Inside the Epic Disaster & Emotional Reunion in the '9-1-1' Season 3 Finale

9-1-1 Season 3 Finale Connie Britton Returns Abby
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FOX

TV heroes come in all shapes, capes and sizes. And for the first responders of Fox's hit drama 9-1-1, saving the day isn't a comic book call of duty — it's a nod to the flesh-and-blood folks on the front lines.

"From Day 1, it's been about heroes," showrunner Tim Minear says of the series, which centers on Los Angeles County police, firefighters and paramedics. "Our characters represent the real men and women who show up at the worst moment of your life, strangers who are there to save you. We can't thank them enough."

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Since 9-1-1 launched in January 2018, Minear says he and cocreators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk have worked to make sure the show (and, later, the Texas-set spinoff 9-1-1: Lone Star, starring Rob Lowe) does right by these Samaritans. Their strategy: Lean on consultants who are either current or former police officers or firefighters. Minear points out that staff writer Nadia Abass-Madden was a 911 operator for two decades before joining and pitching April's Die Hard–esque attack on the dispatch office. Real-life responders are also used for smaller roles and as extras, he notes: "We take [authenticity] very seriously."

That's the case even when 9-1-1 ventures into heightened territory, such as the aforementioned hostage crisis, Season 2's earthquake and this season's disastrous Santa Monica tsunami. "We're a fantasy show," Minear acknowledges, "but we try to get the basics right in honor of [the first responders]."

(FOX)

Angela Bassett, who plays LAPD sergeant Athena Carter Nash, agrees accurate portrayals are important. "These are people who put their lives on the line every day. You need to look no further than what we have seen over the past couple of months as they have left their families to go into the world to save lives," she says, referring to the COVID-19 global pandemic.

It's not just the on-the-clock crises that ring true. Peter Krause, whose Capt. Bobby Nash oversees LAFD Station 118 (he's also Athena's husband), recalls how his character's battle for sobriety inspired a fire captain to open up to him about a colleague lost to addiction. "He said, 'A lot of this hits close to home, and I'm glad you are exploring it,'" says the Parenthood alum.

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Another big draw for each week's 10 million–plus viewers is the old-school vibe that hearkens back to classic procedurals like Emergency! Most hours are closed-ended and infused with a comforting job-well-done optimism. "That's part of the secret sauce," Minear says. "This is an unironic network television show — a throwback in some ways, but with all the contemporary sophistication of TV today."

Indeed, years ago, you wouldn't have seen the frighteningly realistic train derailment that throws the Season 3 finale into high-speed chaos and brings back original cast member Connie Britton. Minear recruited the actress, who left after Season 1, at last year's party for the 100th episode of American Horror Story. (She starred on the first season in 2011.) In true 9-1-1 style, the producer called in backup. "I had Angela with me, so we sort of double-teamed her," he says. Upon hearing his pitch for her return, "Connie said, 'I'd love to!'"

Angela Bassett 9-1-1 Athena

(Mathieu Young/FOX)

In a tease at the end of the May 4 episode, 911 operator Maddie Buckley (Jennifer Love Hewitt) picks up a call for help from a passenger on an L.A.-bound train that has flown off the tracks. Turns out, that caller is Abby Clark (Britton) — the woman Maddie replaced on the job and the former flame of Maddie's brother, firefighter Evan "Buck" Buckley (Oliver Stark). Once Bobby's team arrives on the scene, details about Abby's whereabouts over the past two years emerge, and the impulsive Buck is "put in a position where he has to wrestle with his past, his future, and his job all at the same time," hints Stark. "It will be a case of seeing if he can put his emotions aside — something that has never been his strong suit — and do what needs to be done."

For the epic disaster, production headed to the outskirts of L.A., where actual train cars were rigged on cranes to create a gnarled metal pileup. The pièce de résistance? A car that's landed perpendicular to the ground with two passengers trapped inside.

"I thought we were actually going to climb up the train car as it was originally placed," Krause reveals. Because that was too dangerous, a set was built at a lower angle, leaving the actors to sweat out the appearance of a steep rescue. "Which is, we all found out, not easy," Krause says with a laugh.

The hour packs an emotional punch as well. In addition to a happy twist in the final moments, Stark hints that Abby's brief return offers the lonely Buck "closure," while Athena struggles to open up after her brutal showdown with a serial rapist in the previous episode. "When you experience these fork-in-the-road moments in your life, you can go one of three ways: all up, all in or a serious retreat," Bassett observes. "It will be interesting to see what route Athena takes."

(Mathieu Young/FOX)

Knowing these heroes, our money says she'll go all in.

9-1-1, Season 3 Finale, Monday, May 11, 8/7c, Fox