Fangirl Thursday: A Perfect One-Two Punch

The only thing better than a great season finale is a great season premiere to build on the foundation laid in that finale. It’s a perfect one-two punch: the shock that often comes with a brilliant finale and the catharsis often granted by an equally brilliant premiere.

In my years as a dedicated TV fan, I’ve seen plenty of great finales and premieres, especially from mythology-heavy shows like Once Upon a Time, Orphan Black, and Lost. However, I’ve never seen a more powerful finale/premiere duo than the knockout combination of Alias’s “The Telling”/“The Two.” Those two episodes set the standard for me in terms of shocking cliffhangers and premieres that dealt perfectly with their fallout.

Alias’s second season was pure brilliance. And its finale was exactly the kind of ending such a phenomenal season deserved. It featured one twist after another (“Francie doesn’t like coffee ice cream…”) until the final minutes gave way to what I still consider the most blindsiding cliffhanger I’ve ever watched.

The way that last scene put you in Sydney Bristow’s shoes was unsettling, disorienting, and absolutely necessary. From the unfamiliar scar on her stomach to Vaughn’s obviously tense demeanor and noticeable ring, the audience was meant to be on the same page as Sydney—confused and looking for answers. And when the answer came, it was one both we and Sydney never expected: She’d been missing for almost two years.

Ending that finale not with Vaughn’s words but with Sydney’s reaction to them—accompanied by Michael Giacchino’s hauntingly discordant score (which hinted at what he would one day do so well on Lost)—allowed the audience to feel not just total shock but also total heartbreak. What made this cliffhanger work on such a masterful level was that it stayed with you emotionally as well as intellectually. As soon as the episode ended, I didn’t start theorizing; I started sobbing.

Jennifer Garner excelled at so many things during her time playing Sidney Bristow, but the thing she was best at was making you genuinely feel for this woman in a way you would feel for a friend. She made Sydney—a superspy—feel heartbreakingly normal. And that ability to anchor the plot twists and cliffhangers swirling around her in real, honest emotions was used to its most affecting degree in both “The Telling” and “The Two.” The plot twist of Sydney going missing mattered to us not just because it was cool but because it mattered to Sydney. We were confused, but we knew we weren’t alone; Sydney was right there with us, struggling to comprehend a world in which everything had changed.

After a summer filled with enough theorizing (and, let’s be honest, fan fiction reading) to make even my fangirl head spin, “The Two” put us back in Sydney’s shoes to give us the catharsis we so desperately needed after “The Telling.” It gave us some (but not many) answers, and the most important to Sydney in that moment was also the most important one for many of the fans—because it was the most personal: The ring Vaughn was wearing was a wedding ring, and no, he didn’t marry Sydney without her remembering it (like many of us had hoped).

The best thing about “The Two” was that it allowed Sydney to react once again like a real woman would to her situation—with confusion, vulnerability, and a deep sense of anger. It allowed her to work through the emotions that “The Telling” stirred up, and, in doing so, it allowed us as viewers to do the same.

When Sydney finally saw her father (who’d been imprisoned during those missing two years), what struck me the most was that Sydney was allowed to act like a girl who just needed her dad—like we all would if we were in her shoes. And I’ll never forget being so relieved to see Jack Bristow focus on comforting his daughter on the one thing he knew was hurting her the most. In telling her that Vaughn was just a boy who never deserved her, Jack Bristow gave the audience another character to relate to. We related to Sydney in her heartbreak and confusion, but we related to Jack in his protectiveness.

Jack Bristow’s simple but powerful takedown of Vaughn was just the beginning of the emotional release we as an audience experienced while watching “The Two.” Later on in the episode, Sydney unleashed what might be the most righteously angry monologue in recent television history, as she told Vaughn he would never be getting closure from her because he committed the unforgivable sin of losing faith in her and in their relationship.

Garner had her fair share of high points while playing Sydney, but this is a standout. It was raw and brutally honest, and so much of its impact came from the way we had been hurting right along with Sydney from those last moments of “The Telling” through this monologue. It took all of the emotions the fanbase had be storing up through the summer—the confusion, the betrayal, and the sense of wasted time—and allowed Sydney to speak those emotions in the most powerful way imaginable. So many cliffhangers are dropped without ever letting us see the emotional fallout, but “The Telling” and “The Two” allowed us to do exactly that. There may have been a hundred plot points left unresolved at the end of “The Two,” but the most important emotional beats played out onscreen in the most honest ways possible, and that’s exactly what I want from a season premiere.

Do you have a favorite all-time finale/premiere combination? Or are there any premieres you’ve watched this season that did for you what “The Two” did for me?

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18 thoughts on “Fangirl Thursday: A Perfect One-Two Punch

  1. KATIEEEEEEEEEE
    I have heard my Alias bat-signal and I have come.

    I fell off of my couch after “The Telling” and stayed there for a LONG time. I know Jennifer Garner says in the commentary that she, personally, could not stop crying FOR Sydney, even while the camera wasn’t rolling. (Her love for this character was so huge to me growing up.) You can feel the change coming in that last scene, and it hurts. I don’t remember what I had in the way of theories that summer. I’m not even sure I had any. I was just baffled and sad for her and desperate to know what was going on.

    Thanks for sticking up for “The Two.” I think season three gets unfairly picked upon just because it has the distinction of following two nearly flawless ones. It had its problems. It wasn’t the SAME, exactly. But the season two finale was a cliff jump that I SO admire this show for taking, and I think they handled it well.

    The first half of season three was probably the time this show haunted me most, in the “get distracted thinking about it in class” sense. I couldn’t stop thinking about Sydney–again, less in the sense that I needed to know exactly where she’d been, and more in the sense that I am inclined to love stories about people proving themselves, especially TO themselves. This whole storyline was full of great questions about what she’d done and whether she was still herself, and it paid off in the little moments like Marshall’s poem, her first reunion with Jack and his beard of sorrow, and the test he gave her right after to be sure she wasn’t still being manipulated (HE TRUSTS HER WHEN SHE DOESN’T TRUST HERSELF). Season three was the one that made me realize how much I needed Jack Bristow. Plus, more screen time for Weiss is always a good thing.

    And THAT SCENE. Sydney’s absolutely brutal, bitter takedown of Vaughn. I was, as a freshman in high school, totally blown away by that, because I’d never seen a woman on TV ever stand up for herself to a guy like that, much less a guy she loved. Sooo much self-respect. The world needs Sydney Bristow. I know I did. And Jennifer Garner nails it.

    • I knew you’d be here to help me through my Sydney feels. 😉

      That moment in the commentary with Jennifer Garner saying that she couldn’t stop crying between takes because she was so upset for Sydney forever set the standard for actresses loving their characters in my mind. She loved Sydney as much as we loved her, and for young fangirls like us that was so important.

      What was also so important was, as you said, the self-respect Sydney showed when she confronted Vaughn. Like you, I’d never seen anything like that on TV before. She wasn’t begging for him to take her back or sheepishly saying she understood or wishing him the best; she was dying inside, and she let him know that. As a teenage girl, you’re often taught to apologize for your feelings, so it was incredibly important for me to see my fictional role model be so unapologetic about her emotions.

      And I’m so happy I’m not the only one who thinks S3 has an unfairly bad reputation. It was far from the perfection of S1 and S2 but it still had so many good moments. The tension between Sydney and Vaughn was so delicious. And Jennifer Garner was SO GOOD in it. Also, there was so much supportive spy daddy that my heart still can’t handle it.

  2. Oh yes, I remember these episodes VIVIDLY, not to put too fine a point on it. So many memorable moments, especially in “The Telling.” From Syd and Vaughn planning their never-gonna-happen mini-vacay to Santa Barbara to see the giraffe with the crooked neck, to the iconic “Francie doesn’t like coffee ice cream,” to the huge reveal at the end of the episode, it was a roller coaster from beginning to end; a truly epic season finale that has left a lasting impression, on both of us apparently! And while I still don’t believe Vaughn deserved the severity of the ass-whooping she laid on him, it doesn’t change the fact that she was phenomenal in that scene. I don’t know about you, but that was one of the longest summers of my life!

    • Oh my God Megan, that summer felt like it took forever! I’m pretty sure I read every piece of Alias fan fiction on the Internet while I waited, and my cousins and I would spend hours debating our theories.

      In hindsight, I think we all can agree that Vaughn didn’t deserve all of that anger. However, I think that was the point. It was all about letting Sydney work through what she was feeling in that exact moment and letting out all of the emotions she needed to let out—even if they were messy and harsh. Plus, Vaughn got his own cathartic moment when he finally got to tell her what her “death” did to him (another heartbreakingly perfect scene—”I was so in love with you it nearly killed me.”).

  3. I absolutely loved Buffy the Vampire Slayer and I think the last 2 episodes of S2 Becoming I & II were brilliant. In the first episode we got to see when Buffy first became the slayer and when Angel became a vampire, and the episode culminated in Kendra being killed and Giles was kidnapped by Angel. And then in the 2nd part, the emotional kicks just keep happening – Buffy tells her mom she’s the slayer and she does not take the new well, there was the epic Angel and Buffy fight and the heartbreak when just as Angel gets his soul back Buffy has to kill him to close the vortex and save the world. The season finishes with Buffy leaving Sunnydale while her mother and friends wonder where she is, and none of them know what happened with Angel. The acting in both episodes was brilliant and Sarah Michelle Gellar as Buffy was never better. During the 2nd half of season 2 the stakes were really raised and I think these 2 episodes were the icing on the cake. While I don’t think the premiere episode of S3 was great – S3 itself was even better than S2. But just for the pure drama I loved the S2 finale!

    • Thank you so much for sharing your favorite finale, Joan! I’ve never watched Buffy (it’s on my very long must-watch list), but I love reading people’s thoughts on it because the show itself fascinates me and people’s reactions to it show how formative it was for so many. I know you’ll find more than a few fellow Buffy lovers around NGN! 🙂

      • Ohhhh “Becoming” was definitely a gut punch. I whispered “OH NO” to an empty room and then cried for a while. Yes to all of this.
        I’ll also add that there have been a couple of X-Files seasons that have ended on cliffhangers and been resolved in two-part season premieres (end of S2/ start of S3 and end of S4/ start of S5, in particular). I didn’t have to suffer the wait between seasons, since I’m just watching now, but Katie–no spoilers, but they would have BROKEN me. The season five premiere broke me anyway.

  4. I have watched a lot of TV, and lived through a lot of season finales, but I am surprised at how difficult it is for me to recall most of them. I feel like they usually play the “is so and so dead?” card a lot in finales, and the answer is always “no”, so I really don’t put too much thought into them.

    That said, “Through the Looking Glass’, the Season 3 season finale of LOST, is by far the most impactful season finale I have ever seen. It was a “moment”. And the second the episode ended I needed to know what happened next like I needed air. It was one of those things were people didn’t stop talking about it all summer. I cant really remember much about the season 4 premiere, but I will never forget that season finale.

    • You are so right—”Through the Looking Glass” was a MOMENT. I’m pretty sure I screamed “WHAT THE HELL?!” out loud right after it was done. I remember feeling like the episode was building towards something huge, but I never, NEVER expected that. It’s one of those pop culture moments where you wish every time you watched it you could feel like you felt the first time.

  5. By far, the season finale that has destroyed me the most in real time was Dead Doll, the season 7 finale of CSI. It was the culmination of a very creepy serial killer arc and Sara was her final target. While the episode finally had Grissom admitting to the team that he and Sara were a couple and she had been chosen as a victim to hurt him, it of course ended on a cliffhanger. That might have been ok if CBS hadn’t chosen to air another episode right after and give me a heart attack because I thought I might not have to wait all summer for a conclusion and also if Jorja Fox hadn’t been in the middle of contract negotiations at the time. I was a complete mess at the end of the episode and that summer was the longest wait ever. We were a bit of a pessimistic fandom, looking back at it, because a lot of the great fanvids of the time assumed Sara would die but I guess that just made her survival more exciting in the s8 premiere.

    My next favorite combination of finale/premiere is What Kind of Day Has It Been/In The Shadow of Two Gunmen from The West Wing. I had really just intended to watch the s1 finale then go do something else but that it not what happened at all. I was watching on Netflix and when the episode ended, I immediately clicked “play next episode” because I just had to know what happened. I can’t imagine having to go through that one in real time and I was very grateful that I could just move on.

    Finally, this one is on the list more for the finale than the corresponding premiere, but the season 5 finale of Buffy left me emotionally gutted and I was spoiled not only for the events that happened in the finale but also the s6 premiere. It was just such a good ending and truthfully would have worked as a series finale if the show didn’t end up switching networks. I personally like season 6 (though the bad episodes in the season were truly awful) and like how it started though I know that many don’t.

    • I love hearing you talk about CSI (and Buffy) because I feel like I learn so much—not just about the show but about you. And I have to say, I think the CSI fandom’s approach was better than the way we were in the Alias fandom. The summer after “The Telling,” there were way too many pieces of fan fiction written about “that night” (which Vaughn referenced in telling Sydney she went missing) actually being Sydney and Vaughn’s wedding, which she just couldn’t remember. There were also way too many of us who believed the ring was some kind of memorial to Sydney. It made the revelation of Vaughn’s marriage to Lauren even worse because we were way too optimistic. (I have since learned to always hope for the best but expect the worst after a cliffhanger.)

      And I’m so happy you brought up those West Wing episodes. Like you, I was lucky enough to not have to watch those with a wait in between (I had my best friend’s DVDs), and I can’t imagine what that wait would have been like. To follow up such a great cliffhanger with an episode as phenomenal as “In the Shadow of Two Gunmen” (one of my personal favorite episodes of the whole series) proved that this show was worthy of all the praise it received.

      • I am here to tell you that wait was TORTUROUS! I was stunned by where they left it and couldn’t believe I had to wait nearly five months to get any answers. Stunning finale and in the first season.

    • I am in the midst of watching Season 6 of Buffy with the bf, and so this is at the forefront of my mind at the moment. I agree that the Season 5 finale was a strong one and would have been a satisfying ending. Season 6 actually started out really strong, peaked at the musical episode, and you are right, had some really really bad episodes in there. Pretty much any episode with Amy. I wasnt into the fandom back when it was airing, so I am not sure what the internet chatter was like, but dang, that was some dark, dark stuff going on there, especially with Spike. With the way the ONCE fandom treats Hook for just *looking* at any of the women on the show, I dont even want to know what people were saying about Spike back in those days. Or maybe the internet was a more accepting place back in 2002?

  6. I am amazingly late to this wonderful topic. Real life really needs to get out of the way of my fangirling. For me the most memorable cliff hanger will always be Dallas’ A House Divided, better know as “Who shot J.R.?” In a time before the internet, this was the cover of every magazine and a conversation over the course of they summer in a cast of characters where it could have been anyone. I vividly remember the frenzy and don’t think any show before it caused such a stir in the TV viewing (if not Americana) conscience. It’s certainly the founding place for cliffhangers/season finales and season premieres playing off one another.

    That said, I have a few. some of which have been touched on here already. But my favorites in no particular order are:

    1) 24 – Day 1: 11PM-12AM / Day 2: 8AM-9AM — It could be argued that the best cliffhanger of the series was when season 2 came to a close and that final 5 minutes saw a villain return from season 1 only to put a prominent character in real peril without a clue of what the next season would bring and the fall out of who was responsible. However, none of that would have been nearly as impacting if not for season 1’s absolutely shocking finale that no one would have predicted and set a tone for the show that it never lost and that established, truly no one, perhaps not even Jack Bauer was safe. It was a devastating finale the shattered every aspect of the show’s main characters. Much was left unknown and coming back into season 2 nothing was certain. It was practically a reboot for the series and we found all these characters in very different places with new secrets layered on top of ones we as viewers had discovered in season 1. It was a terrific layering of suspense, new set up and old wounds. It made for compelling, heart stopping television.

    2) The West Wing – What kind of day has it been?/In the Shadow of Two Gunmen — It’s the clear two part episode I had to wait all. summer. long. to get answers from. Again, internet was not the factor it is today, so there was very little knowledge about who might be coming back and who wouldn’t when it aired. I remember screaming at my TV as the episode faded with ‘Who’s been hit?’ echoing as the episode ended. I was so upset, viscerally upset and could not imagine who had been hit. I was for some reason confidant that Bartlett was fine, because how could they shoot Martin Sheen. I was convinced that Leo and Charlie were dead. So when the episode opened, how amazing was it to temper the confusion and necessary inventory of how every character navigated the shooting. To use it as a flashback for us the viewers to learn about how each of these characters came to work for Bartlett gave us a reprieve from the ‘who done it’ trope and offered real character development in the past/present parallel. It was simply the show at its very best.

    3) LOST – Through the Looking Glass/Beginning of the End: As much as the others taking Walt off the boat slaughtered me emotionally I get chills thinking about Charlie’s final moments and holding up his hand to let Desmond know it was “Not Penny’s Boat”. That deeply emotional moment around a character I didn’t even particularly invest in had repercussions throughout the cast and their fate. The idea that it wasn’t the final moment of the episode is want is most astonishing about the cliffhanger and the series itself. Because it was Jack yelling “We have to go back” to Kate in the dark that we understood the parallel story happening off the island was in fact a flash forward – WHAT?!?! I so vividly remembering my mouth being open as the episode ended and wondering where could we possibly go next? What we got was the divide of science vs. faith; Jack vs. Locke in physical earnest. We also received the reveal of the Oceanic Six and the opening of the mythology that took place in the flash forwards. It’s a wonderful pivot that the show took after course correcting the mishaps of the season prior and set a course for where the show and these characters were headed as we began the march towards the finale.

    4) Castle – Always/After the Storm: For as much as Knockout was one of my favorite episodes (save for Beckett’s shooting) this combination provided many things for me as a fan of the show. It gave me Nathan Fillion at arguably his best in his confrontation scene with Katic. It offered the unraveling of all the secrets that viewers spent all of season 4 privy to as we watched. And of course it gave us the money moment. It gave us the bringing together of this couple we’d waited and anticipated coming together in a wonderfully passionate, sexy and honest scene. There was a great deal to live up to coming back from Season 4 both in the aftermath of coupling Beckett and Castle as well as battling back the looming Moonlighting curse. Not only that, it needed to pivot our characters away from the mythology of Beckett’s mother if not resolve it. That’s A LOT to do in 43 minutes and they did it remarkably thoroughly. The show makes the wonderful decision to bring us back not right after Beckett and Castle are post coital but the morning after. It’s fantastic because it has allowed for the passion to subside enough that both could be questioning the night before. It offers us that insight through Castle who understands the woman he loves and tests the waters of what they’ve done actually looks like in the light of day. It’s a sincere scene while being funny and disarming. It’s a nice respite to establish these people are together before pressing onto the looming threat. I enjoyed the shift in how they worked together as a couple. In new territory as a couple the show did a great job of showing us that the characters we’ve grown to love haven’t changed by this new situation, they’ve merely evolved into it. The balance of serious/fun that the show walks so well set the perfect tone that assured viewers the Moonlighting curse would not find a home at Castle and the show I adored was only going to get better by bringing them together.

    • I was hoping someone would mention “Who Shot JR?”! 😉

      You have a great list, and I have little to add about the choices for the shows I’ve seen. I completely agree that framing “In the Shadow of Two Gunmen” with the flashbacks was genius. It made the whole episode even more emotionally compelling, and it made it one of my favorite episodes in the series. As for LOST, if you had all those feelings without being really invested in Charlie, imagine how I felt as someone who’d loved him since early S1. To say I was a mess is putting it mildly.

      And then there’s Castle. Those two episodes are—BY FAR—my favorite finale/premiere combo in the series. “Always” was so good for all the reasons you listed, and I remember being so thrilled that “After the Storm” built on that with such confidence, openness, and deft handling of such a monumental shift in the show’s universe. It was funny, it was moving, and it made me feel so proud that “my show” was taking on and taking down the Moonlighting Curse.

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