When the Cliff-Hanger Takes Its Sweet Time

A collection of new shows are setting up mysteries that remain unsolved ... and unsolved ... and unsolved.

Taras Kushnir / Shutterstock

“Somebody’s Dead.” That’s the title of the first episode of Big Little Lies, the limited series, starring Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, and Shailene Woodley, currently running on Sunday evenings on HBO. The title, for a show that is exceptionally subtle—especially in its depiction of the dramas and mundanities that shape its central women’s lives—is exceptionally unsubtle. But it’s also appropriate: Somebody, on this show, is dead. Somebody has been, indeed, murrrrrrdered. And we won’t find out who—and whodunnit—until, it seems, the very last episode of the series’s seven-episode run.

Big Little Lies isn’t alone in posing a pivotal question at its outset and then waiting a long—a teasingly, tantalizingly long—time before revealing the answer. Riverdale, the teen drama nearing the end of its first season on the CW, also uses its first episode to set up a murder mystery that will remain mysterious long after that episode concludes, thus ensuring that the soaptastic show features, underneath it all, some simmering moral tension. Missing Richard Simmons, the controversial podcast that just concluded its six-episode arc, teased several different theories, from the mundane to the tragic, as to why Simmons has disappeared from public life. This Is Us, the mega-popular NBC family drama, recently wrapped up its first season not by answering the question it had heavily hinted it would answer, in its season finale—how one key character comes to die—but instead by pivoting to answer other ones.

What’s the opposite of a cliff--hanger? Tension, suspense, mysteries presented and then left deliciously unsolved—this is all the longstanding stuff of televised dramas, ported over from serialized novels and soap operas to guide the plots of shows that have their own literary aspirations. Cliff-hangers themselves (the term arose from Thomas Hardy and his preference for unsubtle plot twists) are time-honored narrative devices, and when executed well they have proven extremely effective at sustaining audience interest and attention and frustration. Dickens used cliff-hangers. So did Dallas. So have many, many shows, of the past both distant and recent. (Who just got shot on Designated Survivor? Did Jesse really do it? Where is Alicia going? Is Jon Snow dead?)

Shows like Big Little Lies, though, are offering another spin on that age-old storytelling trick: The suspense they create, rather than finding satisfaction in the next episode or season, stretches over time. Their cliff-hangers involve not so much people hanging off mountains as they involve people simply hanging out. They are in no rush. Their mysteries dangle, languorously. Tension is created, and then, instead of being satisfied, it … extends, episode after episode, building and heightening. In 2015, my colleague David Sims noted that “America’s patience for long TV layovers, it seems, has significantly waned.” These shows are adapting accordingly. During a time when shows are watched not just episodically, but also, often, in one binge-happy burst, the classic cliff-hanger—the stuff of J.R.’s shooting and Captain Picard’s Borg-napping—is undergoing a very particular kind of permutation. It’s building tension and drama via suspense that is, itself, suspended.

It’s a twist that has been long in the making. Extended cliff-hangers (cliff-stayers? cliff-haaaaaaaaaaaaaaaangers?) have animated some of the most narratively powerful works of television of recent years; they have helped to heighten the tension in shows like Breaking Bad (how low will Walt go?) and Serial (did he do it?) and Quantico (did she do it?) and True Detective (who did it?) and Lost (who are they? where are they?) and, in general, pretty much any sitcom that has ever featured, simmering just below its surface, some will-they-or-won’t-they sexual tension.

What’s especially notable about the recent shows that are employing the device, though, is that they’re locating the tension in one (unanswered) question. They’re operating in direct opposition to the way traditional cliff-hangers were primarily used: between installments, between episodes, between seasons, in the interstitial spaces that might otherwise find a story’s momentum stalling. Big Little Lies and Riverdale and This Is Us and all the rest are taking the specific narrative logic of “Who shot J.R.?” and flipping it: The tension here exists not necessarily to capture audience interest over a show’s hiatus (although, certainly, there’s a little of that, too), but much more to infuse the content of the show at large with a lurking mystery. Things simmer rather than boil. The cliff-hanger is less about one shocking event with one central question, and more about a central mystery that insinuates itself over an entire season (and, sometimes, an entire series).

It’s a strategy that allows, at its best, for extremely nuanced storytelling. Big Little Lies is compelling for many reasons, but one of them is that death dances all around the show’s picturesque edges. “Somebody’s Dead” is an episode title that doubles as a backdrop to the show’s shots of crashing waves and looming cliffs. The idyll is made monstrous, from the very beginning; the tension comes in knowing that the monstrosity won’t come to its full conclusion until the show does. Who’s dead? Why are they dead? You must, dear viewer, wait and see.

In all that, you could also read the anti-cliff-hanger cliff-hanger as a kind of meta-narrative gesture of respect to a show’s audiences—both despite and because of the way the device teases them. In a 2012 New Yorker essay, the television critic Emily Nussbaum, discussing the cinematic and soap-operatic origins of the televised cliff-hanger, argued that cliff-hangers are much more than easy tension-ginners. They are also devices that lay bare, she suggested, the relationship between the producer of a show and the consumer. “Primal and unashamedly manipulative,” Nussbaum wrote, “cliff-hangers are the signature gambit of serial storytelling. They expose the intimacy between writer’s room and fan base, auteur and recapper—a relationship that can take seasons to develop, years marked by incidents of betrayal, contentment, and, occasionally, by a kind of ecstasy.”

Cliff-hangers’ inverses do something similar, but for opposite reasons. They acknowledge the viewers, and the intimacy of the creator/consumer relationship; they also, however, toy with it. The writers of Riverdale have anticipated that fans will mine the clues they provide to try to figure out for themselves, ahead of time, who killed Jason. The writers of This Is Us know that keeping mum about that key death will stoke, in their viewers, the same kind of delicious agony Breaking Bad audiences felt when Jesse, shaking and shocked at himself, aimed that gun at Gale. The creators understand that, in a world of time-shifting and binge-watching, classic cliff-hangers still have their place; they also understand, however, the power of extending that ecstasy. They understand, as well, that sometimes the only thing more compelling than a mystery solved is a mystery that—aaaaaaaaaaaaah—simply refuses to be.