Greatest TV Cliffhangers of All Time
The idea of television cliffhangers goes back to the late 1970s. It started with an ABC show called "Soap," which was a parody of daytime soap operas and had the first cliffhanger in TV history.
Since then, the cliffhanger has been perfected to expert levels across all genres of television. The best cliffhangers transcend a show's fanbase and enter into popular culture.
These are the greatest television cliffhangers of all time.
Note: We had one rule — one show, one cliffhanger. Series finales were not included since those aren't cliffhangers but definitive endings to a story.
30. Dynasty: The Moldavian Massacre
Warning: This content contains spoilers.
Episode: "Royal Wedding" (Season 5, Episode 29)
Air date: May 15, 1985
Starring: John Forsythe, Linda Evans, John James, Heather Locklear, Emma Sams, Joan Collins, Diahann Carroll, Ali Macgraw
Bottom line: "Dynasty" and "Dallas" were the two signature nighttime soap operas of the 1980s (sorry, "Falcon Crest"), and in that mode, "Dynasty" had the right to pull off its own epic cliffhanger.
Five years after "Who Shot J.R.?" took over the country, "Dynasty" rolled out its own buzzy season finale that became known as "The Moldavian Massacre." It had one of the crazier final shots of all time, with all of the guests at a wedding, seemingly shot by revolutionaries, piled up on top of each other.
Not as impactful as the "Dallas" cliffhanger but still worth mentioning.
29. Heroes: You Saved the Cheerleader
Episode: "How To Stop An Exploding Man" (Season 1, Episode 23)
Air date: May 21, 2007
Starring: Milo Ventimiglia, Hayden Panetierre, Masi Oka, Zachary Quinto, Jack Coleman, Adrian Pasdar, Ali Larter, Leonard Roberts, Greg Grunberg
Bottom line: One of the best first seasons in television history belongs to "Heroes" — an epic take on the superhero genre that became a national obsession.
Made in the pre-streaming era, the first season is a marathon of 23 episodes capped off by "How To Stop An Exploding Man." The season finale pays off with a huge battle between the villain, Sylar, and our heroes.
It showed how good the season was by leaving us with a pair of amazing cliffhangers — Nathan Petrelli flying his brother, "The Exploding Man" Peter Petrelli, into the sky where we just see a huge explosion, and our most beloved hero, Hiro, phasing back to samurai-era Japan.
28. 24: Jack Takes the Slow Boat to China
Episode: "Day 5: 6:00 a.m-7:00 a.m." (Season 5, Episode 24)
Air date: May 22, 2008
Starring: Kiefer Sutherland, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Kim Raver, Jean Smart, Gregory Itzin, James Morrison
Bottom line: While the great "24" seemed to get more and more ridiculous every season, we still loved it. And never was the show more at the top of its game than in its fifth season, with a labyrinthine plot once again unwound and the world saved by our hero, Jack Bauer.
But that's not where the twist comes in. That hits when we realize Jack is missing, then our last time seeing him is on a tanker boat, badly beaten, headed to China as retribution by the evil Chang Zhi.
You can make a good argument this was the show's apex.
27. Quantum Leap: Leaping Into Oswald
Episode: "A Leap For Lisa" (Season 4, Episode 22)
Air date: May 20, 1992
Starring: Scott Bakula, Dean Stockwell, Roddy McDowall, Deborah Pratt
Bottom line: "Quantum Leap" was one of the most beloved sci-fi television shows of the 1990s thanks to its crazy time-hopping plot and two charismatic lead characters, Dr. Sam Beckett (played by Scott Bakula) and his hologram guide Al (played by Dean Stockwell).
The show didn't do many multi-episode arcs or have many cliffhangers into the final few seasons, but the biggest twist was in the season four finale, when Sam leaped from a young version of Al into Lee Harvey Oswald.
Viewers had a great offseason of speculation about whether the show would lean into the conspiracy aspects of the JFK assassination, which was cool. The payoff was, well, you can watch for yourself.
26. Mad Men: Are You Alone?
Episode: "The Phantom" (Season 5, Episode 13)
Air date: June 10, 2012
Starring: Jon Hamm, John Slattery, Elisabeth Moss, Vincent Kartheiser, Christina Hendricks, Alison Brie, Alexis Bledel, Julia Ormond, Jessica Pare
Bottom line: Most "Mad Men" fans will tell you that the real cliffhanger in the series was at the end of season four, when protagonist Don Draper impulsively marries his secretary.
They're wrong. There's something about the way season five ends that really takes your breath away. We see Don walk into a bar, order an Old Fashioned and two women walk up to him and ask him if he's alone.
It's a credit to Jon Hamm as an actor that he conveys everything we need to know in the look he gives them — mostly the inherent cynicism that imbued his character throughout the series.
25. The O.C.: Dearly Beloved, We Are Gathered Here for Memes
Episode: "The Dearly Beloved" (Season 2, Episode 24)
Air date: May 19, 2005
Starring: Benjamin McKenzie, Mischa Barton, Peter Gallagher, Adam Brody, Kelly Rowan, Rachel Bilson, Alan Dale, Logan Marshall-Green
Bottom line: This was the most famous episode in the run of one of the greatest teen TV dramas of all time.
"The O.C." capped its second season by having Marissa Cooper shoot and kill reformed bad boy Ryan Atwood's older brother, Trey, and the still pic of actress Mischa Barton holding the gun was one of the first memes to go viral.
In a cool aside, the actor playing Trey, Logan Marshall-Green, has gone on to have a pretty impressive career.
24. Mindhunter: One Panic Attack for the Ages
Episode: "Episode 10" (Season 1, Episode 10)
Air date: Oct. 12, 2017
Starring: Jonathan Groff, Holt McCallany, Anna Torv, Hannah Gross, Cameron Britton
Bottom line: Netflix's brilliant "Mindhunter" came from one of the greatest directors of all time, David Fincher, and explores the creation of the FBI's Behavioral Science Unit — aka the people who hunt serial killers.
At the end of the first season, one of our main characters, on-the-edge Special Agent Holden Ford makes the decision to visit serial killer Ed Kemper at the hospital after a suicide attempt.
When Kemper, played in eerie fashion by Cameron Britton, realizes he has Agent Ford alone and relays to him he can kill him, then puts his hands on his shoulders, you may have found it hard to breathe in your own living room. As he sprints down the hallway away from Kemper and collapses in a panic attack, we feel it. And it's terrifying.
23. Entourage: Medellin Bombs at Cannes
Episode: "The Cannes Kids" (Season 4, Episode 12)
Air date: Sept. 2, 2007
Starring: Adrian Grenier, Kevin Connolly, Jerry Ferrara, Kevin Dillon, Jeremy Piven
Bottom line: The thread of making a Pablo Escobar biopic was laced throughout the first three seasons of "Entourage" and finally played out in the fourth season, with Vince and his crew finally getting to live their dream of bringing "Medellin" to the silver screen.
In one of the great flip-flops of all time, things go really, really bad at a screening of the movie at the Cannes Film Festival and we leave our heroes wondering if Vince's career is truly dead.
22. Twin Peaks: Agent Cooper Loses His Grip
Episode: "Beyond Life and Death" (Season 2, Episode 22)
Air date: June 10, 1991
Starring: Kyle Machlachlan, Michael Ontkean, Richard Beymer, Kenneth Welsh, Heather Graham, Carel Struycken
Bottom line: Never in television history has there been a more bizarre, beautiful undertaking than director David Lynch's "Twin Peaks" — which got two seasons, a bad movie and an amazing comeback on Showtime some 27 years later.
What viewers got at the end of the second season was something out of a nightmare, with Agent Dale Cooper seemingly caught in some sort of purgatory/demonic portal zone called The Black Lodge. We really wish we could explain it better, but it's almost two bizarre to comprehend.
21. Fringe: Break on Through
Episode: "There's More Than One of Everything" (Season 1, Episode 20)
Air date: May 12, 2009
Starring: Joshua Jackson, Anna Torv, John Noble, Jared Harris, Lance Reddick, Jasika Nicole, Leonard Nimoy
Bottom line: "Fringe" was a sci-fi trip of a show, and it was never better than in its first two seasons. And we got one heck of a cliffhanger at the end of the first season.
That's when Agent Olivia Dunham is transported to an alternate universe and pulled into the office of William Bell. A crazy reveal show he's being played by Leonard Nimoy.
And the final pull-out shot shows she's standing in an office at the top of the Twin Towers.
20. Loki: We Write Our Own Destiny
Episode: "For All Time. Always." (Season 1, Episode 6)
Air date: July 14, 2021
Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Jonathan Majors, Owen Wilson, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Sophia Di Martino
Bottom line: The third streaming episode from Marvel on Disney Plus ended up being the best — and having the best cliffhanger of all of them.
The season one finale of "Loki" blew viewers' minds and got a huge boost from the presence of Jonathan Majors as He Who Remains/Kang the Conqueror (although we don't hear him say that). Loki and one of the variants, Sylvie, made their way to the Citadel at the End of Time, but Sylvie cracks, killing He Who Remains, which creates a branching of multiverses that cannot be pruned.
When Loki comes back to TVA, there's chaos, and no one recognizes him, including his homie Mobius. The last shocking thing we see is a statue of one of Kang's variants in the TVA. Then a promise of a second season.
19. ER: One Bloody Valentine's Day
Episode: "Be Still My Heart" (Season 6, Episode 13)
Air date: Feb. 10, 2000
Starring: Noah Wylie, Anthony Edwards, Maura Tierney, Kellie Martin, David Krumholtz, Goran Visnijic
Bottom line: This was one of the few midseason cliffhangers to make the cut. It had a brilliant, violent twist with two of our favorite "ER" characters, Dr. John Carter and Dr. Lucy Knight, stabbed by a schizophrenic man who got his hands on a knife that was used to cut a cake for a Valentine's Day party.
This show resonated because when Dr. Carter is stabbed and falls to the floor, he sees Dr. Knight across from him, pale, bloody and dying after having already been attacked by the same patient.
18. Star Trek TNG: Resistance is Futile
Episode: "The Best of Both Worlds, Part 1" (Season 3, Episode 26)
Air date: June 18, 1990
Starring: Patrick Stewart, Jonathan Frakes, Michael Dorn, LeVar Burton, Wil Wheaton, Whoopi Goldberg, Marina Sirtis
Bottom line: This one is for all of our sci-fi heads out there. The absolute nuclear bomb was dropped on geekdom by "Star Trek: The Next Generation" when we saw the evil Borg assimilate Captain Jean-Luc Picard in the season 3 finale.
You had to be a card-carrying Star Trek fan in the late 1980s and early 1990s to truly feel the emotional impact of Picard telling his crew he is now Locutus of Borg and "resistance is futile" before the ever-loyal Commander Riker instructs Riker to fire on the Borg cube.
17. Stranger Things: Don’t Feed It the American
Episode: "Chapter Eight: The Battle of Starcourt" (Season 3, Episode 8)
Air date: July 4, 2019
Starring: David Harbour, Millie Bobby Brown, Finn Wolfhard, Winona Ryder, Gaten Matarazzo, Caleb McLaughlin, Noah Schnapp, Joe Keery, Charlie Heaton, Maya Hawke, Priah Ferguson
Bottom line: Say what you will about the second season of "Stranger Things," but they brought the heat with the third season and gave us a huge emotional payoff with the season finale in "The Battle of Starcourt," where our group of kid heroes destroy the local mall in a battle with the Mind Flayer.
We also get the emotional resonance of losing one of the show's main characters, Hopper, but the last thing we see before the season ends is a Russian prison where they're holding a demogorgon captive and feeding it other prisoners, but "not the American."
Is Hopper alive?
16. Alias: Sydney Gets a Rude Awakening
Episode: "The Telling" (Season 2, Episode 22)
Air date: May 4, 2003
Starring: Jennifer Garner, Ron Rifkin, Michael Vartan, Bradley Cooper, Merrin Dungy, Carl Lumbly, Victor Garber, Lena Olin
Bottom line: "Alias" turned lead actress Jennifer Garner into a star and behind the leadership of J.J. Abrams pumped out five seasons of decent to really good television. It was never more at the peak of its powers than with its blistering season two finale.
When superspy Sydney Bristow gets in a no-holds-barred battle to the death with the replica of her dead best friend, Francie, then passes out from exhaustion, she wakes up to quite a shock — she's in Hong Kong and she's been missing for two years.
One of the things that made this show so great was the supporting cast. Yes, that's Bradley Cooper playing Syd's long-suffering best friend, Will, and Terry O'Quinn as another FBI blackhat.
15. Sherlock: Elementary, My Dear Watson
Episode: "The Reichenbach Fall" (Season 2, Episode 3)
Air date: Jan. 15, 2012
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Martin Freeman, Andrew Scott, Vinette Robinson, Jonathan Aris
Bottom line: As the episode opens, the loyal Watson chokes out the words, "My friend Sherlock Holmes … is dead," and we are off and running on one of the most epic cliffhanger episodes of all time.
Flashing back three months, we get a modern version of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's classic Sherlock story "The Final Problem," and a stunning battle between Sherlock and his nemesis Moriarty ends with Sherlock committing suicide by jumping off a building to save all of his friends.
It's at his funeral where we get our final twist, in true Sherlock style.
14. Breaking Bad: Revelation on the Toilet
Episode: "Gliding All Over" (Season 5, Episode 8)
Air date: Sept. 2, 2012
Starring: Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul, Dean Norris, Jesse Plemons, Anna Gunn, Betsy Brandt, R.J. Mitte, Bob Odenkirk, Jonathan Banks
Bottom line: "Breaking Bad" antihero Walter White had taken down all comers over the previous five-and-a-half seasons, managing to even dupe his DEA agent brother-in-law, Hank, who had been unknowingly tracking his alter ego identity "Heisenberg" as Walter became the top narcotics trafficker in the Southwest.
It's only in the season five midseason finale that Hank, while using the bathroom, finally realizes that Walter actually is "Heisenberg" thanks to an assist from a copy of Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass."
The episode aired in the fall of 2012, with no new episodes for almost an entire year.
13. Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Gift of Death
Episode: "The Gift" (Season 5, Episode 22)
Air date: May 22, 2001
Starring: Sarah Michelle Gellar, Nicholas Brendon, Allyson Hannigan, Michelle Trachtenberg, James Marsters, Anthony Head
Bottom line: Showrunner Joss Whedon didn't know if "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" would get renewed for a sixth season, so he wrote the season 5 finale as if it were the series finale. And it paid off with one of the greatest cliffhangers of all time.
Buffy was told by the slayer that originally trained her that her "gift" was death, which Buffy interpreted in a lot of different ways over the years. Was it her ability to kill? Was it her ability to get over the deaths of loved ones?
In the end, with the fate of the world on the line, she realized her gift would be her own death as she threw herself into a cosmic portal that was part of a ritual to bring about the end of the world, saving all of us.
12. Dexter: Just Like His Father
Episode: "The Getaway" (Season 4, Episode 12)
Air date: Dec. 13, 2009
Starring: Michael C. Hall, John Lithgow, Julie Benz, Jennifer Carpenter
Bottom line: You cannot ratchet up the pressure any more in a television show than the season four finale of "Dexter" in which our serial killer/hero tracks down The Trinity Killer, played brilliantly by John Lithgow, as some of the own secrets of his past become uncovered.
After Dexter finally takes down The Trinity Killer and resolves in his own mind to stop killing — and thinking he's shepherded his family to safety — he returns home to find a nightmare scenario.
The Trinity Killer had already been to Dexter's house, where he'd killed his wife and left his young son sitting in his mother's blood. Just like what happened to Dexter when he was a baby. Brutal.
11. The Good Place: Not Where They Thought They Were
Episode: "Michael's Gambit" (Season 1, Episode 13)
Air date: Jan. 19, 2017
Starring: Kristin Bell, Ted Danson, Manny Jacinto, William Jackson Harper, Jameela Jamil
Bottom line: One of the great television plot twists of the last decade was brought to us by the comedy "The Good Place" starring Kristin Bell and Ted Danson, who were also the only two cast members told about the season one twist beforehand.
It's hard to keep a secret in the social media era (or avoid spoilers), so it was hard to avoid the fallout when Bell's character, Eleanor, comes to the realization that what she and her compatriots have thought was "The Good Place" all along is actually "The Bad Place."
And the reason they're all there is because they were terrible people.
10. The Walking Dead: Who Gets to Meet Lucille?
Episode: "Last Day On Earth" (Season 6, Episode 16)
Air date: April 3, 2016
Starring: Andrew Lincoln, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Steven Yeun, Danai Gurira, Norman Reedus
Bottom line: What's amazing about "Last Day on Earth" isn't that it was a great episode overall, as many on this list are, but essentially it was just for its last few minutes.
That's when we get to meet the leader of the Saviors, Negan, for the first time, played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan. He has captured our group of survivors led by Rick. We also get to meet Lucille, Negan's baseball bat wound tight with barbed wire.
As Negan tells Rick that one of his group must die for taking so many of his men, we don't get to see which one as Negan beats the person to death. And fans got to speculate who caught the business end of Lucille until the start of the seventh season.
9. Sons of Anarchy: They Took the Baby
Episode: "Na Triobloidi (The Troubles)" (Season 2, Episode 13)
Air date: Dec. 1, 2009
Starring: Charlie Hunnam, Kate Sagal, Ron Perlman, Johnny Lewis, A.J. Rollins, Adam Arkin, Ally Walker, Maggie Siff, Mark Boone Jr., Tommy Flanagan, Ryan Hurst
Bottom line: The brutal, sometimes brilliant "Sons of Anarchy" from creator Kurt Sutter was based on William Shakerspeare's "Macbeth," but instead of the Danish royalty, we get a Northern California biker gang.
This show lived and died by its cliffhangers. And there were many. But none hit like when our beloved antihero, Jax Teller, had his infant son kidnapped by the IRA at the end of season two.
The sight of Jax screaming at the end of a dock as his son is taken away left us shook.
8. Grey's Anatomy: He Put a Ring on It
Episode: "Who's Zoomin' Who?" (Season 1, Episode 9)
Air date: May 22, 2005
Starring: Patrick Dempsey, Ellen Pompeo,T.R Knight, Katherine Heigl, Kate Walsh, Isaiah Washington, James Pickens Jr., Justin Chambers, Sandra Oh
Bottom line: As "Grey's Anatomy" stretches into its third decade on television, we can look back on the first season with a certain amount of clarity and fondness of how simple things were back then. Not every cliffhanger has to do with someone dying.
In this case, you could hear the gasps from coast to coast in the season one finale when Meredith Grey's love, Derek, gets a surprise visit at the hospital from his wife, Addison.
Here's the thing. We didn't even know Derek was married. Mic drop moment.
7. The West Wing: Who's Been Hit?
Episode: "What Kind of Day Has It Been?" (Season 1, Episode 22)
Air date: May 17, 2000
Starring: Martin Sheen, Allison Janney, Rob Lowe, Moira Kelly, Dule Hill, Richard Schiff, John Spencer, Bradley Whitford
Bottom line: While "West Wing" creator Aaron Sorkin used "What Kind of Day Has It Been?" as the title for episodes across many of his different shows, it's most memorable moment came in the season one finale of "The West Wing." This cliffhanger left us wondering if President Josiah Bartlett had been shot by white supremacists.
What's so great about this episode is how Sorkin plays out the drama at the end. As we hear "GUN!" and shots are fired, we see all of the senior staff and president tackled to the ground by Secret Service. Then a pan out of the chaos. Then all we hear is "Who's been hit?!" repeated twice.
Sorkin is truly the master.
6. The Simpsons: Everyone is a Suspect
Episode: "Who Shot Mr. Burns? Part 1" (Season 6, Episode 25)
Air date: May 21, 1995
Starring: Nancy Cartwright, Harry Shearer, Yeardley Smith, Dan Castellaneta, Julie Cavner, Hank Azaria
Bottom line: This playful take on the famous "Dallas" cliffhanger of "Who Killed J.R.?" puts Homer Simpson's evil, longtime boss, Mr. Burns, in the crosshairs of one of his myriad enemies.
The plot — Mr. Burns wants the local elementary school's recently discovered oil well — is hilarious, and the two-episode arc that continues with the first episode of season seven is perhaps the most beloved in the history of the long-running series.
5. Friends: The One With the Cliffhanger
Episode: "The One with Ross's Wedding" (Season 4, Episode 23 and 24)
Air date: May 7, 1998
Starring: David Schwimmer, Matthew Perry, Jennifer Aniston, Courtney Cox, Lisa Kudrow, Matt LeBlanc
Bottom line: Even for one of the greatest comedy sitcoms of all time, few moments can compare with when Rachel decides to crash Ross and Emily's wedding in Great Britain, replete with an epic dressing-down by guest star Hugh Laurie on the flight over the Atlantic Ocean.
The episode, which has been widely pointed to as one of the best in the entire series, enters the pantheon of great cliffhangers in the final moments when Ross is taking his vows and accidentally swaps out Emily's name. With Rachel.
The finale was watched by 21 million people but didn't get a very good reception from the British, who hated how they were portrayed.
4. Yellowstone: Duttons vs. Everybody
Episode: "The World is Purple" (Season 3, Episode 10)
Air date: Aug. 23, 2020
Starring: Kevin Costner, Cole Hauser, Wes Bentley, Luke Grimes, Kelly Reilly, Kelsey Asbille
Bottom line: Taylor Sheridan's epic tale of a family of wealthy landowners in Montana led by Kevin Costner's John Dutton, a sixth-generation cattleman, seems to get better every season.
And it was never better than in the third season, when the series closed out things in a breathtaking display of violence against the Dutton family — all of whom we're left wondering about their fates. Was Beth killed in the explosion? Did Kayce manage to fight off the gunmen?
And there's Costner, hit in a drive-by and seemingly (maybe) saved by the cell phone he hates so much.
3. Game of Thrones: That Snow Looks Cold
Episode: "Mother's Mercy" (Season 5, Episode 10)
Air date: June 4, 2015
Starring: Kit Harington, Lena Headey, Jonathan Pryce, Sophie Turner, Maisie Williams, Peter Dinklage, Emilia Clarke
Bottom line: We could have selected almost any of the first seven season finales from "Game of Thrones" for this list, but the one that gets the nod is season five, when viewers around the world were left to wonder if beloved hero Jon Snow's fate was truly to die in the snow at Castle Black, stabbed to death by fellow members of The Night's Watch.
The reason this particular cliffhanger was so spellbinding was because author George R.R. Martin's novels on which the show was based had not progressed Jon's storyline beyond when the show did, and we all spent a year wondering if he was alive or dead.
Technically, it turned out to be both.
2. Dallas: Who Shot J.R.?
Episode: "A House Divided" (Season 3, Episode 25)
Air date: March 21, 1980
Starring: Larry Hagman, Mary Crosby, Mary Powell, Linda Gray, Patrick Duffy, Victoria Principal, Keenan Wynn, Jim Davis
Bottom line: You cannot accurately convey what a frenzy television viewers were spun into thanks to the season three finale of "Dallas" after an entire nation was left with the question: "Who shot J.R.?"
Played by the late, great Larry Hagman, J.R. Ewing was the apex villain on television in the 1980s. He was a Texas oilman so encompassed by greed and deceit that you loved to hate him. Which meant he had a lot of enemies.
When he's shot in his office in the final moments of the season three finale, it sparked interest in the show that we can't fathom today. Hagman was even given an audience with Queen Elizabeth, who pressed him on the shooter's identity and whether he lived or died, to which he politely refused.
The bottom line? When the shooter was finally revealed in the fourth episode of the next season, a staggering 83 million Americans tuned in, along with an audience of 350 million worldwide. Including the queen, presumably.
1. LOST: We Have to Go Back!
Episode: "Through the Looking Glass" (Season 3, Episode 23)
Air date: May 25, 2007
Starring: Matthew Fox, Evangeline Lilly, Terry O'Quinn, Naveen Andrews, Daniel Dae-Kim, Josh Holloway, Jorge Garcia, Elizabeth Mitchell, Dominic Monaghan
Bottom line: The greatest cliffhanger in the history of television belongs to "Lost" — a two-fisted double episode that sent the internet spinning in a pre-social media era, which was no easy task.
What really brings home a cliffhanger? Having more than one cliffhanger. After three seasons of flashbacks, we see our hero, Dr. Jack Shepherd, borderline suicidal and battling his demons across Los Angeles, attending a funeral for which he is the only attendee. And then finally, we see the realization that it's not a flashback. It's a flash-forward, and he's off the island somehow.
The last thing he screams at Kate, his former love — "We have to go back!" — had us screaming in our living rooms. Isn't television great sometimes?