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A Cliff Hanger without the Cliff.
Sometimes, as a television producer or writer, you want the viewer to wonder "What Happens Next?" when a season is over.
One way to do this is a Cliff Hanger; but Cliff Hangers are a Cyclic Trope, or maybe your series, which is already cliffhanger-heavy, wouldn't stand up to another cliffhanger, or maybe you're worried that you won't last another season. That's where the What Now? Ending comes in.
Instead of leaving the protagonists in mortal danger, this ending leaves them broken, or gone, or what have you.
The What Now? Ending allows the three months to a year to pass between new episodes in "series" time as well, if the writers so desire. Also, a What Now? Ending allows a form of insurance against Real Life Writes the Plot; actors who die or are unavailable can be handled by having something happen to the character during the Time Skip.
- League of Extraordinary Gentlemen ended Volume 2 with two main characters dead, one character quitting in outrage at a morally dodgy solution to the Big Bad, and the remaining two characters in an awkward state of post-romance and deciding to go their separate ways.
- The Proposition, which even ends with the line "What are you going to do now?"
- Movie example: The Graduate.
- In Heathers, JD's last few lines invoke this:
Pretend I did blow up the school — all the schools. Now that you're dead, what are you going to do with your life?
- The 1966 Batman film invokes this when its text The End is replaced by "The Living End?"
- Buffy the Vampire Slayer was the Queen of these:
- The second season ends with Buffy running away from Sunnydale.
- The third season ends with her going off to college.
- The fourth season ends with a dream episode that sets up a significant subplot of the fifth season.
- The fifth season ended with Buffy dead.
- The sixth season ended with a Prophecy Twist across both Angel and Buffy.
- The seventh and final season, ended with the question, "What are we going to do now?"
- Of course, Buffy's easy smile in answer to that question implied that it is not always a bad thing to lack an immediate threat.
- Heck, even the Musical Episode ends with the song "Where Do We Go From Here?"
- Buffy's Spin-Off, Angel, had its fair share of these, too.
- The first season ended with the revelation that Angel might have a chance to become human again.
- The third season ended with Angel trapped at the bottom of the ocean, Cordelia being taken off to a higher plane of existence, Wesley in exile, Lorne moving to Vegas Baby, and only two characters left back at HQ, completely unaware of what's happened to Angel and Cordy.
- The fourth season ended with Angel and company taking over the LA branch of Big Bad Wolfram and Hart.
- The fifth season ended with a Bolivian Army Ending.
- 24, by its nature, is quite heavy on these.
- Sliders ended with Rembrandt sliding alone to his homeworld, despite a (very accurate) seer's warning that doing so would be fatal. The others are left standing there, asking, "Now what do we do?"
- Police Procedurals, such as Law & Order and CSI tend to have these.
- The Shield and Rescue Me's first seasons both ended with the wife of the protagonist leaving him and going into hiding because their spouse had become dangerous.
- House has had four of these so far.
- In the second season finale, House gets shot, and discovers that as a result of a coma induced in order to allow him to heal, his chronic pain is gone. While that turns out to be a hallucination, he does, at the end of the episode, decide to try to fix his leg from the method suggested in the hallucination. It works, for a while.
- In the third season finale, House fires his entire staff (or they resign, depending on member).
- In the fourth season finale, Wilson's girlfriend dies as an indirect result of House's destructive behavior, and
Dr. HadleyThirteen finds out she does have the gene for Huntington's Disease.
- In the fifth season finale, House finally kicked the pill habit and scored with Cuddy, only to discover that it was all a hallucination. He ends the season in a psychiatric hospital.
- In the latest Season Finale, House drives his car through Cuddy's house, Cuddy is appying for a restraining order against him, and House is hiding from the police on some undisclosed Carribean Island.
- Scrubs actually has a few of these. Season one ended with Jordan revealing everyone's personal secrets to each other, putting them all in very uncomfortable positions, season three ended with J.D. telling Elliott he didn't love her, and season four ended with J.D. moving out and recognizing he was at a crossroads in his life (with him literally wondering "what now?").
- The first season of Burn Notice ends with Michael boarding a truck that will supposedly take him to meet the people who burned him.
- Pet Shop of Horrors ended with Count D disappearing from Los Angeles, leaving a badly injured Leon looking for answers after (finally) discovering the true nature of Count D and his pets. The flash-forward epilogue never resolves what happened to the two main protagonists although we know from the sequel and side stories that Leon chases D across the world while D sets up shop in Tokyo and adopts a new human to torment. Leon's eventual fate, however, is still up in the air.
- Season 5 of Stargate SG-1 ended with Daniel Jackson dead (and ascended), the Tok'ra devastated and scattered, Thor's mind trapped in the controlling computer of Anubis's abandoned mothership, and Anubis himself rapidly gaining power and influence. But at least Earth and the SGC weren't in any immediate danger. The "mood of despair" was even more obvious at the conclusion of the two-parter "Summit/Last Stand" in the latter half of the season, but it wasn't the season finale.
- The Stargate Atlantis series finale "Enemy at the Gate" ended with Atlantis landing near the Golden Gate Bridge. While the series is over, the story will continue in spin-off movies.
- Stargate Universe ended on a big one. Destiny goes into an extended FTL jump to escape the drone armada, with the entire crew entering hypersleep for the next three years, possibly to be set adrift forever. Eli volunteers to stay behind with the single damaged pod, with two weeks to fix it before the life support fails and he dies.
- Season 4 of Lost ends with the Oceanic Six getting off the island and the island vanishing, leaving viewers to wonder what the structure of the show will be in season 5.
- Season 5 ends on more of a Cliff Hanger, but as much as we're worried about the fate of almost every character on the show, most of us are more concerned with how the hell the show is going to keep going if what we just saw really happened the way it was implied to.
- Star Trek: Deep Space Nine did this a lot:
- Season two ended with the threat of a future Dominion invasion.
- Season three ended with the revelation that there are Changeling spies everywhere.
- Season four ended with the revelation that the Klingon chancellor was a changeling spy. He wasn't. The real spy was his right-hand man, General Martok.
- Season five ended with the Federation having to evacuate Deep Space Nine and the beginning of a war with the Dominion.
- Season six ended with Jadzia Dax dead and Sisko leaving the station.
- The last season ended with the crew going their separate ways (and occasionally ascending to a higher plane of existence).
- The X-Files ended its fifth season with the titular department closed and Mulder and Scully reassigned. The Movie picked up with this, ending when Mulder and Scully's adventure leads to the re-opening of the X-files, but, surprisingly, when the sixth season starts, though the department is open, Mulder and Scully haven't been returned to it.
- The series itself ended with Mulder and Scully alive and together but on the run and the Myth Arc essentially unresolved, with extraterrestrial colonization of Earth supposedly proceeding on schedule for 2012 and no obvious way to stop it. The 2008 movie provided no further information about the Myth Arc.
- The season 5 finale of Highlander the Series ends with Richie dead at Duncan's hand, and Duncan abandoning his katana and walking off into the night.
- The Wire season 3: Stringer is dead, Avon Barksdale along with the rest of his crew other than Broadie and Slim Charles are in prison, McNulty decides to quit Major Case Squad and become a beat cop, Colvin is forced to retire and Hamsterdam is torn down.
- Smallville season 2: While this is very much a Cliff Hanger for Lex, for Clark it's a What Now? Ending to a T — he's destroyed his only link to Jor-El, directly causing his mother to lose her baby, alienated Lana and Chloe, and is in so much emotional turmoil that he ends the season riding away from Smallville self-medicated on Red Kryptonite. The next season premiere picks up months later.
- The Sarah Connor Chronicles second season ends with one of these, which is made even worse since the series has been screwed by the network.
- Torchwood: Children of Earth has A major character dead, Torchwood non-existent and Jack having left Earth.
- Community episode Pascal's Triangle Revisited ends in the spring of one school year, and the next season premier picks up with the first day of school in the fall.
- Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future is the quintessential example, as Season One (the only season it had before cancellation) ended with the death of Jeniffer "Pilot" Chase after she self-destructed the Powerbase's reactor, both to keep the base's sensitive information from falling into Lord Dread's hands, and to destroy Blastarr. The Five-Man Band was effectively broken up, leaving Power, Hawk, Tank, and Scout destitute and hopeless in the wilderness.
- Much like the Captain Power example above, Space: Above and Beyond ended its first and only season with two members of the 58th squadron safe and sound, two more in the cockpit of a transport falling toward a planet with one of them already unconscious from a head wound, and the fifth one most definitely dead after the wreck of a destroyed enemy fighter hits him head on. Meanwhile, Earth's attempt to strike the enemy homeworld ended in disastrous failure, and we've just learned that their genocidal war might have been provoked by a human corporation that knowingly treaded all over their holy ground. With or without a second season, it was decidedly downbeat and any sense of victory was pretty small-scale.
- Blakes Seven ended two of its three seasons like this: season 3 ends with the crew stranded on Terminal and the Liberator destroyed. Season 4 ends with Scorpio destroyed and the crew apparently dead. Season two is a near miss: it ends on an actual Cliff Hanger with the Liberator staring down an invading armada, but the next season seemingly skips to the end of the war, with the Liberator crew abandoning ship and only returning much later.
- The Others ended its first and only season with the entire cast apparently dead thanks to the machinations of an evil force. A cryptic comment by Einer as he dies points to the possibility that, had the series been renewed, the whole thing might have turned out to be a complex plan.
- This is how season 2 of Phil of the Future ended...forever. Phil's family goes back to the future, right after he and Keely finally admit their feelings for each other. Problem was, they left Curtis back in the 21st century. Obviously this was meant to pick up in season 3, or a movie, or something, but no. There was No Ending.
- Veronica Mars ends it's third season on an abnormally frustrating note. It's obvious that the writers assumed there was going to be a fourth season to make everything better.
- Mighty Morphin Power Rangers infamously ended its third season with the Command Center annihilated, the Rangers without their powers and helpless against the bad guys.
- The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion — At the end, with the Emperor dead, no heirs to the throne, and no clear picture of how the future will play out, many NPC's actually have a chat topic that pretty much says "Well, what now?"
- Considering what Oblivion's NPC conversations do to the beloved people and places of TES III: Morrowind, one can hope things stay that way.
- Halo: Reach first ends like this with Noble 6 shoting down the Covenant cruiser from the ground and watching the Pillar of Autumn escape into space, leaving him presumedly the last living human on Reach. But it's then averted with a bonus level as The Stinger, in which you are swarmed by an endless horde of enemies to fight to the last bullet.
- The Order of the Stick Azure City arc, whose end will presumably be the end of the third compilation book, ended with Azure City taken over by hobgoblins, the Order of The Stick broken, and their leader dead.
- The second season finale of Avatar: The Last Airbender ended with the Gang fleeing a conquered Ba Sing Se, after Aang had been struck down by Azula.
- The Gargoyles spin-off "Bad Guys" ended with the Redemption Squad out in the middle of the ocean on a boat made of Matrix. They've managed to take Mistress Quickly prisoner, but Falstaff and the rest of his gang got away. Hunter and Dingo are starting to fall in love. Yama waxes philosophical just before turning to stone. Fang is bitchy as usual. Someone's going to save them, right? Right?
- The Venture Brothers seasons 1 and 3 ended this way:
- Season 1:Dean and Hank are killed (in the second season premiere they come back for far from the first time)
- Season 3: Cocktease's group of assasins suceeded in their plan to have Brock kill their competition. Brock lost his mullet and resigned from both the O.S.I. and being a bodyguard. Also Number 24 died.
- Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated ends with Fred learning the Big Bad is his father, and then that actually he's not his father, and breaking the team up, while Shaggy's parents decide they're going to send him Military School, and Scooby to a farm.
- Pretty much every ending in Real Life that doesn't involve you actually dying is of this nature.
- Luckily, that little crisis was resolved next season when the Rangers got new powers to fight evil.