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The Most Memorable TV Cliffhangers Ever, According to Critics

From "Breaking Bad" to "Battlestar Galactica," these episode endings left TV critics reeling.

Dean Norris, "Breaking Bad"

Dean Norris, “Breaking Bad”

AMC

Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of TV critics two questions and publishes the results on Tuesday. (The answer to the second, “What is the best show currently on TV?” can be found at the end of this post.)

This week’s question: What TV cliffhanger sticks out to you the most? It could have been a good one, a bad one, one that was resolved, or not. New and old shows apply.

April Neale (@aprilmac), Monsters & Critics

I have a feeling everyone is going to go whole hog “Sopranos,” the fade-to-black “Made in America” scene that pissed America off, underscored with Journey playing as we wondered if the onion rings were crispy and perhaps an overthought circular-shaped metaphor for the “on and on and on-ness” of life in all its banal nothingness. Sometimes rings are just rings. So many questions. Chase dodged, downplayed and diverted like the pro he is in all the followup “WTF David” interviews.

But for me it was a tie: “Dexter’s” Season 4 finale (dead Rita (Julie Benz) in the tub… THANKS John Lithgow/Trinity Killer!) and “Breaking Bad’s” Season 5 mid-season finale when Hank (Dean Norris) has a sit-down in Walter’s (Bryan Cranston) loo and picked up a Walt Whitman book, thumbed through and read the inscription and suddenly the dime dropped. Hank pieced all the past conversations and realized Walter White was Heisenberg after all. Bathroom-based cliffhangers are always good ones.

Patrick Stewart, "Star Trek: The Next Generation"

Patrick Stewart, “Star Trek: The Next Generation”

CBS TV

Eric Deggans (@deggans), NPR

As a longtime “Breaking Bad” fan, I’ve gotta go with the last scene in “Gliding Over All,” which was the show’s midseason finale in September 2012. That episode gave us the indelible image of Dean Norris’ Drug Enforcement Agent Hank Schrader plopped on the toilet in his brother-in-law Walter White’s home during a visit. Searching for reading material, he picks up a copy of Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass,” and sees a written message from methmaking chemist Gale Boetticher to his brother-in-law. As the scene plays out, we see on Hank’s face that he’s finally connected the dots; the guy he thought was the biggest nerd he ever met was actually the biggest drug dealer in the area. And since the second half of “Breaking Bad’s” fifth season didn’t debut until 11 months later, fans got a lot of time to wonder about how Hank would react to his discovery. Equally awesome in my list of cliffhangers is “The Best of Both Worlds Part 1,” the episode that ended the third season of “Star Trek: Next Generation” in 1990. In that episode, cybernetic uber villains The Borg have finally decided to go after The Federation, kidnapping Patrick Stewart’s Capt. Jean Luc Picard and transforming him into an emissary for their race, insisting mankind submit to assimilation. At the episode’s end, Picard’s Number Two, Will Riker, orders the Enterprise to fire on the Borg ship, even though he knows it may kill his mentor and friend. The screen goes to black and viewers had no idea what happened next until three months later, when the show came back for its fourth season. A perfectly executed, old school cliffhanger that also happened to encompass the best two episodes in the series’ history – that, my friends, is how it’s done.

 

Benedict Cumberbatch, "Sherlock"

Benedict Cumberbatch, “Sherlock”

PBS

Jacob Oller (@JacobOller), Paste Magazine

As much as I love the shiver-inducing dread of “Breaking Bad’s” toilet time poetry discovery, the episode I can remember causing the most controversy and discussion among my circle of friends was Sherlock’s “suicide” in “The Reichenbach Fall.” The resolution was almost beside the point. The episode came out when I was in the middle of undergrad and Sherlock fandom was at its peak. The speculation, the conspiracy, the science that the episode inspired in a bunch of 19-year-olds with nothing better to do was such an addicting first experience in the fan theorizing community that it’s been easy to dive back in for things like “Game of Thrones” or “The Walking Dead.” That “The Empty Hearse” made a joke out of the fans who filled the internet with theories and arguments about Sherlock’s survival only made the wry wink of an episode even more tantalizing. If you’re one of the people charting the GoT timelines trying to figure out how armies moved so quickly, you would’ve fit right in with my gang of Sherlock theorists as we calculated jump trajectories and impact forces on classroom whiteboards.

Daniel Fienberg (@TheFienPrint), The Hollywood Reporter

I’ll let others get to very fine cliffhangers like The Hatch in “Lost” and “Who Shot Mr. Burns?” (or “Who Shot J.R.?” if anybody wants to go old school) or that finale where “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” killed off and buried its title character. All very fine. I’m just going to go with the first answer that came to my mind, a cliffhanger that happens not to even be from a season or midseason finale. “Guess Who’s Coming To Murder?” is the ninth episode of the sixth season of “L.A. Law.” It’s fairly unassuming stuff, except that the episode ends with John Spencer’s Tommy using his ex to lure a newly acquitted serial killer (Timothy Carhart in a great guest turn) and then, in total cold-blood, shooting and killing him. It was a cliffhanger that was essentially resolved by the next week, but I vividly remember the feeling of, “Wait. How the heck are they going to extricate themselves from THIS?!?!?” That’s what a good cliffhanger should do and I guess that’s why this was the one I thought of first.

James Callis, "Battlestar Galactica"

James Callis, “Battlestar Galactica”

NBC Universal

Kaitlin Thomas (@thekaitling), TVGuide.com

A number of shocking cliffhangers spring to mind immediately — “Alias’s” Season 2 finale, Sherlock’s Season 2 finale — but the cliffhangers that actually stick with me are those that exist beyond shock value. The Season 2 finale of “Battlestar Galactica,” “Lay Down Your Burdens, Part 2,” almost doesn’t feel like a cliffhanger because so much happens after the still-impressively well-done time jump. The Cylons arrive on New Caprica, the fleet jumps away, Baltar immediately surrenders, and the Centurions are seen marching through the camp. It’s a cliffhanger that tells as much story as it does tee up the next season, and the resolution in Season 3 makes the time spent wondering what would happen to our favorite characters stuck on New Caprica worth the wait. Meanwhile, the end of “Supernatural’s” third season saw Dean being dragged to hell after making a deal to save Sam, and the resolution of that cliffhanger introduced angels into the show’s overarching mythology, forever changing the fabric of the show. These are the kinds of cliffhangers that tend to stick with me. However, I must confess that I’m still mad at the one that closed out “Veronica Mars'” first season; it was pure agony waiting an entire summer to find out it was Logan at Veronica’s door, so to then to discover she was dating Duncan was just the absolute worst. (While I’m here, I just need to go on record to reiterate that “Angel’s” series finale is not a cliffhanger. Thanks.)

Tim Surette (@timsurette), TV.com

“Lost.” Season 3. WE HAVE TO GO BAAAAAACK!

Matthew Fox, "Lost"

Matthew Fox, “Lost”

ABC

Clint Worthington (@clintworthing), Consequence of Sound, The Spool

Sci-Fi Channel’s (before it rebranded to Syfy) charmingly bizarre space opera “Farscape” was chock-full of shocking cliffhangers from season to season. You could mark the passage of time by which characters would die, be possessed, and come back in the season premiere a few months later. Still, I’ll never forget the utter jaw-dropping shock I experienced at the end of “Bad Timing,” the finale of “Farscape’s” fourth and final season. Having spent four years on the run in the Uncharted Territories, Earth astronaut John Crichton finally had the chance to settle down: he chased off the Peacekeepers and the Scarrans, protected Earth from alien invasion, and finally got the girl of his dreams in former Peacekeeper Aeryn Sun. But mere moments after as Crichton proposes to Aeryn and finds out they’re having a baby on a cute little rowboat on an alien sea, an unknown alien spaceship flies past and zaps them into dust. The final image of the series is Aeryn’s engagement ring sitting atop a pile of Peacekeeper-flavored Pop Rocks.

That was a wild note to end an already weird show on, the kind of bizarre turn you only do if you think you’re getting another season. Luckily, fans rallied, and we got a fitting (if rushed) conclusion a year later in the miniseries “The Peacekeeper Wars,” in which Crichton and Aeryn are immediately reconstituted like a Cup o’ Soup. Even so, I’ll never forget the sight of two of my favorite characters celebrating their long-awaited victory lap, only to see them sadistically killed off in the closing minute of the show. “Farscape” delighted in throwing these kinds of curveballs at the viewer, but “Bad Timing” absolutely takes the cake.

Ben Browder and Claudia Black, "Farscape"

Ben Browder and Claudia Black, “Farscape”

Mercury Entertainment

Joyce Eng (@joyceeng61), GoldDerby

I think I’ve mentioned this before, but I will forever be traumatized by Carter getting stabbed on “ER” and the subsequent reveal of a bloody, nearly lifeless Lucy on the floor while everyone else was partying away at the front desk and eating blue cake. I was not prepared for that at all, and honestly the entire hour felt like such a standard episode that I can’t imagine anyone saw that perfectly executed plot twist coming. The week in between felt interminable, and worse for little innocent me back then, I really did not think they would write off Kellie Martin by killing Lucy. That two-parter was one of the show’s best, and because of it, to this day I can’t think of Valentine’s Day without seeing their helpless faces and hearing Lo Fidelity Allstars’ “Battleflag” in my head.

No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover Usage. Mandatory Credit: Photo by Robert Trachtenberg/Warner B/REX/Shutterstock (5885629m) Noah Wyle Er Emergency Room - 1994 Warner Bros TV/Amblin TV USA Television

Noah Wyle in “E.R.”

Robert Trachtenberg/Warner B/REX/Shutterstock

Emily VanDerWerff (@tvoti), Vox

I guess I’m the girl who answers every question with “Buffy” now, because the show’s Season 2 closer — “Becoming, Part 2” — was a barn burner of a cliffhanger, which rewrote everything I thought about how the show worked. The best cliffhangers are often episodes that could work as series enders, and that’s definitely true of this one, which tosses every single ball the show has in the air, then blasts them to smithereens. Buffy sends Angel to Hell then skips town! And that’s just one of the things that happens in this episode. Buffy would have bigger cliffhangers, and it even had better finales. But nothing could quite match just how big and consequential this cliffhanger felt when it first aired in the spring of ’98.

Sarah Michelle Gellar, "Buffy the Vampire Slayer"

Sarah Michelle Gellar, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”

20th Television

Marisa Roffman (@marisaroffman), Give Me My Remote

“Fringe” is the only show where the cliffhanger(s) literally made me bolt up and lunge for my computer so I could immediately start writing. And it did it twice! Shows from the J.J. Abrams family — “Lost” and “Alias,” especially — excel with the “WTF, HOW ARE THEY GOING TO GET OUT OF IT?” twists, but there’s something about “Fringe’s” Season 1 (alt-universe!) and 3 (the legitimate erasure of a main character from the timeline) enders that hold such a dear place in my heart.

Ben Travers (@BenTTravers), IndieWire

“Friends” always did a pretty great job with cliffhangers, from Rachel waiting for Ross to get off the plane in Season 1 — not knowing he met someone in China — to Season 3’s ultimate “But what happens next?!?” tease of Ross choosing between his new (bald) girlfriend and getting back with Rachel. But it’s the next season that hits peak “how could you do that?!” insanity for me, as the surprise of Ross saying Rachel’s name at the alter, not Emily’s, adds a delicious twist to the will-they-won’t-they formula. Just as it appears all the drama has been resolved, that Rachel will keep her love for Ross quiet while he goes off into the sunset with another woman, Ross slips up. It’s not that anyone expected the Ross and Rachel saga to end so early in the series’ run, but the wrench writers Marta Kauffman and David Crane threw into the mix was unique, out-of-nowhere, and believable. Most importantly, it didn’t set up an obvious next step, so fans were left with many possibilities as to what does happen next. Season 5 didn’t disappoint, sending Ross off the deep end end (in what is probably David Schwimmer’s best performance), and honoring the difficult dilemma he established for himself. Dramas typically set themselves up for better cliffhangers — including the in-season instead of end-of-season cliffhangers, like when Kevin drinks the poison in Season 2, Episode 7 of “The Leftovers” — but you gotta respect how well “Friends” strung out its central relationship (for, at least, seven seasons, if not the full 10).

Q: What is the best show currently on TV?*

A: “Stranger Things” (four votes)

Other contenders: “Baskets” (two votes), “Big Little Lies,” “Dark,” “Los Espookys,” “Perpetual Grace LTD,” “Years and Years” (one vote each)

*In the case of streaming services that release full seasons at once, only include shows that have premiered in the last month.

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