I’ve had the idea for an entry like this kicking around for a while, but I think it’s appropriate to post it now that we’re in the final weeks of the broadcast television season and shows have started airing their season finales. Over the past few weeks, I’ve seen 6 season finales, all of which ended with cliffhangers.1 (That includes How I Met Your Mother, but we’re not going to talk about it here. That could open up a whole can of worms that I don’t want to deal with.) I enjoyed 5 of them (i.e. all of them except HIMYM’s), but the twists at the end of 4 of those 5 left me confused (Fringe), apprehensive (Chuck), frustrated (Community), or just downright mad (Castle).

I’ve already talked about the Fringe, Chuck, and Community season finales elsewhere, so let’s zero in on Castle. The specifics of the episode aren’t important. What matters is that the episode ended with Beckett getting shot and Castle professing his love for her. I didn’t like this cliffhanger for reasons that I’ll elaborate on shortly.

So, which show had a cliffhanger that I did enjoy? Surprisingly, Hawaii Five-0. The episode ended with Kono under investigation, Danny’s family heading back to New Jersey, Chin working for the HPD, and McGarrett in police custody. After the jump, we’re going to take a look at the Castle and Hawaii Five-0 season finales, and why the cliffhanger in the latter worked while the one in the former didn’t.

The Castle and Hawaii Five-0 season finales were very similarly structured. Both were a departure from their respective series’ lighthearted tone. Both centred around the show’s central mystery (Beckett’s mother’s murder / Steve’s parents’ murders). Both featured betrayals by chiefs who ended up dying (Montgomery / the governor). And both tied the central mystery to a larger conspiracy.

But obviously, Castle and Hawaii Five-0 are different shows that don’t share many similarities other than both being crime procedurals. The will-they-won’t-they dynamic between Beckett and the titular character is a part of Castle’s DNA, whereas romance is at best a tertiary concern on Hawaii Five-0. It makes sense, then, that Castle would close out its third season with a cliffhanger about its central romance.

Unfortunately, this bothers me for a number of reasons:

  • The cliffhanger had almost nothing to do with the rest of the episode, other than the fact that the person who shot Beckett is probably affiliated with the conspiracy surrounding her mother’s murder.
  • Castle’s “I love you” wasn’t a surprising revelation. It held no weight for me and felt designed to evoke an emotional reaction from the audience without the proper setup.
  • The cliffhanger was so random and out of left field. There was no build-up. It felt as if it existed solely for shock value.
  • We know that Beckett won’t die, unless this show is willing to go all supernatural on us and have Ghost Beckett aiding the NYPD.

Now, I might be biased because I’ve never cared about the Castle/Beckett romance. (In fact, I’d rather they never get together.) But with Castle’s confession, it’s hard to imagine that the show is heading in any direction other than an eventual Castle/Beckett romantic relationship. And with all of Castle creator Andrew Marlowe’s talk about the will-they-won’t-they situation on Bones, the show had better be heading in that direction if Marlowe doesn’t want to look like a hypocritical ass.

Of course, Bones fans know all about aborted weddings, coma dreams, and airport farewells, and I’d have to say that Castle’s cliffhanger was pulled from the same bag of tricks. In fact, Booth got shot (and Brennan thought he died) towards the end of the third season (although it wasn’t a finale cliffhanger). I guess originality isn’t the Castle writers’ strong suit.

So, not only was Castle’s season 3 cliffhanger manipulative and detached from the rest of the episode, it was also a rip-off of something that happened on a very similar show, in the same season no less! Ouch.

On the other hand, the Hawaii Five-0  season finale cliffhanger was much, much better for a number of reasons:

  • It came organically out of the rest of the episode. It was the culmination of the episode’s events.
  • It put the entire team in a state of uncertainty, not just a couple of characters. We know that they’re all going to make it out, but the interesting things to see will be how they make it out and what effect these events will have on the team.
  • The cliffhanger tied directly into the plot, not just the characters’ emotional states.

Maybe it was a rip-off of something that NCIS or NCIS:LA has done in the past. I wouldn’t know; I never watched those shows. But even so, the cliffhanger was built up from what happened in the episode. It wasn’t an arbitrary, random, last-minute twist. And that’s the key thing to twists: they require setup. Otherwise, a show is just toying around with its audience.

Just to be clear, I’m not mad enough not to tune into Castle next season. Castle is still a quality procedural that consistently delivers entertaining hours of television. But you can bet that if the show starts playing Bones-esque relationship games, I’ll be mocking it at whatever opportunity I get.

Moreover, I’m not advocating that TV shows should stop ending their seasons on cliffhangers. I’m one of millions of mindless sheep, after all, and I need something to hook me for next season. But I wish that writers would take the time to examine whether they’re throwing in twists that actually make sense, because as much as I like cliffhangers, a cliffhanger for the sake of having a cliffhanger is worse than having no cliffhanger at all.

1 I also saw 30 Rock’s season finale, but it didn’t end on a cliffhanger. So, yeah, I guess I lied and I’ve actually seen 7. Sue me.