woman's life, counts as a happy ending?
In any other romantic comedy context, the answer would be apparent: Girl must get boy. But for Sex and the City—which has championed the notion that single life is more than a dreary Valley of the Cathys—there's a tricky genre trap. "Reward" the characters with cozy relationships, and you contradict every message about the legitimacy of adventure and independence. "Punish" them with heartbreak, ditto. But without change and drama, Sex and the City is simply an endless roundelay of sexual humiliation and triumph, and that poses its own problems: We like these women enough to want to see them grow. But grow and change into what?
Luckily, the show doesn't have to pick one outcome—it gets to pick four. Let's examine the odds for each character.
Miranda: She's pregnant, unmarried, a prickly corporate lawyer. Her "baby papa" is that feckless mensch of an ex, Steve.
2-1. She just let a toddler slide off a sofa, so it's a safe bet to assume that she's going to need someone else in the picture—and since she's always seemed most likely to live alone and like it, it's all for the good dramatically.
4-1. Wedding or not, she couples with Steve. Nah, bad idea—neither loves the other. Granted, he'd make an outstanding nanny; he's even got his own Fran Drescherite accent.
3-1. She marries Charlotte! Charlotte wants a kid; Miranda's got one. And since Charlotte's already effectively married Carrie by giving her a ring (to use as an apartment down payment), we'd reach the logical conclusion of one of the show's strongest themes: that single women's best friends are their spouses.
107-1. Miranda and Aidan (Carrie's ex-fiance), sitting in a tree. A struggle between loyalty to her friend and True Love! Besides, Miranda is better matched with that earthy-crunchy homebody than glamour girl Carrie ever was. There's even foreshadowing: Aidan lifting a naked Miranda off her bathroom floor when she was paralyzed with back pain.
Charlotte: The ultimate Rules girl, she's already been punished for her traditionalist ways—she put off sex, only to find her husband couldn't get it up, then watched her marriage dissolve when he admitted he didn't want children.
2-1. She remarries. Because Charlotte would. But she marries someone poor (she's got money), maybe a divorced guy with a kid already, maybe not a WASP, and has her own baby because she really, really wants one.
7-1. She's the only one who stays single. Because she wouldn't: Charlotte's the marrying type, even post-divorce. But now she knows what she doesn't want—a partnership founded on brittle fantasies of rescue.
75-1. Charlotte as Lady Bountiful. With her post-divorce riches, Char could become an Upper East Side Amélie, gifting obscure illnesses with one gloved hand, rehabilitating the badly dressed with the other.
Samantha: She's always been the bravest, the wildest, and the most cartoonish. Despite her love of sexual pleasure, she distrusts men even more than Miranda—and oddly like Charlotte, her polar opposite, she demands that her men be ü ber-powerful.
2-1. She stays Samantha. Don't fence her in. Jeez, the whole idea is that one woman gets to have all the sex she wants and not get punished for it ... and that not everyone is craving the settle-down.
15-2, She falls in love, gets married. She has a baby. (Please, God, no, not everyone likes kids, and she doesn't!)
4-1. She falls in love with someone who upends her notion that men must be swaggering pricks to be desirable or manly. A subtler possibility, but more of a turnabout for Samantha than even marriage.
5-1. Her relationship with Richard collapses, he fires her, and she plays legal hardball. He settles; she ends up millions of dollars richer.
11-1. She starts turning tricks for top dollar. What the hell? She's already bucked a million sexual mores and loves the attention. After a couple of kinky turns with a presidential candidate, she sells her memoirs, gets her own nationally syndicated sex tips column (infuriating Carrie), and sleeps soundly each night in a velvet bed the shape of a champagne glass.
Carrie: the one who messes with people's heads. Read the online fan comments if you want to see a chick lambasted within an inch of her life, for "selfishness," for "shallowness," for "immaturity." She's a libertine, like Samantha; a romantic (and a bit of a drama queen) like Charlotte; a smarty-pants like Miranda. But Carrie alone among the four can't be reduced to a riff on a stereotype. And the insults hurled at her aren't surprising. This season, the writers have shown us Carrie at her most flawed: ditching Aidan to bump skinny hips with the elite at a snooty nightclub; begging old flame Mr. Big to bail her out of financial distress; toddling around the Vogue offices drunk at 11 a.m.
2-1. The show has implied that for Carrie, it's Big or bust: He's the only man to stir her marital longings. Will they end up together? Plus: Chris Noth. Minus: Women everywhere are encouraged to believe that wry, emotionally withholding financiers are Prince Charmings. (Plus for people who hate Carrie and want her to suffer: years of rueful distrust.)
201-1. Carrie and Aiden. No way, no how. That horse has sailed.
202-1. Mea Carrie. Carrie stays single but becomes chastened and responsible. She sells her shoes resale, works for charity, and dons a simple, durable hemp smock.
12-3. Meta-Carrie. Writes book; has book optioned by HBO; witnesses fictional character based on her become more interesting than original person.
301-1. Mariah Carrie! Carrie goes on a divalike roller coaster ride, collapsing from exhaustion in a VIP room and shoplifting "Free Winona!" T-shirts.
302-1. Carrie Carrie. Develops psychokinetic powers; when served pig's blood at Tao, kills everyone in terrifying split-screen sequence.
303-1. Carrie and Big 2: The Thin Man Years. Forties-style romantic alcoholics, they share wit, a disdain for the emotionally conventional (or functional), and a previously undisclosed skill at crime-solving. Big adopts a dapper mustache; Carrie, a Day-Glo snood.
304-1. Carrie Cheever. All the other gals stay in Manhattan, but the biggest city chick of them all is commissioned to write a book on Sex and the Mall, Sex and the Country Club, Sex and the Zoning Commission. It's up to you, New Paltz, New Paltz!