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"What Now?" Ending

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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.

If the Five-Man Band is broken up, or the hero leaves the City of Adventure, or the wife of the protagonist leaves him, that's a "What Now?" Ending.

Not to be confused with So What Do We Do Now?, And Then What?, or Now What?, a different kind of "what now ending". Also an ultimate form of "Shaggy Dog" Story.

Since this is an Ending Trope, expect spoilers.



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    Comic Books 
  • 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 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?

    Films — Animated 
  • 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?"

    Films — Live-Action 
  • The Proposition, which even ends with the line "What are you going to do now?"
  • 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 1966 Batman: The Movie invokes this when its text The End is replaced by "The Living End?"
  • Apocalypse Now. Mission accomplished, yay. Now what?
  • The Island. We have no idea how the world will deal with the fact that cloning is real.
  • 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.
  • There Will Be Blood ended with Daniel killing Eli. Whether or not he will be arrested is never answered.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • American Gangster ended with the elderly Frank getting out of prison but with nowhere to go.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 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.

    Manga and Manhwa 
  • 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.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Band of Brothers ends the dramatization with a baseball game between the men - wherein Dick Winters narrates the post-war fates of most of them - but afterwards the end of the war is announced. The men look at each other as if to say, "now what do we do?"
  • 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 "Once More, With Feeling" 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.
  • The Shield's finale is also a bit of a "What Now?" ending, as even after being reduced to a permanent desk job in return for immunity, the last shot of the series leaves what happens next to Vic unclear.
  • House has had quite a few.
    • 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 using 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. Hadley Thirteen finds out she does have the gene for Huntington's Disease.
    • In the fifth season finale, House finally kicks the pill habit and scores with Cuddy, only to discover that it was all a hallucination. He ends the season in a psychiatric hospital.
    • In the seventh season finale, House drives his car through Cuddy's house, Cuddy is applying for a restraining order against him, and House is hiding from the police on some undisclosed Caribbean 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.
    • In the second season, We see a very similar situation with a helicopter instead.
  • 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.
    • 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 Cliffhanger, 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 (probably as a deliberate contrast to The Next Generation, which usually had more traditional cliffhangers):
    • 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 A-Team ended on this (though one episode later aired out of order). At the end of "The Grey Team", the team discusses the possibility of getting pardoned earlier than they thought, as Hannibal was thinking what they would do after getting pardoned.
    Hannibal: Well, I was thinking, like Bernie and George, what are we gonna do when this thing's over? I mean, what are we really qualified to do?
    • However, they soon imply that they might likely continue doing what they did in their fugitive days - go after the bad guys.
  • The X-Files:
    • Its fifth season ended 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 Bodie 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 Cliffhanger 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.
  • Terminator: 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:
    • Torchwood: Children of Earth has a major character dead, Torchwood non-existent and Jack having left Earth.
    • Torchwood: Miracle Day ends with everybody mortal again but with the world economy likely severely impacted. The Families have other plans to take control. Rex is shot by The Mole but comes back to life à la Jack with everybody shocked at this.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Blake's 7 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 Cliffhanger 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 (2000) 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, unless you were to interpret it a one off gag and that the family really just needed to quickly pick up Curtis before heading back for good.
  • 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.note 
  • Supernatural loves these:
    • Season Two ended with Azazel dead but still succeeding in opening the gates to hell and releasing numerous demonic entities and spirits. Dean meanwhile has sold his soul to bring Sam back to life and only has a year left to live.
    • Season Three has Dean getting killed, leaving Sam mourning over his body.
    • Season Five sees Sam getting sucked into Hell and a distraught Dean giving up on being a hunter and settling down with an old flame. And then it's revealed unbeknownst to Dean that Sam has somehow escaped Hell. Season 6 picks up a year after this.
    • Season Seven concludes with the brothers killing the head Leviathan, but Dean getting trapped in Purgatory while Sam has no idea what to do to free his brother.
  • Friends has its second season conclude with Monica breaking up with Richard while Chandler gets back together with Janice after falling in love with her for real, with the following season picked up a while later. Notable for being the only time a What Now? conclusion was used rather than an outright cliffhanger that had to be immediately resolved next season.
  • Frasier had its fifth season end with Frasier accidentally getting the entire staff at the radio station he worked for fired.
  • The Mandalorian ended its second season by resolving the main story arc of the show by having Mando return Grogu to Luke Skywalker, leaving him without a quest and many fans wondering how the show could even continue. There were also a bunch of loose ends such as Mando accidentally winning Bo-Katan's Darksaber, Gideon claiming to have extracted Grogu's blood, and Boba stealing Jabba's palace in a setup for what is presumed to be a spinoff that hadn't even been announced prior to the episode's airing.

    Video Games 
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • [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?"
  • 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.
  • 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.

    Web Original 
  • 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 books—to imply that she expects to find new work and make new friends.

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 a 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.

    Western Animation 
  • 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.

    Real Life 
  • Pretty much every ending in Real Life that doesn't involve you actually dying is of this nature.


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