Cliffhangers can be very useful. When a writer has more story to tell than can be fit within her format (novel/movie/television series), rather than simply condensing the tale to fit—and often editing out the best character moments, dialogues, and insights—she can choose to break up the story into more than one part. By making the break at a moment where the story is reaching some crisis, she also provides motivation for the audience to pick up the next installment to see how everything works (or doesn’t work) out. It plays on humanity’s natural affinity for narrative, our curiosity, our ravenous desire to know what happens next.
But like everything, this technique can be abused. Probably the most unapologetic example of this is J. J. Abrams’s Lost. It is one thing for a series to have a cliffhanger at the end of a season. That’s a great way to keep your audience over a months-long off-season break. It is quite another to make every single episode end in a cliffhanger, subjecting your audience to unfulfilled suspense for six out of every seven days in the week. But Lost took this to a whole new level by leading into every single commercial break with a cliffhanger. Five or more of them in a 42-minute episode, all but forcing us not to switch away even for a moment, lest we miss something. This is why I stopped watching Lost regularly after the second season: I simply couldn’t take the stress. I wasn’t looking forward to finding out what happened (since I knew that that question would simply be replaced with others); I just felt manipulated into tuning in.
Not that manipulation of your audience is bad in a writer. Manipulation is the writer’s trade. But a good writer never lets her audience know just how much she is manipulating them.
On Lost, there were few, if any, real moments when the audience was able to take a breath, relax, and feel as though they had reached a natural break in the story. Because, while we get few of them IRL, there are always those moments in our life-stories where one part ends and another begins: the moment you realize you’re finally over a bad breakup, when you leave home for the first time, when you lose someone you care about. It is not the end of your story, but it is the end of some important piece of it. And now you’re ready (and often eager) to start the next one.
And while both Lost and Once Upon a Time are shows driven almost exclusively by their large myth arcs, this is what separates the two series most sharply: OUaT knows the limits of the cliffhanger and how to use it without leaving the audience feeling blackmailed into catching the next installment.
Last week was the mid-season finale of the fairy-tale-based series. Thus far, the show has had three “finale” episodes. Last season’s midseason finale concluded with the death of Sheriff Graham/Huntsman, not just ending his budding redemption and relationship with Emma, but opening up new ground by making it clear that Regina not only remembers her previous life, but still retains some magical powers from it—setting her up as an extremely formidable foe to be overcome. The season finale reunited lovers Snow and Charming and returned to the inhabitants of Storybrooke their memory of who they really are and where they come from.
But with this came the introduction of magic into our world, something that, despite the triumph of good over evil in the episode, promised a more epic battle with? between? Regina and Rumplestiltskin next season. And last week’s finale wrapped up the nine-episode subplot around Snow and Emma’s journey to the Enchanted Forest, but also heralded the arrival of uber-baddie Cora and a very disgruntled Hook into our world.
In other words, each finale has sewn up part of the ongoing story of OUaT in an emotionally fulfilling way while simultaneously opening the door to the next substantial portion of the tale. We get our happily ever after and are allowed to enjoy that, all the time knowing that more awaits us once the series returns.
Not that “The Queen of Hearts” wasn’t a successful episode just on its individual merits.
Barbara Hershey’s Cora just continues to build up evil cred in two worlds before entering a third. There had been a lot of speculation about who the Queen of Hearts was, and not only does the series clear this up, but it did it in a way which added a dark and ironic twist to that title. Not only is she the taker of hearts through magic, but she also continues, despite her evil, to hold her daughter’s more figuratively, in her hands. The fact that she does not kill Regina outright (knowing that Regina believed she had been successful in having Cora killed) revealed that the heartless bitch actually isn’t.
Meanwhile, Aurora matures as a character. After being used as a pawn by Cora, she realizes that she poses such a danger to Emma and Snow (and actually gives a damned now about that) that she begs them to tie her up, leaving her in a dungeon in an abandoned mine in an abandoned world. She has no hope of salvation. Which makes it all the sweeter when Mulan retrieves her heart and flies back to rescue a Sleeping Beauty finally worthy of such fidelity.
Regina is also given the opportunity to redeem herself by giving into the pleas of Henry and choosing to do the right thing, despite Rumple’s arguments that the odds are very much against success. That this leads to a brief reconciliation with her son, followed by the kind of callow, unintended rejection that children specialize in, places her in the same ambivalent position as Rumple: both wrestle with seemingly equal pulls towards good and evil, leaving it impossible for us to predict which they will choose. And Lana Parilla’s performance of the devastated Regina rivals that of Goodwin’s in the nursery at the end of “Lady of the Lake.” Subtle, brilliant, and ultimately ambiguous.
We also get a lot of insight into just how much of a long-game Rumple is capable of running, and what can still surprise such a master manipulator. Granted one of the plot holes I pointed out last week was only partially resolved (why Rumple had the squid ink), but the levels on which he is playing this game (and thus the sophistication of the writers’ story) are quite impressive.
But the happy ending is really Emma and Snow’s. Snow returns to Charming and awakes him from his deadly sleep, reuniting with her true love and leaving her surrounded by her now-extended family. Her daughter Emma not only regains her son (and the naturalness with which they now interact speaks volumes about the state of that somewhat tricky relationship), but learns an important truth about herself: while Rumple may have set up virtually everything, she isn’t merely his pawn but someone with agency who exceeds the requirements of the savior he fashioned her to be.
And this happy ending is what demonstrates the mastery the writers of OUaT have in relation to cliffhangers. Shows which abuse the technique betray a certain insecurity: if we give the viewers a substantial narrative payoff, they won’t come back for more. Thus, in order to ensure our audience, we have to keep them in an unrelenting state of suspense. The problem with this is that such storytelling is wholly artificial. Anyone who experienced five or more crises in 42 minutes for years on end would likely be diagnosed with mental illness. This just isn’t how reality works. It’s not even how narrative works. It’s alarmist and exhausting. And beneath it all is a quiet worried whisper: “Our actual story isn’t truly good enough to keep anyone’s interest.”
OUaT, by giving us a substantial and satisfying resolution, sends a very different message: we know our show is good enough that just the promise of more will be enough to make you mark our return on your calendar. And they are right: complex and engaging storytelling, compelling and dynamic characters, good production values, and performances that run the gamut from solid to stellar—those are the reasons we’ll tune back in on January 6. Cora and Hook are closing in on Storybrooke, both with agendas that promise to shake things up and spark great battles. Snow and company are in the best possible shape to mount an impressive defense. I don’t feel cheated by having to wait til January. Instead, it’s like a narrative Christmas…nothing but happy anticipation and the certainty that Santa (Horowitz and Kitsis) will once again deliver.
Laura Akers is a teacher by calling and a geek academic by nature. Her sporadic but often too-lengthy writing for Comics Bulletin (and her own personal musings) tend to revolve around issues of gender, sexuality, identity, politics, religion (and all the other things you’re not supposed to bring up in polite conversation) in TV/film/webseries narratives. You can get topical whiplash and occasionally offended by following her at @laurajakers