The last five minutes of Sunday night’s “Game of Thrones”—the last episode before the season ends next week—were brutal, bloody, and, if you hadn’t read all of the novels, surprising. The “Red Wedding,” as the scene is known, featured the death of three major characters and one royal fetus. The morning-after memes birthed a new category of Youtube video: the “Red Wedding” reaction shot, videos of viewers’ shocked, horrified responses to the massacre. But even if the “Game of Thrones” newbies had no way of guessing the extent of Sunday night’s bloodshed, they shouldn’t have been entirely startled—after all, one of the unwritten rules of modern cable drama is that the big guns all come out in the penultimate episode. If “quality television” in the last decade came to mean a violent drama with a middle-aged antihero, it also came to mean the end of the cliffhanger.
Take the last two seasons of “Game of Thrones.” Each peaked with a main event—the death of Ned Stark and the battle of Blackwater—and each of those main events happened in the episode before the last. (I’d tell you what happened in those season finales, but I honestly don’t remember.) Like so many other characteristics of today’s prestige television, the pattern was set by “The Sopranos.” The finales for that show featured funerals and graduation ceremonies and long, obscure dream sequences. It was in the episodes prior that the mob storylines came to a head, usually in jarring ways: Janice shoots Richie Aprile at the dinner table; Silvio shoots Adriana in a deserted forest; rival gangmembers shoot Bobby in the chest. The episodes after let Tony—and creator David Chase—pick up the pieces.
“The Wire” was dramatically dissimilar from its HBO predecessor, but it, too, used its penultimate episode in this way. Written each season by crime novelist George Pelecanos, these penultimate episodes are some of the series’ best: This is when Wallace and Stringer Bell die, when the serial-killer hoax comes to light. If we had Twitter in 2002, these are the episodes that would spark parody accounts (@WheresWallace, maybe) and choruses of #omg. The finales were more notable for their more conventional final scenes: closing montages that lay out each character’s fate while meaningful music plays. The shows that followed, including “Deadwood” and “Mad Men,” did the same. (Sure, the first season finale of “Mad Men” included the famous Kodak carousel speech, but the season-long arc of Don’s stolen identity wrapped up one episode earlier.)
The classic season-ending cliffhanger (Who shot J.R.? Has the president been killed?) still has its place. “Breaking Bad” has followed a fairly conventional arc in all its seasons so far, with peak drama playing out in the final moments of each season. “Nashville” ended its season with a car crash and “Scandal” left us with the reveal of Olivia Pope’s father. As Emily Nussbaum noted in The New Yorker this week, even “Law & Order: SVU” broke its time-honored formula this past season and ended on a note of suspense. But—“Breaking Bad” aside—the season-ending cliffhanger has remained a mark of soap-ish TV—the kind of series’ that needs to persuade its audience to come back. “Mad Men”’s rabid fans will return to see just how much period precision Matthew Weiner has projected onto his sets; “Scandal”s audience will not.
With “The Wire” five years behind us, the idea that the best television series are “like a novel” has become hackneyed conventional wisdom, the “New York Times is on it” of television criticism. But while this trope is usually trotted out to assert a sort of cultural prestige, the real relevance of this comparison is that it provides a means to understand this structural decrescendo in season finales. Storytelling 101 counsels not to put your climax right at the end. Gatsby isn’t shot in the last chapter of Fitzgerald’s book; that’s where Nick recounts the funeral, and has time to blather on about boats and the West and the orgiastic future. Lily Bart dies with pages to spare. Rising action eventually has to fall.
And so the penultimate episode has become a way for shows to clear the table, giving the finale space to track the emotional repercussions. The second to last episode shows us what happens, but the last episode tells us what the season—and the show—is really about. And this is what TV-watching is really about these days—not the “holy shit!” moments, but the attempt to unearth subtext and debate meaning. “The Wire” is a commentary on our broken institutions; the “Sopranos” is about the impossibility of change. That’s why the montage has become television’s new finale cliché, a way for a series to highlight its resonance and significance. Look at what we’ve done to the characters in the past ten hours. Look at how sad and soulful they are.
Of course, each “Game of Thrones” season is actually based on a novel, so it has a good reason for adhering to this narrative convention. But there’s something rote about a structure that’s so easily mapped, and there’s a beauty to the well-written cliffhanger that lends itself just as well to slow-moving character portraits as it does to fast-paced soap. It’s no surprise that “Breaking Bad,” the cable show most willing to stretch the medium’s limits of visual flair and moral degeneracy, is also the cable drama that’s been best able to incorporate television’s classic thrills into its structure. “Game of Thrones” will end its third season on Sunday night, and I have few guesses about what will happen. The one prediction I’m willing to make, though, is that it won’t involve a cliffhanger; now that would really be shocking.