First and foremost, what is a “cliffhanger?”
When it comes to works of fiction – especially TV series – cliffhangers are used as a plot device, putting the protagonist(s) in a doubtful, often dangerous situation, then ending the story – and the season – without resolving it.
Cliffhangers have been used to keep viewers returning to countless series: Season 3 of “Dallas” ended with J. R. Ewing being shot, a nation was waiting on the edge of their seats to find out if he lived or not – in the next season, of course.
“Star Trek: The Next Generation” used double episode specials at the end of each season. “Breaking Bad”, “Lost”, even “Friends” and “The Simpsons” made use of cliffhangers. And one of the best ever made was “The Reichenbach Fall” episode of the BBC series “Sherlock” that put the title character in an impossible situation, with the only way out left for him being a plunge off a building.
Obviously, cliffhangers don’t work in every series. True crime shows like ”Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness”, for example, have no use for it (especially since real life continues to write this story as we speak). But for fiction shows, it’s a plot device that fills viewers with anticipation, excitement, and curiosity. And Netflix seems to be killing it.
Episodic cliffhangers don’t work on Netflix
Make no mistake, Netflix isn’t actually “killing” the cliffhanger; they simply don’t work in its context.
It is Netflix’s policy to release an entire season of a series at once. There is no use to add a suspenseful scene to the end of an episode when you jump to the next with one click or tap. Cliffhangers are great to keep people sitting down in front of the TV each week to find out how their favorite hero will get out of yet another deathly situation but when you can binge-watch an entire season – perhaps more than one – in a sitting, they simply become unnecessarily annoying.
If you watch a traditional, made-for-TV series on a streaming service or from Blu-ray, you’ll see what I mean. Take “24,” for example. Each episode ends with a suspenseful scene, keeping you on the edge for a week… but when you binge it, the purposefully suspenseful endings become a burden sooner rather than later, and will almost certainly ruin the experience.
Season-ending cliffhangers are still there
How about season-ending cliffhangers? Well, we have plenty of those on Netflix, foreshadowing the events of the next season or simply leaving major questions unanswered.
Among the best – and perhaps most annoying – of these, you find the ones at the end of both “Lost in Space” seasons. The first one concludes with an ominous “Danger, Will Robinson,” while the second, with… but I won’t spoil it for those who haven’t seen it. Then, there is the dark and weird superhero series “The Umbrella Academy” that left viewers perplexed – and without a proper ending – at the end of the first season, with the story concluding (this time with a pretty happy ending) in the second… only to serve viewers a major cliffhanger once again.
Finally, let’s not forget about the ending of “Stranger Things” season three, which killed off one of the protagonists (apparently), yet gave us a few major hints on what’s yet to come.
Yes, Netflix killed the episode-ending cliffhangers – they have no use when the next episode is just a click away. But it gave us something much better (or worse?): a big, season-ending question mark with no way to know how long we’ll have to wait for the conclusion.
So, Netflix didn’t kill the cliffhanger… it “killed it”.
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