“The shot heard around the world”.
Historians hear the phrase and inevitably point to the bullet which killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914, and triggered the start of World War One. Or, they start singing Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1837 Concord Hymn, about the start of the American Revolution. “Here once the embattled farmers stood, And fired the shot heard round the world.”
But Supernatural fans know differently. They know “the shot heard round the world” is Bobby’s potentially fatal head injury, caused by the bullet fired by Leviathan Big Boss, Dick Roman.
Of course, more mainstream pop culture critics would argue the “shot heard round the world” is actually the bullet, which struck J.R. Ewing, and marked the end of the second season of “Dallas”. It was a significant weapons discharge, not only because of how it affected the character, but also how it affected all the TV shows which followed. Heading into the summer hiatus, no one knew who had fired the gun, or whether J.R. would survive. The modern day TV cliffhanger was born.
Although the term “cliffhanger” doesn’t come into common usage until 1937, it actually goes back a very long way as a literary device. Scheherazade, the author of “Arabian Nights” (aka “One Thousand and One Nights”), staves off her execution by telling her husband, King Shahryar, a story each night. Cleverly, she never reveals the ending. Her husband must let her live another day, so she can tell him what happens next.
The cliffhanger picked up steam as a marketing technique in the 1870’s, when novels were published in serial format in newspapers. The goal for publishers (then and now) was to sell more papers. Authors were often paid by the word, and so their goal was to keep writing. Ending each chapter as a cliffhanger worked well for all sides, since readers had to keep buying the paper if they wanted to know the conclusion.
It’s believed the actual term “cliffhanger” comes from “A Pair of Blue Eyes” by Thomas Hardy. At one point, his character Henry Knight is literally hanging off a cliff, staring into the eyes of a fossil.
When people started leaving their newspapers behind in favour of talking pictures, the cliffhanger moved with them. Think of all those early movies, where the villain was preparing to kill the damsel in distress, but the hero arrived just in time to save her.
Film and literature have had a firm grasp on the cliffhanger for years. However, it took until 1980 and that bullet to J. R. Ewing’s chest for TV writers to grab onto the idea.
The big question in the summer of 1980 was “Who shot J.R.?” An audience of approximately 83,000,000 tuned in to the answering episode. To date, it’s the third highest rated television episode ever.
TV writers and producers haven’t let go of the cliffhanger since. Why should they? It’s (usually) a surefire ratings booster, with a relatively simple formula. Ramp up the suspense in the mid-season or season finale. Make the stakes high ““ loving or leaving, living or dying. End the episode with the “Will he/won’t he?” question. Then, sit back for a few weeks, or months, and let viewers stew in their anxiety. Finally, watch that audience come rushing back for the resolution.
Supernatural is no stranger to the mid-season, and/or season finale cliffhanger. Here are some examples:
Season One Finale – Devil’s Trap: The lives of all three Winchester men hang in the balance when The Impala is suddenly sideswiped by a transport truck.
Season Two Mid-Season Finale – Croatoan: Dean offers this juicy nugget of information to Sam. “Right before Dad died, he told me something. He told me something about you.”
Season Three Season Finale – No Rest for the Wicked: Incredibly, Dean is killed and dragged to Hell.
Season Four Finale – Lucifer Rising: Sam and Dean are trapped with a blinding light and the knowledge that Lucifer is coming.
Season Five Mid-season Finale – Abandon All Hope: Ellen & Jo are killed. The Colt can’t kill Lucifer. And the sneaky Devil manages to raise Death.
Season Six Mid-season Finale – Appointment in Samarra: Dean makes a deal with Death to return Sam’s soul, and Soulless Sam really does not approve.
I don’t know what affect any of those episodes had on the ratings for Supernatural. But the ratings for the Season 7 mid-season finale, “Death’s Door”, jumped by at least half-a-million viewers. That’s a nice little spike to take in the winter Hellatus.
Some might suggest the episode was just a cheap ratings grab. And ratings definitely do matter. But as Alice so eloquently explained in her article “Supernatural by the Numbers, Part Deux”, ratings aren’t the only thing that determines a show’s longevity or quick cancellation. So, do you really write your mid-season finale just to grab a few more viewers?
I don’t know, because sadly I do not write for TV. However, the writer in me hopes it isn’t that cold or calculated; hopes ratings aren’t the sole motivation.
Because I do believe motivation is often at the soul of the mid-season, or season finale. But it’s the characters that are getting the motivational boost. For example, the events of “Devil’s Trap” lead directly to John sacrificing his soul to save Dean, which foreshadows how Dean will react if/when Sam is killed. “No Rest for the Wicked” and Dean’s descent to Hell open the door to angels, Sam’s demon blood addiction and the eventual Apocalypse. And so on, and so on.
It remains to be seen just how pivotal “Death’s Door” will be in the grand Supernatural scheme of things. But, it’s clear whatever happens will have a profound effect on the boys. Their love for Bobby shone through, although they expressed it in completely different, but totally believable ways. You could see, or hear their actions and reactions in any hospital Emergency Department in any city.
Based on the exchange between Dean and Dick Roman, I’d say he has the fire in his belly again. I think his love for Bobby will power him through the coming episodes. Although I fear the fuel for that drive may be denial once again. I wonder if Dean will ever address all those marbles in the lead friggin’ box ““ all those pent-up emotions, sorrows and disappointments. He needs to do that, if he’s ever going to find some peace with the hard hunting life he lives. However, maybe that soft whisper of “Idjits”, that small hint of just how much Bobby loved him will be enough to help Dean find a little pride in himself, and his myriad of accomplishments. I wish both he, and Sam, could have heard Bobby call them great men, and heroes.
I found Dean’s plea to the Organ Donation Coordinator very poignant. “I do my job. You do yours!” It’s like he believes that if he goes back to being a fully engaged, dedicated hunter, than the universe will finally, finally grant the Winchesters a break. It’s so simple, and so human. Who amongst us hasn’t offered up a similar prayer to whatever deity we believe in? “If I do this work without complaint… Or, if I suffer through this crisis, surely you’ll send something good and positive my way???”
As for Sam, my heart broke a little more for him. He looked so lost, so vulnerable and so very, very young throughout this episode. I fear that Bobby’s situation will be what shatters Sam’s fragile grip on reality. He’s trying so hard to hang onto the broken pieces, but you can see in this episode that his hold is really starting to slip.
I also appreciated Dean’s brief, but powerful, reference to the emotional destruction they felt after John’s death. “What do you want to do? You want to hug and say we made it through when Dad died? We’ve been through enough.” As Sam pointed out way back in “Everybody Loves A Clown”, “I’m not alright. Not at all. But neither are you.” Those words ring equally true now, especially in light of all they’ve been through since John’s death.
It was heartbreaking to watch both brothers struggle to maintain their grasp on the clifftop, and not go plunging into the darkness below. It leads to the suggestion that a cliffhanger episode, like this one, is manipulative, because it leaves the viewer so emotionally drained by the end.
But, of course this episode (and the others I mentioned) was manipulative. It was meant to be! The goal of any writer is to make the audience feel something.
We were supposed to be feeling all the pain, grief, uncertainty and anger that Sam and Dean were feeling. The fact we’re so wrecked now is actually a sign of how successful this episode was. Much of the enjoyment we get watching a TV show, or reading a book comes from our emotional investment in the main characters, and their journey. I’d say the rush on Kleenex since Dec 2, 2011 shows a fairly heavy investment!
I know many people are saying that if Bobby does not die, this episode will be cheapened and won’t mean anything. If I was a fictional character, and I had to be killed off, that’s how I would like to go ““ mortally wounded while fighting the Big Bad, but still finding the strength to tell my family & friends how much I love them. But, that’s not necessarily how a cliffhanger in real life would resolve.
Natural cliffhangers that happen in real life? You might be tempted to say there is no such thing. But they exist, and we’ve all grappled with them.
For instance, think of meeting a cute guy at a party. He promises to phone. You go home, and wait. And wait. And wait. Every time your cell beeps, you jump to answer it. Maybe he calls. Maybe he doesn’t, but either way you’re trapped in the “will he/won’t he” scenario. Then, there’s the job interview and those endless days spent wondering whether or not you actually got the position. Your stomach churns. Your nails are bitten to the quick. Sure feels like you’re hanging onto a cliff doesn’t it?
But just as it is for Sam & Dean, it’s the health issues which really leave us dangling. You come back from a lunch date and the light on your voice mail is flashing. Your doctor is frantically trying to reach you because a routine blood test has come back, with some far-from-routine results. Or, there’s a shadow on the X-ray. Or the most gut-wrenching, time-slowing cliffhanger in the history of humanity ““ waiting to hear a baby’s first cry.
In those situations, I suspect we strongly resemble both Winchester brothers. Like Dean, we deny that anything serious could be wrong. Like Sam, we try to accept the possibility that something might be.
Which brings us back to this season’s cliffhanger, and the big question ““ is Bobby dead? I live in Pragmatic Dreamland, and in this idyllic world no one I care about (real and imaginary) is allowed to die. Sure Bobby is flatlining. But, he hasn’t been pronounced. No time of death has been called. And the trauma staff is charging the defibrillation paddles right now.
However, my hope that Bobby doesn’t die is based on more than a fanciful imagination. It’s based on the real outcome of a real cliffhanger. It’s based on the life of a friend.
He was crossing the street, when a drunk driver hit him. The impact threw him into oncoming traffic and he was run over again. His family was called. Rush to the hospital, they were told. He won’t make it through the night, they were told. I’m sure they were asked about organ donation because his head and brain had suffered tremendous trauma.
But amazingly, he made it through that first night. And then the next. And then one more. After about a month, he was stable enough to be transferred to a hospital closer to home. He was still in a deep coma, but started giving hints that he was preparing to surface. A twitch of the fingers. A grunt. A flutter of the eyelids.
His family and friends continued their daily vigils of chatting with him, playing his favourite music, showing him photographs of all the important people in his life. Each day, every day, someone was with him.
Then one day, just for a moment, he staggered back to this world. There was a flash of consciousness and from his perspective, some really weird hallucinations and images. But this new-old world he visited was warm, and welcoming. So the next day, the flash of consciousness became a glow and he lingered here a few minutes longer.
It took weeks, but gradually he woke up. His memory had significant holes in it. He was missing at least a year leading up to, and including the accident. His speech was garbled, and one half of his body no longer moved like it should. But he was back.
Over time he relearned how to walk, and how to talk. He finished a graduate degree. And most importantly of all, he was able, once again to remember, and love all the people who had supported him through his Rip Van Winkle sleep.
Cliffhangers are here to stay ““ in both the real world, and the fictional one. And although it doesn’t happen very often in either realm, once in a while, someone is able to fight and claw his way off the cliffside and back onto the safety of the plateau. Sometimes, it doesn’t take anything supernatural. It just takes time, love and faith.