The season-ending cliffhanger has been a major part of television, going back to Dallas. Sometimes they work, sometimes... not so much. Falling Skies just resolved its crazy-pants cliffhanger in a respectable fashion — but what about TV shows that actually paid off their big season-ending cliffhangers in style?
Here are a dozen or so science fiction and fantasy TV shows that set up huge-ass cliffhangers — and then provided awesome resolution. We already listed the best cliffhangers of all time, but it's even rarer to find a great cliffhanger that makes you wait months for the resolution — and then doesn't wimp out, or undo everything in the first act.
I asked my Twitter followers for help with this one — they're credited at the bottom, and quoted where appropriate.
Battlestar Galactica, "Lay Down Your Burdens, Part 2"
When you vote for President Baltar, you get results. Never let it be said that President Baltar didn't make some dramatic changes in people's lives. Some later BSG cliffhangers did not entirely pay off — but here's a great example of one which did. We waited months to find out how the Cylon occupation of the new colony on New Caprica would pay off, and it was well worth it. Just for the Adama Manouevre, alone.
Andromeda, "Its Hour Come 'Round at Last"
An old program of Andromeda's is activated, causing the ship to go on a mission deep into Magog space — and the ship is badly damaged by a point singularity projector. In the second season opener, the ship and its crew have to come back from the brink of death, and lead a mission to rescue their captured crew-members.
Stargate: SG-1, "Within the Serpent's Grasp (Part 2)"
The SG-1 team finds Apophis' ship... and he's heading for Earth! It seems like nothing can stop Apophis from trashing our homeworld, except in "The Serpent's Lair," the season two opener, an alliance with Teal'c's former mentor Bra'tac leads to a mission to destroy Apophis' vessel.
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, "Broken Link"
Odo has to pay a high price for killing a fellow shapeshifter — he gets turned into a solid just after he's had a real taste of what it's like to be in the Great Link with the other changelings. But that's not the main cliffhanger: the Klingons and the Federation are on the brink of war, with Gowron intoning scarily into the camera... and then Odo remembers something from the Great Link: Gowron is a changeling! This turns out to be a slight red herring, but not in a cheap way at all.
Farscape, "Die Me, Dichotomy"
Aeryn apparently dies, and Crichton is stuck in the middle of risky brain surgery to remove the brain implant that gives him the neural clone of Scorpius that drove him crazy. And then the real Scorpius shows up, to taunt Crichton with the revenge he can never have. And then in the third season opener, Crichton finally defeats the neural clone of Scorpius, and Aeryn is restored thanks to a huge sacrifice on the part of another character. Says Madeline Ashby, "It pays off well for the rest of the following season."
Fringe, "Over There, Part 2"
Walter and Olivia's rescue mission to get Peter back from the Other Side doesn't quite go off without a hitch — Walternate switches Olivia with her alternate self, leaving "our" Olivia locked up in a padded cell while Walternate stares at her dispassionately, then walks away. And when season three picks up, the Olivia swap sets up a half-season of really fascinating, cool episodes, in which we actually get a real explanation for why Walternate chose to switch the Olivias instead of trying to nab Peter.
Babylon 5 Season 3, "Zha'dum"
Says Babylon 5 expert Jason Shankel:
Throughout seasons 2 and 3, Sheridan is told "If you go to Z'ha'dum, you will die." When Sheridan's wife, who he had presumed was dead, arrives and invites him to Z'ha'dum for a meeting with the shadows, he goes with her and uses the White Star to nuke their capital city. Before the nuke arrives, he jumps to his death to get clear of it. Season 4 picks up with Sheridan, now dead, given the opportunity to return to life...if he has a reason. This was THE cliffhanger episode for viewers back in the day. The episodes preceeding it were labelled "Z minus 14 days" and "Z minus 7 days."
Adds Misty S: "The payoff in season 4 is... well.. much of the meat of the entire series arc."
Supernatural, "No Rest for the Wicked"
Most of Supernatural season three is spent grappling with the unthinkable: Dean could be sent to Hell as a result of the bargain he struck to bring Sam back from the dead. And then, in the finale, Dean does get pulled into the pit, following in his father's footsteps. When season four begins, Dean climbs out of the Earth, apparently restored to life — but the explanation for his resurrection sets up two whole seasons of apocalyptic storylines. Basically: there are angels. But they're kind of dicks.
Twin Peaks, "The Last Evening"
Agent Cooper gets shot at the end of season one — cue scenes of him in the hospital at the start of season two. But as usual with this show, the most obvious question ("Will he survive") is less exciting than the weirder tangles that arise: In particular, Cooper's vision of a mysterious giant with answers about Laura Palmer.
Avatar: The Last Airbender, "The Crossroads of Destiny"
Aang tries to let go of his attachment to Katara so he can enter the Avatar state — but then he's struck by lightning and nearly dies. With Aang in a coma and Zuko a traitor, everybody flees, as the Earth Kingdom falls. When season three picks up, Aang is wounded but alive.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer, "The Gift"
Buffy season six probably isn't most people's favorite season — but at least the cliffhanger of "Buffy sacrifices her life to save the world" is resolved in a suitably epic way. Buffy's friends go to great lengths to bring her back from the dead, and there are clearly huge costs to this choice, which play out over the entire season.
The Vampire Diaries, "As I Lay Dying"
Damon has been bitten by a werewolf, and he's sure to die — except that there turns out to be one cure: the blood of the hybrid, Klaus. To get this precious substance, Stefan has to make certain compromises, and cross some lines that there's pretty much coming back from. Says Laurie K., "Klaus breaks Stefan and he stays broken for three-quarters of season three."
Star Trek: The Next Generation, "Best of Both Worlds, Parts 1"
And finally, there's the gold standard. We've praised this cliffhanger before, but it deserves all the praise it gets — the first half of the story spends a decent amount of time setting up the notion that Riker deserves his own command, so you're prepared for the possibility that Riker might become the Enterprise Captain for good. And the final scenario of Picard turned into a Borg and an unstoppable force heading for Earth really does look like a no-win situation. This is the storyline for which the Borg were born. Er, converted.
Thanks to Jason Shankel, Dennis Slade, John St. Lawrence, Jonathan Korman, Kevin Lovelace, Paul F., Richard S. Crawford, Laurie K., Misty S., Richard, Adam Flynn, Ash Morrigan, Karan, Ahmad Childress, Parva X, Madeline Ashby, Andrew Liptak, Thom Dunn, Adam Shaftoe, Lora Friedenthal, Ryan V. Lower, Lilian Wolf, Michelle, Matthue Roth, Mathilda Gregory, Thom Dunn, Gwynne Garfinkle, Game Couch, Heather Domin, Susan Jane Bigelow, Graeme McMillan and everyone else who helped.