Season-Ending Death Cliffhangers Never Work, Except that One
My four-year-old twins like to startle me on occasion, and they are terrible at it. I can hear them from two rooms away, whispering, “Let’s scare Daddy,” as the quietly giggle and tiptoe stomp behind me, shushing one another the entire way. I pretend not to hear them and affect terror when they finally yell, “Boo!” because they are cute and I am not a monster. However, they’re not fooling anyone.
When Kit Harington apologized this week for lying to all the Game of Thrones fans about dying, I also thought it was adorable. It was like my twins apologizing for scaring me. If I were the cameraman filming Harington’s apology, I would’ve had to resist the urge to pat his head and say, “Awww, that’s so sweet. You thought someone actually believed you!”
No one believed a single damn lie the man told. And probably no one ever will anytime soon when it comes to season-ending deaths because cliffhangers like that never work. If there’s a trace of ambiguity, no one is going to believe the character has died. Also, if the show is named after the almost-dead character, no one is going to believe the character died (Arrow, Sherlock). It the show has a supernatural element or a history of bringing back characters from the dead, no one is going to believe it, either (Buffy, Game of Thrones, American Horror Story).
Ambiguity always favors the living, because narratively speaking, viewers don’t want to wait three months or six months or nine months to return to a series only to find out that the character that they had hoped would survive actually dies. How crushing would it be if a beloved character left bleeding to death at the end of one season begins the next season by finishing the process of bleeding out? Nobody wants to watch that.
Indeed, the only successful season-ending deaths involve those where the death is definitive. The fourth-season finale of Dexter, for instance. Or the fourth-season finale of Breaking Bad. Or the fourth-midseason finale of The Walking Dead. Cut off their heads. Blow them up. Slash their throats. Whatever you do, don’t leave us hanging, because even the smallest crack of ambiguity is essentially a spoiler, letting us know that the character will return the next season.
The exception? The best ambiguous season-ending death of them all: Breaking Bad, season three.
That’s Gale Boetticher in the season three finale of Breaking Bad begging quietly for his life, as Jesse Pinkman pointed a gun in his face and pulled the trigger. Before he pulled the trigger, however, the camera panned in such a way as to make it appear that Jesse might have moved the gun. We knew he pulled the trigger, but there was some question about whether he actually put a bullet in Gale’s face or if he shot wide and hit someone behind Gale.
It was the perfect cliffhanger, because we were 95 percent certain that Jesse had shot and killed Gale, but there was just enough ambiguity to leave us wondering if Jesse had broken bad, a notion with which audiences were uncomfortable at that point in the series. Gale was also a well-liked character, but not someone indispensable to the show, so it could’ve gone either way and still advanced the plot. If he had not shot Gale, audiences would’ve been relieved and left wondering if Pinkman was going to turn against Walter White. If he had shot Gale, it would’ve meant problems with Gus Fring and the further de-evolution of Pinkman’s character.
It was a win-win situation, and that’s what’s missing with most death cliffhangers — an easy way forward, no matter the outcome. If writers want to leave a character’s life in the balance, it needs to work narratively both ways. Viewers are sophisticated enough to understand that you can’t kill off a major character if the plot revolves around him, but you can work against the grain by killing off well-liked, sympathetic characters who no longer serve the story.
Except Daryl Dixon.