The Art of the Cliffhanger

Thorne Melcher
Apr 5, 2016 · 3 min read

Warning: The following contains spoilers about The Walking Dead, Lost, and Weeds.

The cliffhanger is an incredibly divisive writing technique. Some may categorically dismiss them as a marketing ploy to get people to tune into or purchase the next installment, but their power to generate a lot of excitement in the form of discussion and speculation cannot be ignored. But no cliffhanger in recent memory generated as much backlash as the ending to “Last Day on Earth,” the ninety-minute season finale of The Walking Dead.

On Talking Dead, the show’s post-show talk show, series showrunner Scott Gimple tried to defend it with a Lost comparison, stating “I would say, when they opened up the hatch, we had to wait and see who was in the hatch.” However, there were huge fundamental differences between these two plot points. Lost would go on to face a later backlash of its own from dissatisfaction over incomplete resolution of its mysteries, but that element was what made the cliffhanger successful: the sense of mystery it created. The plotline that led into it (Locke trying to break into the hatch) came to a conclusion with its opening, but we were teased with what new plotline would await us next season.

A somewhat more fitting comparison might be to the ending of season six of Weeds, where the question was not who was on the receiving but rather the delivering end of violence. However, that was also a lot more successful, even though, much like “Last Day on Earth,” we knew that it had to be someone among a somewhat limited selection of characters. They were not all gathered for the audience to plainly see, but fans could quickly narrow it down to a single digit worth of possibilities.

In this case, though, we still were not left with a season that felt woefully incomplete. The season’s arc, detailing Nancy’s reintegration into society after a prison stint, came to a close. This cliffhanger teased us with the beginning of a new chapter, not the end of the one we were on.

As the creators of The Walking Dead have said, Negan’s introductory scene in both the source comics and the show alike is meant to tear down Rick’s hubris about his power in this world. Up until this point, it seemed as if there was no foe he couldn’t outsmart. As he said to Michonne just one episode prior, “The world’s ours, and we know how to take it.”

Negan’s introduction goes just a few moments further in the comics, showing us Glenn’s demise and Negan leaving with a “Ta-ta.” The cliffhanger here becomes instead how will Rick’s group recover from the sheer brutality of this moment and the realization that they are now completely beholden to the Saviors. We know Rick is not the type to give in to others, nor would a story about nothing but subservience to Negan contain the conflict that would engage readers. But it leaves us asking how, given just how menacing a force the Saviors proved themselves to be.

Instead, the show robbed us of the full impact of the moment. Instead of trying to make us speculate about the aftermath and response, they instead tried to force the discussion to be about which character we lost. The tension built up across the episode (and really the entirety of the back half of season 6) never got its relief — a brutal relief, sure, but one needed literarily to keep us speculating about the broader future of the story instead of merely a missing camera angle from a scene we already have seen.

A cliffhanger, without paying direct service to the new storylines to come, will usually feel empty, and that is why the fan response is so overwhelmingly negative to “Last Day on Earth.” It should benefit hours, not mere seconds, of unreleased story. It should be an essay prompt, not a multiple choice question.

Thorne Melcher

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