"The bad guy stuck [Rocketman] in a car on a mountain road and knocked him out and welded the door shut and tore out the brakes and started him to his death, and he woke up and tried to steer and tried to get out, but the car went off a cliff before he could escape! And it crashed and burned, and I was so upset and excited, and the next week, you better believe I was first in line. And they always start with the end of the last week. And there was Rocketman, trying to get out, and here comes the cliff, and just before the car went off the cliff, he jumped free! And all the kids cheered! But I didn't cheer. I stood right up and started shouting, 'This isn't what happened last week! Have you all got amnesia? They just cheated us! This isn't fair! HE DIDN'T GET OUT OF THE COCK-A-DOODIE CAR!'"
—Annie Wilkes, Misery
Cliffhangers tend to be a vital part of any serial story. They stop the action or drama right when tension is at its highest, leaving an audience on the edge of their seats in anticipation of a conflict resolution and wanting to stick around to see what happens next.
The best cliffhangers pick up the story right where it left off and provide a clear resolution based off of everything that was shown to have occurred to viewers in the previous installment. And then there's these...
Unfortunately, sometimes writers may discover that they've written themselves into a corner with no way to resolve a cliffhanger based on how the prior episode, chapter, film, or story ended. When this problem arises, the writer may make a saving throw to cheat his way out of the problem in one of a few ways:
- Facts about a character's circumstances are retroactively Hand Waved between installments (e.g. The hero tied to a chair in a building rigged to blow up who wasn't able to even break his bonds prior to the building exploding at the conclusion of one episode is seen breaking free and escaping at the beginning of the next before the bombs go off). Depending on the circumstances, this can lead to some pretty glaring Plot Holes.
- What is seemingly promised to happen at the conclusion of one installment turns out to be something else entirely or an Unreveal at the beginning of the next chapter.
- More egregiously, the Story Arc leading up to the cliffhanger is aborted and/or explained away as "All Just a Dream."
If handled well enough, most viewers may not notice it, or even care all that much if they take the MST3K Mantra to heart. If not, a lot of people are going to feel duped and not very pleased with what they were rewarded with for their dedicated viewership.
See Also: "What?" Cliffhanger when circumstances surrounding the cliffhanger are deliberately vague and without any sense of drama or suspense to motivate viewers to stick around for more.
Compare Red Herring Twist.
Pseudo Crisis is a subtrope.
Anime and Manga
- Macross Zero: At the end of episode 4 the island where the protagonists are is getting fuel air bombed (or something). By the start of episode 5 the heroes have already been rescued except the native girl who has been captured. Also, flying submarine aircraft carriers.
- Dragonball Z: Goku claims he saw a pod ship near Freeza's spaceship and took off before Freeza's spaceship hit the lava. The episode where Freeza's spaceship falls into the lava clearly shows Goku watching Freeza's ship fall into lava up in the air and then the planet explodes. Note that in the manga, that scene does not happen.
- Naruto gives us the Great Snake Escape. Deidara decides to self destruct and take Sasuke with him, setting off an absolutely enormous explosion, and Sasuke is out of chakra. The next chapter reveals that Sasuke somehow summoned a giant snake, mind controlled it, jumped in its mouth, and teleported it away, all things that take large amounts of chakra, which Sasuke had just been shown to be out of in the previous chapter, and he did all this in the time it took the explosion to reach him when it had already gone off right next to him. Yeah.
- Issue 24 (Volume 2) of Runaways. The kids have finally dragged Chase back, they've beaten their foes once and for all, and they're tired and weary as they arrive home... To find Iron Man and a bunch of mooks waiting. In Issue 25, they begin by... Meeting with the Kingpin. Word of God tells their quite appropriate response: They ran away.
- Inverted in a 1960s Captain America story. At the end of one issue, our hero jumps out of a plane, wearing a parachute. At the start of the next issue, Captain America is falling through the air with no parachute (and no explanation of where the parachute went). The first few pages explain how the Captain survives this. Stan Lee later admitted that when he wrote the later issue, he had forgotten how he ended the earlier issue.
- Misery actually has two In-Universe examples of this. Annie was telling the story about her favorite cliffhanger serial from when she was a kid, quoted above, to Paul Sheldon after he did a similar thing while writing the manuscript for Annie's personal Misery novel. Paul had ended the last novel with Misery's burial, so Annie insisted that the new novel would start with a way of getting the heroine out of her grave, fair and square.
- The Batman cliffhanger serials of the 1940s were very much guilty of this time and time again. For instance, Chapter 13, "Eight Steps Down," ends with Batman stuck in a Death Trap where spiked walls are closing in on him which is cut away from just before the walls are about to crush our hero with no hope in sight for rescue. Then, the beginning of Chapter 14, "The Executioner Strikes," shows Robin appearing much earlier during the same scene with more than enough time to slip Batman a crowbar to brace the walls moving in. In turn, the conclusion of Chapter 14 shows Batman locked in a box and dropped in an alligator pit only for the next chapter to show that Robin managed to break Batman free in secret much earlier and replace him with a hapless mook.
- The conclusion of Chapter 10 and beginning of Chapter 11 show something very similar to what's described in the page quote, with Batman miraculously jumping out from a car before it careens off a bridge and bursts into a fireball.
- Another particularly bad one: Batman falling several stories and visibly slamming into the ground is resolved by it not being Bruce in the suit, but a minor villain who decided to put it on for no apparent reason.
- This was actually telegraphed in the scene right before the cliffhanger actually showing Bruce walking away and putting on his hat—but it's blink-and-you-miss-it.
- It's been mentioned in that serial a particularly bad cliffhanger resolution: Batman is in a plane that crashes in a fiery explosion. The next episode shows him just staggering out of the wreckage a little dazed while the mooks who were also on the plane both died from the crash.
- This was so common in the Undersea Kingdom serial that The Other Wiki keeps a list of these. When Joel and the Bots watched the first two chapters in the serial where the cliffhanger saw Crash and Billy trapped on top of a cliff while it collapses underneath them from missile fire, the resolution in the following installment shows Crash and Billy climbing back down from the cliff before the collapse, prompting Tom Servo to reference the line from Misery, "How did they get off the cock-a-doodie cliff? This is wrong!"
- The Purple Monster Strikes (Republic, 1945) has quite a few of these, but the most insulting is the cliffhanger to Chapter 7, "The Evil Eye": A bomb is wired to an electric eye in a doorway, with the Love Interest tied and gagged inside. The Hero arrives, and we clearly see him step into the electric eye, which triggers the 5-second timer and the building blows up. In the next episode, we're shown that the Damsel in Distress manages to de-gag herself and alert the Hero just before he steps into the electric eye, and he then jumps over it. A moment later, once safely out of the building, he turns and shoots a Mook back in the building, and he falls into the electric eye and sets off the bomb. Cop out, indeed.
- Close second would be the end of Chapter 9, "The Living Dead", which featured the Hero in a closing spiked cage similar to the Batman example above. The cliffhanger showed the spikes closing in nearly to the point of puncturing the hero's body... the next episode backed the walls up considerably so the hero could use his gun as a stopper, holding the spiked wall at bay until the pressure broke the cage.
- When Joel and the Bots had to view chapters from the Commando Cody Radar Men From The Moon serial, Joel would always make some kind of comment whenever it came time for the Hand Wave of the previous chapter's conclusion to reveal itself. For instance, during the fourth chapter (aired alongside Robot Monster):
Joel: That scene wasn't in last time...
- Happens repeatedly between the chapters on R.L. Stine's Goosebumps books.
- Garth Nix's Seventh Tower series is also guilty of this. A particularly annoying one in the first book involves the main character falling over backwards at the end of one chapter and being caught immediately at the beginning of the next, which also means mining an utter non-event for drama in the first place just for the sake of not having it come to anything.
- A meta-example occurs in the Harlan Ellison short story "How's the Night Life on Cissalda?"; the protagonist, locked in an inescapable interrogation cell, recalls a magazine serial he'd read as a kid in which the hero has escaped between installments via the use of this trope, and how disappointed he'd been. And then, this:
"Later, comma, after he had escaped from the interrogation cell, Enoch Mirren was to remember that moment, thinking again as he had when but a child: what a rotten lousy cheat that writer had been."
- Robert A. Heinlein's The Rolling Stones: In a story inside a story, "Scourge of the Spaceways", John Serling ends one season in an unsurvivable Death Trap. He starts the next season out of the Death Trap and, hero that he is, is too modest to tell people how he managed to escape. Then the next adventure starts.
- Parodied in Bored of the Rings when Goodgulf reappears and begins his explanation of his escape with "Well, once out of the pit..."
- The "Homefront/Paradise Lost" 2 parter of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. The first episode makes us think that Earth is being seized by the Dominion, whereas in the second episode, it is revealed to be a conspiracy of a Starfleet admiral who wants to boost his authority. This may have been intentional, since the writers wanted to show how dangerous it is to allow a military to take control of a government when a dangerous situation is under way.
- Dexter. Several instances of something occurring that could have completely damned Dexter or caused problems were resolved a minute into the next episode. Of course, just as many times they were legitimate problems that Dexter spends the episode dealing with, but that just makes the Cliffhanger Copout and Pseudo Crisis events stand out all the more.
- A number of cliffhangers on Heroes would pique viewers' interest that one thing would happen and then would give them something entirely different. The episode "Truth & Consequences" from Volume 2, for example, ends with Hiro charging at Peter, who refuses to believe Hiro's claims that Adam Monroe is dangerous and is even willing to protect him, suggesting that the two characters were going to fight each other. The beginning of the following episode, "Powerless," shows Hiro, after his charge, deciding to just teleport around Peter and try and talk to him some more to convince him that Adam is evil.
- The original Doctor Who did this many times. The most (in)famous, not to mention literal, example is probably from Dragonfire; in which the Doctor dangles himself over a precipice for no obvious reason other than because the episode was coming to an end, and just... climbs out of it next episode.
- The Time Tunnel sometimes changed the context in which a cliffhanger took place at the beginning of the next episode. For example, you find that the heroes weren't in as much danger as you thought they were, or, at least, that it was a different kind of danger than you thought.
- Near the end of the fourth season finale of The X-Files, the audience sees Mulder alone in his apartment, crying hysterically with his gun in his hands. We cut away just before hearing his gun go off. The next scene is a flash forward in which Scully has apparently been called to his apartment to identify the body of a white male who died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. She identifies it as Mulder. The next season begins by revealing that Scully was lying, the body is not Mulder's, and the whole crying holding his gun thing was not related to anything.
- Made even worse that Chris Carter lied to Gillian Anderson when instructing her how to play that final scene, telling her that Mulder was alive, but Scully genuinely thought he was dead. Since Anderson is a great actress but Scully isn't, her tearful and quite moving statement about Mulder's death feels very cheap in retrospect.
- The first season of Prison Break ended with the main characters running through a field after their getaway plane left without them, while cops close in from almost every direction. In the beginning of the second season, it's revealed that they got away by...running through a forest and maneuvering around a moving train, which stops the cops from chasing them. It's made worse by the fact that the first season ends at night, but the second season begins during the day, raising the question of what, exactly, happened in what must have been several hours between the episodes.
- Episode Two in the first season of Twin Peaks ends with Agent Cooper having a dream from which he learns the identity of who killed Laura Palmer. Cooper immediately wakes up from the dream to call up Sheriff Truman that he knows who the murderer is but teases that the answer could "wait 'till morning." Come the next episode, taking place that following morning, Cooper recaps all the events from the dream that ended with Laura Palmer whispering the name of her killer in his ear. Then, once he's asked who the killer is, Cooper nonchalantly responds "I don't remember."
- Reno 911! ended every season with a cliffhanger, and more often than not would start the next season with a cop out.
- Season 1 finale: Jones Faking the Dead causes all the deputies to kill each other in surprise.
- Season 2 finale: All the deputies are sent to prison.
- Season 3 finale: Despite the deputies' attempts to get a stay of execution from the governor, Trudi's serial killer boyfriend is about to be put to death, but just as they're about to do the execution the phone in the chamber rings. Meanwhile, firefighters pry open Garcia and Dangle's squad car after a horrible blizzard left them stuck, and we see them say "Oh my God..."
- Season 4 premiere: "Hello? No, you have to dial nine first." The firefighter's response was prompted by Dangle and Garcia huddled together naked, "for heat".
- Season 4 finale: Dangle is about to enter into a gay marriage-analogue with another man when Garcia comes in, professes his love, and steals him away.
- Season 5 premiere: He was just kidding, and would like to remind Jim that gay marriage is illegal.
- Season 5 finale: All the deputies are riding on a squad car they decorated as a float as it drives into a massive fireball. The final shot is of a police funeral.
- Season 6 premiere: Garcia, Clementine, and Kimball are all dead.
- Red Dwarf had several episodes ending in cliffhangers, and resolved the majority of them with Cliffhanger Copouts:
- The first series' third episode ends with Lister triumphantly saying he passed the chef's exam, and thus now outranks Rimmer. The next episode revealed that he was lying in Holly's Opening Narration.
- The series 2 finale ends with Lister becoming pregnant after sleeping with his female Alternate Universe counterpart. This was briefly explained in the Series III premiere as part of an Opening Scroll of Unreadably Fast Text, which also resolved the foreshadowing from the first series' second episode that Lister will eventually have twin sons.
- The writers did intend to spend the Series III premiere resolving that cliffhanger, but found that they couldn't make it funny enough and decided to just skip ahead. They also took the opportunity to explain away Kryten joining the cast and Holly changing appearance.
- Series VI ended with the entire crew aboard Starbug as it was destroyed by their future selves. A quick gag at the beginning of Series VII reveals that this caused a paradox which hit the Reset Button.
- The cliffhanger ending of Series VIII—in which Rimmer is trapped aboard Red Dwarf as it disintegrates from a metal-eating virus and the rest of the crew have abandoned ship or escaped into the Mirror Universe—was emphatically not resolved by the miniseries Back to Earth, which instead begins with a title card saying "Nine Years Later". Given that the ship is intact and all the main characters are present and/or accounted for, it's ambiguous whether Back to Earth even follows the cliffhanger or if it follows the Alternate Ending.
- A season finale of 3rd Rock from the Sun involved Harry being kidnapped by a deranged man played by Phil Hartman. By the time the next season started, Phil wasn't with us anymore. The show had no choice but to gloss over the circumstances of Harry's kidnapping with no real resolution.
- Martial Law had a Retool-induced copout (see details at Retool).
- The third season of 30 Rock ended with Jack having just discovered his real father, played by Alan Alda. He reveals he needs a kidney, so Jack creates a We Are the World-esque fundraiser to get him one. Then the next season starts and none of this is ever mentioned again. We eventually catch a glimpse of a published copy of the book, From Peanut To President, that Alda's character would only have had time to finish writing if he got his kidney. So presumably it all worked out somehow. Similarly, Kenneth must have somehow escaped the Chinese assassin in the second-season finale, since he's alive in the third season.
- A fifth-season episode confirms that Jack did manage to give his father a kidney - Elvis Costello's.
- As some of the the Film Serial examples may suggest, whenever the Mystery Science Theater 3000 gang watched back-to-back chapters of an old serial short film, someone would always point out the copout.
- Tom Servo will always go into Annie's "He didn't get out of the cock-a-doodie car! speech as well, with Kathy Bates' inflections.
- At the end of the second season of 24, President David Palmer is infected with a virus transmitted by the assassin Mandy when she shakes his hand as he's getting into his limousine. As the season ends, he's lying on the ground dying as Secret Service swarms over him, and the last sounds heard are his fading heartbeats. Cue the opening of the third season, and it turns out that Palmer's fine, and that he found and "punished" those responsible (presumably Alexander Trepkos and "Max", the two masterminds of Season 2, although this was never confirmed in the show) with an offhand comment.
- One season one episode ended with Jamie killing herself (though we later find out Nina actually did it), after being discovered as The Mole, right before the Big Bad at the time calls her for an update, followed by the show going on hiatus for a couple weeks. The following episode didn't address this at all. Yeah, you can easily assume they just didn't answer the phone and he hung up, but it still feels cheap to get no acknowledgement that there even was a cliffhanger.
- In the series finale of the original Dallas, JR Ewing takes out a gun after being convinced by a reflection of the Devil in his mirror that his life is meaningless now that he lost Ewing Oil. JR holds the gun in his hand, and his brother Bobby hears a gunshot from downstairs. Bobby runs up, opens the door to JR's room...and as the TV movie "JR Returns" would later explain, JR shot the mirror and climbed out the window, then fled to Paris to hide out for six months. What???
- The producers of Sledge Hammer! were convinced the show would be cancelled after its first season, so ended it on a cliffhanger that couldn't possibly be resolved. (Hammer attempts to defuse a nuclear bomb and accidentally sets it off, destroying Los Angeles.) The show was unexpectedly renewed and we got this:
- Season 3 of Charmed ends with Piper and Prue seriously wounded and Phoebe, Leo, and Cole trapped in the underworld with Phoebe having given her oath to stay there forever. Season 4 opens with Piper and Phoebe in the attic discussing Prue's death. How did the three trapped in the underworld escape? How did Leo get home in time to save Piper? Were there any consequences for Phoebe breaking her oath? The latter two questions get some explanation at the beginning of Season 4, but the exact details of the characters' escape from the underworld itself are never made clear.
- Discussed in Stargate SG-1's infamous "200" episode. The alien scriptwriter has the characters running away from some aliens with 11 seconds to get to the gate. The team runs up to a cliff face and see a massive army of Jaffa between them and the gate. The real SG-1 call the writer out on such an obvious copout and provide the page quote for Viewers Are Geniuses.
Mitchell: This could be a problem.
- The Wonder Woman TV Series episode "Phantom of the Roller Coaster: Part 1" ends with Diana Prince (Wonder Woman's depowered Secret Identity) inside her car looking back, just before an enormous truck smashed it... with her inside. Part 2 begins with an already transformed Wonder Woman outside the car lassoing the perpetrators.
- Smallville: Season 3 ends with Chloe's house exploding the instant she closes the door upon entering it, but a flashback in the first or second episode of Season 4 shows her escaping. Never mind that there wasn't time, or that she was being aided, if memory serves, by Lex, who, in the season 3 finale, had been rather busy being poisoned at the time of the explosion.
- Star Trek: Voyager. Lampshaded in the holodeck program "The Adventures of Captain Proton!" (a homage to 1930s sci-fi Film Serials) where the players gripe over how the "Previously On..." segment dramatically shows their rocketship bursting into flame.
Kim: We didn't burst into flame in the last chapter! Why are these recaps so inaccurate?
- The first season of 100 Deeds for Eddie McDowd ended with a cliffhanger wherein Eddie was faced with a choice between saving Justin or himself. The season season opened with absolutely no acknowledgement or resolution to that cliffhanger.
- Due to his constant schedule slips, the writer of the Bionicle web-serials was forced to abandon quite a few arcs he set up as the big cliffhangers of the story chapters. The most notable cases are:
- The League of Six Kingdoms being reformed (this time by four members), and leading their colossal army against the city of Metru Nui. When we cut back to them, they have apparently given up on their plans, and continued to do absolutely nothing for the rest of the story.
- The Shadowed One came into possession of a cache of viruses that he could use to take over the Matoran Universe. When the story picked up, the universe had been destroyed already, so his whole arc got wasted, as well as Ancient's entire character (not to mention his reveal as a double agent), whom the Shadowed One had to kill in order to keep the viruses a secret.
- The cliffhanger of the fourth Futurama movie, in which the ship dives into a wormhole, with potential for Nothing Is the Same Anymore, was completely ruined by the Uncancelled season premiere revealing that the wormhole led directly back to Earth. Lampshade Hanging and Rule of Funny mostly make up for it.
- It wasn't just any wormhole, it was Earth's central channel for shipping. Comedic, isn't it?
- There was apparently a large divide among the writers about whether to copout on this or take advantage of it. Clearly, the copout side won, although we did get a magnificent bit of Leaning on the Fourth Wall.
- In one Sonic the Hedgehog episode Dr. Robotnik ties up Tails' tails, making it impossible for him to fly. He then throws him and Sonic into a volcano, with Tails saying something like "I can't untie my tails!!." After the break Tails unties his tails and they both escape.
- The Simpsons parodies the cliffhanger part (while hinting at copout to come) shown at the end of a chapter from a "Radioactive Man" film serial from the 1940's being screened at a comic convention. Earth is shown in the middle of an Earthshattering Kaboom, already clearly split in two by an atomic bomb when the action freezes and a narrator asks, "Will Radioactive Man be able to save the Earth in time?"
- Parodied in "Holly Jolly Secrets" from Adventure Time, the show's second half-hour episode. Part 1 ends with Ice King switching from asking Finn and Jake if he can come in their house, to covering the house with snow in an attempt to freeze them. The last shot of part 1 is Jake screaming after they're snowed in, but then part 2 opens and it turns out he was singing, not screaming. Part 2 goes on with Ice King being no more of a threat than he was in part 1.
- In the original My Little Pony cartoon series (in the 80s), the cliffhangers in all multi-part stories were invariably resolved about 10 seconds into the next part - often while showing the short recap and having a character doing something they had not previously been doing (such as escaping being bound) or standing in different positions. Frequently, any cosmetic changes to characters (such as being covered in gunge or wearing different than usual clothes or their hair being styled differently than normal) were not carried over into the next episode, as each episode was seemingly produced by a different group of animators.
- Parodied in Clone High. Abe is launched out a high window by a bean-can explosion and sad music plays while he plummets. The scene pauses just as he is about his fit the ground with his face. When they come back, Abe is seen hovering just over a pool, where he falls in harmlessly.
- Cody chasing bad guys across a bridge and gets blown off by a boobytrap -- except that he dived out of the car in time (really)