***THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS SPOILERS TO THE WALKING DEAD’s SEASON FINALE: READ ON AT YOUR OWN RISK***
Within minutes of ending, the fan uproar of The Walking Dead’s season 6 finale had taken over social media. People flocked to Facebook and Twitter, furious that the introduction of Negan didn’t end with the gut punch of knowing who died courtesy of a late night kiss from Lucille, Negan’s barbed-wire-covered baseball bat. It ended with the kick in the taint of NOT knowing who perished.
Fans of the show immediately complained that the finale was a gimmick, that the fans were being trolled. They pissed and moaned that this was unfair to viewers and that making us all wait seven months to find out who was killed was a sign of desperation on the showrunners’ part, or that they were just holding off the inevitable riots when fans find out that Darryl was dead (as some theories seem to believe).
But, here’s the thing. This is not something new. Fans are not really being trolled by TWD showrunner Scott Gimple. This is exactly the same thing that shows have been doing with season finales for decades.
In 1980, the TV series Dallas – which had been at the forefront of using the season finale cliffhangers to get viewers to salivate for the next season and create water-cooler talk – pulled off one of the biggest finale shockers of all time when they had fans asking “Who shot J.R.?” Those three words have become part of our lexicon, and even inspired other series to pay homage to the cliffhanger, such as when The Simpsons had people asking years later “Who shot Mr. Burns?”
A decade later, fans were reeling when Riker ordered Worf to fire on the Borg ship in Star Trek: The Next Generation’s season finale. “What is he thinking!?” fans yelled (or we assume they did – because Facebook and Twitter weren’t a thing back then). You see, Jean Luc Picard had been taken hostage by the Borg and was turned into Locutus of Borg, and he was on that ship. Fans had to wait the entire off-season of the show wondering if Picard/Locutus would somehow survive.
In 1998, fans of the show Friends were left aching with anticipation when Ross Geller accidentally said Rachel Green’s name during his wedding vows to then-fiancée Emily. This slip of the tongue had viewers wondering what would happen for months – especially when the officiant asked Ross and Emily whether they wished to continue the wedding as the credits rolled on the season without an answer.
Season one of The West Wing ended with the President and his staff getting shot at by a group of white supremacists with viewers having to wait the whole summer to find out if anyone had been shot and, if so, who had been killed.
Lost, a show that ended virtually every single episode with a cliffhanger, pulled off not one but two of the most talked-about season finale shockers that left fans hanging for months. The very first season ended with John Locke and Jack Shephard staring down into the mysterious hatch that they had finally gotten open. It wasn’t until season two began that viewers learned what was inside. Two years later they repeated the trick, when fans were thrown for a curve in learning that Jack’s flashbacks in the season three finale weren’t actually flashbacks but they were flashforwards. Fans reeled back in surprise when Jack uttered the line “We have to go back, Kate! We have to go back!”
And it’s not just season finales that have ended with cliffhangers, but some series finales – whether intended or otherwise thanks to cancellations – have left stories dangling for fans to have to decide for themselves what actually happened.
Cult TV favorite Farscape ended its 2003 finale with John Crichton and Aeryn Sun seemingly dead. With the show essentially canceled, fans didn’t find out what happened until creators managed to scrape together enough network interest to give viewers their resolution in a 2-part mini-series called The Peacekeeper Wars.
Twin Peaks’ season one finale left virtually every cast member in danger, but it was season two’s eventual finale in 1991 – which ended up being the series finale – that had fans wondering what happened to a seemingly possessed Dale Cooper. And the question isn’t even really answered well enough with the release of the follow-up movie Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me.
The Sopranos ended in that now-famous fade-to-black with fans wondering whether Tony Soprano got whacked while Don’t Stop Believin’ was playing in the background, or if the show just simply faded out – a move that to this very day still have viewers pondering the meaning of the ending.
You see? Fans should be happy that we know that this is going to be resolved in the first episode next season – especially since Scott Gimple essentially confirmed this on The Talking Dead after the finale aired the East Coast, acknowledging that the show’s creators know that they need to deliver something big now that fans are left wondering who died, and brought up some of the very examples listed above as the feeling they’re going for in leaving everyone hanging.
Season finale cliffhangers are designed to get people talking. They’re designed to get you to come back excited for the next season to begin again. Have we forgotten how this works? Or are TV viewers so lazy and entitled now that they demand to have what they want when they want it?
This isn’t a case of the creators of The Walking Dead jumping the shark. This isn’t the fans getting screwed over. This is TV writers and producers doing what they’ve been doing for years and years. This is their way of making sure that no matter what, we’re all going to be talking about this episode for weeks, thinking about it for months, and then tuning in when the series returns in October.