The Art of the Cliff-Hanger

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The Walking Dead returned recently for its seventh season, having cruelly kept fans waiting a full 7 months for a resolution to the previous episode’s conflict. But do television showrunners rely on the power of the cliff-hanger too much? Why do they drive viewers so crazy?

Critic Emily Nussbaum once wrote in The New York Times that ‘cliff-hangers are fake outs. They reveal that a story is artificial, then dare you to keep believing. If you trust the creator, you take that dare, and keep going’. The season 7 premiere of ‘The Walking Dead’, which first aired October 23rd in the States, was the latest in an increasingly long list of television shows that have dared audiences to keep believing.

The notable thing about The Walking Dead’s return was that it was, easily, one of the most talked about events in television history. The show, which is adapted from Robert Kirkman’s wildly successful comic book series, had courted controversy with the way that it had ended the previous season. It spent multiple episodes in the back-half building up anticipation for the arrival of big-bad Negan, one of the most iconic characters from the source material, portrayed onscreen by Jeffrey Dean Morgan. In the comic book the villain’s arrival heralds a grisly end to an important character, with the spontaneity of the moment shocking readers and acting as a bitter catalyst for the inevitable war with the Negan and his army. The black-clad, foul mouthed Negan finally arrived in the season 6 finale but, before his unfortunate victim could be revealed, the screen cut to black, with only the sounds of squelching blood and horrified screams audible as head collided with baseball bat. Choosing to cut out the identity of Negan’s victim drew the ire of the shows fans. The creators, including showrunner Scott M.Gimple and Kirkman himself, were forced to defend their decision, insisting that the move was not audience manipulation and actually served as a critical demarcation between two phases of the show’s story.

Even if the cliff-hanger was not intended to be a publicity stunt, it certainly worked as one. Social media blew up following the season 6 finale and, as the show’s return grew ever closer, speculation on who Negan killed grew to fever pitch. Cliff-hangers have, throughout television history, acted as a brilliant means to stoke audience anticipation and guarantee a strong viewership for following episodes.

The template was set in 1980 by the third season finale of ‘Dallas’ when protagonist J.R. Ewing was shot twice by an off-screen assailant before collapsing to the floor, leaving viewers in the dark over the characters faith for 8 months while they waited for the beginning of season 4. A national media frenzy broke out in response to the cliff-hanger. Dallas broadcasters CBS capitalised by launching the ‘Who Shot J.R.?’ marketing campaign, with t-shirts proclaiming ‘I Shot J.R’ becoming popular over the summer months. J.R. actor Larry Hagman held out for a pay rise as attention increased while bookmakers set odds for the most likely suspects. The cliff-hanger even influenced the 1980 U.S. Presidential Election campaign, as Republicans issued out campaign buttons proclaiming ‘Democrats Shot J.R.’ while Democratic candidate Jimmy Carter joked that he would have no problem with financing if he knew who shot J.R. The Dallas producers admitted that the ending had been engineered to keep audiences engaged with the show during its hiatus and, sure enough, the season 4 episode ‘Who Done It?’ – which wrapped up the mystery – became the highest-rated episode in U.S. television history.

Unsurprisingly the cliff-hanger has become commonly used in television ever since J.R was shot and the advent of social media has only increased the potential audience that producers have the power to engage with. Shows such as ‘Game of Thrones’, ‘Breaking Bad’ and ‘Sherlock’ have all used cliff-hangers to their advantage in recent years, proving that when done well it can be a classy, yet tantalising means of connecting chapters of a wider story.

The Walking Dead drew a level of ire with its own cliff-hanger that those shows didn’t and perhaps that’s because it felt like a cop-out – like the writers only did it so that their show would remain a relevant topic of conversation over the summer months. After all the show was on the receiving end of a great deal of criticism throughout its sixth season, with the fake death of Steven Yeun’s Glenn early on in the season proving that the show’s writers are not averse to pulling a stunt to gain audience traction. The Hollywood Reporter’s Daniel Fienberg went has far as saying that the show has ‘lost its credibility’ and that it just ‘feels mechanical now.’ The controversy that surrounded the subsequent season 6 cliff-hanger should act as a warning to The Walking Dead – audiences are not going to be fooled by simple gimmickry. Cliff-hangers need to be well thought out and, ultimately, make sense in the wider scheme of a show’s story. If done well they can elevate a series’ reputation among viewers and critics, guaranteeing it a healthy figure in ratings when the show returns. There is, however, a fine line between a cliff-hanger and a cliff-drop – and The Walking Dead needs to be careful that it doesn’t tow that line too carelessly.  

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David Deignan |  Film & TV Editor

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