Fates Worse Than Death: “What an Amazing Escape!”

Introducing the Annie Wilkes Award for Most Blatant Cheat

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Although the serials are nearly synonymous with cliffhangers—in which the tension builds to a high point before the episode ends, with a character in mortal danger or a major revelation left dangling—they didn’t invent them, and cliffhangers continue to be used on television, in comics, and even in film.  In the nineteenth-century, all kinds of writers serialized their work in popular magazines, from the authors of penny dreadfuls to Charles Dickens, and later pulp writers were similarly aware of the cliffhanger’s power to hold the reader’s interest.  Edgar Rice Burroughs not only used them between chapters, but also between books: he ended his second John Carter novel, The Gods of Mars, with Martian princess Dejah Thoris’ fate unknown, only to be revealed in the subsequent The Warlord of Mars.  (There is, of course, a similar narrative connection between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, and indeed it is now common practice for the second book or film of a trilogy to end on an uncertain note.)  Any serialized medium—in which chunks of story are doled out in installments—will sooner or later take advantage of cliffhangers to keep readers or viewers hooked.

As crude a narrative device as they are, however, cliffhangers are popular because they work: already in the short time since I began this project, I’ve sat down more than once with the intention of watching one or two chapters of a serial, only to be drawn forward by curiosity and suspense, and I’ve ended up watching several more than I planned.  I can only imagine what it was like to wait a whole week to find out whether the hero would live or die (and make no mistake, in a very few cases the hero actually did die, only to be resurrected later, or for it to be revealed that someone else had taken his place).  If you were the right age or particularly attached to the characters, it was probably as intense as the wait for a new Harry Potter novel or episode of Breaking Bad in recent years.  For casual viewers, I imagine it was more like my experience of reading daily comic strips or watching soap operas: easy to forget and not think about after the fact, but when reading or watching the next installment it all comes back to me.

Serial chapters always rewound the story to a point before the cliffhanger, both providing context (for anyone who might have missed the previous chapter) and renewing the tension (for new viewers and regulars alike).  Like reading daily comics collected in book form or watching an entire season of television in one sitting, binge-watching a serial makes for an experience with built-in redundancy.  Seeing the cliffhanger and its resolution back-to-back also makes it more obvious when the filmmakers cheat (more on this in a bit).

In Paul Malmont’s The Astounding, the Amazing, and the Unknown, a fictional mystery starring several real-life science fiction and pulp authors set in 1943, there’s an amusing scene in which L. Ron Hubbard is trapped in a forgotten, gaslit aqueduct beneath the Empire State Building with a group that also includes Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Sprague de Camp and Walter Gibson (author of the Shadow novels).  A self-styled man of action, Hubbard plans their escape:

Hubbard jerked a thumb back to the bigger hall.  “Why don’t we douse the flame, let the gas fill up, then ignite it with the lighter and blow the lid up there clean off?”

“Are you nuts?” the kid [Asimov] asked.  “Don’t you understand the formula for gas density? . . . It means we’d suffocate before we ever built up enough gas to do anything.”

“And even if we could survive that,” de Camp added, “a basic energy equation shows that the shock wave would kill us even before the roof collapsed on our heads.”

“Well, let’s dam up the stream and just float up and let the water pressure pop the top off!”

“Are you kidding? . . . The hypothermia would kill us.”

“Before we drowned under the ceiling.

The joke isn’t just that Hubbard (then a self-aggrandizing young writer, not yet the father of Scientology) is an ignoramus; rather, he is thinking like the kind of pulp hero he is accustomed to writing about.  Serial heroes, like their magazine counterparts, often relied on the same kind of likely-sounding but scientifically impossible solutions to get them out of jams.  In addition, well-aimed shots, conveniently dangling ropes or vines, and explosions from which the heroes were miraculously thrown clear tended to balance out the contrived death traps that threatened them.

That’s not the kind of cheat that infuriated serial audiences however; as long as the solution played fair and didn’t significantly change the cliffhanger’s setup, it didn’t matter whether it was likely or even possible.  After all, Flash Gordon, the Lone Ranger, and Gene Autry were heroes precisely because they could do things ordinary people couldn’t, and if their array of talents included one-in-a-million strokes of luck, well, that’s what audiences expected from them.

The difference between realistic and fair is explicated as clearly as possible by Annie Wilkes, author Paul Sheldon’s “number one fan” in Stephen King’s Misery. Wilkes (played by Kathy Bates in the 1990 film adaptation) demands that Sheldon, her captive patient, write a novel resurrecting his beloved character Misery Chastain after he had killed her off.  She won’t accept any rewriting cheats to do so, and she uses an example from the serials to explain:

This was a no-brakes chapter.  The bad guys put Rocket Man—only it was Rocket Man in his secret identity—into a car that didn’t have any brakes, and then they welded all the doors shut, and then they started the car rolling down this twisty-turny mountain road. . . .

“And here came the car, with Rocket Man still trying to put on the brakes or bash the door open, and then . . . over it went!  It flew out into space, and then it went down.  It hit the side of the cliff about halfway down and burst into flames, and then it went into the ocean, and then this ending message came up on the screen that said NEXT WEEK CHAPTER 11, THE DRAGON FLIES. . . .

“The new episode always started with the ending of the last one.  They showed him going down the hill, they showed the cliff, they showed him banging on the car door, trying to open it.  Then, just before the car got to the edge, the door banged open and out he flew onto the road!  The car went over the cliff, and all the kids in the theater were cheering because Rocket Man got out, but I wasn’t cheering, Paul. I was mad!  I started yelling, ‘That isn’t what happened last week! . . . Are you all too stupid to remember?  Did you all get amnesia?’ . . .

“He didn’t get out of the cockadoodie car!  It went over the edge and he was still inside!  Do you understand that?

Even allowing for the small number of serials I’ve watched so far, I’ve known that feeling: the hero didn’t get out of the cockadoodie car before it went over the cliff, or out of the building before the cockadoodie bomb went off, or didn’t switch the cockadoodie train to another set of rails before it crashed.  Some cheats were more obvious than others, and some studios were more prone to pull a fast one than others.  Cheats also became more common later in the serial era, when dumbed-down serials were aimed at supposedly gullible kids.  But there’s an Annie Wilkes in every audience, and they’re watching closely.  So I’m proposing the Annie Wilkes Award for Most Blatant Cheat, to be awarded (when deserved) to those moments where the film’s producers don’t quite play fair with the audience, rescuing the hero at the expense of the suspension of disbelief.  I believe I’ll have plenty of candidates.

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