Cliffhangers are a perfectly valid storytelling device ... provided they actually seem to mean something.
SPOILERS for The Walking Dead comic book series, The Walking Dead Season 6, and Game of Thrones Season 5 to follow
The two biggest shows on cable right now are The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones. One is a post-apocalyptic survival tale about a group of comrades struggling to stay alive amid hordes of zombies and warring factions of heartless killers. The other is an epic fantasy saga about warring dynasties struggling for power even as a greater threat emerges that might wipe them all out. They're both genre shows, but they operate within different subgenres. They're both brutal and violent, but for different reasons. There are many smaller similarities you could piece together, but if the two share one thing, it's this: Both rely heavily on The Shocking Death.
The Shocking Death is nothing new when it comes to serialized TV. We've seen it over and over again, from Colonel Henry Blake on M*A*S*H to Mrs. Landingham on The West Wing. It's a common device, and it's certainly not limited to television. There's nothing wrong with The Shocking Death. In fact, I'd argue that Game of Thrones wouldn't be nearly as popular as it is if not for the brutal execution of Eddard Stark (Sean Bean) near the end of its first season, an event that generated so much online buzz that calls for a boycott of the show arose (oh, if only those people knew what would happen next). Events like that can shake a show's fanbase to its core in such a way that other people's heads will perk up. People start to wonder if they should watch, and then they do, and the story gets a chance to go on and be even more shocking.
In a lot of ways, that's great. I remember watching with perhaps sadistic glee as my friends who'd never read A Song of Ice and Fire took in the events of "The Red Wedding" on HBO for the first time, and I remember similar glee when The Walking Dead fans who'd never read the comics found out just how messed up The Governor actually was. That kind of media cross-pollination can be great fun, but if the trend of The Shocking Death becomes the status quo -- as it often has for both Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead -- it begins to present a problem.
That problem presented itself in the clearest way possible in the final moments of the Season 6 finale of The Walking Dead last Sunday. After weeks of teasing and anticipation, Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) made his first appearance on the show, and he was amazing. Morgan brought every ounce of charm and screen presence he has to the role, captivating viewers for the episode's final minutes. We all thought we knew how this scene would end. We all thought we were about to see Negan pick a victim (in the comics, it's Glenn, but it could've been anyone) and bash their brains in with Lucille. We were all waiting for that powerful, devastating moment, just as we'd been waiting for it for months.
Well, Negan did indeed choose a victim, and he did indeed bash their brains in, but...we don't know who it was. Apparently, the cast doesn't even know who it was, so we'll be kept waiting until October to find out who was on the other end of that cartoonish POV shot. Under different circumstances, that might be fine, but here's where we return to the idea of The Shocking Death, and where we must reckon with the fact that The Walking Dead has gotten very bad at it lately.
The sixth season of the show gave us not one, not two, but three "Who's Really Dead?" moments. First it was Glenn, then it was Daryl, and finally it was whoever met Lucille Sunday night. In Glenn's case, the show gave us a cliffhanger to dissect, then decided to prolong the agony with an episode which had basically nothing to do with Glenn. In Daryl's case, we watched his blood splatter all over the camera lens, only to see him turn up at the end of the finale basically fine, suggesting that the show's writers just shot him because they couldn't think of a better way to end the episode.
In the case of Whoever Met Lucille, things get even more frustrating. Have you ever had one of those dreams where you're trying to accomplish a simple task (say, getting dressed for school) but everything seems to be conspiring against your efforts to achieve said task? That was the season finale. Our heroes were essentially just trying to drive down a road, only to be repeatedly halted until they finally met Negan. The inevitable was put off over and over and over again, for what? If Negan's resources are so immense, why don't the Saviors just bring Rick and company in on the first try? Why don't we get a prolonged confrontation with the new Big Bad, instead of one final moment that ends in a bunch of question marks?
Which brings me back to Game of Thrones. With a show as conceptually simple as The Walking Dead, you often just reach a point where the only goal is survival. That's not the case with Game of Thrones. The goals its characters set are often much more complex, ensared in a web of diplomacy and spycraft and sex, but the show's biggest moments almost always hinge on The Shocking Death. Ned Stark, Robb Stark, Oberyn Martell, Tywin Lannister, and the list goes on. The Shocking Death is valuable currency on Game of Thrones, even if it's not always at the center of things, and so last season the show -- perhaps the most brutal on TV when it comes to The Shocking Death -- chose to end things with a...Shocking Maybe Death?
There are plenty of other cool Game of Thrones things to talk about right now. Arya and Daenerys are particularly intriguing heading into the next season, but the overwhelming media and fan narrative has been about the status of Jon Snow's life. Now, that's understandable on a lot of levels, but when we look at it in a larger Shocking Death context, it presents what could become a growing problem on violent shows like Thrones and Dead.
When you're a show most famous for The Shocking Death, what do you do when that starts to feel commonplace? Where do you take your narrative when you want to start really surprising viewers again? How do you subvert the trope that's become the driving wheel of your storytelling engine? I would be perfectly happy to be proven wrong, and perhaps I will be, but the message I got from the most recent season finales of both series seems to be "We don't know. Maybe check back next year?"
This is not to say that both shows won't come back with incredibly satisfying answers to their respective cliffhangers, but these are two massively successful series that hold audiences in the palms of their respective hands. They've got us, they know they've got us, and yet they still seem to be hedging their bets for Next Time. Now, the argument could be made that, in both cases (and Thrones' case is stronger here), the showrunners wanted to leave something to chew on for the season premiere that they wouldn't otherwise have at their disposal, but there was a better way to end The Walking Dead finale, and the comics proved it.
In The Walking Dead #100, pretty much the exact same scenario we saw in the Season 6 finale plays out. Negan and his Saviors line up Rick and his group, and Negan picks one of them to murder with Lucille. He picks Glenn, and bashes his skull in. Up until that moment, the finale's final scene plays out almost exactly like the comic. The show cuts away, but the comic continues. Rick vows, on bended knee, that one day he will take revenge, that one day he will kill Negan. Negan laughs it off, and then welcomes the group into his new world order, setting up the battle of wits to come. It's powerful, it's unsettling, it's brutal. It's everything The Walking Dead should be, and yet the TV series, for some reason, shrugged it off until Season 7.
So, the point is this: When you start relying too much on The Shocking Death, you start to use cliffhangers as a crutch, and when you start to use cliffhangers as a crutch, you risk losing the satisfying story moments in between. Though their ratings likely won't decline anytime soon, both The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones are taking that risk right now.