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11 Unforgettable Television Cliffhangers

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Who shot J.R.? Who shot Mr. Burns? Which member(s) of Jed Bartlet’s staff got shot, if any got shot at all?

Nothing unites a nation of TV watchers like a pulse-pounding cliffhanger. Especially when it involves the collective misery of having to wait up to a year to find out the answer to whatever burning questions a series’ season finale leaves behind. Here are 11 of television’s most famous of them (including a few that didn’t feature any shootings at all). Warning: Some spoilers ahead.


Air Date: March 21, 1980

Thirty-five years ago, the television-watching world’s collective heart stopped momentarily when, in the final moments of Dallas’ third season finale, J.R. Ewing (Larry Hagman) was shot in his office by an unknown assailant. In the eight months that followed, fan theories ran wild about who shot the hit show’s favorite love-to-hate antagonist. (The actual killer was revealed in season four’s “Who Done It” episode on November 21, 1980, with 350 million people tuning in worldwide.) But more important than who actually committed the crime is how this granddaddy of all cliffhangers inspired future showrunners to up the ante when it came to closing out a season.


Air Date: May 15, 1985

Not to be outdone, Dynasty—the 1980s’ other favorite show about wealthy people engaging in dastardly deeds—opted to increase the body count when it closed out its fifth season with what became known as the “Moldavian Massacre.” What was meant to be the happiest day of soon-to-be-princess Amanda Carrington’s life turned into something out of Kill Bill: Vol. 2 when a group of terrorists descended on her royal wedding to Prince Michael of Moldavia and shot the chapel full of bullets, leaving nearly all of the key cast members lying lifeless on the ground. It was powerful enough of a scene that 26 years later, when asked by TODAY if he remembered a television finale that truly blew his mind, Drop Dead Diva showrunner Josh Berman didn’t hesitate to answer: “I absolutely do—the 'Moldavian Massacre' on Dynasty. I remember watching that with my jaw on the ground. The gunman had just killed the whole cast of characters! Everyone was talking about it at [my high] school, and so were my parents. A season finale should be breathtaking, and that one was."


Air Date: May 23, 1990

Truth be told, if the definition of a cliffhanger is a storyline that leaves you with less than all of the desired information—and desperately craving more—then practically everything David Lynch has done in his career (including his films, and possibly even his organic coffee blend) could be described in such a way. But he went all out for Twin Peaks’ first-season climax, putting every one of the main characters in some sort of precarious predicament, and finding our quasi-hero Special Agent Dale Cooper seemingly possessed by the evil spirit known as Bob.


Air Date: June 18, 1990

In Star Trek: The Next Generation’s season three finale, the Enterprise responds to a distress call, only to arrive at a colony that no longer exists. Which leaves Captain Picard and his crew wondering if there might be some sort of Borg activity happening. Despite a valiant effort to evade them, Picard is taken by the Borg and, at the end of the episode, we witness an assimilated version of our shiny-headed hero declaring himself “Locutus of Borg.” Say it ain’t so, Jean-Luc!


Air Date: May 21, 1995

Though plenty of people parodied the “Who shot J.R.?” mania, none did it quite as effectively—or as memorably—as The Simpsons. Fifteen years after Dallas shot their antihero, The Simpsons put a bullet in Mr. Burns during the sixth season finale. No, viewers weren’t frozen on the edge of their seats waiting until the next season’s big reveal. But the show’s creators had a lot of fun teasing the killer’s identity and using a cliffhanger to poke a little fun at the concept of cliffhangers.


Air Date: May 7, 1998

By the time the fourth season of Friends rolled around, viewers had seen Ross and Rachel hate and love each other in equal parts. But as the season came to a close, the sometimes-couple’s “break” seemed destined for permanency as the gang (minus Rachel and Phoebe) headed to London for Ross’ wedding to Emily. But happily ever after turned into a big “uh-oh” when Rachel’s last-minute arrival at the church led to Ross utter her name—not Emily’s—while reciting his wedding vows.


Air Date: May 15, 1998

Just a week after Friends' fourth season finale, young love and marriage were at the center of yet another cliffhanger when Boy Meets World ended its fifth season with the gang’s graduation from high school forcing everyone to start considering their future. More specifically: Will high school sweethearts Cory and Topanga head off to college together, or will Topanga go to Yale, as everyone is advising her is the best choice? In the final moments of their graduation ceremony—at the point where the imminent graduates throw their hats up into the air—Topanga takes the future into her own hands and asks Cory to marry her. While Cory looks confused. (To be continued…)


Air Date: May 17, 2000

On any series about an American President, there’s bound to be an episode in which there is an attempt made on POTUS' life. And The West Wing didn’t waste much time in getting down to business when they closed out the series’ first season with a bang—literally—when gunshots rang out and the audience watched as President Bartlet and all of his key staffers were thrown to the ground, pulled away, and/or placed into some other circumstance that left audiences wondering “Who’s been hit? Who’s been hit?” And that’s exactly what the audience heard on the audio track as the episode faded out. Fun Aaron Sorkin fact: “What Kind of Day Has It Been” was also used to title the season one finales of Sorkin’s Sports Night and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip as well as the series finale of The Newsroom.


Air Date: May 22, 2001

As the promos ramped up for Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s fifth season finale, The WB kept touting it as the “series finale.” Which made Buffy’s death at the end of it both appropriate and satisfying … until it was announced that UPN had picked up the series for another two seasons. Fortunately for the new network, Buffy fans were plenty used to the concept of impermanent death and accepted Buffy’s return without question.


Air Date: May 23, 2007

Lost’s third season finale represents two of the series’ finest hours of programming as it closed out one of the survivors’ chapters as Charlie (who has already been told by Desmond that he is going to die) sacrifices himself for the good of the group by helping to engineer their return home by way of the mysterious Looking Glass station. Meanwhile, above water, a new chapter opens as the flashbacks that audiences had at this point become inured to turn out to be a series of flash-forwards. Which help set up the off-the-island narrative that would come later in the series (and confuse the hell out of most fans).


Air Date: September 2, 2012

OK, so “Gliding All Over” is technically a mid-season finale. But as its conclusion wouldn’t come until nearly one year later, we’re calling "marketing-driven semantics" on that distinction. Because after years of watching Walter White vacillate in every aspect of his life—Is he a family man or a drug kingpin? Is he cooking meth for the money or the power? Will he ever choose boxers over briefs?—the character we got to know and like in the show's early days seems to have returned. Walter has gotten out of the drug biz and is happily ensconced back in his home life, complete with a family dinner with Hank and Marie. Small talk is made, and Hank brags about his Schraderbrau home brew. But then a touch of gastrointestinal unease sends Hank to the bathroom, where he proceeds to flip through a copy of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass and sees an inscription that tells him all he needs to know: Walter White is the meth king he has been chasing. It's a moment that will undoubtedly go down in history as television's most compelling scene ever shot on a toilet.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Sponsor Content: BarkBox
8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.