A Cliffhanger 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 Cliffhanger; 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.
Since this is an Ending Trope, expect spoilers.
- 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?
- 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 ending of 9 combines this with a slight Gainax Ending. The Fabrication Machine has been destroyed for good, and the souls of the deceased stitchpunks have been freed, and have brought rain with microbes in it, and... the survivors are left standing there in the rain. 7 wonders about the future, and 9 makes a vague comment about it.
- The last scene of Finding Nemo shows Gill and the other aquarium fish successfully escaping through the window and across the street in plastic bags as they had originally planned. However, they realize that they have no plan for getting out of the plastic bags, leaving them stuck in there, floating around in the harbor, prompting Bloat to ask "Now what?". In Finding Dory, we learn that they swam, in their bags, all the way across the Pacific to the Marine Life Institute in Morro Bay, California - where they are immediately scooped up by institute staff grumbling "No respect for ocean life!" and put into a cooler. As they leave, we hear Bloat once again ask, "Now what?"
- American Gangster ended with the elderly Frank getting out of prison but with nowhere to go.
- Apocalypse Now. Mission accomplished, yay. Now what?
- The 1966 Batman: The Movie invokes this when its text The End is replaced by "The Living End?"
- The Big Lebowski ends this way. The Dude and Walter solve the mystery (such as it was), but there's not really anything they can do about it, Donny's dead, the Dude has a son on the way that he'll never meet, and they've gotten no compensation for all the crap they went through, leaving them with nothing else to do but contemplate their lives before the big game. But hey, come what may, the Dude abides.
- The Chronicles of Riddick ended with him becoming leader of the Necromongers. Riddick finally answers this. He decides to leave the Necromongers to find his destroyed homeworld and turns over his title of Lord Marshall to Vaako.
- Danger Diva ends with Devi, Scattering, their child, and the now-freed masses standing in the rain wondering what to do next.
- The Live-Action Adaptation of Devilman ends with both hero and villain dying... after the Apocalypse How. Cue the last two living named characters climbing to the surface, surrounded by Scenery Gorn.
- The film version of Educating Rita - although this is in fact a very happy ending for Rita. The last shot of the film is her at the airport having just seen Frank off - no idea of what to do next. However she has multiple choices of what she can do next, that she didn't have at the beginning of the film.
- The Graduate ends with Ben and Elaine, having just fled Elaine's wedding, sitting next to each other on the back seat of a bus as the adrenaline rush of the escape wears off, leaving them with expressions that can be summed up as, "So what do we do now?"
- In Heathers, J.D.'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 Island. We have no idea how the world will deal with the fact that cloning is real.
- The Proposition, which even ends with the line "What are you going to do now?"
- The Rocky Horror Picture Show ends with Brad, Janet, and Dr. Scott crawling around in the mud, feeling empty now that Frank has sexually awakened them and then died. It then fades to the Criminologist's office, where he gives a Fauxlosophic Narration about humanity being lost in meaning.
- Suburbia ends with the TR kids successfully fighting off an invasion from two of the members from Citizens Against Crime. Cue the duo coming back around for round two, followed by Ethan getting run over and killed by their car, with Jack's father arriving too late to stop any of the aforementioned events from happening. Roll credits.
- There Will Be Blood ended with Daniel killing Eli. Whether or not he will be arrested is never answered.
- Zero Dark Thirty. Maya finally gets Osama bin Laden, but she's literally spent much of her adult life (so far) pursuing one man in a decade long search that saw several of her friends killed, involved very questionable ethics, and bad intelligence that led nowhere. It's played with a bit literally, when the C-130 pilot in charge of transporting her asks where she wants to go. She can't answer.
- 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.
- Assassin's Creed: Odyssey ends like this in the modern day. Layla Hassan has received the Staff of Hermes from the Eagle Bearer, who promptly dies of sudden onset Extremely Old Age. With nothing better to do, she decides to get back to her Animus. The DLC Fate of Atlantis follows up on this, then has its own version: Layla's left in Atlantis, Alethia refusing to talk to her, on account of Layla momentarily losing control and killing her ally Victoria Biebau in a fate of Staff-induced rage, while Layla's fellow Assassins can't easily get to her, and trained Abstergo killer Juhani Otso Berg is lying on the floor, crippled but alive. Layla decides the only thing left to do is take an Animus victory lap around Ancient Greece.
- Dragon Age:
- While Dragon Age: Origins wraps up fairly neatly, this kind of ending is given to Dragon Age II. Hawke is still missing, the companions are scattered, and Varric is (seemingly) unable to give further intelligence. Cassandra and Leliana are both revealed to be working for the Divine, but it's unclear why they're trying to find either Hawke or the Warden.
- Dragon Age: Inquisition mostly averts this in the main game, which ends about as happily as it can, but plays it straight with the Trespasser DLC set two years later. Solas is revealed as the Dalish trickster god Fen'Harel, he's planning to basically unravel reality in order to restore ancient Elvhenan, and the Inquisition is either disbanded or drastically reduced in scope, and either way they're planning to try to stop him.
- Dyna Gear: In the game's backstory, your character, a Space Cop named Roger, is pursuing a space criminal named Gustaf before both of you crash-lands on a hostile planet full of dinosaurs. You then spend the entire game battling hordes of dinosaurs, hostile lizard-people, giant insects, braving all sorts of booby traps before confronting Gustaf in a difficult boss battle. In the cutscene after you win, you realize you're still stranded on the dinosaur planet with no hope of escaping. The game ends rather abruptly after that.
- 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 NPCs actually have a chat topic that pretty much says "Well, what now?"
- Halo: Reach first ends like this with Noble 6 shooting down the Covenant cruiser from the ground and watching the Pillar of Autumn escape into space, leaving him/her one of the last living humans on Reach. It's then subverted with a Playable Epilogue as The Stinger, in which you are swarmed by an endless horde of enemies as you fight to the last bullet.
- Phix The Adventure: At the end of story mode, once Phix has had the Magnia Stone removed from his body, he's catapulted up to its floating altar in the sky. After placing the Magnia Stone back where it belongs, Phix can't help but ask himself, "How do I get down from here?" It's there where the credits roll.
- [PROTOTYPE 2] - After Heller consumes Alex, uses Cutscene Power to the Max to purge the Red Zone of all viral influence, and fully reunites with his daughter, Dana stares across the ruined New York skyline at the sunrise and asks "What do we do now?"
- Two endings of Spec Ops: The Line end this way, with a thoroughly broken Walker either taken in by the US Military to face debriefing, or on the run from the Military in a broken Dubai after (successfully) gunning down the team they sent to recover him.
- Red Alert 3: Yuriko's mini-campaign ends with Yuriko actually asking "what do I do now?" after she destroys the Shiro Psychic Research Center and reunites with her sister only to discover said sister had only manipulated her o she could kill Yuriko and be the sole psychic Person of Mass Destruction.
- Aaron ends with the two brothers Adam and Chris unsure of what to do next. They've got all their differences out in the open and are seen walking off together - possibly trying to rebuild their friendship.
- The third season finale of RWBY, which sees Beacon Academy being destroyed and the four members of Team RWBY going their separate ways. One of the last lines of dialogue is Ruby asking: "So, what do we do now?"
- The Grand Finale of Scootertrix the Abridged ends Twilight's character arc on one. The Mane Six have split up, Spike has left for the Badlands, and Celestia is recovering on the moon. Applejack is still around, but almost everything else that gave Twilight's life meaning is gone now, leaving her unsure of what to do next. Twilight puts a hopeful spin on it, stating that the library is always getting new booksto imply that she expects to find new work and make new friends.
- Electric Wonderland ends "Into Thin Aerynn", the last 2013 story in the series, like so. Even though the staff of the Nettropolis Free Press gets Aerynn back, it still seems uncertain how much time they have left until she gets arrested. Trawn has to bear the guilt of acting secretive towards one friend (Natasha) to ensure the safety of another (Aerynn). Natasha might also have to toss Trawn in jail if she ever finds her harboring a criminal. Plus, it seems possible that the animosity between Aerynn and NJ has finally started cooling down after her return.
- Flight: The Tale of Two Sisters ends with Diamond leaving to go after Lilac (the only other known healer for her kingdom) and Parsley, all right after making up with her sister, Sapphire, with whom she had grown distant. The fact that both sisters are presumably still dealing with the death of their parents doesn't help. As of November 2022, it's unclear whether a sequel will be coming.
- The Order of the Stick Azure City arc, whose end is 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.
- Tower of God ends with a Downer Ending in Season 1, with Bam being betrayed by Rachel and nearly killed, believed to be dead and taken in by an anti-government conspiracy. The True Companions around Khun, Rak, and Endorsi are in sorrow and decide to help Rachel to the top of the Tower in Bam's stead. After a one month hiatus, we cut to 5 years in the future, where Yuri is still searching for Bam and Bam reappears. With a new identity, a nice hair-do, cool clothes, new powers and a whole lot on his mind.
- 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 Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes:
- The show ends its Secret Invasion arc with the Avengers preventing Queen Veranke from taking over the Earth, then left to reflect on what they've lost during the invasion: Black Panther still feels too wary of an alien among the team to return to America. The Skrulls had Hulk jailed for a crime he didn't commit. One of the invaders framed Captain America, on international television, of supporting a surrender to the Skrulls. Finally, Lord knows how many aliens still need capturing...
- Those plot threads do get resolved in the following episodes: Cap wins back the trust of humanity with some help from Spider-Man, Panther ends up rejoining the Avengers after they help him protect Wakanda's Vibranium reserve from the Vision, and Hulk is freed after being cleared of his crimes.
- Ninjago season 7 ends with Master Wu being lost in time and Lloyd vowing to find some way to get him back.
- The first season of 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 to Military School, and Scooby to a farm.
- The Venture Bros. 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 assassins succeeded 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.
- Pretty much every ending in Real Life that doesn't involve you actually dying is of this nature.