Editor’s note: For obvious reasons, this article contains huge, unavoidable spoilers.
The Walking Dead fans are still seething over the hotly anticipated arrival of Negan and his trusty bat Lucile in the series’ season six finale, in which the foul-mouthed villain’s first victim is left a mystery via the use of bloody POV. While divisive, the scene left a large portion of the hit show’s fanbase frustrated and dissatisfied.
When you think about it, Negan’s big entrance is actually strikingly similar to Dallas’ eminently popular “Who Shot J.R.?” cliffhanger, the big difference is a reversal of perspective from murderer to victim. While Dallas fans spent the summer of 1980 gleefully speculating and rocking sweet “Who Shot J.R.?” t-shirts, many Walking Dead fans are pissed the hell off as they enter the long six-month wait until the show returns this fall.
TV cliffhangers are tricky business, and there is a mighty fine line between the good ones and the bad ones. With that in mind, let’s take a look at five awesome TV cliffhangers and five infuriating ones. Obviously, spoilers ahead!
Lost – We Have to Go Back
(S3, Ep23 – “Through the Looking Glass”)
The Cliffhanger: Flash sequences shown throughout LOST’s two-part season three finale follow a bearded, alcoholic, drug-addicted Jack stumbling around on the streets, attending a friend’s lonely memorial service, and flirting with suicide on a bridge. In an unexpected twist, Kate shows up to talk about the island with Jack. The sequences we’d been watching hadn’t been flashbacks, but flashforwards!
Why It’s Awesome: As Jack screamed the unforgettable final line, “We have to go back!,” LOST fans everywhere vowed that they would come back for the next season. This first flashforward is a mind-bending cliffhanger that would change the show’s complexion from that point forward. It’s tough to beat the incredible “hatch” cliffhanger from season one, but with this now-classic twist, the showrunners somehow managed to outdo themselves.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer – Buffy Gives “The Gift”
(S5, Ep22 – “The Gift”)
The Cliffhanger: Buffy and the Scooby Gang need to stop Glory from performing a ritual that would open a portal between dimensions and bring forth the apocalypse. The key to the ritual is Buffy’s sister, Dawn, and the only plan the heroes can can come up with is to kill Dawn before Glory can use her. Buffy rejects the plan and ultimately seals the portal by sacrificing herself. The final image we see is of the Slayer’s tombstone, with the epitaph, “She saved the world. A Lot.”
Why It’s Awesome: While “The Gift” works well as a final artistic statement for the series, it’s also a soul-crusher of a cliffhanger, especially in hindsight. The show’s fate was up in the air when the episode was written, so it was designed to act as both by series creator Joss Whedon.
Surely, if the series were to continue on, Buffy couldn’t really be dead, right? The series would go on for two more seasons on a different network, but the power and poignancy of the season five finale would never be matched.
Breaking Bad – Hank’s Toilet Tip-Off
(S5, Ep8 – “Gliding Over All”)
The Cliffhanger: Things finally seem to be looking up at the White household: Walter and Skylar are getting along for the first time in a long time, and they seem to finally have put their drug-empire days behind them. Hank and Marie come over for lunch, and Hank leaves to use the bathroom, where he finds an incriminating piece of evidence that finally confirms Walter is Heisenberg, the drug lord he’s been chasing the whole time.
Why It’s Awesome: Some of Breaking Bad’s tensest moments are fueled by the fact that the criminal Hank has been so violently obsessed with has been hiding right under his nose the entire time. Walt has been Hank’s best friend and worst enemy all at once, and when you see that priceless look on Hank’s face as the realization sets in, it’s a sure sign that sh*t is about to hit the fan.
The Flash – Singularity
(S1, Ep23 – “Fast Enough”)
The Cliffhanger: Barry Allen works (reluctantly) with nemesis speedster Eobard Thawne, the man who killed his mother, to open up a wormhole which sends Barry back in time to the night of his mother’s death. Thawne tries to use the wormhole to return to his time, but Barry returns to stop him, having left his mother’s fate untouched. A singularity opens above Central City and threatens to swallow the entire planet, prompting Barry to run up into the belly of the thing to stop it. Cut to credits.
Why It’s Awesome: The real stakes in this episode are the lives of the characters we spent all season getting to know, and the emotional shock of Eddie sacrificing himself to stop Thawne is ball-your-eyes-out overwhelming. But just as we enter full-on grief mode, the show slings us headfirst into a massive end-of-the-world scenario that’s made all the more urgent and intense by the tragedy we just witnessed. It’s almost too much to take in, and leaving us wondering whether Barry saves the day or not was the perfect way to get Flash fans excited for the show’s second season.
The Simpsons – Who Shot Mr. Burns?
(S6, Ep25 – “Who Shot Mr. Burns? Pt. 1”)
The Cliffhanger: Mr. Burns draws the ire of virtually everyone in the town of Springfield following a long string of misdeeds and the reveal of an evil scheme to block out the sun. During a town meeting, Mr. Burns walks into an alley and is shot by an offscreen assailant. Badly wounded, he stumbles out in front of everyone and collapses onto the town sundial.
Why It’s Awesome: Let’s be real: Most of us weren’t born when the “Who Shot J.R.” phenomenon swept the nation. The closest thing we’ve got is the classic Simpsons story arc it inspired, which is arguably one of the best, most memorable storylines in the series’ 27-season history. What’s more, the subsequent reveal actually made the long wait in the summer of 1995 worth it! Unlikely shooter Maggie Simpson’s shifty eyes at the end of the episode add a delicious (and hilarious) layer of additional intrigue.
The Simpsons – Nedna
(S22, Ep22 – “The Ned-Liest Catch”)
The Cliffhanger: Edna Krabappel literally falls into the arms of Ned Flanders, sparking a romance that hits a snag when Ned finds out about her long list of ex-lovers (thanks to an epic slip-up by Homer). Edna pleads with Ned to let go of her past and take her back, which prompts a wavering Ned to say that the couple’s future is going to be decided by a “higher power.” At that point, the scene freezes and Marge and Homer walk onto the screen, encouraging viewers to vote on whether Edna and Ned should stay together, a poll whose votes would be revealed months later on the season 23 premiere.
Why It’s Infuriating: Aside from birthing the irritating ship-name “Nedna,” the episode falls flat because it asks us to do the writer’s job for them, deciding the fate of a romance most of us couldn’t care less about. Fans clicked away all summer (or didn’t) until it was finally revealed that the majority had voted “Pro-Nedna,” marking the merciful end to one of the worst TV gimmicks of all time.
Twin Peaks – How’s Annie?
(S2, Ep22 – “Beyond Life and Death”)
The Cliffhanger: In the season two finale, Agent Cooper confronts his doppelganger in the insanely creepy Black Lodge. Only one of them comes out alive and it’s…the doppelganger! One of TV’s great heroes is, in the end, possessed by a demon named “Killer Bob.”
Why It’s Infuriating: “Beyond Life and Death” is a wonderfully weird and wild episode of TV, directed by none other than David Lynch himself. The infuriating thing isn’t the cliffhanger itself, but rather the fact that we have to wait decades to see the story continue in earnest. Lynch’s Twin Peaks movie, Fire Walk With Me, was a prequel, and the series’ return is set for 2017, over 25 years after we saw our favorite FBI agent fall to the supernatural forces of evil, an image that doesn’t leave the best taste in your mouth.
Angel – Let’s Go To Work
(S5, Ep22 – “Not Fade Away”)
The Cliffhanger: After completing a series of individual kill missions, Angel and the surviving members of the team reconvene in the alley behind the Hyperion Hotel. Out of nowhere, an army of demons of all variety appear to challenge the heroes, with Angel uttering the final line, “Let’s go to work,” as the Buffy spinoff comes to an end.
Why It’s Infuriating: Angel’s finale is epic, heart-stoppingly chaotic, and one of the series’ very best episodes (Wesley’s death is a big fat punch in the gut). But, like Twin Peaks, the rage factor here lies in the fact that the show was in its prime and nowhere near ready to stop. Angel’s fifth season is arguably its best, and while most fan frustration was directed toward the network for canceling their beloved show, the demon-filled final moments are rage-inducing nonetheless.
Mork and Mindy – Magic Time Shoes? What?
(S4, Ep21 – “Gotta Run Pt. 3”)
The Cliffhanger: Fearing the threats of evil Neptunian villain Kalik, Mork and Mindy use time-travel shoes to escape his clutches. Kalik follows suit, chasing them through time. With Mork’s magic shoes damaged, the couple fall helplessly through the time vortex, and the last image we see of them is an inexplicable cave painting.
Why It’s Infuriating: For a show so funny and widely beloved as a source of feel-good TV, this is an incredibly strange, icky way to say goodbye, which is the likely reason the final episodes of the season were aired out of order: The Robin Williams-directed episode “The Mork Report” actually aired last despite its events taking place before Mork and Mindy’s battle with Kalik.
Game of Thrones – Daenerys Meets the Dothraki…Again.
(S5, Ep10 – “Mother’s Mercy”)
The Cliffhanger: After fleeing a hard-fought battle in Mereen, Game of Thrones‘ Daenerys is stranded in a field somewhere with her dragon, Drogon, who’s too wounded and tired to take her home. She goes off on her own to search for food when an army of Dothraki bloodriders surround her. She drops a ring as a breadcrumb, and we’re left to wonder what the burly brutes will do with the queen they once abandoned.
Why It’s Infuriating: For five seasons, we’ve watched Dany march down a path of conquest toward Westeros. While the Khaleesi has been a fan favorite since the beginning, some fans (this writer included) have been less enthralled by her dragon-rearing, power-hungry, friend-zoning exploits, and her run-in with her old “friends” the Dothraki in the season 5 finale seems to signal that we won’t be seeing her invade Westeros any time soon. Ugh. Can she just get on a damn ship (or a dragon) and take down King’s Landing already?