In Emily Nussbaum’s 2012 article “Tune in Next Week,” she presents a history of the cliffhanger as a nuanced tradition initially used to sell serial stories and later adopted by creators of TV to do the same. The idea was to manufacture suspense by introducing an unresolved plot element at the end of one iteration of a story so as to guarantee the reader or watcher would have to buy or view the next iteration. Though its past might not be common knowledge, the cliffhanger is one of the few storytelling devices that the culture-consuming public can readily identify — and it was disgraced by Sunday’s Walking Dead finale, titled “Last Day on Earth,” which ended with one of the straight-up worst cliffhangers in TV history.
The key to understanding the egregiousness of the episode’s cliffhanger doesn’t require knowledge of any of the characters on the show. The setup is this: through an elaborate and disorienting use of multiple points of view, showrunner Scott Gimple and creator Robert Kirkman introduced an unknown, new villain named Negan. His ten-minute function in this episode was to kill somebody, as depicted in a point-of-view shot in which we, the viewer, experienced the death through the eyes of the victim. It was a bloody mess, and the result of a conflict hyped on the internet for weeks like Mayweather vs. Pacquiao, round whatever.
We don’t know who died, though — that’s the cliffhanger. On Talking Dead, the talk show about The Walking Dead that follows The Walking Dead, Gimple said that his choice to not show who died was purposeful. It wasn’t the person who died that mattered, but the death itself, because it marks a shift in the world’s ownership from Rick to Negan. He did insist that a character really died, though. Negan had not killed the viewer.
So, we don’t know who died. But we do know through overheard dialog that it’s not the main character, Rick, or Rick’s son, Carl. A death of anyone other than Rick on The Walking Dead, no matter what Gimple said on the Talking Dead, is inconsequential. And for viewers of the show who haven’t read the comics, the introduction of Negan looks just like the introduction of another scary, handsome bad guy. So not only did Gimple and Kirkman orchestrate a cliffhanger that rings hollow in the world of their show, they also created one that they must believe is imbued with further significance — as long as you already know what happens in the comics. They wrote a cliffhanger that serves only the smallest percentage of fans and, as a result, has absolutely no meaning, because to understand its significance you already have to know what happens. As a cliffhanger, it’s almost self-negating.
And Kirkman and Gimple know how to do cliffhangers. They pulled off two earlier this season, with Glenn near the mid-season finale and Daryl in the penultimate episode. Those cliffhangers were effective because they forced us to wonder if Glenn or Daryl died, or if they made it out alive — “Did they die?” rather than, “Who died?”
It seems like a subtle difference, but for death-related cliffhangers to matter at all, you’ve got to be invested in the characters on both sides of the gun. In one of recent television’s most beloved cliffhangers, which Nussbaum mentions in her history, the Season 3 finale of Breaking Bad sees Aaron Paul’s Jesse pointing a gun at goofball Gale. Jesse begins to cry, Gale looks confused, and the gun goes off. This was a tragic moment for both characters: for Jesse, he’d killed someone for the first time; and for Gale, well, he was the only purely kind character Vince Gilligan ever wrote.
Most recently, we’ve got the curious case of Jon Snow in Game of Thrones, who was maybe killed and betrayed by Alliser Thorne. That cliffhanger internet-savvy viewers holding their breath for… well, barely any time at all, as they were quickly relieved by on-set photos and casting news. In 2016, it’s almost impossible to keep a character’s survival a secret, especially if it’s ruined by something as casual as someone’s presence on set.
Of course, deaths aren’t the only cause for cliffhangers. Lost‘s entire appeal was that every season featured one cliffhanger after another, each opening the door to a hatch that furthered an ultimately disappointing mythos. But hey, it was fun! The recent reboot of The X-Files played that same game, ending with Mulder and Scully looking up into a UFO, maybe getting sucked into it, maybe not. We’ll never know what happens — we’re forever destined to hang from that cliff. But the question, whatever it might be, has a profound effect on that world, just like the questions in Lost (simply, “What the hell?”) and Breaking Bad (“How bad can one man become?”) did. These shows were built on the questions asked by their cliffhangers. All great shows are.
The Walking Dead is not one of those shows. It postures as trying to resolve profundities like, “Can we truly lose our respect for humanity when surrounded by pestilence?” Or, “Can the human will survive in a dread vacuum?” But it’s mostly a show about zombie makeup and gunplay. And so the legitimacy of the world has nothing to do with whether or not someone dies; death is the fuel that drives the show, but nobody knows where it’s going. You could argue that real life is that way, that death doesn’t stop the march of time. But death should stop a show, at least for a second; it should mean something. And if it doesn’t mean something, as on The Walking Dead, then don’t try to make it mean something.
And that’s exactly what “Earth” did, because Kirkman and Gimple don’t seem to understand their own show. On that same episode of Talking Dead, Kirkman explained why he bloodily introduced Negan in the 100th issue of his comics. When someone has read 100 issues of a comic, he said, they need something to keep them coming back: a cliffhanger. He went on to say that the show didn’t need a cliffhanger, because the fans were so invested. They’d come back no matter what. Turns out, that might not be true. Because, while nobody questions Gimple’s claim that the viewer wasn’t killed by Negan, one thing won’t be made clear until the show returns in October: Did “Last Day on Earth” kill The Walking Dead‘s audience? That’s the real cliffhanger.