This article includes spoilers of The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones.
Cliffhangers are techniques used primarily in TV to create tension, to create suspense, to keep the audience in the dark about an event (normally relating to a potential death). When used right they can elevate the material, reel the viewers back in for the next episode or for the next season, but when used wrong it only leads to one dreaded thing. Emotional manipulation.
If you want a great example of a cliffhanger with enough bite, twist and tension but also with some resolution, look at how Game Of Thrones ended its fifth season. The death (apparent) of Jon Snow was an event most people knew was coming. It was central to the narrative in showcasing the lack of loyalty of those at Castle Black. But it was also an important tactic to keep audiences guessing. Did Snow actually die, was the main question on many people’s lips. An event had occurred, it had shocked audiences, it had some resolution, but also provided questions. This is a prime example of a stellar cliffhanger.
But then we have The Walking Dead. A show that, like Game Of Thrones, is infamous for having a ‘no one is safe’ tone. It has worked in the past with the death of characters such as Lori, Shane or Hershel, but often it misses the mark. Similar to Game Of Thrones, The Walking Dead is not an original property, it comes from a deeply loved source material. It also seems to forge its own path, making different choices to those who are familiar with the comics expected. This is great cause it creates a puzzle that can be universally admired. But unlike the superior Game Of Thrones, The Walking Dead is TV’s head of emotional manipulation.
Emotional Manipulation is a concept that refers to the idea of suggesting something will happen or occur, then last minute ditching the idea, presenting something else. Yes, this could be an interesting twist, but not when you have told the audience something will occur, not when you have spent months of marketing towards an event everyone knew would happen. You have made your audience invest in an idea, and changing its fine, but drawing it out for the sake of commercial gain is not. Twists are great when they come from a narrative perspective, but not when they are simply a way of raising your advertising profits.
Put it this way. If your mother promised you that you could go to Disneyland in July, as long as you came and saw her every week, you would be excited right? But what if it got to July and she told you that instead you were going in October? You would feel cheated, you would feel manipulated.
This is what happens regularly in TV, where creators promise viewers an event, then totally divert. The season finale of The Walking Dead Season 6 is a striking example of this. The showrunners and actors promised that the finale would be a massive event, implying it would reflect Issue 100 of The Walking Dead comic. In this Issue, Negan kills Glenn, something that came with massive shock and horror. While no one definitively expected the show to mirror this event, everyone expected a death, whether it was Glenn or not.
But no, we were instead delivered Negan killing someone but we don’t know who and we won’t until The Walking Dead returns in October. The show has emotionally manipulated its audience by making us expect something, invest our time, but then cheating us of that resolution. The event will still occur, but not for months, making sure the audience comes back. A twist, or great cliffhanger, would have been killing someone other than Glenn.
Much of this is influenced by commercialisation. AMC, the channel in which The Walking Dead is aired is driven by profit like any business or organisation. When this need for money or revenue impacts the narrative it highlights an example of emotional manipulation. The channel has made the choice to draw out the event, to make sure the viewers come back, and therefore increase their profit. With many shows on cable networks, viewers actually have to pay for subscriptions, meaning they must renew their subscription to see the event concluded. Imagine you paid for half a film, then got told you would have to pay again to see the second half?
Emotional manipulation is a horrendous effect of cliffhanger narratives. But they are not a definite consequence. We have seen, and discussed, good examples of cliffhangers. AMC needs to be called out. This is the second time emotional manipulation has occurred this season, it is an attack on the fans, it is an attack on the audience. An attack on the people that make sure the show continues.