My Favorite TV Season Finales

Star Trek: The Next Generation Season 3
“The Best of Both Worlds” Part I (June 18, 1990)
Written by Michael Piller
Directed by Cliff Bole

Once upon a time, television shows in America operated on a seasonal basis. Most new shows would premiere in September and wrap up their seasons in May, paving the way for a summer of reruns. Along the way, there would be mid-season replacements debuting around January, and networks followed this structure year after year. As cable began producing prestige dramas and streaming dominated everything, this cycle ceased. Now season finales can happen anytime in the year based on when you are watching something. I also want to point out that this is a season finale list, not a series finale list. The end of a show’s run is a whole different animal than wrapping up a season. You can bet there will be a list for that sometime.

One of the things Star Trek: The Next Generation did for the first time in the franchise’s history was to end a season on a cliffhanger. TNG had a rocky start, and the first two seasons were a mix of highs and lows. However, the showrunners were starting to get the hang of things by season three. The Borg were an intriguing new addition to the species catalog, and “The Best of Both Worlds Part I” made them a part of the series lore to the point that I argue they are significantly overused now. At the time, though, this was an exciting & unexpected turn. 

Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) is abducted by the Borg and assimilated into the collective. This was when the internet was still a niche thing only used by the biggest computer geeks, so your average viewer didn’t have any spoilers going into this episode when it originally aired. It didn’t seem impossible that TNG was above killing off the captain and replacing him. It was only the second Star Trek tv series, and the tropes we know today were not as firmly entrenched. This is one of those season finales I remember watching when it aired at age 9 and being shocked. It still holds up today, and the franchise has milked this whole two-parter. 

Seinfeld Season 7
“The Invitations” (May 16, 1996)
Written by Larry David
Directed by Andy Ackerman

While not a dramatic cliffhanger like most episodes on this list, I had to include at least one Seinfeld season finale. I chose “The Invitations” because it delivers the darkest punchline in the show’s history. The season started with George Costanza (Jason Alexander) experiencing intense ennui over an inability to maintain a serious relationship. In a desperate bid to prove he could, George gets engaged to ex-girlfriend Susan (Heidi Swedberg). 

Costanza can never really change, and in this episode, we see how his efforts to be a cheapskate at all times lead to hilariously terrible consequences. Before that, he tries his damnedest to get Susan to break up with him, even taking Elaine’s vice and pretending he’s a habitual smoker. George then suggests signing a prenup, sure this will make Susan mad enough to leave him. But instead, she laughs at that idea, knowing her family has far more money than George can claim. 

Meanwhile, Jerry (Jerry Seinfeld) has a chance encounter with Jeannie Steinman (Janeane Garofalo), who happens to be his female equivalent. Obviously, they fall madly in love and get engaged. George’s wish all season has been that Jerry joins him in married life, thinking that he won’t really have to change his habits. That is moot with Susan’s last appearance, one to remember. 

Better Call Saul Season 4
“Winner” (October 8, 2018)
Written by Peter Gould & Thomas Schnauz
Directed by Adam Bernstein

I like to think of Better Call Saul as a three-act story. Seasons One & Two comprise the first act, seasons Three & Four are the middle, and everything wraps up in the final two seasons. That means season four is the moment we begin the endgame for Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) and his friends. This show had some great season finales, but I picked this one because of what a gut punch it was to me for two primary reasons.

The first is Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) searching frantically for Werner Ziegler. For the last half of this season, Ziegler and his engineers were helping construct a secret underground room for Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito). Ziegler couldn’t stand being away from his wife back in Germany for so long, unable to call her on the phone. He goes AWOL, so Mike goes on the hunt. That wouldn’t be so bad if Hector Salamanca’s nephew Lalo (Tony Dalton) hadn’t just arrived in town. He’s following Ziegler’s trail after learning the man was connected to Fring’s operation. To tie up the loose ends, Mike is forced to do something he never wanted to do, which seals his fate. With a single act, Mike becomes forever damned as a bad man. 

That’s not the most devastating thing to happen, though. Jimmy has been trying to get his law license back after his late brother, Chuck (Michael McKean), revealed some illegal shenanigans Jimmy had been involved in via his law practice. Since that, Chuck died, and Jimmy has refused to open up about it or even grieve. This is troubling his partner, Kim (Rhea Seehorn), who knows for him to grow, he has to confront this pain. He does just that while testifying to the appeals committee for the New Mexico Bar Association. Finally, Jimmy has grown. But this is a show about how he becomes the sleazy lawyer from Breaking Bad. The final scene of this episode reveals just how lost Jimmy truly is.

Breaking Bad Season 4
“Face Off” (October 9, 2011)
Written & Directed by Vince Gilligan

Continuing in the same television universe, we have the fourth season finale of Breaking Bad. Viewers knew there would be one more season of the show going into this one, so everyone was excited to see where things would be left. Walter White (Bryan Cranston) had been pushed out of Gus Fring’s circle. Walt’s family connection with Hank is far too dangerous to navigate. Walt won’t settle for the money because he is just that sort of character, stubborn & bull-headed in all the worst ways.

Saul Goodman mentions in passing to Jesse (Aaron Paul) that Gus visits a nursing home regularly and is not well protected in that spot. Jesse shares that information with Walt, who devises a plan. It seems Gus visits Hector Salamanca, his former rival who is now hindered by the after-effects of a nasty stroke (check out Better Call Saul to learn more). Walt meets with Hector off-screen, but we don’t have to wait long to find out what they put together.

If you’ve seen this episode, then you know “the scene.” For a moment, the viewer is left wondering if someone isn’t supernatural. Then, an instant later, it is confirmed that they are not. “Face Off” has one of the most memorable send-offs of a television series regular I’ve ever seen. It remains one of the most shocking moments in Breaking Bad and is made even more meaningful when paired with Better Call Saul.

Succession Season 3
“All the Bells Say” (December 12, 2021)
Written by Jesse Armstrong
Directed by Mark Mylod

This episode starts by resolving a shocking ending from the last episode. Kendall Roy (Jeremy Strong), the middle Roy brother, tried drowning himself in a pool at the end of the previous one. Kendall insists it was a drunken accident, but…we can tell. The other Roy kids do a sit-down to check in and see if Kendall has lost it. He says he’s still wanting to live. There are more critical things on the table right now, mainly Papa Logan (Brian Cox) and his plans to merge Waystar with up & coming media platform GoJo. 

It’s worse than that; the Roy kids learn during their mother’s (what number are we up to?) wedding. Logan is toying with a complete buyout offered by GoJo founder & CEO Lukas Mattson (Alexander Skarsgård). Mattson’s ownership would ultimately jeopardize everyone’s expected soft landing as an executive in Daddy’s company. There is a fantastic scene here, blocked beautifully, where Kendall, Shiv (Sarah Snook), and Roman (Kiernan Culkin) sort things out in a dusty seeming Italian ghost town. They also recall a powerful clause that could grant them the power to veto Daddy.

That final scene, though. Just when it looked like the kids had finally caught the old man… he’s a smart one, Logan. This was one of the most fun & thoroughly deserved twists Succession has offered up thus far. It was splendidly Shakespearean in its betrayal and the episode’s final line! It’s the knife twisting between the ribs. I eagerly await season four’s conclusion to the whole show before diving into those episodes. I cannot wait to see the fallout from this one.

Barry Season 3
“starting now” (June 12, 2022)
Written by Alec Berg & Bill Hader
Directed by Bill Hader

There’s what I assumed Barry would be before season one premiered, and there’s what I know about Barry now. Bill Hader exceeded people’s expectations (which were high already) with his work on Barry. This story is not really about a highly skilled hitman by night/actor by day. Instead, it’s a story about toxic masculinity and how those behaviors don’t just harm the people on its receiving end, but they completely fuck up the soul of the men tangled in these ideas. This season, in particular, seemed structured to tear our hearts out. Yet, how else could we imagine the life of someone who does the things Barry does would turn out?

All season, Barry (Hader) has been on edge, often disconnected from what is happening right in front of him, his mind preoccupied with how he betrayed his beloved acting mentor Gene Cousineau (Henry Winkler). The episode’s opening scene hints at where we are going thematically: in the hospital, Barry dreams of walking on a beach and coming across all the people he’s killed, standing in a cluster, and staring out across the ocean. Things get even more intense when Barry is reunited with girlfriend Sally (Sarah Goldberg), who wants revenge on the people who canceled her television series.

While all that is happening, NoHo Hank (Anthony Carrigan) is imprisoned by the Bolivians and goes through an experience that, if we called it “harrowing,” we would be putting it mildly. It’s one of the best sound-designed things I’ve seen on a television series. Back to Barry, something he did long ago, gives him a second chance at life. However, there’s another element in the mix that our protagonist is utterly unaware of until it is too late. Where Barry leaves us in this third season causes all sorts of questions to arise, the main one being, “What is this show going to be like next season?” As with Succession, I will devour those episodes when season four is wrapped.

The Sopranos Season 2 
“Funhouse” (April 9, 2000)
Written by David Chase and Todd A. Kessler
Directed by John Patterson

This was the one for me that elevated The Sopranos into something bigger than what it might have been. Tony (James Gandolfini) is sick with food poisoning, leading to vivid dreams. These sequences are beautifully impressionistic art pieces that act in a Lynchian way. “We live inside a dream,” don’t ya know? The moment in the dream that wakes Tony is when a dead fish tells him his good old pal Big Pussy (Vincent Pastore) is working with the feds. It comes from Tony’s subconscious, where that suspicion was already percolating.

It doesn’t take long for Tony to confirm Puss is informing, and now he has to do something about it. The episode is a dirge, a death march to the inevitable conclusion. The kind of people Tony and his friends are means they can’t let someone go that has betrayed them. I really loved how angry they were, not just for being betrayed but for the fact that now they have to kill someone they love. They can’t just turn that love off when their honor code demands they take action. That whole sequence on the fishing boat is painful to get through.

The other people in Tony’s life are kept in the dark, meaning they get happy endings. Meadow, his eldest child, graduates from high school while Christopher, his nephew, is offered a shot at being a made man (I mean, a position just opened up). While Tony is at his daughter’s graduation, he finds out the parent of one of her friends, whose life he made a Hell this season, is getting divorced and headed out West as his prospects in Jersey have dried up. The episode concludes with a reminder that no matter how much Tony tries to live two separate lives, the criminal side will always overshadow the family man.

Lost Season 3
“Through the Looking Glass” (May 23, 2007)
Written by Carlton Cuse & Damon Lindeloff
Directed by Jack Bender

In my opinion, there is no television series with better season finales than Lost. What’s funny about season three is that the first half turned off viewers. Some things were happening behind the scenes that were responsible for that discontent. Season three was split into two halves as the producers/writers hammered out a firm end date. They wanted to begin dropping the seeds of the larger narrative to be revealed. Ground was made up with episodes like “Flashes Before Your Eyes,” which showed a significant change to Desmond Hume that would have ripples throughout the series. We also got to know Juliet more and let the mystery of the Others unfold. “The Man Behind the Curtain” was our first look into the island story from Benjamin Linus’s POV. 

Nothing could prepare audiences for the shock of the season finale, though. Jack’s plans to kill the Others on the beach fall apart though a secondary plan may save them. One group of survivors is headed to a radio tower that will allow them to communicate with a freighter off the coast, which needs help locating the island. Meanwhile, Charlie & Desmond head to an underwater station that appears to be blocking radio transmissions. Once they shut off the block, the tower group can make contact.

But the flashbacks in this episode are very confusing, not that the show didn’t already feel confusing at times. Jack seems to have fallen on hard times in these flashbacks and is abusing oxycodone. We assume it must be because of his divorce, which had been foreshadowed in the previous episode’s flashbacks. He’s downright suicidal, attempting to jump to his death before stopping to help car accident victims. There’s also an obituary that seems to haunt him, and Jack ends up being the only person in attendance for the memorial service of “Jeremy Bentham.” But oh, that final scene. It was brain-meltingly wild when you finally realized what you’d seen all episode. I don’t think any other moment in the show’s run was as big a game-changer as this one. It signaled that all bets were off and that Lost could go any direction. An absolutely brilliant episode of television!


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