Cliffhangers have become a crucial part of television, and they are even used in sitcoms to bring the audience back time and time again. By putting a character or group of characters in a difficult situation, or confronted with a shocking revelation, at the end of an episode/season, it ensures that the audience will tune in next time to see what happens. Additionally, it is a terrific way to keep the audience thinking and speculating about the show in between episodes. There has been an incredible amount of unforgettable cliffhangers in TV history, and here are 10 of the greatest.
10. 24 – “Day 5: 6:00 a.m. – 7 a.m.”
Every episode of 24 ended on some kind of cliffhanger, and this was a huge part of what made it such a dramatic, intense and hugely popular show. One particularly memorable cliffhanger took place at the end of season two when Mandy appears out of nowhere to give President Palmer a poisoned handshake, but for the sake of this article we are fast forwarding to one that took place at the end of season five. This already dramatic season came to a shocking and bleak conclusion, with Jack being tracked down and captured by the Chinese government who has discovered that he is still alive. We then see a bound and beaten Jack being transferred aboard a cargo ship to Shanghai. We know that he is about to be brutally tortured, and possibly even killed. It is later revealed that he was tortured for nearly two years, but did not speak a single word the whole time.
9. Friends – “The One with Ross’s Wedding: Part 2”
One of the most shocking, hilarious and cringeworthy moments of the entire show, the audience was left stunned following the cliffhanger at the conclusion of season four. At the end of part one of “The One with Ross’s Wedding,” we see Rachel realize that she is still in love with Ross and flies to London to tell him. We therefore knew that this was going to be a dramatic episode, but nobody could have predicted what happened in part two. After Rachel sees how happy Ross is, it appears that it will finally be the end of the Ross and Rachel saga. However, Ross then shockingly says “take thee Rachel” at the altar, much to the disbelief of just about everyone on the planet. The registrar asks if he should continue, as we then see the reaction of each character before settling on a shell-shocked Rachel.
8. The Simpsons – “Who Shot Mr. Burns? Part 1”
Although The Simpsons is a cartoon comedy series, it is also more than capable of cranking up the drama. It managed to do this whilst spoofing the most famous cliffhanger of all time (more on this to come) with this classic episode at the end of season six. The episode has the tone of all the best mystery thrillers, and it is littered with clues, red herrings and innuendoes throughout. The episode sees Mr. Burns harm the entire town by drilling for oil, and he then plans to block out the sun so that the residents have to use his electricity. This gives the entire town motive to shoot him, and following a town meeting, a well-crafted scene enables the viewer to hear but not see an interaction before he is shot. The public were left debating and speculating for months before part two aired and revealed the shooter.
7. Sherlock – “The Reichenbach Fall”
The term “cliffhanger” actually comes from a Thomas Hardy novel where he left a character hanging off of a cliff, where the audience does not know what his fate is. In the Sherlock season two finale we have a similar scenario, except for the fact that we see Sherlock throw himself off the roof of St. Bartholomew’s Hospital following his final confrontation with Moriaty. This is seen by Watson, who gets knocked over by a bike before rushing over to find Sherlock’s body being carried away. We then see Watson at his grave, begging him not to be dead. Shockingly, Sherlock is then shown watching on in the shadows. This revelation led to an incredible amount of speculation from the public and media about how Sherlock faked his own death, and we would have to wait two long years for the revelation. Now that is how you retain interest.
6. Breaking Bad – “Gliding Over All”
There are a number of moments from Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad series that could have made the list, but we have opted for the mid-season finale (common these days) in the fifth and final season. Towards the end of the episode we see Hank and Marie at Walt and Skyler’s for lunch, like we have seen many times, but when Hank makes a trip to the bathroom he finds Walt’s copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of the Grass, complete with a dedication from Gale Boetticher. Hank then has a flashback of a previous conversation with Walt where he jokingly admitted to being the W.W. in Gale’s notes. He finally realizes that the notorious drug lord he has been chasing is his very own brother-in-law. The scene then fades to black and we would have to wait almost a year to see the enthralling second half of the season.
5. Twin Peaks – “The Last Evening”
Most TV cliffhangers are resolved after a year or two, but this one has lasted an agonizing 24 years. Mark Frost and David Lynch’s brilliant and surreal Twin Peaks suffered from a decline in ratings during the second season, and consequently was not renewed for a third. The final episode sees Agent Cooper travel into the Black Lodge and rescue his girlfriend, Annie, but here he encounters his evil doppelganger. Only one comes out of the lodge, however, and this is revealed to be the evil one after he looks in the mirror and we see the reflection of Killer Bob. Fortunately, fans will finally get to see what happens, as Twin Peaks will return for a limited series in 2017. Having such a lengthy gap has meant that the new series will be set in present day, and according to Lynch this will be an important element in the plot.
4. Buffy the Vampire Slayer – “The Gift”
With the fate of the show’s renewal status in the balance, the fifth season finale of Buffy the Vampire Slayer had people around the world screaming at their television screens in disbelief and horror. To defeat the hell-god Glory, stop the apocalypse and save her sister, Buffy sacrifices herself by throwing herself into the portal. We then see her grave with the epitaph “She saved the world. A lot.” Her death is something that had been hinted at earlier in the season (in “Intervention”), where she is told that her “gift” is death. It therefore seemed quite poetic and fitting as she realized what this meant, but it was still an equally shocking and horrifying conclusion. United Paramount Network then took on the show for a final two seasons, much to the relief of the grieving fans who knew that their favorite vampire slayer would be back for more action.
3. Star Trek: The Next Generation – “The Best of Both Worlds”
Star Trek: The Next Generation utilized many cliffhangers, but none were better than the first, which occurred at the end of the third season. Here we saw the return of the starship Enterprise’s enemy, The Borg. The Borg were a race of cyborgs that assimilated individuals into their hive mind, and in the last episode of the season we saw them return and capture Captain Picard. They mounted a rescue mission onto the Borg cube which was headed towards Earth, and here they found an assimilated Picard who stated that he was “Locutus of Borg.” With their Captain now the leader of their greatest enemy and the cube rapidly approaching Earth, Riker orders Lt. Worf to fire the anti-Borg weapon. It shocked audiences to not only see Picard now an enemy, but to see that his character was possibly about to perish too.
2. Lost – “Through the Looking Glass”
The complexity of Lost kept the audience guessing throughout the entire series, but there was never a bigger bombshell than the one dropped at the end of season three. This revelation caused viewers to completely re-evaluate absolutely everything they knew about the show, as they had the rug pulled out from under them in the very final scene of the season. There had been numerous flashback sequences throughout the show which gave viewers a glimpse into their lives before the crash, and this is how the finale would end. Aptly titled “Through the Looking Glass,” the episode ends with a flash sequence where Jack and Kate meet and confusingly discuss the island. Suddenly, we realize that they are flash-forwards, and not flashbacks. Mind=blown. The opposite of tying up loose ends, this generated millions of questions which the world would have to wait for and speculate heavily over.
1. Dallas – “A House Divided”
A cliffhanger so great that it spawned eight months of domestic and international hysteria, “who shot J.R.?” became an enormous catchphrase that permeated popular culture. Brilliantly spoofed by The Simpsons and many other shows, the Dallas cliffhanger at the end of the third season in 1980 is the ultimate cliffhanger and marked the beginning of every show ending their season in similar fashion. Like Mr. Burns, the oil baron J.R. was hated by everyone in town, and therefore everybody was a suspect. At the end of the famous episode, J.R. is in his office at night when he steps into the outer office for a drink. He then hears someone outside, and as he goes to investigate he is shot twice and collapses. As soon as the credits rolled, people and the media began to speculate, t-shirts with “who shot J.R.?” were printed and television was never the same.