Hello and welcome to ‘Enough Already’, where I talk about certain tropes, trends, attitudes, and other things that, at the very least, we need a break from because these things are just not good for us, for the people involved, or both.

Today, I’ll discuss Season Ending Cliffhangers, and why TV shows really, really need to stop doing them unless they’ve already been renewed.

Season ending cliffhangers go back a ways in television as a way to keep fans wondering what’s going to happen next, and to ensure they’ll be back so they know the fates of their favorite characters. One of the earliest instances of a show ending a season on a cliffhanger was Soap in 1978, which ended with two characters having an affair.

Dallas, which premiered that same year, was known for its season ending-cliffhangers. The most famous of which – the one that really gave attention to the concept – was ‘Who Shot J.R’. The very phrase became a catchphrase designed to promote the show after its third season ended with a murder attempt on J.R. Ewing, the show’s best-known character who was so unpleasant to most of the rest of the cast that almost everyone else on the show had a motive for it. It was an example of the classic whodunnit trope of the A-Hole Victim.

Even people who never watched Dallas knew about it, and everyone wanted to know just who the guilty party was. They’d have to wait until the fourth season episode “Who Done It” for the mystery to finally be solved and the culprit revealed.

Season ending cliffhangers have enjoyed quite a life since then. They’ve been featured in dozens of prime-time drama shows, and even more recently on shows that premiere on streaming services. Star Trek: The Next Generation had some good ones, one of the best being ‘The Best of Both Worlds’ in the third season where Captain Picard had been assimilated by the Borg and the cliffhanger was whether or not the rest of the crew would be able to both stop the Borg and save their captain.

Other Star Trek series, such as Star Trek: Voyager, used them as well (my favorite being ‘Scorpion’ where Captain Janeway has to risk a dangerous alliance with the Borg against a common enemy even though she knows she can’t entirely trust the Borg and has been advised to be extremely cautious).

The ‘One Chicago’ shared series universe of Chicago Fire, Chicago Med, and Chicago P.D. frequently end their seasons on cliffhangers. In Chicago Fire, these cliffhangers can range from the personal (Matt Casey in danger from a criminal organization, or Kelly Severide and Stella Kidd being stalked by Stella’s ex-husband) to most of the cast being endangered in a building collapse or factory fire. Chicago Med‘s cliffhangers sometimes involve characters being in danger physically from attacks or accidents, and sometimes it’s just the characters’ careers that are in jeopardy. Chicago P.D. has gone the physical danger route sometimes, but more often has had characters get themselves into situations where they’ve done something morally questionable that could threaten their positions at the Intelligence Unit.

However, not all popular series have embraced season-ending cliffhangers. Buffy the Vampire Slayer ended every season with that season’s Big Bad (the main villain of the season’s story arc) being defeated, with only minimal cliff-hangery elements in a few of them (such as Season 2, whose bittersweet conclusion has Buffy leaving town, Season 6, where Spike’s subplot results in a big turning point for his character, and Season 5, where Buffy has apparently died in the process of saving the world). In fact, most seasons ended in such a way that if the series wasn’t renewed and it turned out that it was the final season, the series could end on at least a fairly satisfactory note. We’ll get back to that in a bit.

Of course parodies of the season-ending cliffhanger abound, from Saturday Night Live to The Simpsons (which has only done one season-ending cliffhanger, a ‘Who Shot J.R’ parody, namely ‘Who Shot Mr. Burns’). Despite parodies and notable aversions, however, the season-ending cliffhanger still is very prevalent in television today.

However, season ending-cliffhangers have a number of problems associated with them. Let me list what I feel are the most serious ones.

1. Relying on cliffhangers too much leads to ‘cheap’ cliffhangers that annoy the audience.

Sometimes showrunners feel like they need to end a season on a cliffhanger, no matter what. The ‘Arrowverse’ series The Flash (which has aired on The CW since 2015) has sometimes ended on cliffhangers even after the Big Bad has been defeated, with some of those cliffhangers feeling more forced than others. Some of them (at least to me, anyway) didn’t feel like natural consequences of what had happened, but instead felt more like last-minute out of nowhere twists to tack on a cliffhanger because the showrunners were worried audiences wouldn’t tune in next season otherwise.

This sort of reliance on cliffhangers, however, tends to annoy the audience rather than make them enthusiastic for the next season. Good cliffhangers make the audience go “Oh no! How are they going to get out of this one? It so frustrates me I have to wait several months to find out!”. Bad cliffhangers just annoy the audience with how tacked-on they are.

2. The audience can’t enjoy any nice things that happen to the characters as the end of the episode nears

The problem when you’re expecting a season-ending cliffhanger is that you take nothing at face value. You’re waiting for every happy moment the characters have in the finale to suddenly be ruined by a nasty twist, like someone being kidnapped, injured, or put in mortal danger.

Did the heroes just defeat the Big Bad, are in a good mood, and everything seems to be going their way? We’re not expecting it to last until the credits. No, we’re expecting some Post-Climax Confrontation or some Diabolus Ex Machina (the evil opposite of a Deus Ex Machina) to turn up and tack on a cliffhanger, such as the time The Flash defeated a version of Savitar that was an evil version of himself, only for the Speed Force to decide it wants to trap him.

Shortly after I posted this article, I saw the finale of season 10 of Chicago Fire, and was constantly guessing what the cliffhanger was going to be. I was so worried about what dark twist might come out of nowhere any second during the last ten minutes that I couldn’t properly enjoy all the happy moments during Kelly Severide and Stella Kidd’s wedding. I actually sighed with relief when both the wedding and the reception went off without a hitch, and everyone left the proceedings happy. It turned out the episode ended with only the slightest hint that the two newlyweds might have an uninvited guest on their honeymoon.

And I was thinking that maybe I shouldn’t have worried. Maybe I should have just enjoyed the moments for what they were. Shortly thereafter, I rewatched the episode and was able to do just that. For all Chicago Fire fans out there who may be reading this, I thought it was a great episode overall. It’s just that the whole ‘guess the cliffhanger’ game I was playing throughout the proceedings made me a little too nervous to enjoy it the first time around.

But that’s what expecting a cliffhanger can do to the audience.

3. Sometimes actors won’t return for the next season

This sometimes happens when a character is put in a situation that needs to be resolved, but the actor (for one reason or another) doesn’t return for the next season. When that happens, the season premiere that resolves the cliffhanger has to resolve the plot thread somehow without having the actor’s character appear onscreen.

If the character is in immediate physical danger, the character could die instantly. We’d lack the poignant death scene with last words and previously unseen flashbacks, but we’d still get closure.

If, however, the character is in less immediate danger but still facing a worrying problem, that character’s story has to be resolved through dialogue (and perhaps a body double). When Jon Seda left Chicago P.D. after his character Antonio Dawson was last seen relapsing into drug addiction, the next season had to establish that Sergeant Hank Voight got him the help he needed at a rehabilitation clinic, and later have Antonio (still offscreen) leave Chicago to join his sister Gabriela Dawson (who had left Chicago Fire a season earlier) in Puerto Rico.

Meanwhile, in The Flash, Ralph Dibny had to be written out abruptly due to his actor being fired from the show (to make a long story short, some old tweets of his with sexist jokes resurfaced, and he was considered too toxic). He was written out by having his face disfigured while seeking out the Big Bad, and only appeared in two scenes in the Season 7 premiere. The first of these had the stand-in for the actor hiding his face in a manner similar to Bela Lugosi’s stand-in from the infamous Plan 9 From Outer Space. The second scene at the end, where he leaves town (and the show), has him wearing a Daft Punk like helmet the entire scene.

So, sometimes plans for shows have to be changed due to actors not being available for one reason or another.

4. Sometimes a network will cancel a show regardless of how a season ends

This is the big one, and it cannot be ignored. Cliffhangers do not guarantee that a show will be renewed. Sometimes changes happen at networks. Network executives who loved and/or supported the show will leave, and be replaced by other executives who don’t think nearly as highly of the show. They might think the show has run its course despite the showrunners and the fans thinking it still has one or two more good seasons left in it, they might not understand the appeal of the show in the first place, or there might be a lot of major restructuring at the network and the executives might just decide to ‘clean house’ and drop a bunch of shows.

I originally wrote this on May 26th, 2022. A month previously, The CW announced it was canceling a number of shows as the network is being sold by its owners (WarnerMedia and ViacomCBS). Among them, DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, a popular ‘Arrowverse’ show featuring a quirky band of time-traveling heroes and their crazy adventures as they attempt to fix the timeline from aberrations, anachronisms, and various magical creatures and aliens causing trouble in various eras.

The show tended to end many of its seasons with bizarre cliffhangers. For example, Season 2 ended with the Legends successfully defeating the Legion of Doom at the end of Season 2, but their actions in doing so resulted in the side effect of creating time anachronisms like dinosaurs in modern times, and famous historical figures showing up in the wrong eras. Season 5 ended with Sara Lance being abruptly beamed aboard an alien spaceship. Season 6 ended with the Legends stopping an alien invasion only to end up stranded in 1925 due to a bizarre turn of events no one could have seen coming. And Season 7, the most recent season, ended with the Legends reclaiming the Waverider from a gang of evil robot doubles, but being arrested by a group of time authorities shortly after being introduced to a potential new member of the group, Booster Gold.

Unfortunately, it appears there will not be a Season 8. The cancellation notice is a frustrating turn of events for all fans who believe Legends of Tomorrow deserves better than to end up as an item for clickbait list articles listing shows that ended on a cliffhanger.

On Twitter, showrunner Keto Shimizu accepted full responsibility for the problem.

“The cliffhanger isn’t the CW’s fault. It’s mine. I played chicken with the pickup, and lost. Hopefully the story can continue in another form. TV movie? Comic book? Radio play?”

You can tell the desperation in the tone of that message. The showrunner wants the show to continue and the cliffhanger to be resolved somehow, but it appears Season 8 is out of the question.

Perhaps this is not the last we will see of Sara Lance and the rest of the crew of the Waverider. There is still the possibility that the characters might reappear on The Flash, which is set in the same universe and HAS been renewed for another season. Though writers on other sites (such as CBR and Screenrant) note that The Flash is likely living on borrowed time (as it appears on the verge of wrapping up naturally due to the departure of many original cast members) and deserves to have its final season devoted to Barry, Iris, and the rest of its cast rather than wrapping up storylines from other series. Instead, they suggest maybe there should be wrapup miniseries or movies on HBO Max (also owned by WarnerMedia) for Legends of Tomorrow and Batwoman. Whether any of the above happens (as of this edit on May 26, 2022) remains to be seen.

But in any case, the showrunner is right to take full responsibility for the problem. The showrunner chose to end the season on a cliffhanger without knowing whether or not the show would be renewed.

By contrast, the showrunners of Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD knew the show might not be renewed after Season 5, so they ended Season 5 with a finale that could serve as a good finale for the show as a whole. Phil Coulson sacrifices the cure for the condition that is killing him so that Daisy can save the Earth, the Earth is saved, Coulson goes to Tahiti to live out his last days, and the rest of the team flies off in their plane to new adventures.

As it turned out, Agents of SHIELD was lucky – they DID get renewed for another season. Two more seasons, in fact, though both shorter than the previous five seasons. Season 6 picked up the one remaining plot thread (the search for the one MIA member of the team) and made it an important part of the first six episodes, and Season 7 was basically a ‘victory lap’ season for the show, as the team faced off against enemies both old and new in a time travel arc featuring callbacks to many of the show’s previous storylines.

But if the series had not been renewed, Season 5’s finale still would have been a good sendoff for the show. It had action, drama, laughs, tears, and a moving farewell to one of its main characters.

And as stated above, Buffy the Vampire Slayer also had several season finales that could have served as finales for the show overall had the show not been renewed. From Season 1’s defeat of the Master to Season 3’s ‘Graduation Day’ to Season 5’s tearjerker, there’s plenty of possible series finales that were only season finales in the long run.

All in all, I’d say that it’s best to avoid season ending cliffhangers if you don’t know if the show’s going to be renewed. That’s taking the risk that the show will abruptly end with a lack of closure. Neither a triumphant riding off into the sunset like Agents of SHIELD (both Seasons 5 and Season 7) nor a bittersweet one where the main character ties up loose ends before dying (like Breaking Bad). Just an abrupt end, with nothing being resolved and people not knowing whether or not their favorite characters find the happiness or whatever they’re looking for.

If, however, the show you run already HAS been renewed for another season prior to the filming of the season finale, then feel free to end the season on a cliffhanger. Just make sure the cliffhanger fits in with the story, the setting, and the characters and doesn’t feel too tacked on. The Chicago shows (Chicago Fire, Chicago Med, and Chicago P.D.) have done a fairly good job of it over the years, with cliffhangers that don’t feel shoehorned in at all.

But in any case, I feel that the season ending cliffhanger is a trope in television that has been overused, and showrunners should think carefully if they are to end a season on a cliffhanger. And if they don’t know if the show is going to be renewed, or if a cliffhanger would feel too ‘forced’, my advice overall is not to do it.

But in any case, that’s just me. Do you agree? Disagree? Feel free to discuss the pros and cons of season ending cliffhangers in the comments.

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2 thoughts on “Enough Already: Season-ending cliffhangers

  1. I don’t blame some showrunners for using a cliffhanger as a way to try and get another season, but it needs to be handled well so it doesn’t seem forced. Personally I prefer when everything major is wrapped up but material for a potential future storyline is hinted at, so fans will have something to look forward to if/when the show gets another season without having to wait a long time just to have their questions answered.

    And let’s be honest, in the era of spoiler culture, cliffhangers don’t really matter much anymore since as soon as someone learns about what’ll happen in the next season’s premiere it’ll be on Reddit before the day is over.

    1. You hit the nail on the head exactly. I was thinking of posting a followup article on different kinds of season finales (and not just cliffhangers). I too prefer exactly what you said – a finale that wraps up all the season’s major plot threads and provides satisfying payoffs, but still having plenty of hints for what the next storyline is going to be (i.e. some subplots still continuing, people pondering how the outcome is going to affect them going forward, and so forth).
      As for your point about spoiler culture, I went back and edited in a new section about how expecting cliffhangers can cause audiences to not take anything at face value, and instead cause them to be all worried and play guessing games about what nasty surprises might await the characters at any second. I thought for a moment I was spoiling the season finale of Chicago Fire (it’s a mild spoiler, but still it counts), but I figured I shouldn’t worry about spoilers because these days, spoilers are everywhere. They’re on Facebook, Reddit, and just about any other social media platform or forum or blog you can think of. Compared to what’s shared there, my little spoiler there seems tame.

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