Yes, it’s a Hollywood story about a guy from a place called Bedford Falls. Let’s depart from the Hollywood ending and explore an alternate ending.
Imagine that the story didn’t end in an explosion of unmitigated joy, a triumphant surge of resurrection, but instead took a turn toward the Way of the Cross.
Suppose George Bailey got back to his house and had a different sort of reception. Suppose he ran in and as we already know, against all conventional definitions of sanity, was elated that they had a warrant for his arrest, but then Mary, his wife, didn’t come in like the cavalry to save the day. What then?
What if she called around and nobody wanted to help George, out of the same fundamental fear and distrust that caused the earlier run on the banks? What if they decided that if George was irresponsible enough to “misplace” $8,000, they no longer wanted to do business with him, much less bail him out of this jam? Does George change his tune and no longer crow about how great it is that he’s going to jail??
What if perhaps instead Mary was steaming mad at George and wasn’t going to take it anymore? What if she called George a loser, who deserved to go to jail for being so incompetent? What if she regretted not marrying the successful and wealthy Sam Wainwright? What if she told George that when he kicked over that model bridge, it was the last time she was going to let him terrorize her and the children? What’s more — what if she said that while George was out having himself an “epiphany”, she went and had one of her own: she decided she might well be better off if she could live as if George had never been born — or at least as if he had never been her husband. At any rate, she needs him OUT, and now.
Now comes the tricky part. If George throws another even bigger tantrum, doesn’t that mean he really didn’t have much of an epiphany after all? — that he really didn’t get the point, that it is much better that he had lived his shabby little life, than if he had not?? Mary may or may not be justified in running out of patience with George, but that’s largely irrelevant, as George has been given a great gift — and he must honor that gift!
Isn’t the message of his vision still valid and potent? He once thought his life was worthless and that he did more harm than good. He was shown to be very mistaken and discovered that had he not lived, this town would have been a diminished place in which to exist. The same is true here: if George does not come through now with grace under pressure, he commits the very same mistake Clarence the Angel came to save him from making. The unactualized benefits from him refusing to honor the gift of his vision threaten to leave the same sort of void as if he had not lived at all.
So, no tantrums. And even if he’s kicked out of the house on, of all nights, Christmas Eve — and even hauled off to jail in disgrace — and he misses the traditional family Christmas we all imagine happens after the credits roll…George, now having lost what is normally considered essential to any good Christmas and indeed any wonderful life, needs to behave like the inhabitants of another fictional small town: Whoville.
There really is no other way for the story to end with George as hero. Otherwise, the entire epiphany that Clarence the Angel guided him to is a complete and utter sham.