WARNING: This blog post is spoiler heavy, revealing major plot points for the shows Dallas, The Colbys, Lost, Twin Peaks,Breaking Bad and many more. Read at your own discretion.
It’s May, and with it brings the end of another season of television. The networks have made their choices on the new and returning shows in September, and as the current shows wrap their seasons, many will bring with them that time-tested TV tradition: the cliffhanger.
It can captivate you, shock you and make you scream at your television all at the same time. It is a true art form that when done right can fuel speculation and conversation as to what will happen next. Cliffhangers abound in television, generally featuring a suspenseful moment right before the commercial break so as to entice you to come back. But the best cliffhangers that shows employ are always at the end of the season, usually featuring a shocking reveal in the closing moments of the episode that results in months of guessing and debating as to how the show will resolve the seemingly unresolvable.
So many shows have left viewers on the edge of their seats by leaving the fates of the characters hanging in the balance. So here they are, the 10 best television cliffhangers of all time:
Primetime television shows rarely had cliffhangers until the 1980s. Before then, only daytime soap operas regularly employed the tactic, so Dallas—the biggest soap opera of the ’80s—was the natural choice to bring the cliffhanger to primetime. And no show did it better. During its fourteen year run, every season finale left viewers in suspense, like the end of season eight where Bobby dies and the end of season nine where it turns out Bobby’s death was all a dream. But it’s the season three finale that spawned endless watercooler conversation and T-shirts that asked, “Who Shot J.R.?” No finale kept the nation in grips like this episode, and next season Dallas shot to the #1 spot in the ratings.
Never a show to shy away from taking risks, The Simpsons never had a season end on a cliffhanger until the end of season six, when it spoofed Dallas and had its own whodunit with “Who Shot Mr. Burns?” By the time the episode aired, everyone knew Mr. Burns was going to be shot—so no one cared. What fans didcare about was the culprit, the one who pulled the trigger. The episode was littered with clues, innuendoes, red herrings, and perfectly set up every character as being the potential shootist. The cliffhanger ending caused so much speculation that FOX created a television special called “Springfield’s Most Wanted” that aired right before “Who Shot Mr. Burns, Part 2” that examined all the clues from the cliffhanger episode. Then it turned out the baby did it.
The “other” great primetime soap of the 1980s had no shortage of drama and intrigue. From catfights in lily ponds to catfights in pools to catfights in mud,Dynasty was never short on peril. But perhaps the most perilous moment came at the end of season five and the infamous Moldavian Massacre. What better way to interrupt a royal wedding than with terrorists and a good, old-fashioned shootout? The final moments of the episode featured the entire cast (!) sprawled out in a heap, covered in glass, debris, and blood. Putting every single character in jeopardy—now that’s a way to end a season!
This spinoff of Dynasty lasted only two seasons, but it did everything it could to try and get that third season, going so far to have the show suddenly explore the realm of science fiction. With season three very much in doubt, the producers pulled out all the stops and left viewers with a jaw-dropping finale. The lead actress, lost and alone in the desert, gets a rather unexpected visit from travelers… not of this Earth! The bonkers finale partially went unresolved as the show was canceled, but the following season of Dynasty reintroduced the character to the show, never explaining the UFO abduction.
For six seasons, Lost kept viewers wondering and speculating about, well, pretty much everything. No show was more layered and riddled with mysteries and clues, and probably no show ever will be. With every episode, there were questions. And with each subsequent episode, there were more questions and only occasionally answers. Each season (and even the season finale!) ended with a cliffhanger—from season one’s abduction of Walt to season five’s nuclear explosion. But season three not only left us hanging, it changed the game for the rest of the series. The format of the show gave viewers a glimpse of each survivor’s life on the island, as well as flashbacks to their lives before their fateful crash. But the season three finale threw viewers for a loop when they realized the flashback in that episode was actually a flashforward!
For the last 24 years, Twin Peaks fans have been left wondering what happened to their beloved characters. The season two finale, which was never meant to be the series finale, left the fates of many characters up in the air. With Showtime giving a third season to the show in 2016, many fans are hoping that the questions from the tense season two cliffhanger will be resolved: Did Andrew, Pete, and Audrey die in the bank explosion? Will Agent Cooper forever be stuck in the Black Lodge? Will Cooper’s doppelgänger be revealed as the maleficent Killer BOB? And of course, everyone’s dying to know, “How’s Annie?”
Star Trek: The Next Generation
The show boldly went where most science fiction didn’t. It offered smart characters and storylines, and proved that science fiction on television could be more than just hokey make-up and special effects. TNG hit its stride in season three, and the finale saw the return of the starship Enterprise’s unstoppable foe: The Borg. The crew mounts a rescue mission aboard the enemy vessel to retrieve Captain Picard, and during the skirmish they find that he has been assimilated into a Borg. From then on, every season of Star Trek: The Next Generation (and every Star Trek show afterword) would end in a gripping, tense season finale.
Even sitcoms have cliffhangers, and one of the best was NBC’s Friends. While the show may have been about six friends living in New York, the focus was always on Ross and Rachel and the will-they-or-won’t-they aspect of their relationship, going back and forth during the show’s ten year run. The best cliffhangers always revolved around them—everything from Ross’s wedding at the end of season four where he blurts out the wrong name to the end of season seven when it’s revealed that Rachel is secretly pregnant, not Monica. But it’s the season one finale that just might be the best of the series: after Chandler accidentally reveals that Ross has been in love with Rachel all his life, she rushes to the airport to meet him on his return from China, not knowing that Ross isn’t coming home alone. It was the first of many moments that made Ross and Rachel the power couple of TV land.
Buffy, the Vampire Slayer
Our favorite characters often die in TV shows, leaving us an emotional mess wondering why they had to go. But surely no television show would ever be so bold as to kill off their main character, certainly not when the fate of the show’s renewal status was unknown, right? But that’s exactly what Joss Whedon did at the end of season five. To stop the apocalypse and save her sister, Buffy throws herself into a portal that saves the day, but at the same time ends her life. With the WB ready to cancel the show, fans everywhere watched in horror as this could be it. Luckily, UPN stepped in to give the show a sixth season, allowing Buffy Summers to live on.
The story of high school chemistry teacher Walter White, who becomes a drug-dealing kingpin to pay for his cancer treatment, kept audiences riveted during its six-year run. The downfall of a once-revered member of the community was punctuated by all the people he took down with him. But that never stopped the audience from rooting for Walt. It was one of the most teeth-clenching, nail-biting shows ever, and every season ended with a bang… Literally! When AMC decided to split up the final season over two years, Breaking Bad started what is now common amongst many network shows—the mid-season finale cliffhanger. In the final scene of Season Five, Part One, Walt’s brother-in-law and hot-headed DEA agent Hank finally realized the notorious drug lord he’s been chasing for years was actually right under his nose all along. It’s a crushing moment of realization that perfectly set up the show’s final episodes and left the audience on edge as to how the inevitable Walt and Hank showdown would finally play out.