CLIFFHANGERS: How 'Game of Thrones' Got It Right and 'The Walking Dead' Didn’t
BEWARE OF SPOILERS (Obviously)
We all love cliffhangers, but no one loves a cliffhanger ending more than a showrunner for an expensive drama-based tv series. No surprise then that two of the biggest series currently dominating the channels both used the device. Game of Thrones exited Season 5 with the death of Jon Snow, but also various hints that this death might not be as permanent as death usually is. The Walking Dead has also recently wrapped, with the final episode of Season 6 subjecting us to the death of one of the main characters at the hands of Negan and his best friend Lucille. Carrying an audience forward over the long months between seasons presents a massive challenge for these types of shows. The seasons themselves are short – GoT runs at ten episodes per season and the last four seasons of TWD have offered 13, meaning that out of around 48 weeks of potential entertainment (subtracting for holidays), they cover a fifth to a quarter of our viewing time. For most of the year, they aren’t on air and we are free to transfer our allegiance to a myriad of other shows.
This is where cliffhangers come in. Creating painful uncertainties at the end of the season’s final episode makes us long for the next installment in the story. It also generates the kind free publicity in the form of frenzied online theorizing that TV companies love. As writers, cliffhangers give us the same opportunity as they do for TV shows, even if our challenge is only to persuade our audience to turn a page, not review their subscription to our network. They’re an important tool in our writerly bag of tricks, a way to create tension and actively engage our audience in the story.
But they’re a tool we need to use with care, as the internet discussions following the endings of these two shows made clear. We liked the GoT approach. We hated The Walking Dead’s. Why?
Never create a situation which extinguishes hope
This is what a cliffhanger does: it takes a character in whom we, as an audience member, have an emotional investment. It puts that character in danger. It then refuses to immediately tell us if that character survives the danger or not.
Our emotional investment means that we’re anxious to discover the outcome. In the time between set up and resolution, we’re going to explore all the alternative possibilities for the rescue of the character. A skillful writer will hint at such a rescue without making it explicit and this allows us to hope. We’re anxious, but not despondent.
This is exactly what the writers did with the death of Jon Snow. We’re invested in the character, who suffers a stunning betrayal exactly at the point, after many struggles, he has come into his own. We desperately want him to survive, not because the story needs him (because actually it doesn’t), but because we feel his story isn’t finished (contrast this with the end of Snow’s half-brother, Rob Stark, whose story was in fact, at an end). We see him die, but we’re primed by the presence of Melisandre – who has form for raising-the-dead type trickery – to hope for rescue. We’re anxious, but not despondent.
Contrast this with The Walking Dead. Here the cliffhanger doesn’t centre on rescue, it centers on which of our beloved characters will die. We actually witness the death, cunningly filmed from the victim’s POV, which both makes it impossible to identify them and also impossible to speculate that somehow it didn’t happen. All we’re left with in terms of hope is that Negan picked the character we liked least to practice his swing on. As message boards all over the internet testify, this isn’t a very hopeful situation. The audience for TWD was left both anxious and despondent, and instead of eagerly anticipating the next season’s premiere, in hope that some twist of fate would provide a rescue, we have nine months of glumly waiting to see who died.
Make sure your cliffhanger has a point
This is a lesson writers can never learn often enough, and it’s actually one that we must relearn every time we start to develop a new story. Everything that happens must have a point. Even pointlessness must have a point, which might be that everything is pointless, but if that’s your point, then make sure you make it in the most pointless way you can.
Randomness has no place in a well-structured narrative. Audiences can put up with a great deal of coincidence and unlikelihood (as watchers of that stalwart home of the eyewateringly unlikely plot twist, Downton Abbey, will be able to wholeheartedly confirm) so long as those coincidences and back-from-the-dead moments serve a purpose.
The death of Jon Snow served a purpose. It illustrated that blind obedience to tradition leads to tragedy, a recurrent theme in the show. It turned Snow from a potential contender for the Iron Throne into a Christ figure – one who is morally pure but unlikely ever to rule. The uncertainty had a point. It allowed us as an audience to detach from the character just enough for other scenarios to develop in our minds. We wanted Jon Snow to live, but now we’re ready for him to take a back seat in the drive for supremacy. We may not be explicitly aware of this process as we watch, but emotionally we accept the bargain. The writers of the show are allowed to toy with our feelings, but only if it helps to develop the wider picture.
The cliffhanger at the end of TWD doesn’t so much toy with our emotions as subject them to a thorough working over by Lucille. The bigger the emotional sucker punch, the greater, in story terms, the payoff must be, yet at this point in the narrative we have no inkling of how this death will matter. We can guess that it’s going to motivate revenge against Negan and his gang, but that motivation already exists in spades. What kind of pay off could justify this brutality against our emotions? It’s hard to generate a satisfying theory about this, and in that vacuum the suspicion sneaks in that the writers are manipulating us.
And there is nothing an audience hates more than feeling manipulated. Allowing unmotivated brutality in a story is probably the biggest mistake a writer can make. Make terrible things happen – terrible things are fun to write and (much more importantly) fun to read – but always make sure that the terrible things have a suitable, equally resonant pay off.
Remember the rule of three
There’s a rule in writing that for an idea to have true resonance in a narrative, it has to happen three times . This rule works most obviously at sentence level (‘An Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman walk into a bar…’, ‘A Mars a day helps you work, rest and play’) but it also applies to events. Fairy stories are full of threes. So are horror stories. Take the movie Hannibal and it’s titanic struggle between two Forces of Evil: Hannibal Lecter and Mason Verger. We know Lecter is likely to win this competition for Most Unpleasant Antagonist, but to drive the point home, his victory over Verger, which takes the form of feeding him to his own pigs, is the third instance of him offing a victim. First he fatally stabs a pickpocket paid by police detective Pazzi to get his fingerprints. Then Lecter disembowels Pazzi himself (full marks to the Foley artist who came up with the sound of Pazzi’s guts hitting the Florence paving below his swinging corpse). Then and only then does Hannibal get to serve the hogs with hideously disfigured child molester.
The rule of three also applies to cliffhangers. In GoT the death of Jon Snow certainly isn’t the first cliffhanger, but it is the first to end a season. In past seasons we’ve seen plenty of climatic events in the final episode – dragons hatching, white walkers emerging from the mists, Tyrion surprising his father on the john – but while these have been intriguing and have all hinted at future excitement, none of them left us guessing. Notice though, that the episode containing the cliffhanger – Mother’s Mercy – actually contains not one but three cliffhanger moments. We have the death of Jon Snow, but in the same episode we also have the death by poisoning of Myrcella, and Arya’s blindness (metaphorically also a form of death). We know that an antidote to the poison used on Myrcella exists, so her death like Jon’s, might not be as permanent as it seems. We also know that the Faceless Men are in the process of training Arya, so her blindness might also not be permanent. We have not one but three puzzles to work on in the months between seasons. Three has a satisfying feel to it. The emotional stakes are highest for Jon, but if that story doesn’t work out, we have two other potential victims who can be saved. The emotional stakes are high, but not stratospheric.
The cliffhanger at the end of TWD breaks the rule of three, in two ways. Firstly, this is the second time than a WD season has ended with a ‘who is going to die?’ cliffhanger. The first came in the fourth season finale ‘A’, in which Rick and his crew end up locked in a train wagon (shades of the Holocaust) having discovered that the kindly people of Terminus celebrate the arrival of newcomers with a barbecue – the kind where the newcomers don’t so much eat the main course as provide it. This is a classic cliffhanger – one where the danger is leavened with the possibility of escape – and audiences responded to it positively. The fact that the latest cliffhanger represents a very similar situation (evil community overpowers our heroes) but offers a worse outcome feels like a punch in the gut. This isn’t only depressing, it's repetitive and depressing.
The second way TWD’s cliffhanger breaks the rule of three is in the number of victims. Negan has eleven possible choices for the attentions of Lucille. That creates so much uncertainty that speculating about who might or might not have died creates a giant snarl of theories. We simply have no idea where the bat lands and no way of even picking out the leading contenders for facial rearrangement. Allowing some clarity here – for example hinting at three possible frontrunners – would have provided a measure of relief. All we get is Negan telling his henchpersons to feed Rick his son’s remaining eye if he tries to intervene. Great – so we know they don’t die. That only leaves us nine possibilities to pick from.
But as events steam along in Westeros, The Walking Dead remains on hiatus until next year. Is there any way the show can redeem itself?
We will have to wait and see.
To leave a comment