This piece will contain spoilers for both the most recent season of The Walking Dead and the season five finale of Game of Thrones.
AMC aired the highly anticipated finale of The Walking Dead‘s sixth season last night, and much to the chagrin of just about everyone watching, didn’t really do anything with it.
Did the new super villain, Negan, finally make his entrance? Technically. Was he as terrifying and vicious as AMC has made him out to be for the past few months? Not really. Did anyone die at his hands? Well, we don’t know. And that’s a problem.
After spending the past few weeks promising Walking Dead fans one of the most brutal and unforgiving season finales the show’s ever seen, even pimping out their actors to hype up the episode even more, the showrunners left us with yet another cliffhanger.
Except these types of cliffhangers aren’t fun anymore. They’re not interesting, or cute, or innovative. They are, however, manipulative, lazy and show a total lack of respect for television’s current audience.
Cliffhangers aren’t new. In 1980, the nation was engrossed with the mystery over who shot J.R. on CBS’ extremely popular drama, Dallas. In 1998, people were left wondering what was going to happen to poor Ross on NBC’s Friends after he said Rachel’s name at the altar while getting married to Emily. In 1990, David Lynch threw so many cliffhangers in his finale of Twin Peaks — including having Agent Cooper become seemingly possessed by the spirit Bob — that the show seemed to finally find an audience based on the conversation surrounding the episode.
Except cliffhangers aren’t fun anymore.
Storytellers have used cliffhangers for centuries, if not longer, in serialized media. We, as consumers of media, have come to expect cliffhangers whenever a book or series comes to an end. We love talking about what it could have all meant, what could possibly come next.
Or, rather, we did.
Thanks to shows like The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones, the cliffhanger that we once knew has become so mangled and unidentifiable, that people are left outraged. There are a couple of reasons why.
The major issue is that both of these shows grossly abuse the cliffhanger trope, especially the former. In this season alone, The Walking Dead has “killed off” Glenn, only to bring him back. They made it seem like they were going to kill Daryl last week, only to have him stroll back in last night. When they do actually kill off characters, like Denise’s death just a couple of weeks ago, it’s done with such utter nonchalance that you have to take a second to process what just happened.
Simply put, The Walking Dead‘s storytelling is broken, and because they don’t know how to fix it, they generate artificial hype for the big finale. And, of course, that means a cliffhanger.
Both of these shows grossly abuse the cliffhanger trope
The Walking Dead has cried wolf too many times, however, and it’s gotten to the point where we can see right through it. It used to be that a cliffhanger left you aching for the next episode, anxious about having to wait four to five months to see what happened next. A good example of this executed right, by the way, is Breaking Bad‘s season three finale, which left us wondering what happened to Jesse and Gale.
With The Walking Dead, a cliffhanger isn’t anything to look forward to, nor is it surprising. The entire season has become cliffhanger after cliffhanger, trying to goad their audience into tuning in the following week. It’s because the show is so obsessed with outdoing the absurdity of each previous episode that we never get any real closure, either.
If you don’t give people closure, they’re going to eventually let go of the cliff you leave them erroneously and continuously hanging from.
The Walking Dead has become exhausting and tedious to watch. It’s not enjoyable anymore, and even worse, it’s not fun to talk about, either.
This is the other issue with cliffhangers in the year 2016: they’re not conversations people are going to have at the water cooler for 10 minutes the following day at work and then forget about. Instead, they’re fully formed aspects of an episode that will be debated the minute the episode ends.
To keep interest up even during the months it’s off the air, shows like The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones rely on that conversation continuing. But in an age where our attention span changes to something new every 15 minutes, it’s a hard thing to accomplish. So what do you do?
You continue the cliffhanger outside of the show.
No one does this better than HBO and Game of Thrones. The biggest question the network’s had over its series is whether fan favorite Jon Snow (Kit Harington) is alive or dead. They’ve allowed Harington to be photographed on set and they’ve kept their answers to the question vague, letting people dissect each explanation for themselves. Now, leading up to the new season, they’ve put the question at the front of each promotional ad, and included Snow’s body in the new trailers.
For a while, it worked to the show’s advantage. People wanted to talk about it non-stop and outlets set up a “Kit Harington Watch,” writing about any appearance he may have made on set.
But the cliffhanger didn’t just last for two minutes at the end of an episode. Instead, it dragged out for months and months. Like AMC and The Walking Dead, HBO soon learned that audiences are well aware of when they’re being manipulated. The backlash started when people got bored, annoyed and even lost interest.
Cliffhangers were once used as an actual storytelling tool. Yes, it was used by authors and writers to instill curiosity over the next chapter, but there was an art to executing it in an effective manner. Now, it’s a lazy way to ensure that ratings will be kept up the following season.
There’s a reason it’s called show business, and at the end of the day, all the networks care about is how they can profit off of a series like The Walking Dead or Game of Thrones. But just because profit is important, doesn’t mean the art or storytelling has to suffer. Other series, like The Good Wife, have used cliffhangers to their advantage by doing so sparingly.
There are ways for The Walking Dead to turn it around, but it needs to return to the theme of survival. Characters are going to die in both The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones. They are, in essence, both about surviving an ongoing war for dominance. But death doesn’t have to be the main reason to tune in, nor should it be.
To hang and dangle a beloved character’s fate in front of audiences every single season, taunting them and teasing them, only to have them waltz back into the series like it was all for nothing, is manipulative and does nothing to progress the story.
Game of Thrones and Walking Dead showrunners, you’ve proven before you can be better than this. So do better.
Because, quite frankly, I don’t know how much more of either I can take.