In Praise of the Midseason Season Finale

2 Jul

The Expanse is a good sci-fi show that’s not for everyone but is for everyone who loves science fiction. Today, I want to focus particularly on something the show did this season which I wish more shows did.

The Expanse, as you can probably guess from the title of this post, basically had a season finale type episode smack in the middle of its most recent third season.

What I mean by a season finale-type episode is an episode that wraps up storylines that have been going on for at least several episodes before. It feels like the type of episode that, if you weren’t to have new episodes for long period of time, you wouldn’t feel left hanging. This is the standard for modern peak TV era season-ending episodes; often they leave questions open, and occasionally end with direct cliffhangers, depending on the nature of the show, but they generally have some sense of resolution and closure.

The typical peak TV pattern is to have major story lines come to a climax in the second-to-last or final episode of a season. Game of Thrones is a great example of a show that follows this format; like many shows in the age of serial TV, the plot lines extend well past any given season, but smaller arcs wrap in the last couple of episodes, and there are usually the grandest scenes of a season in these last couple of episodes. The biggest battles and the biggest moments like the beheading of Ned Stark and the Red Wedding were generally in Game of Thrones’ penultimate episode. Breaking Bad, another of the greatest shows of the last generation, featured its biggest moments in the season finales, like Jesse and Walt’s desperate plot to kill Gale, and the death of Gus.

Some shows, like AMC’s The Walking Dead, tend to sort themselves into what they call half-seasons, but within those half-seasons, the script works the same.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this model, and many a great TV show has followed it and many will continue to; it’s tried and true for a reason. But there are two issues with this model that being able to just stick a season finale midseason solves.

First, this format is predictable. We don’t necessarily know what will actually happen, but we do know when big moments will happen, and that’s not nothing. We can make certain assumptions and predict the importance of certain characters and plots based on when in a season they appear. If something happens in the fourth episode, it probably won’t be resolved for a while, while if something transpires in the third-to-last episode, it’s probably going to come to a head real soon.

There’s something great about being surprised that plots wrap up not when you’re expecting them to. When I watched The Expanse, I was stunned to see the major plot threads of the first half of the third season (and much of the second) work themselves out halfway through the season when I had no idea it was coming, and loved the decision. The fact that it threw me off my game, expecting another half season’s worth of new twists and turns merely because of my existing expectations of how a season of television progresses is what make the change inherently interesting, even aside from what actually happened.

Second, with the traditional model, shows often have to force story arcs to be longer or shorter than they should be naturally to fit them into the one-season-long parameter. Sometimes that means compressing a fruitful arc, while more often it means stretching out a story line that should have naturally been finished up episodes earlier. Without the pressure to deliver a traditional season finale then and only then, shows can have plot lines that last varying number of episodes. There are plenty of stories best told in 4, or 8, or 12, or 16 episodes; but in our current model, everything is stretched into whatever the length of the show is – usually 10, 12, 13, or 22 these days (though ever changing).

The Magicians and Jane the Virgin have also in recent seasons followed a similar approach of having traditionally season-ending style events occur midseason. For Jane the Virgin, particularly as a 22-episode CW show, the freedom to start and end arcs over the course of a season helps the show never feel like its stretching plotlines far too thin, like for example, its fellow CW shows Arrow and Flash do.

This is really just an incredible simple and freeing way to make a show less predictable and better paced that more shows could learn from.

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