- AMC/Breaking Bad screencap/Netflix
Cliffhangers are a plot device prevalent in modern fiction, but they have been taken to particularly nail-biting heights in television.
The concept originated in the Middle Ages, in a work of Arabic fiction called “One Thousand and One Nights,” and Charles Dickens used the device in some of his stories in the Victorian Era. But the term “cliffhanger” didn’t come into being until 1873, when Thomas Hardy’s “A Pair of Blue Eyes” ended with the protagonist literally hanging off of a cliff.
While cliffhangers are used in many methods of storytelling, from film to novels, they’re most commonly used in television, and particularly in season finales. They get viewers to watch dramatic episodes live, and the unfinished ending will get people to tune in for the next season.
Here, we collected some of the best and most iconic cliffhangers in television, from “The West Wing” to “Game of Thrones”:
“Twin Peaks” — season 2 episode 8, “The Last Evening”
When it aired: May 23, 1990
Like many cliffhangers on this list, “The Last Evening” ended with a character getting shot. In this case, shots are fired at Agent Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) three times, and the episode ends. Fans speculated about Cooper’s fate for months until the second season premiered and revealed Cooper survived.
“Friends” — season 4 episode 24, “The One With Ross’ Wedding Part II”
When it aired: May 7, 1998
The gang travels to London for Ross’ wedding to Emily. But, in a slightly expected twist, Ross accidentally calls his fiance “Rachel” during the ceremony, and the episode ends right after. It wasn’t the most cleverly placed cliffhanger, but it kept fans desperate until the season five premiere, which showed the events following his massive mistake.
“The West Wing” — season 1 episode 22, “What Kind of Day Has It Been”
When it aired: May 17, 2000
The season one finale ends with a shooting. As pretty much every major cast member exits a building, multiple snipers begin shooting at them. The shots continue, and we see various characters on the ground, trying to get away. As the screen goes black, someone says, “Who’s been hit?”
“Buffy the Vampire Slayer” — season 5 episode 22, “The Gift”
- The WB
When it aired: May 22, 2001
By season five, Buffy had already died once. But this time, it was a heartbreaking sacrifice she made to the close the portals to demon dimensions. This cliffhanger was so painful because it felt so real after seeing her grave at the end of the episode.
“The O.C.” — season 2 episode 24, “The Dearly Beloved”
When it aired: May 19, 2005
“Mmm whatcha say!” This episode of Fox’s teen drama “The O.C.” had such a memorable moment in its cliffhanger where Marissa shoots her boyfriend’s brother Trey that it inspired an “SNL” sketch and a meme years later.
“Grey’s Anatomy” — season 1 episode 9, “Who’s Zoomin’ Who?”
When it aired: May 22, 2005
In the season finale of the first season of “Grey’s Anatomy,” Meredith Grey finds out that her boyfriend, Dr. McDreamy (Derek Shepherd) has been hiding something huge: he’s married.
“Breaking Bad” — season 3 episode 13, “Full Measure”
When it aired: June 13, 2010
In the season three finale, Jesse Pinkman is told he has to kill Gale, who has become a threat to Walt’s meth-making business. Jesse goes to Gale’s apartment and pulls a gun on him. Gale tries to plead with a very conflicted Jesse. Shaking, Jesse pulls the trigger as the screen cuts to black before we see what happens.
“Mad Men” — season 4 episode 13, “Tomorrowland”
When it aired: October 17, 2010
The season finale of “Mad Men” season four shocked fans of the show, but once you look back on the details laid out through the season, it’s painfully obvious. Toward the end of the episode, Don proposes to Megan, his secretary. To make the twist no one saw coming worse, the show took its longest break ever in between seasons four and five.
“Sherlock” — season 2 episode 3, “The Reichenbach Fall”
When it aired: January 15, 2012
This episode follows Moriarty’s seemingly successful attempt to completely ruin Sherlock’s reputation, ultimately driving him to commit suicide. In the next episode of the next season, it’s revealed that Sherlock faked his death, but it stirred a lot of speculation after it aired.
“Grey’s Anatomy” — season 8 episode 24, “Flight”
When it aired: May 17, 2012
By the end of this devastating episode, which includes the death of Lexie Grey, the doctors are still stranded, and their last match has gone out. The doctors in Seattle don’t know where they are or what happened, and we were left wondering who would survive the crash for months.
“Breaking Bad” — season 5 episode 8, “Gliding Over All”
When it aired: September 2, 2012
It all comes down to calls of nature. In the final scene of “Gliding Over All,” season five’s mid-season finale, Hank, while at the White home, has to go to the bathroom. And it’ll be a long one, so he looks for something to read, and he picks up Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass,” which helps him put together that his wife’s brother-in-law is Heisenberg, the drug dealer he’s been hunting.
“Game of Thrones” — season 6 episode 10, “Mother’s Mercy”
When it aired: June 14, 2015
This memorable episode of “Game of Thrones” has a few cliffhangers, but only one we’ll never forget: Jon Snow’s death. Jon is stabbed multiple times by members of the Night’s Watch, and left to die in the snow. Most people knew he was going to come back, but it wasn’t a guarantee since the show was already further into the story than the books by George R.R. Martin at the end of this season.
“Game of Thrones” — season 7 episode 7, “The Dragon and the Wolf”
When it aired: August 27, 2017
Right after Jon Snow gets intimate with his Aunt Daenerys, the Night King and his army attack Eastwatch, and they have a very powerful new weapon: the reborn Viserion, who breathes blue fire. After the attack, the Night King and his massive army head south to Westeros.
“Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” — season 3 episode 13, “Nathaniel Is Irrelevant”
- The CW
When it aired: February 16, 2018
The season three finale of “Crazy-Ex Girlfriend” is pretty messy, but it’s left fans on the edge of their seats until season four premieres in the fall. In the episode, Rebecca Bunch is in jail for attempted murder of her stalker, Trent. In the final scene, Rebecca is about to plead insanity before a judge (she was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder earlier in the season), but she decides to plead guilty, and the episode ends.