The best TV shows keep us on the edge of our seats. With gripping stories and unforgettable characters, they give us a reason to tune in every single week. This can’t be easy for the writers and creators of these series, and sometimes they go to extreme measures to try to get us to stick around.
That’s where cliffhangers come in — these last-minute plot twists or unanswered questions literally leave fans hanging until the next episode rolls around. And most of the time, that episode will be months away, because showrunners love to pull these showstopping moments out in season finales.
As a narrative device, a cliffhanger is a tricky thing to pull off. It has to be surprising and interesting enough to keep fans waiting and wondering for a long time, but not so ridiculous or frustrating that they’ll be turned off. As far as striking that balance is concerned, TV over the past few decades has truly run the gamut in terms of success. Some cliffhangers have been amazingly painful because of how well they were executed. Others have been truly maddening, and left us wondering if we should give up on the series for good.
Here are 10 of the most unforgettable TV cliffhangers ever, ranked by quality.
10. This Is Us
This Is Us has captivated fans since its very first episode, thanks to its penchant for throwing in some last-minute plot twists. But in doing so, the series’ creator, Dan Fogelman, has written his story into a precarious situation. So much of the series has been centered around one big, unanswered question: How did patriarch Jack Pearson die?
The first season’s penultimate episode ended, seemingly, with the tantalizing promise that we’d finally learn his fate. His adult daughter, Kate, told her fiancé that she was responsible for her father’s death. Then, we saw an obviously drunk Jack get behind the wheel of his car after a conversation with a teenage Kate.
Fans assumed that the This Is Us season finale would end in tragedy for the Pearson family, and that our questions would be laid to rest. The cast and crew bolstered this anticipation, telling interviewers that they couldn’t believe how heartbreaking the finale was.
But ultimately, “Moonshadow” focused entirely on Jack and Rebecca’s marital strife. And while it ended on a somber note, with their subsequent separation, we were no closer to learning why Jack shuffled off this mortal coil. Fans were understandably frustrated, even though the show never explicitly promised a resolution.
In truth, the lack of revelation did feel like a bit of a narrative bait and switch, if only because the question has been teased out for so long. But ultimately, the expectation for the reveal came more out of speculation than an explicit promise to deliver. And at least we have the promise of more time with the beloved dad in Season 2.
9. Breaking Bad
Most TV connoisseurs agree that Breaking Bad is one of the best series ever. That’s thanks, in large part, to the fact that it managed to sustain the tension and high stakes it presented in its very first episode for six incredibly solid seasons. And because creator, Vince Gilligan, had a fundamental understanding of how its complicated story needed to play out.
In the closing moments of Breaking Bad‘s fifth season, Walter White’s brother-in-law, Hank finally realized that he was closer than he’d ever known to the meth kingpin he’d been tracking. He connected the dots between Heisenberg and White while sitting on the toilet, reading a book of Walt Whitman’s poetry. And then the episode credits rolled.
It was a jaw-dropping moment, one that was equally satisfying and maddening. Fans had been waiting for years for Hank to realize that the man he’d been hunting was right under his nose. But they had to wait for months to find out what he’d do with that information. Of course, the promise of a showdown between Hank and Heisenberg was enticing enough for fans to wait (sort-of) patiently. And the aftermath of Hank’s discovery, in true Breaking Bad fashion, didn’t disappoint in the slightest.
8. The West Wing
During its seven seasons on the air, The West Wing became known for its cerebral content and complex, compelling characters. It was a series that kept fans on their toes, not because of narrative zigs and zags, but because of its fast-paced dialogue. Despite these qualities, it still managed to pull off one of the most heart-stopping cliffhangers in television history.
In the Season 1 finale, President Bartlet and all of his entourage — basically every main character on the series — stepped out of a public forum and into gunfire. We watched as the secret service ushered POTUS to safety, and as Josh, Toby, C.J., and Sam dove for cover in the chaos.
As the screen faded to black, we heard the season’s last, ominous lines: “Who’s been hit? Who’s been hit?” It was a game-changing moment, for the characters and the series. And while fans already loved The West Wing‘s intelligent take on American politics, the cliffhanger insured that they’d tune in for Season 2.
7. Twin Peaks
There may be few TV series in history quite as weird and wonderful as Twin Peaks. David Lynch’s cult drama largely centered around the dark secrets and mysteries of a small Washington town, and was a huge hit its first season. However, after ratings declined in Season 2, ABC abruptly canceled the series. And that left fans with a monster of a cliffhanger.
In the final scene, fans learned that the Agent Cooper we thought had emerged from the Black Lodge was actually an evil doppelganger. After Cooper smashed his head into a bathroom mirror, we saw Killer Bob reflecting back on the other side and knew that Twin Peaks had taken yet another macabre turn.
The cliffhanger itself was pretty brilliant, designed to re-energize interest in the series and avoid cancellation. Unfortunately, since it didn’t succeed, we’ve had to wait more than two and a half decades to find out what happens next. So, when Showtime announced they were rebooting the series, fans were understandably pleased.
On May 21, 2017, one of the longest cliffhangers in TV history may finally be resolved.
No one knew what to expect when Buffy’s ex-boyfriend struck out on his own, in the form of the spinoff, Angel. But throughout the course of the series’ five seasons, David Boreanaz’s vampire-with-a-soul and his friends proved that their story was one worth telling. So when Angel‘s last episode, “Not Fade Away,” aired on The WB in 2004, fans were hoping for a Buffy-esque resolution in which the good guys won.
They sort-of got what they were looking for. Angel, Gunn, Spike, Lorne, Wesley, and Illyria succeeded in killing off a lot of the Black Thorne. But they also ended up unleashing an untold number of terrifying creatures in the streets of Los Angeles.
As the Angel Investigations team — or what remained of them — convened in a dark alley, they took stock of the battle that lay ahead of them. Instead of folding, they stood tall, and Angel declared, “Let’s go to work.” Then, he swung his sword, and the series cut to black for the last time.
Fans of the Buffy and Angel comic series know that the story didn’t end there. But even so, the fact that the Mutant Enemy team knowingly left Angel with the ultimate cliffhanger — who lives? who dies? who gets to slay the dragon? — was a little bit mean.
Lost was a series that seemed to delight in keeping fans guessing. In Season 1 alone, we saw smoke monsters, polar bears, an impenetrable hatch, and a set of sinister numbers that somehow seemed to link all the characters together. It was a mysterious show, to say the least. By the time the series’ popular first season began to wind down, fans were eager for answers to their growing list of questions. Instead, in the season finale, the series’ creators doubled-down on Lost‘s WTF-ery.
Jack Shephard, a beleaguered doctor desperate for rescue, and John Locke, who had been desperate for a sign that his time on the island meant his life had a greater purpose, finally managed to open the hatch. Then, as they stared down its long vertical corridor, the camera followed their gaze — but cut away to black before we could see what had brought the wonder and concern to their faces.
By that point, fans were already getting a little frustrated at Lost‘s tendency to draw its convoluted storylines out. Teasing a big explanation and then leaving us hanging definitely didn’t help matters.
4. The X-Files
In so many ways, The X-Files was the quintessential horror/sci-fi series of the 1990s. So fans geeked out when Fox brought Mulder and Scully back for a limited series reboot at the beginning of 2016. For six episodes, some great, some not-so-good, we got a chance to see the dynamic duo do what they’d always done best. They bickered and theorized about massive government conspiracies. They eradicated monsters and other evil entities. They made googly eyes at one another.
Series creator Chris Carter also got a chance to expand out the ever-evolving X-Files mythology. But just as it was starting to pick up steam, the series six-episode run was over. And he left Mulder and Scully in the most precarious of positions imaginable: staring up at an alien beam of light.
A betting man or woman would probably guess that Carter did this to make sure Fox would order more episodes. And he may very well get his wish. But it was still a particularly cruel way to leave fans, especially since there was no set timeline for when we’d get to see the resolution to this dramatic turn of events.
3. The Killing
Back in 2011, AMC was just starting to come into its own as a viable network for original programming. It’d hit the big time with series like Mad Men, The Walking Dead, and Breaking Bad. The network also earned crazy-good buzz when The Killing, a murder mystery thriller premiered. The series was based on a popular Danish drama, Forbrydelsen, and focused on a single question: Who killed Rosie Larsen? Fans assumed that they’d actually know the answer before the season was over. They were very wrong.
The first season of The Killing ended with a character being arrested for her murder — mayoral candidate Darren Richmond. But it also made sure to let fans know that the man in question was likely not the real culprit. And that he was also probably going to die at the hands of a Larsen family friend.
After 13 episodes were built entirely around one crime, it was wholly baffling that The Killing left so many questions unanswered. As it headed into its first big hiatus, fan outrage ensued, critics scratched their heads, and AMC realized they didn’t exactly have another home run on their hands.
Most of the time, TV cliffhangers serve a purely narrative purpose. In the case of Dallas, several real-world mitigating factors ended up leading to a truly historic cliffhanger. At the end of the series’ third season, it shocked fans when J.R. Ewing was discovered shot and unconscious on the ground. And they had to wait eight months to learn both his fate, and the identity of the perpetrator.
This wasn’t due to a narrative slow-burn strategy, though. It was because of prolonged contract negotiations with actor Larry Hagman, coupled with an unanticipated Writer’s Guild strike.
In the meantime, the storyline became something of a viral pop culture sensation. Fans bought clothing and buttons that asked “Who shot J.R.?” The question even became a talking point in the 1980 presidential campaign. By the time the fourth season episode “Who Done It” aired, it was clear the efforts to drum up excitement had worked. The episode pulled in huge ratings. It also helped set a precedent for other series using cliffhangers to drum up viewer interest.
1. The Walking Dead
The Walking Dead has never been shy about putting its characters through the ringer. But by the time AMC’s hit series got to the end of its sixth season, both the men and women on screen and some viewers at home were growing weary of the constant death and destruction. Then, we got Negan. Before we met him, we got to hear all about him. And, most predominantly, how he was going to kill one of our favorite characters.
The media blitz around the finale worked. Going into the sixth season finale, most fans knew they were going to watch a beloved survivor bite the dust. The entire, protracted episode seemed to be building to that fateful moment. Negan arrived, in all his sarcastic glory. He taunted Rick, Michonne, Glenn, Abraham, and his other prisoners with a sadistic game of eenie-meenie-miney-mo. Then, just as he’d swung his barbed wire baseball bat at one unlucky character, the camera’s perspective switched.
We were Negan’s victim, looking at his grinning, maniacal face. In other words, viewers had no idea who he’d just killed. As blood poured down over the camera lens, the scene and season faded to black. And fans had no choice but to sit in shock.
The Walking Dead cliffhanger ultimately failed because the way the series rolled it out was seriously flawed. The series’ creators, cast, and crew promised us a huge death. Yes, technically we got it, but fans felt cheated because they didn’t show us who it was.
The seventh season premiere of The Walking Dead had gigantic ratings. It also revealed that both Abraham and Glenn had died at Negan’s hand. But it was also rife with graphic violence. That, coupled with the extended wait, proved to finally be too much for some fans. The series’ ratings have dropped in the weeks since the epic cliffhanger.
Follow Katherine Webb on Twitter @prufrox
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