Essays · TV

TV Shows Are Chasing Cliffhangers, Tempting Spoiler Culture

By  · Published on June 24th, 2016

The Spring TV Cliffhanger Frenzy

These days, popular television shows are going to extremes to prevent spoilers. The Walking Dead allegedly shot 11 different scenes, covering every possible death as part of its season-ending cliffhanger. Game of Thrones has maxed out on-set security, killed press screeners, and stopped providing episode descriptions to cable companies. In the high stakes world of high stakes mainstream television, where intense audience engagement has led to a thirst for information, networks are doubling down on secrecy.

At the same time, shows are also doubling down on ambiguity and cliffhangers as they close out their seasons. It’s a dangerous dance between maximizing excitement and then attempting to control every inch of the response. It puts everyone – fans, showrunners, actors, TV critics – in a perpetually heightened state of anxiety as these shows continue to drive forward.

Is the state of spoiler culture a positive development for TV shows? It’s certainly emblematic of the passion that exists within fandoms. And while Twitter is a dangerous place on a Sunday nights in May for those who aren’t caught up on Game of Thrones, these offseason spoilers are far easier to avoid. They are often tucked into corners of the internet where only the most hardcore dwell.

So is it a bad thing? No. Are networks and shows doubling down on this kind of situation because they can see the business sense in creating a fervor within the ranks of its fans? Oh hell yes. We’ve seen this trend continue all over the spring TV landscape. Three shows in particular found themselves delivering different kinds of cliffhangers. And it’s likely that Game of Thrones will join them on Sunday night. For now, let’s talk about the triumvirate of Orphan Black, Orange is the New Black, and Archer. Needless to say, what follows will include spoilers for all three shows.

For Orphan Black, a show that has always been ambitious with the mysteries involving its many Tatiana Mislanys, big cliffhangers like the one that closed its most recent season are not the norm. Previous seasons have ended with clone dance parties or clone dinner parties. Their finishes usually mix a happy, somewhat safe moment for our clone heroes with the introduction of a new looming threat for next season. In the finale that aired last week, season four closed like The Empire Strikes Back with a huge victory for the villainous clone Rachel and the show’s lead clone Sarah bleeding out on a secluded beach. Denizens of Clone Club fandom probably aren’t overwhelmingly worried about Sarah’s fate, but this does give showrunners Graeme Manson and John Fawcett room to do just about anything. They could kill Sarah, they could take out the recently reunited Cosima and Delphine, or the show’s ultimate big bad Dr. P.T. Westmoreland could decide that Rachel is unworthy and off her, as well. The answer is probably far more nuanced and will take all of its fifth season and final season to resolve. But in one fell swoop, Orphan Black went from “a show I enjoy whenever it comes back” to “holy shit, I need to know what happens next” for even the most casual fan.

Unlike Orphan Black, Jenji Kohan’s Orange is the New Black did end with a cliffhanger that was on brand. Recent seasons have ended with big shake-ups for the women of Litchfield Penitentiary – including last year’s big swimming excursion – but this one is a little different. A prison riot following the death of one of their own, a prisoner holding a gun to the head of a guard, and a warden caught in the middle. It’s both the culmination of a season’s worth of amazing thematic work and setup for a huge confrontation. A great cliffhanger ending doesn’t just ask new questions, it’s part of an answer to old questions, as well. Orange is the New Black is a textbook example of how to do it right.

And finally, there’s FX’s Archer, which ended by jumping off the cliff entirely. It’s final image – that of its titular hero face down, dead in a pool – is the kind we might expect from a series finale. If a few days later it were announced that creator Adam Reed and team were done with Archer, it would be a dark yet fitting way to end their seven year run. Yet we found out just this week that Archer has been renewed for another three seasons. No doubt that Team Archer already has a way out of this pickle, be it with clones, time travel, misdirection, whatever. It’s Archer. Anything goes. It will be fun to watch them unfurl (or hell, even openly disregard) the web they’ve weaved for themselves.

These three shows aren’t exactly playing on the same level of fan culture as Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead, but their collective shots into the darkness show that they’re not afraid to chase a little bit of that feeling. Dropping off that particular cliff with hand on the edge isn’t a new move, but it’s a bold one, and it’s clearly been an infectious part of what’s made TV so exciting in the spring of 2016.

Your move, Game of Thrones.

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Neil Miller is the persistently-bearded Publisher of Film School Rejects, Nonfics, and One Perfect Shot. He's also the Executive Producer of the One Perfect Shot TV show (currently streaming on HBO Max) and the co-host of Trial By Content on The Ringer Podcast Network. He can be found on Twitter here: @rejects (He/Him)