Cliffhangers: All the Rage After the Screen Fades To Black

As we head into May sweeps and the completion of another TV season, for many shows there’s been a trend of cliffhangers.

The problem is, it’s not the good kind of cliffhangers that keep you wanting more. They stop the story with a fade to black and fans are left in a misplaced limbo. So why are cliffhangers all the rage if all they do is incite it?

Looking into it further, cliffhangers are not a new way of ending off a season or a series. And it’s a trend that has extended to two of the most popular shows on TV, The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones. And it’s kind puzzling why the showrunners made these choices, knowing they might be received unfavorably.

I have a hard time seeing it as just a ratings game. Obviously, the behind the scenes choices are much more complicated than we’ll ever truly know. But where is the respect to the loyal fanbase? Showrunners have power beyond hurting our favorite fictional people, but it’s exploitative to use the fans. We’ve proven their loyalty. We may not trust every decision and there are some things that deserve to be criticized forever, like Sansa’s (Sophie Turner) loss of agency and Denise’s (Merritt Wever) expendability. But that kind of conversation is important. It leads somewhere.

AMC’s The Walking Dead  hiatus is just getting started and there’s months of teasing and speculation to come. And it’s only going to get more intense once filming begins in May. On the other side of that, HBO’s Game of Thrones picked up season 6 right where they left off in that big season 5 finale. But in the age of binge-watching and instant gratification, it’s not the way to tell a story.

That’s not to say that there should never be any kind of cliffhangers ever. But there’s a difference between well-timed suspense – as a season or a series comes to a close – and the ambiguity of a fade to black. The key is that one of these things makes fans eager for what’s coming next and the other is just a ploy that feels cheap and disingenuous.

Cliffhangers are a statement all their own. They’re the TV version of clickbait and they’ll ruin a perfectly good thing. Some would argue that they’re just allowing the story to continue but it leaves the narrative incomplete. And it leaves the fans with the only option of screaming into the void. But that anger is important. They’re banking on that anger.

It’s been several decades since Dallas solidified the use of the cliffhanger in our TV culture but what worked then no longer works now. And most Dallas fans – My mom for example – can recall exactly what it felt like to have that plot dragged out. In fact, The Walking Dead hashtag #WhoIsIt was just a more modern version of when Dallas ran their “Who Shot JR?” marketing campaign. But it doesn’t work anymore.

The ability to comment on a show for all to see is literally at our fingertips. There’s everything from the tweet that gets the point across in a concise 140 characters to the threads on Reddit that demonstrate just how irritated a fandom has become. What comes out of that is a shallow discussion that offers no emotional relief. Our feelings, like the episode are stunted.

“Prior to the closing moments of [The Walking Dead] season 6 finale, reactions to the episode on Twitter had skewed positive. For the entire 90-minute finale, the most common emotion expressed on Twitter was “love” at 18.2%, followed by “crazy” (17.7%), “excited” (9.0%), and “afraid” (8.3%). Those emotions were also the most dominant that Canvs measured over the course of season 6.” – Variety

Fans aren’t trying to reconcile with what happened. No matter how many debates or analyses someone gets sucked into -me, I have a lot of feelings about all of this – they’re trying to reclaim the unwritten but implicit trust viewers give to the showrunners in exchange for quality story-telling. But it’s gone.

And the overt amount of goodwill, to sway a fandom back is more effort than it’s worth. The truth is in most cases the show can’t be trusted because there’s no guarantee the rug won’t be pulled out from under us again. Like Dallass other notable cliffhanger that culminated in the “It was all a dream” trope throwing away an entire season’s worth of development.

“A week from now, they won’t be upset anymore, and it’ll be fun.” -Greg Nicotero via EW

In the case of The Walking Dead specifically, the finale and the unknown dead character has fostered a hostage situation where fans who haven’t been turned off completely will watch to find out who was on Lucille’s receiving end at the start of season 7. But they robbed the fans of their time to mourn. It detracted from the rest of the episode – which was far from perfect – but did capitalize on the extreme dread that came with Negan’s (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) much anticipated arrival. And what’s worse is there’s some kind of assumption that fans will forgive and forget.

For a fan there aren’t a lot of choices. Short of quitting, entirely. And there are always a few. Realistically, that doesn’t really send the message people think anyway. The only other options are shouting into the void, remaining salty and hoping beyond hope that there isn’t another epic screw up next season. There’s a difference between a big reveal and completely cutting off the story. This isn’t Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) knocking his ring on the desk at the end of season 2 on Netflix’s House of Cards.

It just feels like an antiquated technique designed to generate ratings, though those results remain to be seen. What it does do is make fans feel like a commodity. We fall in love the show and it’s characters and somehow that exchange means we can be bought and sold as they please. The showrunners want us to trust them because there’s a larger story to tell but they’re asking a lot when they couldn’t handle the finer points of that story. In the long run, when the next season is on Netflix and you can just click “next episode” that fade to black won’t matter. The experience is lost after that. That choice, to take everyone out of the moment ends up just looking extremely non-committal.

The best example is American Crime. It’s an anthology series, where each season features the same actors but different characters and a different story line. Season 2 tackled everything from rape allegations to gun control. It took a stance against school administrations who victim blame. The use of hacking as a tool to help someone. The key cast most notably, Regina King, Felicity Huffman and Connor Jessup were award-worthy. And it could have been an important show. It could have generated a necessary discussion. But in the end, despite all the moving performances the screen fades to black. How can you recommend a show that does that when you were lead to believe they were trying to make some kind of statement?

And from the perspective of my couch it’s easy to say that it’s a writers’ job to tell the story but that’s not a fair assessment. They should be upheld to a certain standard. And in the case of both The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones the head writers have taken to denial when it comes to the biggest controversies that come from the series. I don’t generally subscribe to the idea that there are lazy choices in a writer’s room. Breaking a script is complicated and ensemble casts are an animal all their own. I think the idea of laziness is misunderstood. What’s unclear is where in the discussion it is decided that this is the best decision for the season? The show suffers. And the plots that we should be paying attention suffer.

Carol’s entire arc in The Walking Dead season 6 finale is lost whenever we catch up with the RV driving forward and backward between the Savior’s roadblocks. Melissa McBride deserves an Emmy! But the episode was panned by critics, rightfully so. And because it’s genre TV and it’ll never be seen as “more than a zombie show” she’ll probably never get that recognition. That scene deserves so much more attention that it received because everyone is completely hung up on who died, which isn’t even about that character anymore. It’s all about the reveal.

Game of Thrones’ season 6 premiere suffered from the big “Is Jon alive” reveal. It’s not so much that fans expected answers. After being strung along for a year there was no way they wouldn’t keep fans waiting longer. Jon Snow (Kit Harington) lay bleeding after the Night Watch’s betrayal and ever since it was one article after another trying to prove/disapprove his survival in that moment. There are tons of theories from book readers and non-book readers alike. And with the first episode highlighting Melisandre (Carice Van Houten) hope was at all time high. And the showrunners did their best to dash that. We’ll let them play their game because there’s a difference with that type of cliffhanger. GRRM’s A Song of Ice and Fire series leaves off in the same place. And that changes the expectations.

The moment wasn’t the giant slap in the face to the fandom that The Walking Dead went for. In Robert Kirkman’s comic series, we know who gets the bat. It’s a game-changing moment for Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and Co. And there’s concern, rightly so, after the fakeout earlier in season 6 that if the scene with Negan is following the comics what was the point? I was ready to feel sad. I wanted to cry. I still want to cry! But who am I crying for?

Fans want relief. We know that characters die on these shows. We accept that. By welcoming them into our hearts on some level we’re asking to get hurt. But we get to make that choice. And when a character’s death is anticipated after cycling through every other emotion, there’s a point where we need to move beyond it in a sensitive way not just get it over with. We need to see that they’re gone (this is working in reverse for Game of Thrones we need to Jon alive). The closure comes later.

There is nothing wrong with suspense. That build up is exciting. The change in tone reaches beyond the screen. It’s a meta experience done by design to make us feel just as helpless, just as desperate, and just as wronged. Cliffhangers are not synonymous with suspense.

The Walking Dead is currently on hiatus but Game of Thrones airs Sundays at 9/8c on HBO. Be sure to tune in!