You know how it ends.

Photographer: Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images

'Walking Dead' Brings Back the Cliffhanger

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park” and “Back Channel,” and his nonfiction includes “Civility” and “Integrity.”
Read More.
a | A

Whether or not you’re a fan of “The Walking Dead,” chances are you’ve heard that Sunday night’s season premiere resolved last spring’s who-lived-and-who-died cliffhanger. Don’t worry: This column includes absolutely no spoilers. It’s the word “cliffhanger” that interests the word maven in me.

Last season ended with nearly all the important characters kneeling in a circle as Negan, the malevolent gang leader whose power and intelligence they had underestimated, chose which of them was to die for killing a couple of dozen of his henchmen. He then brought down his baseball bat on someone’s head -- but the show’s producers managed to keep for the entire summer the secret of just whose head was being bashed.

Those producers, the New York Times tells us, “have spent the past few months insisting the cliffhanger move was absolutely not a cheesy bit of audience manipulation and instead served as crucial demarcation between two phases of the story.” The Wall Street Journal writes that the show “resolved the cliffhanger from season 6 -- in graphic, bloody, torturous fashion.”

Fair enough. But what about the word itself? What is a cliffhanger exactly?

We don’t just use it for television show and films. The long wait for the 2000 presidential election results had one journalist after another reaching for the term. It’s been applied to suspense over pending mergers and jury verdicts. In a loose way, cliffhanger seems nowadays to apply to anything for which we must, unwillingly, bate our breath.

What’s striking is that there exists a dispute over the term’s origins. For example, many sources assert that the word originated with Thomas Hardy’s novel “A Pair of Blue Eyes,” serialized from fall of 1872 through summer of 1873. One chapter ends with a character dangling above a precipice: “However, Knight still clung to the cliff.” According to this particular origin tale, other Victorian writers, after seeing the public enthusiasm for Hardy’s device, began to end chapters with heroes and heroines in precarious settings.

Color me skeptical. Charles Dickens in his serials used the same device to great advantage well before Hardy. Besides, a search of several databases has turned up not one 19th-century example of the word “cliffhanger.” More likely the attachment to Hardy’s novel came much later, after the term came into the general lexicon.

More commonly the phrase is associated with “The Perils of Pauline,” the 20-chapter serial film released in 1914 in which actress Pearl White (who never used a stunt double) winds up in all sorts of perilous situations that have become clichés of bad filmmaking: tied to a railroad track, trapped in a burning building, and, yes, dangling from a cliff. So popular was the serial that distributor Pathé persuaded her to do the all-but-identical “The Exploits of Elaine” as a follow-up. White became famous and wealthy.  And yet here, too, I can find no evidence that anyone at the time referred to White’s serials and the many imitators as cliffhangers until long after.

In the databases, the term shows up first in the 1930s, almost always in film industry publications, and always in reference to a serial. The usage makes clear that editors at Variety and other magazines do not believe they have invented a new phrase: Evidently, it was already current.

The meaning of the term has changed since then. The earliest usage I have found is in a 1931 article in Variety which begins: “Neither John Mack Brown or John Wayne, announced for Universal’s serial, ‘Battling with Buffalo Bill,’ will be in the cliff hanger.” Two years later, also in Variety, we find a reference to “the new cliff-hanger, ‘Tarzan the Fearless.’” In these instances, the two-word term is a collective noun referring to the entire series of films. Nowadays it’s a one-word singular noun referring to the ending of a particular episode -- and to the wait itself.

The change in meaning seems to me to reflect a change in public taste. To call an entire series a cliffhanger is to acknowledge and accept the basic construct, the need to wait until next week or next month to find out what happens next. Part of the fun comes in the anticipation.

We’re less patient now. Waiting is agony. Whether it’s the fate of our favorite fictional character or the outcome of an election, we’re irritated if we can’t get the answer the instant we want it. Thus the current use of cliffhanger is ever-so-slightly derogatory. The word refers to a delay that is imposed upon us against our will.

“The Walking Dead” is unusual. Within the universe of scripted shows, binge-watching has crowded out much of what we might call episode-waiting. Season-ending cliffhangers are so 1980s. I like them just fine, but I’m old-school. A day will come when fans won’t wait.

I can hardly wait to find out just when.

  1. Rather, the entire summer plus about 20 minutes of airtime. The Twittersphere was furious at the additional delay, but I doubt that many viewers changed the channel in protest.

  2. Another reason for doubt is the structure of the scene itself. Hardy’s purpose in the scene isn’t to leave us wondering whether Knight will survive. It’s to contrast Knight’s highly intellectual view of the cliffs before he stumbles with his inability to hold onto that view once he falls and dangles. “This is not a time for superstition,” Knight tells his companion, Elfride, as he calmly instructs her on how to climb up and save herself. But once left hanging alone, he begins to feel that same “superstition” overwhelm him.

  3. She also died young, at age 49.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Stephen L. Carter at scarter01@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net