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).