DIGITAL DEBATE WEDNESDAYS: What Makes a Good Cliffhanger?

Welcome back to Digital Debate Wednesdays! Every Wednesday, the staff of The Ace of Geeks will get our keyboards ready for a good, old fashioned nerd argument, and you get to hang out with us! Feel free to email us any ideas you might have for future debates, or let us know in the comments! Until then, here’s this weeks topic:

Today, we discuss cliffhangers. Last week, the Walking Dead finished up their newest season, after teasing a major character death for the ENTIRE season, by ending on a cliffhanger that makes you wait until NEXT season to find out who died. Many fans were upset.

The Cliffhanger is an oft used tool to ensure fan demand for a show to continue. It’s been used fantastically in the past, but there are also shows that certainly seem to rely on it too much. And in the case of a show being unexpectedly cancelled, the cliffhanger might NEVER be resolved.

So what were the best cliffhangers in history, and what makes a good cliffhanger as opposed to one that just annoys your fans?


Ellie Collins: I think the best cliffhangers are one that tease for the upcoming season but still leaves a satisfying end in case you don’t want to continue to the next season.

Bad cliffhangers, like the Walking Dead one are ones that are blatant bait to force you to watch the new season to get major information.

For example: Black Sails season 3 finale. They end on the note of us hearing for the first time the name “Long John Silver”. If you stopped watching Black Sails then, it would still be satisfying. If you’re big into the show you’ll tune in to see where it goes from there.

With TWD, ending like “someone just died BUT YOU HAVE TO WAIT TO SEE WHO” feels like extremely cheap bait to try and force viewership for the next season, and people don’t buy that shit.

Luke Farr: I will never forget in the X-files when Mulder dies at the end of an episode, and the next season he’s just like “psych! I got you.”

While we’re talking about the X-files, or rather, while I am, I submit the end of the X Files Revival. What the hell Chris Carter!?

  • Mary Anne Butler: I say THE WORST. He knew he was going to get another ‘season’, so he wanted the biggest outcry he could get.

Rose Marie Fox: For the never resolved section I submit Revolution. What happens after the nanotech possesses human bodies and the “government” realizes they have completely lost control over it?

Mary Anne Butler: Best: Battlestar Galactica when Adama gets shot by Boomer.

Oh Gods, I just gave myself war flashbacks.

Justin Rhodes: Alias was really good at cliffhangers. Though they did tend to overuse them. There was practically one every episode.

As for TWD, I’m just going to assume they followed the comic on that one but decided to wait on it in order not to have fans ragequit the show…

  • Mike Fatum: And as a bonus, got a bunch of fans to ragequit the show!I wonder if they’re running into a “damned if you do” situation here, where any way they could have handled it would have backfired spectacularly. Walking Dead fans, how would you have done it?
  • Nick Bailey Jr.: Show who it was. And end the season with Rick (assuming he survives) saying we will roll over or we will get revenge.
    I’m expecting not to know who died until the end of the next episode. We’ll see people getting on with their lives and their reactions, slowly revealing to us who met Lucille.

Mike Fatum: I’m gonna go ahead and nominate The Pretender for Worst Cliffhangers here. They ended the series with one, and then ended the TWO TV MOVIES THEY GOT TO WRAP THINGS UP with them as well.

Mae Linh and I are STILL mad about that.

  • Mae Linh: Word. TEN YEARS!!!!! I waited TEN FUCKING YEARS to find out what happened to Jarod and Mrs. Parker only to find out, NOTHING!!!! Even after the movie, I know NOTHING!!! If I ever meet those producers and writers and TV execs responsible for my blue balls over this series, I’m totally nut / boob punching them.

Sam Stafford: I’m just going to go off the cuff here and name “Best of Both Worlds” (ST: TNG) as my favorite cliffhanger of all time and an example of doing it right. I’d say a good cliffhanger raises or establishes the stakes very suddenly, setting things up for a payoff in the next episode.

The Walking Dead episode in question bungled the pacing by establishing the stakes too early, drawing out the tension for a good chunk of the episode, and then failing to resolve it. If not for that long preamble it might have worked better as a cliffhanger (say, if they’d ended it right after the group got captured), but to spend all that time on the setup only to delay paying it off leaves a bad taste.

  • Mike Fatum: I was gonna mention Best of Both Worlds in the opening question. Such a good season ender.
  • Sam Stafford: Best of Both Worlds was a better TNG movie than all of the TNG movies put together.
  • Mike Fatum: I don’t know – I love BoBW, but First Contact is a damned fine film.I’ll give you “better than Generations, Insurrection and Nemesis,” though.
  • Mary Anne Butler: I still like Insurrection. There is NO excuse for Nemesis though. Ugh.
  • Mike Fatum: Insurrection is a very good two hour episode of the show! From like….season three or four.And Nemesis is the Phantom Menace of Star Trek.
  • Mary Anne Butler: There are parts of Phantom Menace I really like, and I think as a full film I like it more than TFA.

Malkontent Blizzard: I think that the best ones on TV right now are in Daredevil series 2. Individually none of them are “edge of your seat for the next week” level of intensity but they weave together to reinforce the emotional infrastructure of the show.

Mary Anne Butler: Another Best: West Wing, “What Kind of Day Has It Been”, s1e22, the shooting with the police scanner while fading to black.

Raven Knighte: The Walking Dead cliffhanger left clues in the audio as it faded to black. And throughout this season and last, there was a trail being left as to who would be next. No major characters died last season, so someone was overdue. I have an opinion on who it was, but… way too spoiler.

Mary Anne Butler: The Walking Dead assumes the majority of the audience gives a shit anymore. I haven’t in probably 2 seasons minus the episode with Carol and Maggie getting captured, because Carol is everything good about the series right now.

John Garcia: I’ve been watching how shows that are aimed at younger audiences sometimes have mid-season mini cliffhangers, or pre-hiatus cliffhangers…sometimes about parts that are not so central, so the shorter attention span of you get viewers are not so lost, and we get enough of anticipation and pay-off:

Off the top of my head include what Captain Cold did to Heat Wave, which was the pre -Easter cliffhanger for Legends of Tomorrow.

Another one could be the current pre-season finale hiatus cliffhanger that happened between Supergirl and James Olsen.

Mark Foo: A good cliffhanger is a setup for the next season / story.
A bad cliffhanger is the delayed resolution of the current show’s plot.

Don’t take my plate of food away before I’m satisfied, man!

Joe Hadsall: Regarding the resolution aspect of this debate: The showrunners argue that they DID tie up the story, because the story was about Rick’s confidence and how he was utterly destroyed by an enemy he underestimated. In that respect, it doesn’t matter who Negan killed, because the fact that Negan was able to swing Lucille marked the final thing to say about Rick’s total defeat.

While I think that’s a good point, the cliffhanger is a bullshit gimmick that shows how much the showrunners hate the fans.

Mary Anne Butler: I don’t think cliffhangers are done to anger fans. They are meant to provoke an emotional reaction, something for them to talk about during off seasons.

Joe Hadsall: I’m not saying that all cliffhangers anger fans. I’m saying that this one was terrible, and made me angry. I can’t think of any story-related reason to hide the identity of Negan’s first kill, other than to string out mystery over an off-season and to help write a PR campaign for the next season. Especially considering who gets killed by Negan in the comic book.

Justin Rhodes: What if they’re trying to collect data on fan speculation so they can pick the choice that pisses the fewest people off?

  • Raven Knighte: If that’s the case then they failed.
  • Mike Fatum: Given that they gave an interview where they said they hadn’t shot the scene yet, and the actor might not even know that they’re the one to die, I’m wondering if they’ve even picked who they’re going to kill yet.

Raven Knighte: A good cliffhanger to me is one that provides closure to the current story while leaving an audience hungry for the next one.

Mary Anne Butler: A good cliffhanger has no closure. I am a fan of better writing rather than easy conclusions. I would rather be pissed off someone died than disappointed the writers didn’t have the balls (or tits, just a turn of phrase) to off someone in order to further the story. Or to NOT off someone to further a story. I want to have questions, I want to be inspired to think about it for longer than however long the thing was I was watching.

Melissa Devlin: There are too many comments here to go through and find out if I’m the only one, because I am tired, but personally they make no difference to me. They won’t keep me watching a show if the rest of it sucks. This from the person who never read Harry Potter 6-7, nor seen the films, and am the only person who doesn’t care about this, or feel the urge to fix it. If I feel I’m done with a story, it doesn’t matter what zinger you had, I’m off. I’ll read the synopsis later if I’m really curious.



Mike Fatum
Referred to as a God Among Men, the Greatest Man that Ever Lived, and That Dude Over There…No, The Dude with the Long Hair and the Goatee…Yes, That Guy, Mike has grown up being known and loved around his apartment. In addition to being a successful film director and editor, he loves video games, movies, comic books, board games, and his wife and cat. He’s been friends with Jarys for over a decade now, and they started hosting a radio show together on college that became the genesis for the Ace of Geeks Podcast. When he realized he had so many talented friends who could write, the Podcast became an entertainment website, and here we are.

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