Every audience has an unspoken agreement with the movies or TV shows they watch. Thrill me, confuse me, trick me, and make me come back for more… just don’t lie to me. Perhaps the easiest way to keep an audience intrigued and hungry for more is the most diabolical device in the screenwriter’s toolkit: the cliffhanger.
A cliffhanger is the act of placing characters in danger or unmasking a shocking, game-changing revelation just before cutting an episode or act to a close. It is perhaps the most common narrative device in popular culture currently. Cliffhangers have been a part of visual storytelling for a very long time. They were common and often improperly used during film serials in the early days of Hollywood. Now television, with its episodic nature and act breaks, is a prominent cultural medium and the cliffhanger is stronger than ever.
Thankfully, storytellers have become better at it. If characters are careening off a cliff in a TV show, the writers are going to leave you at least breadcrumbs that they get out of the car. Still, regardless of how properly executed or fairly played they are, could one make the case that cliffhangers are overused in our modern TV landscape?
There’s one show, as a matter of fact the most popular show on TV by almost any metric, that seems to disagree. The Walking Dead is a cultural force. You may like it or you may hate it, but you must consider it*. It’s watched by everyone and their grandmother (grandma loves zombies)m so what it has to say about narrative convention is worth listening to, if only to better understand the TV-watching strangers we all share space with.
*I veer more to the “like” side, but completely understand those who find it tiring.
And what does The Walking Dead say about the TV-watching public? It says that either they really, really, really like cliffhangers or the show really, really, really hates them.
I’ve said that cliffhangers are perhaps the most common modern television trope, but on The Walking Dead they are almost the norm. I did some informal counting: of the 82 episodes of The Walking Dead that have aired, 43 of them have ended in cliffhangers. I took the dictionary definition of “cliffhanger” (“a plot device in fiction which features a main character in a precarious or difficult dilemma, or confronted with a shocking revelation at the end of an episode of serialized fiction”) and applied it as narrowly as I could to each episode of The Walking Dead and still came out with over half the episodes ending in a cliffhanger. The breakdown was three in season one, six in season two, five in season three, 10 in season four, nine in season five and 10 in season six.
That’s…a lot of cliffhangers. Some are resolved almost immediately the following week (return of the Governor in season four), while others take a little longer (“Sanctuary for all?” This can’t possibly be misinterpreted and will surely mean the survivors will find a happy home a few episodes from now, right?). Regardless, all abide by a basic logic. If the car explodes, the characters definitely didn’t escape it offscreen. The Walking Dead likes to fuck with us, not lie to us. Then why, at times, does their penchant for cliffhangers annoy us so much?
There are two big cliffhangers that come to mind when The Walking Dead is brought up, of course. The first is the fate of Glenn Rhee in season six, episode three “Thank You.” At the end of “Thank You,” hardened survivor Glenn and apocalypse noob Nicholas are standing atop a dumpster as an absurd amount of zombies surround them. Glenn pleads with Nicholas to not lose faith, but Nicholas merely replies, “Thank you,” and shoots himself in the head. As Nicholas’ body falls, it knocks Glenn with it down into the mass of the undead and we see Glenn’s viscera get torn from his body as he screams in agony.
So… Glenn’s dead. But the internet naturally assumed that might not be the end of Glenn. That was a pretty ignoble, violent end for a main character on an admittedly ignoble, violent show. Still…didn’t we see Glenn in some promo material for later in the season and didn’t it look like that dumpster had plenty of room for him to crawl under? Of course, several episodes later The Walking Dead reveals that yes, that’s exactly what happened. It wasn’t Glenn’s guts that were ripped out but the dead Nicholas’. And Glenn had plenty of room under that dumpster to wait for the herd to clear out before running away.
This cliffhanger episode was frustrating for The Walking Dead fans because it seemed like the first indication that the show didn’t understand the environment in which it was creating art.
There’s that famous concept that infinite monkeys typing on infinite typewriters would eventually reproduce the works of Shakespeare. Well in 2016, there are seemingly infinite pop culture nerds brainstorming every potential twist on every potential TV show who will eventually figure out future plotlines. Combine that sheer crowdsourcing number with how generally savvy pop culture audiences have become, and it’s no surprise they were able to suss out that Glenn was alive.
Does this mean that the entire Glenn ruse was a failure? I don’t know. Probably. The Walking Dead didn’t break any narrative rules with it, and I would argue that any good TV show should have a somewhat adversarial relationship with its audience. Twists are still perfectly fine even if you figure them out. I’ve made that argument in defense of Mr. Robot’s second season. But cliffhangers somehow feel different. And in this instance, it seemed that The Walking Dead was ignorant to the skill and devotion of its own audience rather than seeking to engage it. That’s where the problem lies.
And that leads to major cliffhanger number two: Negan. Instead of opting against another Glenn experience, The Walking Dead doubled down.
The season six finale, “Last Day on Earth,” did the unthinkable. It took one of the most iconic moments from the comic books: uber-villain Negan’s introduction and watered it down by not revealing who Negan kills. The reaction was immediate and immediately negative. The Walking Dead subreddit read more like a safe house for abused television watchers rather than a fan forum.
Fans argued, perhaps rightfully, that the cliffhanger robbed a great character of a powerful introduction. Others railed against AMC for resorting to cliffhangers as a “ratings ploy.” The most popular sentiment, however, was “there’s no way they can keep this a secret until next October.”
It appeared that The Walking Dead had once again fundamentally misunderstood the environment in which they were making television. The Spoiling Dead Fans would get to the bottom of this in no time. Fans would analyze photos from the set and promotional material to quickly find out who was the recipient of Negan’s barbed-wired bat Lucille.
I was among those angry fans. I was so disgusted by The Walking Dead’s shenanigans that I silently vowed not to watch another episode. Then something funny happened. Time trudged along, life moved on, and we never found out who Negan killed. At least we haven’t with just days to go until the season seven finale. AMC gained no friends by cracking down on The Spoiling Dead Fans with a cease and desist warning but the end result…actually worked.
And here we sit, ready to watch another episode of a show we swore we would never again entertain. Because how could we not know. It seemed like the days of “Who Shot J.R.” cliffhangers were over. But season seven is about to debut, and I’ll be damned if I know who shot J.R.
Should we feel differently about The Walking Dead because it just happened to be able to pull this cliffhanger off? I would argue yes.
Right now the baseball playoffs are happening and fans like to track managers’ big decisions in games. A baseball manager doesn’t have much to do during a baseball game other than set the lineup and then figure out which relief pitchers to bring in and when. In the heightened environment of the playoffs, however, each decision is highly scrutinized. And each decision is judged on two metrics. 1. Was it a smart idea, and 2. Did it work? As much as it pains to admit for the statistically enlightened among us, it’s ultimately the second factor that matters more. And that’s how I now feel about The Walking Dead’s decision.
Was it a smart idea? Probably not. Did it work? Based on my enthusiasm for the upcoming season, I’m forced to concede that yes, yes it did.
On Oct. 23, I’ll be tuning in to see who Negan killed, despite being so disgusted just months before. That’s because The Walking Dead has somehow (and improbably) kept the outcome of the cliffhanger a secret. It’s also because throughout 43 previous cliffhangers, the show has proven that it won’t lie to us. Someone is going to be on the receiving end of Lucille no matter when that final scene cut to black.
One day, we’ll have a television landscape that doesn’t rely on cliffhangers, the most basic of episodic plot devices. But as long as The Walking Dead, the most-watched show on TV, insists on doing them, at least it’s doing them well.
Don’t forget to listen to Den of Geek’s Walking Dead podcast, No Room in Hell!