11 Unforgettable Television Cliffhangers
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.
1. DALLAS // “A HOUSE DIVIDED”
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.
2. DYNASTY // “ROYAL WEDDING”
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."
3. TWIN PEAKS // “THE LAST EVENING”
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.
4. STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION // “THE BEST OF BOTH WORLDS, PART I”
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!
5. THE SIMPSONS // “WHO SHOT MR. BURNS? PART I”
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.
6. FRIENDS // “THE ONE WITH ROSS’S WEDDING: PART ONE”
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.
7. BOY MEETS WORLD // “GRADUATION”
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…)
8. THE WEST WING // “WHAT KIND OF DAY HAS IT BEEN”
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.
9. BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER // “THE GIFT”
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.
10. LOST// “THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS”
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).
11. BREAKING BAD// “GLIDING ALL OVER”
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.