Yes, I know – you’re tired of reading “open letters” about the Walking Dead finale.
Trust me, the fans are tired of writing them. This ground is well-tread, and the game trail has been widened into a goddamn highway with repeated use. Yes, we’re pissed. Yes, we’re unsatisfied. Yes, we’re kind of hungry.
But the anger is real. I’m angry. The people who love this show are still angry. I was debating with myself how I would express my particular flavor of dissatisfaction, just to get the poison out of my system, and I’ve come to this:
Stop defending the finale as a cliffhanger. It wasn’t. Or it was, and cliffhangers don’t work. Or, maybe, we all disagree on what a cliffhanger actually is. From their interviews, showrunner Scott Gimple, producer/director/make-up god Greg Nicotero, and even non-offensive “Guy Smiley” Chris Hardwick have their take on “what a cliffhanger is,” and the audience has another.
Why Use a Cliffhanger?
Traditionally, a cliffhanger is used to keep interest going after a story or scene has (or would have) ended. I’m a writer by trade, and I can tell you that we’re encouraged to end every chapter on a cliffhanger. Introduce a new threat, change an allegiance, slap in a new complication, someone’s head falls off unexpectedly, etc.
Now, like any writing tool, it has its function, and a most appropriate time and place for its use. I don’t recommend ending EVERY chapter that way, no more than I would recommend ending every story with a boss fight. Sometimes the best way to introduce excitement for the next chapter is to make sure that THIS chapter tells a great story. Sometimes (editors, cover your ears), a satisfying conclusion makes an audience think to themselves: “Wait a minute, isn’t the story over? How is there a next chapter?”
“Buffy the Vampire Slayer” Season 1 ended with all of the story lines wrapped up and the Big Bad Evil Guy dead as fried chicken. I remember thinking: “Wait, what is Season 2 going to be about? Where the hell do they possibly have to go?” That didn’t turn me away as a audience member. That DREW ME IN. Because the first season told a complete and satisfying story, I used my cause-and-effect brain equipment to go “hey, do you think they’ll tell another complete and satisfying story in season 2? Oh sheeeet.”
And I watched it. And they did.
What is a Cliffhanger?
Here’s where language fails us, and I have to go off-book. My personal definition of a cliffhanger is “an incomplete story designed to manipulate the audience.” I’ve always held that belief, and I always will.
I would make a distinction, though, between a “sequel hook” and a “cliffhanger.” To me, a cliffhanger is garbage. A sequel hook, on the other hand, is a must in serialized storytelling. A sequel hook gives us a new twist or piece of conflict that HAS NOTHING TO DO with the arc that was set up the entire story. It opens a new road, it doesn’t drop a gate across the road we’re already on.
Gimple/Nicotero/Hardwick and Robert Kirkman have insisted that the end of the Season 6 finale was no different than the ends of other beloved works. They’ve made comparisons to “Empire Strikes Back,” the most recent season of Game of Thrones, and even the famous “Fire” cliffhanger from “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”
All I gotta say to that is: nope. Nope on fucking toast.
Your Examples Are Bad and You Should Feel Bad
Let’s start with “The Empire Strikes Back” comparison. First and most fore: the Empire Strikes Back doesn’t end on a cliffhanger. It ends on a sequel hook. How can you tell? It’s easy, you just have to look at the story.
A complete story is a question, and an answer. That’s it. Here are the questions asked in the beginning/middle of “Empire Strikes Back,” and the answers that the movie gives us by the end.
Will Han, Leia, and Chewie escape the Empire after the disastrous Battle of Hoth? (No)
Will Luke Skywalker complete his training as a Jedi? (No)
Will Yoda and Obi-Wan be able to tame Luke’s more Anakin-like impulses? (No)
Will Vader be able to capture Luke Skywalker and bring him to his Emperor? (No)
Will Luke be able to face and defeat Vader? (Yes / No)
Is Lando really a dickhead? (No)
That’s it. Those are the questions that are set up and answered. Empire Strikes Back is a complete story, contrary to popular opinion. Are there twists and sequel hooks? Absolutely. But you can tell they’re sequel hooks and not cliffhangers because they ask NEW questions that the movie didn’t ask before. Here are the questions introduced at the END of Empire Strikes Back:
Is Vader really Luke’s father?
Can Han be rescued from Boba Fett / Jabba the Hutt?
Neither of those questions were asked in the beginning/middle of the story and simply not paid off.
If “Empire Strikes Back” was the Season 6 finale of The Walking Dead, on the other hand, it would have gone a little differently. Season 6 has been setting up the Saviors most of the season, and what do the Saviors say at every SINGLE encounter? “We always kill one of you, to get our point across.” Our heroes are plucky enough to escape their first few encounters, but the audience knows what’s going down. That’s called foreshadowing, that’s called ASKING A QUESTION. It’s storytelling. By beating us over the head with “we always kill one of you,” they’ve let the audience know that one of the crew is getting whacked. It’s going to happen, no matter how much we dread it.
The season, of course, ended with us not knowing who got whacked.
The Empire Strikes Back, by Scott Gimple
To continue the comparison, that would be like if “Empire Strikes Back” had a scene early on where Luke is sitting alone and says, “I wish I knew more about my father.” Then, later on, an Imperial officer is talking to Vader, and Vader goes “I know who Luke’s father is. And that shit is going to be surprising.” And then, during their climactic duel, Vader leans in and says, “Luke. Your father is not who you think he is. Your father is really . . . “and then the sound cuts out, and we focus on Luke’s face. Then Luke bellows “NOOOOOOOO” and we cut to credits.
You can say, “Oh, well, the story is actually about whether or not Luke is happy with who his father is,” and then you could say, “Look, Luke is pissed, which means it’s bad. That’s a story.” You can say that, but you’d be wrong.
If that had happened, the movie would have asked a question, foreshadowed an answer, and then not finished the goddamn story. That would be a “cliffhanger,” which is manipulative and cheap. Would people havestill gone to see “Return of the Jedi?” Sure. Would they be majestically pissed that they gave their time and money to go see a movie and then didn’t get a complete story? Bet your ass. Would “Empire” be the beloved film classic it is today? Take a guess.
If the producers of the Walking Dead wanted hashtag social media controversy, they would have had it if they’d finished the story. “Oh my God, Negan killed Charlie Maincharacter. How is Charlie’s wife/husband/brother going to handle this? Does that mean Charlie’s storyline with Jake Sidecharacter is over? Who’s going to fill the role? Do you think Charlie’s dad is going to commit suicide? Become a hardass? How is Rick going to take revenge and gain the respect of his people again? Is Rick a broken man after Charlie Maincharacter’s horrifying death?” You’d get “Remember Charlie” t-shirts and hashtags, and “Rick Will Remember That” memes, and “Official Charlie-Whacker” on the side of toy nerf bats. You’d get it all.
Guess what? People were talking about Empire Strikes Back, I promise you that, and it told an absolutely complete and satisfying story.
Now, to the Game of Thrones comparison, real quick, I promise:
Game of Nopes
Here be spoilers for the last season finale of “Game of Thrones,” obviously.
Was Jon Snow’s scene a cliffhanger? No. Jon Snow’s story this whole season was “can he unite the wildlings and the Night’s Watch to fight the real threat. Can old prejudices be forgotten?” The answer, at least from the Night’s Watch, is a resounding “fuck no, Olly.” And Jon pays the price for his lack of vision. The season ends with him stabbed roughly one jillion times, lying dead in the snow. That ain’t a cliffhanger.
Was Dany’s scene a cliffhanger? No. Her story this whole season was “can she tame and rule her dragons, her man, and the city of Mereen?” No. Her dragon, while it saves her, takes her away and plops her in the middle of the boonies, all alone. Her man is a free spirit that she doesn’t control. And the City of Mereen is lost, at least to her ruling hand. Sure, she ends up in a precarious situation that we don’t know the end of (the Dothraki appearing and circling her), but that’s a sequel hook. It’s an unexpected new twist on the story. If the question of the season had been “will Dany control the Dothraki,” and the season ends with uncertainty on whether the Dothraki are going to hurt her, that would be crap. But that’s not what happened.
Was Stannis’s scene a cliffhanger? No. His god and priestess abandoned him, his army was crushed, and he died. No cliffhanger there.
Was Breanne’s scene a cliffhanger? No. She purposely abandoned her vow to save Sansa to fulfill the vow to kill Stannis. Which she did.
Arya’s scene? No. Because the question this season wasn’t “will Arya’s sight return?” The question was “Can she follow the rules of her new life, or does Arya still exist?” That’s a big fucking “yeah, she exists and her new masters are pissed.” Another complete story (with a sequel hook at the end, surprising and unannounced).
Cersei’s scene? No, she was defeated and humiliated by the Sparrows that she helped create. The question asked at the beginning – “Was empowering the Sparrows a good idea?” – was answered whole-heartedly in the finale.
Will Jaime bring his daughter back to King’s Landing? Nope.
Do you get what I’m saying? Those aren’t cliffhangers, which is why they’re good. A cliffhanger stops a scene in the middle, which is what “The Walking Dead” has been doing all season long. It’s sloppy, manipulative storytelling, and it deserves every ounce of anger it’s asborbed.
Viewer time is precious, and having no respect for it is inexcusable. Having fans is one of the greatest things in the world, and treating them badly is shameful. Replacing good storytelling with carnival barker nonsense is, not to put too eloquent of a point on it, bad and dumb.
Nobody finished the totally-complete Season 1 of Walking Dead and said, “Eh, story’s over, fuck this show.”
EVERYONE came back for Season 2.
You done forgot your roots, guys. And the fans are pissed. Take your lumps like men. Own it, apologize for it, admit it.
Remember: if you have to eat shit, best not to nibble.