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Cliffhangers feel intrinsic to good television, the obvious advantage that the medium has over film. If you want viewers to keep watching over many episodes, surely you’d want to hook them with episode endings that leave them desperate to know what happens next. But it wasn’t always so: For decades, television stuck mostly to stand-alone episodes, as network executives worried that viewers wouldn’t be able to tune in every week at the same time and would give up on a show if they missed an installment and didn’t understand what was going on. In the early days of the 1950s, only soap operas regularly employed suspenseful endings, a technique pioneered by Irna Phillips, who created the daytime soap for radio and brought it to TV with Guiding Light.
That began to change over time, and slowly emerged as a way to create a real cultural moment, most notably in 1980 when nighttime soap phenomenon Dallas allowed an unseen assailant to shoot one of its main characters, J.R. Ewing (Larry Hagman). The months-long wait ignited a national debate about “Who shot J.R.?” Cliffhangers really kicked into high gear during the 2000s with the popularization of appointment viewing on paid cable and DVRs that could capture every episode to be watched at the viewers’ convenience. Then streaming exploded the entire model, making cliffhangers not only popular but paramount, to keep viewers smashing that “next episode” button. Suddenly, main characters were constantly left in the lurch at the end of every episode—racing against time, crashing into an unexpected accident, choosing between two great loves, experiencing a great loss. Great cliffhangers can cross genres, from Ross’s accidental utterance of the name “Rachel” in his wedding vows while marrying another woman on Friends to a peek down the mysterious hatch on Lost. Even a series finale can leave us dangling indefinitely, as The Sopranos did with its infamous cut-to-black.
Here are some of our favorite what-happens-next moments from Peabody-winning shows. Warning: There are major spoilers ahead!
Orange Is the New Black solidified Netflix as the first major streaming force with the 2013 release of its entire first season at one time, allowing us to gobble up all 13 compulsively watchable episodes in a matter of days. Jenji Kohan‘s women’s prison drama changed the form in many ways—making prisoners relatable with empathetic backstories, including women of all colors and sizes in the cast, allowing female characters to be all kinds of “unlikeable.” But none of that would have mattered if we weren’t desperate to keep hitting that “next episode” button. The first season-ender builds to a crescendo as main-ish character Piper (Taylor Schilling) explodes in violent rage at her nemesis Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning) during the prison’s Christmas pageant. Viewers are left desperate to know what will happen to them, but there are plenty more dangling questions as well: what will happen in Piper’s love triangle with fiancé Larry (Jason Biggs) and fellow inmate Alex (Laura Prepon); whether kitchen boss Red (Kate Mulgrew) will retain her power as she clashes with the administration; and what will happen in the oddly tender romance between inmate Daya (Dascha Polanco) and guard Bennett (Matt McGorry).
Where to Watch: Netflix
Forget the mess of a finale and focus instead on all the times when Game of Thrones held us in its thrall—and we couldn’t stop thinking or talking about what might happen next to all the twisted folks in Westeros. The series delivered a number of showstoppers, so this choice comes down in part to personal preference. In 2011, as the first season ended, Game of Thrones‘ momentum was just beginning to build when Ned Stark (Sean Bean), heretofore the show’s hero, had been unceremoniously executed. What now? In this action-packed episode, Ned’s daughter Sansa (Sophie Turner) is taken hostage, while his other daughter, Arya (Maisie Williams), flees in disguise. As the rest of his family plots war in revenge, the episode leaves us with the clear impression that someone else entirely might eventually be coming for that throne: Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), having married Khal Drogo (Jason Momoa) and become pregnant with his child, loses both husband and baby to blood magic. She has the woman responsible tied to Drogo’s funeral pyre, declares herself khaleesi and “mother of dragons,” and emerges from the fire with vengeance in her eyes.
Where to Watch: Max
As an HBO show doled out in weekly doses, The Leftovers could deploy a cliffhanger in the middle of the season, leaving viewers hanging for just seven days of suspense. As a sci-fi-esque drama about what happens when two percent of the world’s population spontaneously vanishes with no discernible cause, and the cult-like groups and fringe beliefs that flourish in this incident’s wake, it delivered its share of twists and shockers. But it still managed to exceed its own standard of gasp-inducing moments at the end of the second season’s penultimate episode: Tommy (Chris Zylka), who has switched from infiltrating the Guilty Remnant cult to joining a violent offshoot of it, wanders around the group’s camp as they plan a major action in the nearby town of Miracle, where all of the residents were spared from the Departure. When he opens the door to a trailer, he sees three teen girls dressed in white—the same girls whose disappearance from Miracle has driven the entire season so far. It’s now clear that they left of their own volition, to join the GR’s splinter group in its mission to shake up their hometown. Things can only get weirder, and worse, from here.
Where to Watch: Max
Sitcoms can deliver great cliffhangers, too, and Parks and Rec turns in one of the greats at the end of its third season. While classic comedies are rife with will-they-won’t-they couples, nobody beats ambitious local bureaucrat Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) and the dorky colleague she probably shouldn’t be dating, Ben Wyatt (Adam Scott). Ben and Leslie are so lovable and perfectly matched, and their chemistry so heart-melting, and their characters played by such charismatic actors, that every obstacle in their path feels like a violent personal attack. Here, they’ve been keeping their relationship secret for weeks while falling quite obviously in love. But the cracks are starting to show, as a maintenance worker catches them kissing while they’re setting up for a memorial service honoring local miniature horse hero Lil’ Sebastian. Before they can go public though, she’s approached by two officials who scout potential political candidates and asked to run for city council. It’s clear she’ll have to choose between Ben and that lifelong dream. This is also a simply magnificent episode overall, with a rousing musical tribute to Lil’ Sebastian, “5000 Candles in the Wind.”
Where to Watch: Peacock
‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’ (season 3, episode 26)
Star Trek: The Next Generation revived the space-travel franchise for the 1990s and elevated it beyond its original campy reputation. It also brought it into the modern storytelling era with an intense third-season finale. In it, the starship Enterprise‘s respected Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) is kidnapped by the enemy Borg, a collective of cyborgs linked by one hive mind. In the episode’s devastating final moments, Picard is assimilated into the Borg, and he then intones, “I am Locutus of Borg. Resistance is futile.” His second-in-command on Enterprise, Commander Riker (Jonathan Frakes), must decide whether to move ahead with plans to fire on the Borg and destroy it, even with Picard now part of it. At the time, fans had to wait all of the summer of 1990 to find out what would happen; the result was so gripping that this episode and its follow-up in the fall were edited into a two-hour film, The Best of Both Worlds, released on Blu-ray and for a one-night theater event in 2013.
Where to Watch: Amazon Prime