In Defense of the Cliff-Hanger

Kit Harington as Jon Snow.

Kit Harington as Jon Snow. courtesy of HBO

Cliff-Hanger (noun): A story, contest, or situation that is exciting because what is going to happen next is not known

How well do you know your ancient literature? You’ve probably at least heard of One Thousand and One Nights, or you know it as Arabian Nights or, come on, you’ve watched Aladdin. Either way, all you should know is that although Nights is a collection of stories compiled over centuries, it’s built around a single framing device: King Shehreyar, super paranoid about infidelity, concocts a plan to marry a virgin each night and execute them in the morning. This continues until the king gets to Scheherazade. his vizier’s daughter. But Scheherazade is clever; on their wedding night, she starts to tell the king a story. A good-ass story. Some real prime HBO stuff. The catch? She only told one portion, every day. Curious to hear how the story ends, Shehreyar kept her alive, hooked by each day’s open-ended conclusion, held in suspense by each successive cliff-hanger.

The moral of the story? Thank God King Shehreyar didn’t have a Twitter, much less his own blog.

These days, there isn’t anything more polarizing, rabble-rousing, or rage-inducing than a good old-fashioned cliff-hanger. I mean, it’s not a new concept. Lost ended six years ago. Dallas asked Who Shot J.R.? in 1980. Technically, the Bible had an “Is Jon Snow alive?” story-line way before Game of Thrones. On and on, as long as there’s been story-telling, there’s been cliff-hanger endings.

So what’s changed in the Twitter age? It’s not as if viewers have soured on cliff-hangers, it’s that they simply don’t accept them nowadays. There’s a reason why social media burned with the heat of a thousand suns following The Walking Dead‘s season six finale, in which Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s Negan definitely killed someone, but unless that someone was the camera man we’re not entirely sure who until season 7. There’s a reason Kit Harington had to lie to his friends and family’s faces as photographers climbed into bathroom windows to snap pictures of his air following the supposed death of Jon Snow. Because viewers don’t accept cliff-hangers. They don’t accept the unknown. They don’t accept that in this age of Netflix-ification there are things they just simply won’t know for the time being.

Jeffrey Dean Morgan as Negan.

Jeffrey Dean Morgan as Negan. courtesy of AMC

Is that a fair point? In many cases, especially The Walking Dead, the argument against becomes about “cheapness.” About feeling “cheated.” Shocking for the sake of shock, tricking just to trick, promising BIG and delivering little. Or, in the case of Game of Thrones, delivering BIG and then just as quickly reverting back to the status quo. Long-time critic Alan Sepinwall argued that if Game of Thrones was set on killing and resurrecting Jon Snow it should have done so quickly, in the span of one or two episodes, not leaving the question of Jon’s fate in suspension for an entire season break of think-pieces and takes hotter than Dorne.

But why tell a story if we’re afraid to leave questions unanswered for a while? Why even develop stakes, if we’re not patient enough to invest in them? These days, television is capable of telling the biggest stories possible. We forget that showrunners–especially on series with ratings like Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead–are planning not just stories but entire universes that never end unless a red comet blows everything to oblivion. But why do we treat cliff-hangers like the end of the world?

Strip away all that anger, the sense of betrayal, a hint of entitlement expressed as 140-characters of exclamation points and underneath, again, the problem is in the waiting; for an ending, some resolution, or an answer. But as Thrones just proved, the answers eventually come.

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Quitting a show over a cliff-hanger is the same as jumping off a rollercoaster after the first loop because it was a smaller loop than you expected. The ride isn’t over. Stay on the ride!

In comic books, you have the concept of the page-turn reveal; An image on the right-hand side of a spread–a finger on a trigger, the moment right before two cars collide, someone pointing and yelling “HEY LOOK OVER THERE”–teases what’s to come as soon as you turn the page and find, ideally, a satisfying or surprising reveal. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but you have to get to the other side to find out.

For TV, a cliff-hanger is a hand that keeps the pages turning. Whether it’s Lost concluding every single week raising more questions than it answered, or The Good Wife rolling into its final episode with multiple balls still in the air, or, yes, The Walking Dead withholding the skull at the end of Negan’s bat for just a little longer it’s the unknown that, ironically, keeps the story alive. You can dislike the result, feel cheated by the destination, and hate the reveal on the other side of the page. But you’ll never know, unless you turn the page.

In Defense of the Cliff-Hanger