We all enjoy a good standalone story, something that can be told in 30-120 minutes, give or take, and leave us satisfied with a tale well told, but the best stories are those that leave us wanting more. From the adventure serials of the 1930s to the binging viewing of modern streaming services, programs on the big, little, and portable screens have found ways to keep us coming back to learn more, and the best way that’s been done is with the cliffhanger (not to be confused with the 1993 Sylvester Stallone film of the same name).
Sometimes the payoff was worth the wait, other times it wasn’t. In some cases, there may have never been a resolution due to premature cancellation or the writers simply had no clue how to resolve it. Even if the resolution made no cock-a-doodie sense, all that matters is that the endings left us talking and waiting, and we’re here to talk about them now!
Share with us your favorite moments from television, film, online video, books, comics, whatever stories that left you wondering “what’s going to happen next!” And be sure to come back here often for more cliffhangers: Same Bat Time! Same Bat Channel!
I’ll start with the one that left the biggest impression on me, and it’s perhaps the greatest cliffhanger in all of science fiction: The Best of Both Worlds, Part One, from Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Having initially failed to create a worthy recurring villain for the series, the writers of TNG returned to the drawing board and created one of the most memorable villains ever with The Borg, a cyborg race that proved to be unstoppable and an impending threat to the Federation when encountered halfway through season two. For the next season and a half, hints were thrown around that Starfleet was preparing for an eventual confrontation, and in the season 3 finale, that confrontation finally came to a head as The Enterprise was tasked with intercepting an advancing Borg Cube. Despite time to prepare, The Enterprise was still no match, but things took a strange turn when several Borg drones invaded the ship and kidnapped Captain Picard, then disengaged and made its way to Earth. On board the Borg ship, the Borg Collective informed Picard that he would serve them in their plans to conquer Earth. Picard told the Borg collective he would not cooperate and would die before helping them, only to be met with the chilling phrase: “death is irrelevant”. The Enterprise caught up with the Cube and forced it to stop long enough for repairs, but before using an experimental weapon to destroy the enemy, they boarded the ship to rescue Picard, only to be met with a horrifying sight: Picard had been assimilated into the Borg Collective, serving as their figurehead in the conquering of Earth. With the Enterprise left reeling and time running out before the ship took off again, acting Captain Riker weighs his options when Picard, now known as Locutus of Borg, tells them in no uncertain terms, that their time is over and the Borg will conquer them. Staring at his former captain, Riker says three words to close out the episode: “Mr. Worf…Fire!”
After that episode, the time it takes for me to press the “next episode” button on my streaming platform of choice is excruciating, so I can’t imagine having to wait three months and six days for the second part to air. Until season 3, the worthiness of this series to carry the mantle of “Star Trek” from The Original Series was always questioned; from this moment on, the question was answered in full. In fact, it’s somewhat fitting that this episode closes out the third season, as three seasons was as far as the Original Series got before it was cancelled. Here, The Next Generation declared, not only was it worthy, it was going to surpass it.
I’ll agree with this. It’s one of the only cliffhangers I’ve ever seen that really left me wondering how in the world they were going to resolve it. And yes, I had to wait three months and six days.
The longest wait to resolve a cliffhanger that I can think of is the 25 years between Evil Cooper emerging from the Black Lodge in the original Twin Peaks and our reunion with him in Twin Peaks: The Return. And it was definitely worth the wait.
Yes, and can I add that the way they wrote Picard’s assimilation is fascinating because they did more than just make him a Borg. They made him the speaker for the Borg. Locutus comes from the Latin for “speak” and so that describes his function. “I am Locutus of Borg.” He is the speaker, a way for them to communicate. I originally watched TNG in the afternoon reruns rather than in the original broadcast (We had one TV and I was second youngest; I never got to control the TV in the evenings), but I still remember seeing Picard and going, “WHAT?!” I don’t remember how long I had to wait to see the resolution, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t three months.
But they wrapped this up amazingly without pushing a reset button as so many shows did. The ripples from this event extend far beyond just these two episodes.
In contrast, as someone who was a major fan of NCIS from season 1-9, getting a little tired of it in season 10, irritated in season 11 and signing off after that, I have to say that the writers often did a great job with cliffhangers at the end of the season… but they mostly sucked in resolving them in the new season. They didn’t seem to want to give the huge cliffhanger an equally huge resolution. They wanted to get it over with so they could go back to regular episodes. However, that mostly left me feeling bothered.
Case in point: The end of season 8 has NCIS itself under fire. The villain, a man named Dearing whose son died in the Navy, has been five steps ahead of them the whole time and he manages to get a bomb sitting right outside the building. And, to my great surprise, it goes off. The bomb detonates. Gibbs and Abby are in the lab and the bomb is right outside the windows. Tony and Ziva (stupidly) are on the elevator and it starts shaking ominously. Tim is in the bullpen and the windows shatter and he’s caught up in the backlash. …and far away, Ducky has a heart attack on the beach. That’s how the season ends. WOW. I write NCIS fanfic and there was a lot of discussion and stories written about how this might resolve in season 9.
And it was a complete and utter letdown. There was a recurring character named Cole who was a sometimes-villain. He was right on the bomb when it went off, trying to disarm it. He dies, obviously, but he’s pretty much never mentioned again. Gibbs and Abby are almost untouched. Tony and Ziva are stuck in the elevator but unharmed. Tim gets a piece of glass protruding from his torso and one scene later, he’s sitting at his desk completely fine saying all he needed was a bandaid. And beyond that, the whole resolution of the Dearing arc was utterly ridiculous. The FBI tracks him down. They find him! They have him in their sights and do they arrest this old man and take him into custody? No. For reasons I still can’t fathom, an undercover FBI agent lures him into her room and then calls for her backup to come into her room, letting Dearing out of her sight. They all die in a bomb he plants because he knew who they were. WHY? This old man who has been responsible for numerous deaths is literally right there and instead of arresting him out on the street and stopping it all, they don’t. Why? Because the writers decided that the best resolution to this arc would be to have Gibbs lure Dearing to a cabin he suddenly owns and kill him in cold blood.
Complete letdown. And it was the beginning of my eventual disengagement from the show. I now write my own stories and I think they’re way better.
Only Molly Ringwald knows.
Agreed, and in fact the episode directly after Best of Both Worlds Part Two, Family, serves as an epilogue to Picard’s encounter, returning home and considering leaving behind his Starfleet career, the events scarring him mentally, and the fight he has with his brother and the subsequent breakdown is so heart wrenching, proving that Patrick Stewart was perfect for this role (also ironic since it was rumored Stewart may have been leaving after season 3, whether it be for a desire to move on or if contract renegotiations fell through…which likely meant he may NOT have survived the Borg).
Also, like Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan being a sequel to Space Seed and being the best Trek film of TOS era, Star Trek: First Contact would serve as a sequel of sorts to The Best of Both Worlds and would prove to be the best film of TNG era (even if the creation of the Borg Queen would prove highly controversial to the established lore).
He recovers and is completely fine a couple of episodes later.
I just want to know if Thelma and Louise and also Butch and Sundance made it out alive.
“Best of Both Worlds” was easily the best cliffhanger I’ve ever seen. I can just think about that orchestra build-up and hits at the end of Part 1 and they still make me anxious just like they did the first time I saw them. That was a looooong summer waiting for Part 2.
Spoiler alert: Nope. All dead.
God, that music was so good. Gives me chills every time I listen to it. And can you believe Rick Berman FIRED Ron Jones the following season?!
For me the most memorable cliffhanger I’ve ever had to endure was the “Reichenbach Fall” episode of BBC Sherlock (a show that hasn’t really aged that well but I still enjoy it). In this modern adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s iconic detective stories, Sherlock Holmes jumps off a building, apparently to his death, and is branded a criminal for the murder of James Moriarty (unlike in the novels, when Holmes and Moriarty both appear to plummet to their deaths at the brink of a waterfall.) At the end of the episode John Watson is mourning at Sherlock’s grave, but in the very last shot we see the detective, who a moment ago had been a bloodied and broken corpse on the pavement, obviously now ALIVE AND WELL, watching his friend from the shadows. And then the credits roll and you are left in speechless shock and disbelief.
The worst part of this? I watched the series in real time, and it was a BBC network miniseries, and if you’re familiar with BBC miniseries, you know that they don’t always produce new seasons on a predictable schedule. So I had to wait three. years. THREE. YEARS. For the next season premier to resolve this little cliffhanger. Three agonizing years. I was very active in the fan spaces at the time so that was three long drawn out years of intensely scrutinizing the last episode to come up with increasingly crazed theories as to just how Sherlock had managed to fake his death. I’ll admit it was a fun time, even though some of the fan types were a little too crazy for my taste. But it was a neat experience to all be waiting so intently for the next part of the story, especially since it was really my first encounter with a serious fan community.
Anyways, of course the next season did finally come around, and it was a pretty good resolution. I will say the writers did a good job of acknowledging how much the fans loved the show, and didn’t come up with something ridiculously off base just to spite the people who’d put so much time and effort into analyzing it and coming up with theories (I hate when shows do stupid gotcha plot points just to throw off people who have guessed where a show is going; it basically punishes fans for following the story.) Unfortunately that was kind of where the series started dropping off in quality. But I still look back on that period with fond amusement, cuz at the time it was a lot of fun
I didn’t get into Sherlock until the first two seasons were brought to Netflix, and I do remember that being a long wait, though I think I only had to wait a year. The BBC broadcasting schedule is a strange but interesting beast that I love learning more about.
Yeah, having all the “fan theories” be part of the episode’s narrative was really damn cool. It’s good when shows can acknowledge their fans without pandering, and this is likely the best example.
Honestly, I still haven’t finished the series. Last one I watched was the 2016 New Year’s Special. Good or bad, I’m looking forward to it.
Thinking about it, my favorite cliffhangers were the ones on Rocky & Bullwinkle.
After “Master, what does bon appetit mean?”, I’m left wanting Wizards of the Lost Kingdom III. Seriously, I would pledge a thousand bucks to the Kickstarter for it.
Not sure how many Grimm fans there are around here, but the writers of that show knew very well how to yank our chains with cliffhangers – the mid-season finale of Season 2 (“Season of the Hexenbiest”) is chock-full of intrigue that threatens to blow up almost every relationship on the show – and runs out of road right at the crisis point, fading out with the message “To be continued. . . Sorry!” And that was it from November 'til March!
(The fact that they acknowledged what they were doing was well-received by the fans, and several other cliffhangers in the series had final messages as well, including “This ain’t over yet,” “Oh come on. You knew this was coming,” and even “Oh #*@%!!!”)
It’s radio, but for me “Journey Into Space” (especially “The Red Planet”) has the most effective cliff hangers I know. Every episode (except the last of each series) ends on a cliffhanger that makes it impossible for me to not immediately listen to the next episode, even though I’ve heard it before.
Farscape was pretty good at them too.