Friday, November 7, 2014

Bones, Castle, and the Art of the Cliffhanger, Part II

Sure, Booth is in jail, but not for long.

Last spring I began writing a piece about how infuriating last May’s Castle cliffhanger was and how much better Bones’s cliffhanger had been.  For various reasons that post didn’t get finished, but the new season is well under way and both shows have resolved their respective cliffhangers in ways that have changed my views, so I’d like to revisit the subject and discuss where each show succeeded and failed in piquing the audience’s interest.

About a year ago I tore Under the Dome apart for utterly failing in its attempt to craft a thrilling season-ending cliffhanger, the primary problem of which was its utter lack of resolution.  When the show came back nine months later, it only exacerbated the problem by wrapping up every hanging question within the first five minutes without an ounce of it affecting anything in the future.  In fact, the only character to die in the second season premiere was Angie, who was not in any danger at the conclusion of the previous season. 

Castle had a similar misfire with its season-ending cliffhanger in May, when Rick, on his way to get married, has his car apparently run off the road and set on fire with him in it.  Mind you, we don’t actually see this happen, we just see his fiancée Kate running up to a car already engulfed in flames. 

This cliffhanger fails for two reasons.  The first is that it is entirely dependent on dramatic irony.  Castle isn’t dead and the audience knows this.  The show is called “Castle” for Christ’s sake.  The only drama available is derived, not from our reaction to his “death,” but from Kate’s, and we don’t get much.  This isn’t to say that dramatic irony can never be used effectively but, in this particular case, it’s a well the show has gone to before, when Kate was shot in the season three finale.

The other problem is that the episode provides no resolution to the primary story.  For 55 minutes, the show is leading up to a wedding, trying desperately to solve all of the problems that arise.  Then, the end comes and there’s no wedding and no emotional resolution at all.  Sure, the characters solve the maguffin, which involves rescuing Kate’s ex-boyfriend/husband so they can have their marriage annulled, but that wasn’t a real story, it was just a collection of tropes – specifically, the “Oops, I forgot I was married” and the “New old flame” tropes.  Because the plots on Castle are generally so trite, we rely on the characters’ relationships to keep us invested and here we were deprived of any great character moments.

Like Under the Dome, Castle capped its season by dropping the curtain before the end of the act.  Even worse, it left the audience with no real mystery as to where the story is going.  We know Castle isn’t dead.  We know he’ll come back at some point in the near future.  Maybe we’ll have a couple of episodes where Kate thinks he’s dead.  But I can pretty much guarantee that at some point in 2014, we will see Castle and Beckett wed.  So this cliffhanger is just delaying the inevitable because television writers seem to have an intense aversion to writing for happy couples.  We see it all the time.  I even wrote about it in the context of both Bones and Castle at the beginning of last season.  For whatever reason, the writers for Castle are unwilling to let Rick and Kate be a normal, happy couple.  And the more they use plot contrivances to create drama, as opposed to using character development, the less interesting the primary relationship becomes.

Let’s compare, then, the lackluster Castle cliffhanger to that from Bones’s May finale.  In “The Recluse in the Recliner,” Booth and Brennan investigate the murder of a conspiracy theorist, which ultimately ties into a conspiracy to destroy Booth’s career and blackmail high-ranking governmental officials.  The season ends with Booth killing three mercenaries sent to kill him, only to be framed for their deaths when they are revealed to be FBI agents (or at least fake FBI agents). 

This cliffhanger is extremely effective because, while the episode still provides closure (the main case solved reasonably conclusively), it leaves open a number of questions including why Booth was targeted, who is behind the conspiracy, and what will happen to Booth.  None of these questions has obvious, immediate answers and, more importantly, the audience is left wondering what will happening next, as opposed to just not knowing why it happened. 

Bones could have gone anywhere with this cliffhanger.  They could have picked up right where they left off.  They could have had a time-jump, with Booth having spent time in jail or on trial (the show has previously used small time-jumps to pretty good effect).  Or they could have gone another direction entirely.  Good cliffhangers leave open many options, and that’s what “The Recluse in the Recliner” did.

What both Castle and Bones seem to have forgotten with their new seasons is that cliffhangers also need resolutions.  And by that I don’t mean they need to resolve their plots.  Cliffhangers need to have a meaningful impact on the characters.  Unfortunately, neither show figured out how to do that.  Instead, both decided to turn their cliffhangers into season-long mystery arcs.  Bones probably had the more egregious sin, as the “Booth in prison” arc is basically wrapped up in fifteen minutes when Brennan blackmails a judge with evidence from their previous investigation.  That’s it.  All charges are dropped.  Booth immediately gets his job back, even in spite of the fact that he did still kill three people.  What should have been an interesting dramatic story arc about how Booth can survive prison or how his relationship with Brennan is strained by separation was instead cut short before the third commercial break.  Instead, the show went for a shocking death and a long-running conspiracy storyline in an attempt to make up for any real emotional consequence from the cliffhanger.

Castle, meanwhile, still hasn’t really resolved its cliffhanger.  Sure, Rick is back, as we all knew he would be.  But he has no memory of where he was and apparently that’s how he wants it.   I don’t really care about the conspiracy storyline, though I suppose with the investigation into the death of Kate’s mother largely over, some long-term arc has to take its place.  Far more infuriating, though, is how the show yada-yada’d the most emotionally engaging aspect of the cliffhanger: Kate’s reaction.  Obviously, the lack of a body in Castle’s car changes the stakes, but that puts the show, and Kate, immediately into investigation mode, turning what could have been a great emotional story arc into a rather trite plot arc that, as with Bones, is basically resolved within the first episode.  The season is now several episodes in and things are completely back to normal, with no real lasting consequences for any of the characters and a wedding on the near horizon yet again.

The best television cliffhangers, hell even the decent ones, stick with us as much for their payoffs as for their setups.  Think of Buffy killing Angel and leaving town in the second season finale of Buffy the Vampire Slayer or just straight up dying in the fifth season finale.  Those cliffhangers were powerful not because they had shock value, but because they had emotional stakes and they stick with us because the show followed up on those stakes.  Angel didn’t return from the dead immediately and, when he did, things didn’t immediately go back to normal.  And the show spent the better part of a season (for good or for ill) dealing with the fallout from Buffy dying and being brought back to life.

The Buffy cliffhangers may be abnormal because they rely more on character and emotional arcs than “shock value,” but even the best “shocking” cliffhangers leave the audience asking not “What just happened?” but “What’s going to happen next”?  Think of Lost’s “We have to go back, Kate,” or Battlestar Galactica’s “On behalf of the people of the Twelve Colonies, I surrender,” or the gunshot at the end of Breaking Bads third season.  These cliffhangers are effective for their shock value because they all signal extreme paradigm shifts.  Some people got off the island.  The Cylons won.  Walt and Jesse essentially declared war on Gus.  All of these cliffhangers indicated, with no uncertainty, that when the show returned, nothing would be the same.

If the best cliffhangers, then, require either the characters or the story to change dramatically, maybe satisfying cliffhangers are simply impossible in traditional procedurals, whose entire raison d’etre is based on stability.  Procedurals make their bones (no pun intended) on presenting the same people week in and week out doing the same things week in and week out.  Changes are minor.  Relationships will begin and end but are often kept in the background unless, of course, it’s the two main characters whose “will they/won’t they” tension is the emotional engine of the show.  It’s easy to threaten to kill a character or put somebody in jail when you don’t have to follow through on the threat.  But the trick only works so often, and after enough fakeouts, the audience is going to stop falling for it.

Maybe it’s time to stop expecting satisfying cliffhangers (especially in resolution) from procedural dramas.  Without the possibility of real change, any threats made in a season finale are going to be entirely empty.  And maybe it’s time for procedurals to abandon the idea of season-ending cliffhangers.  After all, if you can’t do something right, maybe it’s best to just not do it at all.

Tyler Williams is a professional librarian and an amateur television critic.  You can reach him at TyTalksTV AT gmail DOT com or on Twitter @TyTalksTV.

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