Third Season Finales – As Good As It Gets?

Over the years, I’ve noticed that for a number of series, my favorite episode is the finale of the third season.  Or at the very least, the most memorable season finale was the third one.

This occurred to me because I just watched the their season closer for Stargate:  Atlantis (First Strike), and thought it was a pretty good one.

What is that makes the end of the third season of a show a nadir for a show’s quality?  For some shows, it might be that that’s the point where the series has developed the self-confidence to tell truly daring material.  For others, it takes that long for their long-form stories to move well and truly past set-up into heroic action.   And for others still, it may be that that’s the point where they feel they have to get onto doing some permanent resolving of the plot threads they introduced at the beginning.

And in many cases, it never really gets that good again, as they may find it challenging to maintain that high level of interest once they’ve hit it.

Now, I haven’t watched the rest of the Atlantis yet, so I don’t know if this series will fit the pattern or not.  But here are some of the shows that crossed my mind.

Lost – A show that disappointed me in the end, but the end of the third season was great.  They introduced the idea of a flash-forward, and where we saw for the first time the castaways really fight back against the seemingly unbeatable Others.  I especially liked seeing Hurley drive a truck into some of them, and Sawyer shooting Mr. Friendly after he surrendered.  (“I didn’t believe him.”)

M*A*S*H – The classic and tragic death of Henry Blake.  I was too young to have seen on the original airing, but even knowing what was going to happen, it still resonates.

Star Trek:  The Next GenerationThe Best of Both Worlds part 1 – Picard is a Borg, and Riker orders the Enterprise to fire.  And it’s awesome.

Babylon 5 – A nuclear weapon comes screaming down out of the sky and Sheridan leaps to his death.  And it’s as good as that show got.

The Office – In the middle of Pam’s attempts to make sense of her friendship with Jim, he comes into the room and asks her out to dinner.

The West Wing – The last episode of the third season isn’t necessarily the best, but it has one of the greatest moments ever, after Bartlett has a quiet discussion with his political opponent, Governor Ritchie.  After mentioning a tragic crime that took place, Ritchie says, “Crime.  Boy, I don’t know.”  A few moments later, as Bartlett is leaving, he turns to him and says, “In the future, if you’re wondering: ‘Crime. Boy, I don’t know,’ is when I decided to kick your ass.”

Notable exceptions:

Star Trek:  Deep Space Nine – I don’t remember the third season finale, but definitely the best one was the fifth season finale, when the Dominion take over DS9, and Sisko leaves his baseball behind as an indication to Gul Dukat that he is coming back.

Star Trek:  Voyager – I have no idea what the third season finale was, but generally I think it’s safe to remember it as “the last episode of that show that Seven of Nine wasn’t in,” because once that happened, the show overall improved (in spite of, rather than because of, her dress sense).

Doctor Who (2005) – The third season closer was Last of the Time Lords, which perhaps was the worst of the revival’s six finales (cgi / puppet Doctor for most of the story, and the villain is defeated when everyone thinks happy thoughts…at the same time.)

Blake’s 7 – With the loss of the Liberator and the news that Blake was dead and that Avon had been deceived, the end of the third season was intense, downbeat, and pessimistic, but it nothing compared to what happened one season later.

The closest I’ve had to making a “third season finale” was in Captain Strong, but it’s not really the same.  However, thinking of it, the end of that third volume is where I introduced a number of concepts that opened up the series a lot more than I had originally envisioned.  Captain Strong being framed for crimes of which he was innocent and Princess Amanda running off with Percy were both added as I was writing that story.  I wouldn’t call it my best installment by any means (it features one very poorly written death scene) but that last episode it was a key one for all that happened afterwards, and featured the best final moment in a volume up to that point.

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