This Sunday, television’s Spring Finale season will officially come to an end with the Game of Thrones finale, titled “The Children.” While most summer shows are gearing up, I decided to take a look back at some of my favorite season finales of the past, and taking a look at what it takes for a show to really stick the landing (if you’ll pardon the cliche). It’s true that a finale can make or break a season, but it can also make or break the season following it. The extent to which these five season finales toe that line, and throw in their own personal flavor, that give them a place on this list.
1) “Crossroads” Battlestar Galactica – So Battlestar Galactica (also known as BSG) knows how to stick a landing. While their second season finale certainly shocked all of their viewers better than most, their third season finale perfectly wraps up that
season’s storylines with emotional punches to the gut and shocking revelations that feed directly into BSG’s fourth season. The Trial of Gaius Baltar sums up the show’s themes of justice versus personal morality in a few eloquent exchanges, including Lee Adama’s incredible speech about why every single character in the show was just as gray in their morality as Baltar himself. After this scene, the finale just gets better, as the Final Five cylons are revealed, Kara reappears, and Earth’s location is shown to the audience, all set to Bear McCreary’s fantastic cover of “All Along the Watchtower.”
2) “Two Cathedrals” The West Wing – In the build-up to the finale of The West Wing’s second season, things looked pretty bleak for the Bartlet administration. As the team struggled with how best to break the story of the president’s MS to the nation, Bartlet and Leo were forced to deal with the collapse of the US-supported Haitian government. Though the show soars when everything falls apart, Two Cathedrals’ focus on small, quiet moments between the characters and careful flashbacks to Bartlet’s youth keep the finale grounded. Throw in Bartlet cursing out God in Latin in the National Cathedral and leaving us hanging on the question of whether or not he would seek a second term, The West Wing knows precisely how and when to both stop your heart and make it overflow with tears.
3) “The Gift” Buffy the Vampire Slayer – This episode (much like Parks and Recreation’s “Unity Concert”) cheats a little bit because the writers wrote it as a potential series finale. It leaves a few threads open for the show’s sixth and seventh seasons (namely, Spike’s new role as a hero and Xander and Willow’s respective relationships), but really gets at the core of who Buffy is as a character. Moments after Giles confirms that Buffy really is a hero, rather than a heroine, Buffy proves this by sacrificing herself for her sister, making her gift of death exceptionally life-affirming.
4) “Over There” Fringe – After an entire season focused on the alternate universe, everyone knew at least part of the finale would be set in the red!verse, as it came to be called. What we didn’t expect was for the finale to begin in medias res with the other Fringe Division. Charlie’s alive, their Olivia has red hair and swaggers in with a cocky smile you’d never see on our Olivia’s face, and we’re introduced to fan-favorite Lincoln Lee. Few finales have ever had to do what “Over There” does, for not only did it wrap up Season Two and introduce Season Three, but it also introduced us to an entire world that felt full and fleshed out. Without “Over There’s” successful venture, the third season of Fringe would never have reached the levels of excellence it did.
5) “Mizumono” Hannibal – Weeks later I’m still reeling from this episode. The first half hour quietly fills us with dread, much like the entire season that precedes it. And then Jack enters Hannibal’s apartment and we’re thrust into the bloody knife fight which opened the season for us. The situation get increasingly worse as Alana shows up, and we’re left with both her and Jack lying on the ground barely breathing by the time Will arrives at Hannibal’s place. But despite this grim outcome, what “Mizumono” does effectively as a finale is shatter Hannibal and Will’s relationship at the exact moment that they understand each other perfectly. As such, the viewer feels a sense of closure while also feeling devastation at Hannibal’s victory.
Runners up: Avatar: The Last Airbender’s “Crossroads of Destiny,” Parks and Recreation’s “Unity Concert,” Doctor Who’s “Journey’s End,” Elementary’s “Heroine,” and Gilmore Girls’ “Raincoats and Recipes.”
So that’s my list! What were my most egregious omissions? Remember, no season finales and I only allowed myself one finale per show! Otherwise, yes, Buffy‘s “Grave” and Fringe‘s “The Day We Died” would have been on here.