The 38 most dramatic TV cliffhangers of all time (2024)

The 38 most dramatic TV cliffhangers of all time (1)

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Done right, a cliffhanger can be the most effective plot device on television.

The best can leave you tearing out your hair, wishing the next episode was available immediately. The greatest offer mystery by teasing answers but never making the outcome obvious. The worst, the ones that make you want to stop watching a show, are often those that “jump the shark”.

For many years, the benchmark for great cliffhangers was the “Who shot JR?” storyline on Dallas, the American TV show that caused a media storm in 1980. So widely talked about was the twist that Jimmy Carter even joked about the fictional murder during his second presidential campaign.

The cliffhanger soon developed into something more than just being a “whodunit”. Sitcoms – such as The Office US and Friends – went on to incorporate the device to tease relationships (Jim and Pam, Rachel and Ross), keeping viewers coming back for resolution. Soaps, from EastEnders to Neighbours, have used cliffhangers to bring viewers back for more day-in day-out.

So, what are the best cliffhangers in television history? The Independent has compiled the greatest in television history.

38. Breaking Bad – “Gliding Over All” (2012)

Karma for killing Gale comes for Walter White in season five. The meth maker believes his days of cooking are long over. Having lunch with his family, everything seems perfect. And then everything goes wrong. So, so wrong. Hank (Dean Norris) goes to use the toilet and picks up a copy of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass – a gift from Gale to Walter White. “To my other favorited WW. It's an honour working with you. Fondly, GB.” And with that, as Hank realises Walt’s true identity, the end of Heisenberg’s empire begins.

37. The Sopranos – “Made In America” (2007)

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The debate over whether certain final scenes of television shows are actually good will rage on and on. The Sopranos remains front and centre of the conversation. It's a seemingly banal occasion – a restaurant dinner scene. We watch on as Tony sits there, observing other customers. Carmela arrives, then AJ and Meadow, who the last we see, is parking her car outside. A bell rings, Tony looks up and the screen cuts to black. It’s an ending that’s inspired essays offering varied interpretations but ultimately, it remains a beautifully-executed few minutes of television – and a cliffhanger that’ll never have a resolution.

36. EastEnders – The Kat and Zoe revelation (2001)

“You can’t tell me what to do ‘cause you ain’t my muvva” / “YES I AM!” Not the work of Shakespeare, granted, but surely one of the biggest moments in soap history. The nation’s jaws collectively dropped as they learned that Kat Slater (Jessie Wallace) wasn’t Zoe’s sister at all, but her mum.

35. Game of Thrones – “The Rains of Castamere” (2013)

Game of Thrones knew George RR Martin was willing to kill off leading characters, but nothing prepared non-book readers for The Red Wedding. Robb Stark (Richard Madden), Talisa Stark (Oona Chaplin) and Catelyn Stark (Michelle Fairley) are attending the wedding of Roslin Frey (Alexandra Dowling) and Edmure Tully (Tobias Menzies) when things go terribly, terribly wrong for the Starks. The Freys turn on them, killing Robb, Talisa and their unborn child. Then, as the blood spills everywhere, Catelyn’s throat is slit. Cut to black. Devastating.

34. Dallas – “A House Divided” (1980)

The cliffhanger that kickstarted the end of season cliffhanger trend. Larry Hagman’s oil baron JR Ewing had made plenty of enemies in Dallas. By the end of season three, one of them took justice into their own hands, shooting JR in the back twice. However, rather than reveal the culprit, the team behind Dallas left the case unsolved. And over the next eight months – the time between seasons – the whole world was asking “Who shot JR?” Unsurprisingly, considering the hysteria around the mystery, 350 million people tuned in to watch the revelatory episode “Who Done It”.

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33. The Simpsons – “Who shot Mr Burns?” (1995)

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Showrunner Matt Groening had long wanted to do an episode where Mr Burns was shot, and the culprit was not revealed until the next episode. Taking inspiration from Dallas, the animation concluded Part One with the nuclear power plant owner being shot by an unknown assailant. Then, after a Summer of waiting, fans were finally treated to the answer. The two-part episode has gone down as a classic and is often heralded as the series’ best.

32. Doctor Who – “The Parting of the Ways” (2005)

Choosing one standout Doctor Who cliffhanger is almost impossible – especially when you consider that all 37 (and counting) seasons have frequently used the plot device. While the introduction of John Hurt’s Doctor certainly ranks among them, one of best came at the end of the rebooted first series. Having absorbed a bunch of vortexes, the Doctor is struggling and on the verge of regenerating. Turning to Rose (Billie Piper), Christopher Eccleston’s incarnation of the iconic character utters the timeless lines: “Before I go, I just want to tell you, you were fantastic. Absolutely fantastic. And you know what – so was I.” Queue shoddy CGI and the introduction of the soon-to-be nation’s favourite Doctor, David Tennant. “So, where was I? That’s it – Barcelona.”

31. Breaking Bad – “Full Measure” (2010)

Gale (David Costabile) is one of the nicest characters on Breaking Bad. He is not interested in wealth or fame, but in science. However, niceties and a good cup of coffee are not enough to stop him getting in Walter White’s (Bryan Cranston) way. When the choice between their lives has to be made, Walter chooses his own and sends Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) to do the dirty work. Season three ends with Jesse killing Gale – an incident that eventually brings down the drug kingpin Gus Fring.

30. The West Wing – “What Kind of Day Has it Been” (2000)

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The West Wing’s biggest cliffhanger came in the season one finale. The episode works its way back from the beginning as we see a Secret Service Agent sense danger from a nearby window at a town hall meeting with the president in attendance. When the episode catches up, gunfire rings out and each member of his senior staff is thrown to the floor. Cut to black as we hear an agent ask over the radio: “Who’s been hit?”

29. Smallville – “Covenant” (2004)

It wasn’t until the third season finale of Smallville that Superman fans’ patience was rewarded as viewers saw Clark (Tom Welling) appear naked in the middle of a Kryptonian symbol burned into the field of his family’s farm. “You shall be reborn,” Jor-El can be heard saying to Clark Kent, but he wasn’t the alone one; the ending marked a radical turning point for the series.

28. Twin Peaks – “The Last Evening” (1990)

Twin Peaks’ season two finale – the mystery drama’s last episode for 27 years – may have featured the most chilling cliffhanger, but the biggest gasp of the series came at the end of season one as the seemingly untouchable Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) responds to a knock on his hotel room door, only to be gunned down by an unseen assailant.

27. Buffy the Vampire Slayer – “The Gift” (2001)

The 100th episode of Buffy ended with one of the show’s most shocking moments (and no, we’re not talking about the musical episode). Season five concluded with the eponymous ass-kicker sacrificing herself to save the world by jumping into a demonic portal. The episode ends with a slow zoom onto Buffy’s tombstone, which reads: “Beloved sister. Devoted friend. She saved the world. A lot.“

26. True Blood - “Plaisir d'Amour” (2008)

It's easy to forget that True Blood began life as an acclaimed Emmy-nominated drama, and it was a cliffhanger such as this that made it so: Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin) falls asleep with the friendly neighbour dog Dean for company. Upon waking up, Dean is gone and in his place is local barman Sam Merlotte ( Sam Trammell). Turns out he's a shapeshifter!

25. The Walking Dead – “Last Day on Earth” (2016)

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After eight episodes of build-up, the comic book’s deadliest villain, Negan, reared his head in a scene fans were dreading. With the majority of the main cast lined up at his mercy, Negan – in retaliation for the death of one of his gang – decides which one to kill by using “Eeny Meeny Mino Moe”. After selecting his victim, the camera switches POV and Negan bludgeons the unseen character to death leaving fans with a six-month wait before finding out who had met their maker.

24. The Leftovers – “Ten Thirteen” (2015)

Lost co-creator Damon Lindelof's HBO drama was set in a world that saw two per cent of the world’s population disappear into thin air during a tragic event known as the Sudden Departure. Season two presented an intriguing mystery: the disappearance of three teenage girls from a Texan town that nobody had vanished from. It was the season's penultimate episode that cleared up this plot line as Matt Garvey (Chris Zylka) breaks into a heavily-guarded trailer – only to be met with the three teenage girls staring back at him. What’s more is they’re dressed all in white, a callback to the disbanded cult from the first season.

23. Lost – “Deus Ex Machina” (2005)

In episode 11, the writers had introduced a hatch buried underground and, week in week out, the fans waited patiently for any detail about the mysterious structure the writers were willing to give them. The end of episode 19 saw a desperate John Locke (Terry O’Quinn) banging on the door, just as desperate to get inside as the viewers were... only for a light to come on from within. This ending remains an unforgettable moment for those who watched it at the time of broadcast.

22. Lost – “Two for the Road” (2006)

“I’m sorry.” “For what?” BANG. On paper, not so effective but on screen, it equated to one of Lost’s most gasp-inducing cliffhangers. Viewers watched behind their eyes as Michael (Harold Perrineau), desperate to save his son from the mysterious Others, shoots Ana-Lucia (Michelle Rodriguez) and, in a cruel twist, Libby (Cynthia Watros), who has accidentally stumbled upon the whole thing while looking for some blankets.

21. Lost - 'Through the Looking Glass – Part 2“

Whether you love or hate Lost, there’s no denying that the season three finale deployed one of the most breathtaking rug pulls in television history as writers Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse revealed a shake-up long in the running: flashbacks featuring a suicidal Jack Shephard (Matthew Fox) were, in fact, flashforwards to the future. The Oceanic Flight 815 plane crash survivor made it off the island he’d been so desperate to get off for three whole seasons, but was, disturbingly, desperate to get back. The ending set the benchmark for all future finale and was so huge it made newspaper headlines.

20. Line of Duty – Series four premiere (2018)

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The fourth series of Line of Duty didn’t hold back on the shocks. In fact, its first episode featured a cliffhanger ending to rival the best of them. With DCI Roz Huntley (Thandie Newton) dead on his floor, her murderer – Forensic Coordinator Tim Ifield (Jason Watkins) – sets about dispatching her body, but as his chainsaw nears her face, Roz’s eyes suddenly open.

19. Heroes – ”The Butterfly Effect” (2008)

After season one, Heroes became pretty dreadful television. But this cliffhanger looms in the memory for being so left-field it warrants applaud: having captured serial killer Sylar, Angela Petrelli – parent to superheroes Nathan and Peter – tells him she can provide him with the love and guidance he needs. Angry, Sylar tells her she’s not his mother to which Angela drops the bombshell: “But I am dear, I am.” A head-scratching mid-season reveal that had fans chomping at the bit for the next episode.

18. Grey’s Anatomy – “Who’s Zoomin’ Who?” (2005)

After spending an entire season watching the blossoming romance between medical intern Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo) and Dr Derek Shephard (Patrick Dempsey), the world of viewers was rocked upon discovering the shock revelation that Derek was married all along.

17. Green Wing – “Emergency“ (2004)

Channel 4 sitcom Green Wing took the term “cliffhanger” quite literally for each finale of its two series. While it became a tad gimmicky the second time around, the first remained a genuinely surprising way for a comedy series to end: having discovered that the colleague he’d just slept with was his mother, drug-addled anaesthetist Guy Secretan (Stephen Mangan) steals an ambulance, drives it to the country and loses control. After crashing, the episode ends with Guy and several other characters dangling – you guessed it – off a cliff.

16. Dexter – “The Getaway” (2009)

A particularly nail-biting fourth season was shaping up to end well: after weeks of playing cat-and-mouse with the Trinity Killer (John Lithgow on Emmy-winning form), Dexter finally put an end to his murderous ways and returned home ready to pack up and join his wife Rita on their vacation. Only Rita’s still at home... dead in the bathtub. Trinity killed her before Dexter got to him. A heartbreaking end to a standout season.

15. Battlestar Galactica – “Kobol's Last Gleaming: Part 2” (2005)

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When things are going supremely well towards the end of a season finale, you know something big is about to go down. Battlestar Galactica proved no different. After destroying the Cylon Basestar – a warship belonging to the enemy – crew member Boomer, who viewers had learnt was a Cylon in the mini-series that aired the year before, fires a round into the chest of Commander Adama (Edward James Olmos), the show’s main character.

14. Babylon 5 – “Z’ha'dum” (1996)

Having been warned for two seasons that Z’ha’dum means death, fans expected big things from an episode called “Z’ha’dum”. They weren’t wrong. It ended with the show’s lead character jumping to his death. The episode was so big the episodes leading up to it teased “Z minus 14 days” and “Z minus 7 days.”

13. Friends – “The One with Ross’s Wedding” (1998)

While Ross (David Schwimmer) and Rachel’s (Jennifer Aniston) “will they, won’t they” courtship arguably went on far too long, there was one moment during the season four finale that left fans with their jaws on the floor. Just after Rachel had accepted Ross was happy with fiancé Emily (Helen Baxendale), everything goes catastrophically wrong. Instead of saying Emily’s name during the wedding vows, Ross says the iconic line: “Take thee Rachel”. After the wedding, as the season finished, everyone was left wondering whether the pair would finally rekindle their romance for good.

12. The X-Files – “Anasazi” (1995)

“I’m in a boxcar, buried inside a quarry, and there are bodies everywhere,” says Mulder to Scully during the season two finale. And just as Mulder solves the riddle of how those people died, the roof of the boxcar slams shut, trapping him inside. Worse still, the Smoking Man then arrives with a unit of soldiers. When they open the boxcar, Mulder’s somehow nowhere to be seen and they decide to blow the freight to smithereens. Did Mulder survive? Did he get away?

11. Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life – “Fall” (2016)

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“It certainly wasn't the ending I expected,” Rory Gilmore actor Alexis Bledel said of the finale. “Fitting but frustrating”, was how Vanity Fair referred to the episode. The Gilmore Girls sequel, A Year in the Life, concluded with a four-word exchange between Rory and her mother, Lorelai (Lauren Graham). “Mum”, the daughter says, sitting in a park’s bandstand. “Yeah”, she replies. “I’m pregnant,” Rory says. Queue hundreds of fans wanting more from the story, which had, ultimately, come full circle.

10. 24 – “Day 5: 10:00pm – 11:00pm” (2006)

24 was filled to the brim with huge cliffhangers, but this one – arriving at the 16 episode mark – stands out for sparking what would be the show’s best run of episodes. President Charles Logan (Gregory Itzin) is revealed to be the mastermind behind the shocking assassinations of David Palmer and Michelle Dessler, which kickstarted the season. And thus the show’s most memorable villain was born.

9. Star Trek: The Next Generation – “Best of Both Worlds” (1990)

Another science fiction show filled to the brim with cliffhangers. Star Trek: The Next Generation had many, but few can measure up to Picard (Patrick Stewart) becoming a Borg. The season three finale sees the Enterprise’s crew having no choice but to turn on their former captain, with Riker (Jonathan Frakes) ordering Worf (Michael Dorn) to open fire on Picard’s Borg ship. Fans had to wait three months to discover whether Picard could be saved – and the fandom almost imploded in the meantime.

8. The OC – “The Dearly Beloved” (2005)

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Marissa Cooper (Mischa Barton) and Ryan Atwood (Benjamin McKenzie) would have done anything for each other. When Ryan’s brother Trey (Logan Marshall-Green) gets in the way, attacking Marissa, Ryan has no other course of action but to settle things “once and for all” between them. As the brawl ensues, Marissa somehow ends up shooting Trey. And as the bullet goes through him, Imogen Heap’s song “Hide and Seek” – AKA the “Mmmmh, what you say?” song – suddenly starts playing. It’s hard not to laugh. The pop song cuts through the scene, completely at odds with what’s happening on screen. No wonder, then, that Saturday Night Live famously parodied the scene in one of their most-beloved skits of all time.

7. The Office US – “Casino Night” (2006)

Jim (John Krasinski) and Pam (Jenna Fischer) were the ultimate “will they, won’t they” couple, their chemistry electrifying the early seasons of The Office. Things peaked for the first time during the season two finale. Following Casino Night at Dunder Mifflin, Jim finally takes Pam aside to reveal his true feelings, telling her: “I’m in love with you.” She is, at the time, engaged to Roy (David Denman), and decides to reply to Jim: “What are you doing?” While all hope for the pair seems lost, Jim finds Pam (calling her mother) before the episode’s end and kisses her. Cruelly, the showrunners decided to cut to black after the moment, leaving fans wondering for months whether the couple would return to screens happily together (spoiler: they do not).

6. Alias – “The Telling” (2003)

JJ Abrams loves ending things on a twist. Before creating the mystery-box filled Lost, the filmmaker created Alias, and the season two finale marks one the show’s greatest endings. The episode sees Sydney (Jennifer Garner) discover that Francie (Merrin Dungey) is not Francie at all, but a duplicate. The two then brawl, ending with Sydney shooting Francie and then collapsing due to exhaustion. We immediately jump to Sydney waking up in Hong Kong. After reuniting with her lover Michael Vaughn (Michael Vartan), Sydney realises things are amiss as Michael is wearing a wedding ring. Turns out, she has been missing for almost two years. Cut to black, and the world asking “What just happened?”

5. Spooks – “Smoke and Mirrors” (2003)

The season two finale of Spooks shocked the nation. While the episode begins with the CIA taking on a seemingly straightforward mission – to prevent a member of the Cabinet being assassinated – we soon discover that everything’s not as it seems. The formerly-presumed dead Herman Joyce (Tomas Arana) is still alive and masquerading as Herb Zeigler. Not only that, but the villain has masterminded an elaborate plan to make it seem as if Tom (Matthew Macfadyen) has assassinated the Chief of the Defence Staff. With everything working against Tom, the agent finds himself backed into a corner. And when Harry (Peter Firth) loses faith, Tom decides to shoot Harry with his shotgun. Does Harry die? Will Tom ever be found innocent? The questions were many.

4. Dragon Ball Z – Next time on Dragon Ball Z

There’s really no definitive Dragon Ball Z cliffhanger, as almost every single episode in the series finishes with one. From Vegeta staring menacingly at the camera to the villainous Cell launching a deadline attack on Goku, the series leaves you anywhere and everywhere. When that voice-over comes in with “Next time on Dragon Ball Z”, you can guarantee any child watching will be hooked and instantly wanting to watch the next episode.

3. Pushing Up Daisies – “Kerplunk” (2009)

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Pushing Up Daisies was unceremoniously brought to an end after just two seasons, with showrunner Bryan Fuller having to quickly conclude the whimsical series with very little notice. The epilogue was added late into the writing process and sees the narrator offer some closure to each characters’ story. Yet, with Ned (Lee Pace) and Chuck (Anna Friel) standing on her aunts’ doorstep, waiting to finally reveal that she’s alive, fans could see that there were originally supposed to be many more seasons to come – and they still want them desperately.

2. Sherlock – “The Reichenbach Fall” (2012)

Following a war of words with Jim Moriarty (Andrew Scott) on the roof of a building (in which Moriarty shoots himself in the head), Sherlock (Benedict Cumberbatch) decides to seemingly commit suicide by jumping off the building. However, not all is at it seems, as Sherlock is seen alive before the episode end. Fans of the series – plus Martin Freeman’s Watson – were left questioning what exactly happened to Sherlock, with all being revealed in the following special.

1. Breaking Bad – “Gliding Over All” (2012)

Karma for killing Gale comes for Walter White in season five. The meth maker believes his days of cooking are long over. Having lunch with his family, everything seems perfect. And then everything goes wrong. So, so wrong. Hank (Dean Norris) goes to use the toilet and picks up a copy of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass – a gift from Gale to Walter White. “To my other favorited WW. It's an honour working with you. Fondly, GB.” And with that, as Hank realises Walt’s true identity, the end of Heisenberg’s empire begins.

The 38 most dramatic TV cliffhangers of all time (2024)
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