From polarizing endings (Lost, The Sopranos) to outright terrible conclusions (Seinfeld, The X-Files), more often than not, even great shows tend to fumble at the finish. In some cases, the series was outstanding enough overall that fans could overlook a disappointing climax. But in other instances, a finale could be so insipid that it retroactively invalidates every trace of hard-earned investment in the eyes of fans.
One needn’t look further than shows like How I Met Your Mother or Dexter to see how insulting endings can turn something beloved into something despised in the collective pop culture memory. Thankfully though, there have been a handful that stuck the landing perfectly. Here are some of best examples of shows that paid off years and years of storytelling in emotional, thoughtful and profound ways. Closure is key. (Due to their limited serialized nature, miniseries and anthologies will not be counted.)
For seven seasons, Vic Mackey and his gang of grossly corrupt cops avoided justice by the skin of their teeth on FX’s groundbreaking series, The Shield. While their violent exploits and narrow escapes provided us with some of TV’s most thrilling moments, as the series drew to a close, everyone could tell that their reckoning was near. As scheme after scheme failed, the sense that the Strike Team was above the law slowly eroded, leading to a spiraling series of brutal betrayals that forces Vic to throw his partners under the bus in exchange for immunity. While the lead-up to the finale was filled with white-knuckle tension, it’s those quiet closing moments with Vic that lingers. Now chained to a desk and living with unbearable guilt, the once proud street cop looks out at the sirens from the window, longing for another chance that will never come. There’s no firefight, no prison sentence – just purgatory for a man who “got away with it” at the cost of his friends and family.
Six Feet Under – “Everyone’s Waiting”
For a show about a family-owned funeral business, it’s no surprise that death has always loomed large over HBO’s Six Feet Under. Every episode began with a customer’s loved one on the Fischers’ slab, but towards the end, many main characters ended up on those slabs themselves – sometimes in very gruesome ways. The critically acclaimed show was losing the luster of it’s brilliant first three seasons, and was resorting to shock and misery as narrative drivers. Fans were losing hope – which is what makes “Everyone’s Waiting” so magical. That touching finale not only reminded people why they loved the show, it offered the most satisfying conclusion in TV history. Set to Sia’s “Breathe Me”, the show delivered an overwhelmingly emotional climatic montage depicting the future lives and deaths of every major character – ending on the deathbed of the Fischers’ youngest daughter Claire – who passes peacefully after the leading the fulfilling life she’s always wanted.
Breaking Bad – “Felina”
More so than the other shows on this list, Vince Gilligan and his creative team faced enormous pressure to deliver a satisfying finale. And improbably enough, Breaking Bad managed to exceed lofty expectations by crafting a conclusion filled with defining character moments, brilliant set-pieces and dire emotional stakes. Will the consequences of Heisenberg’s actions finally bring Walt down? And more importantly, will Walt understand that his arc has always been about selfish personal fulfilment rather than a selfless desire to provide for his family? Those two central threads were answered emphatically, in quiet moments such as his farewell to Skyler, and in exhilarating sequences like his rescue of poor Jesse Pinkman from his neo-Nazi captors. The anti-hero’s death is bittersweet, as he comes to terms with the fact that his monstrous actions as a drug lord are irredeemable, whilst simultaneously feeling pride for how far he’s come from the beaten-down, cancer-stricken chemistry teacher we met in the pilot.
The Fugitive – “The Judgement Part II”
In 1967, few things in pop culture were as important as the freedom of Richard Kimble (well, other than Sgt. Pepper). Watched by 78 million people in America alone, the finale of The Fugitive set television records and redefined the idea of how serialized finales should function. Back then, the idea of a series “conclusion” was unheard of, since most programs consisted of weekly episodic stories and lacked any sort of long-running narrative. But The Fugitive changed all that by introducing the four season tale of a doctor falsely accused of murdering his wife, and his quest to bring the real murderer to justice. Consisting of two separate chases – Kimble hunting his wife’s killer and Lieutenant Philip Gerard hunting escaped convict Kimble – the cat-and-mouse narratives made for an exciting 120 episode run. Ultimately, The Fugitive rewarded viewer investment by actually paying off what it promised: the One-Armed Man’s death and Kimble’s cathartic exoneration.
Justified – “The Promise”
Elmore Leonard has rarely been impressed by onscreen adaptations of his novels, but when it came to Justified, he was the show’s biggest fan: “I love all of the writing, and I’m amazed sometimes that they’ve got the characters better than I put them on paper. My god, it’s a lot better than what I would have written.” Showrunner Graham Yost proclaimed that his writers’ room ethos was “What Would Elmore Do?” – and they followed that to the finish. Justified’s series finale kept up it’s quick-witted dialogue and quick-drawing action by tying up a myriad of criminal double-crosses, and offering a couple of unforeseen twists. From the pilot, we always knew a climactic showdown between trigger-happy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens and slick outlaw Boyd Crowder was on the horizon – and it was indeed as electric as fans had anticipated. Violent, yet surprisingly poignant, Raylan and Boyd’s neo-Western Batman-Joker dynamic ends not with death, but with deep-seated mutual respect.
Halt and Catch Fire – “Ten of Swords”
Though ostensibly a period drama chronicling the PC revolution of the 1980s and the dawn of the World Wide Web in the 1990s, Halt and Catch Fire’s greatest strength has always been it’s nuanced focus on the characters behind the computers. The show’s most emotional arcs have always been about the creative relationships forged when smart people come together over great ideas – and how ambition and the practicalities of business can drive them apart. And while the charismatic drive of Joe MacMillan might have kicked off the series in season one, the show’s primary focus evolved with the more compelling relationship between software prodigy Cameron Howe and hardware engineer Donna Clark. These two women were the heart and soul of Halt and Catch Fire, and the dissolution of their friendship has been the devastating crux leading into a finale filled with full-circle moments. As Cameron and Donna begin to part one final time, an epiphany occurs: “Cameron… I have an idea.”
The Leftovers – “The Book of Nora”
Damon Lindelof has faced a lot of ridicule for how he decided to end Lost, but he’s more than redeemed himself when it comes to the beautiful conclusion for his most recent show. Set in the aftermath of a Rapture-like event whereby 2% of the world’s population vanished without trace, The Leftovers was about grief, loss and humanity’s inability to cope with the inexplicable. Unlike Lost, Lindelof did not need to provide solutions to metaphysical mysteries here. In fact, if he had given the audience a definitive answer, it would have fundamentally undercut every single character’s emotional arc. Instead “The Book of Nora” focused upon human connection, and the touching reconciliation between Kevin Garvey and Nora Durst decades after they split. Those concerned with answers were placated by Nora’s far-fetched monologue about her visit to an alternate dimension, while those who aren’t were given emotional closure with this romantic rekindling (and the knowledge that Nora was likely lying).
After 11 seasons of comedy (and tragedy) set in the Korean War, M*A*S*H concluded with a brilliant two and half hour episode that still the remains the gold standard for series finales. 125 million people tuned in live for “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen” (a television record that still holds today) to see the men and women of the 4077th finally head home. From it’s dark story of Hawkeye Pierce recovering from a nervous breakdown to it’s stirring final moments (while they desperately wanted to leave the war behind, the show smartly acknowledged how much these characters will miss each other), M*A*S*H triumphantly concluded with some of the funniest and saddest moments in the show’s history. Sharpy-written quips and a resonant “war is hell” theme embodied this show all the way to the end, daring to combine serious drama and silly comedy during a time when such tonal juggling was practically unheard of. M*A*S*H is the forefather of the modern TV dramedy, and it’s legacy is still felt today.
The Wire – “–30–”
For five impeccable seasons, David Simon’s The Wire has bucked narrative convention in favour of truth-telling. Frequently referred to as the greatest TV drama in history (this critic agrees), The Wire was special because it’s main character has always been the city of Baltimore, telling stories about America’s capitalist economy (both legal and illegal), institutional hubris (in police and government), failing education system, sensationalist mass media, and how those rigged power structures affect human beings on the ground. Presenting a TV show with such realism often means that Simon purposefully avoided exciting story beats if they weren’t organic – which is what makes “–30–” so special. Hard-earned moments such as aged junkie Bubbles getting clean is juxtaposed with the show’s most innocent child (Dukie) buying heroin. The Wire provided closure without climatic battles or a-ha moments. Instead it ends the cyclical story of a community as a new rotation begins.
Cowboy Bebop – “The Real Folk Blues (Part 2)”
This neo-Western, film noir, jazz-obsessed, sci-fi space adventure is revered as one of the best animes of all-time – and with good reason. Shinichirō Watanabe’s futuristic series capped off it’s fun and stylish run with an exhilarating crescendo that brought it’s themes of existential ennui and loneliness to bear on our favourite bounty hunters. Spike is tortured by the past and refuses to see any way forward, thus informing his apathetic nature and his inability to start over. And it’s that sense of fatalism that permeates through his thrilling final confrontation against arch-enemy Vicious. On the flip side, the similarly-afflicted Faye seems to learn from Spike’s hopelessness as evidenced by her closing monologue. She opts out of the prison of her own subjective reality to see a world of possibility, intending to overcome the self-destructive narrative that Spike carved out for himself. Cowboy Bebop’s brilliant ending has it’s cake and eats it too, by servicing it’s genre tropes and subverting it as well.
Mad Men – “Person to Person”
At its core, Mad Men is about Dick Whitman aka Don Draper’s hobo odyssey. A man with no identity to call his own, adept at convincing consumers to ascribe theirs to materialism. The suave ad man has been systemically mythologized and broken down throughout Matthew Weiner’s period drama, displaying many instances where vulnerability has taught him to be a better human being. But Mad Men’s underlying philosophy was that people never truly change, and Don always backslid into his worst habits eventually. But as the show reached it’s finale, things felt different. Shedding himself of his past sins and skin, the newest version of Don Draper detaches from old attachments (through touching final phone calls with Betty and Peggy) and reinvents once again – embarking on a cross-country journey of honest self-discovery. But as he sits to meditate upon his newfound bliss, an idea for Coca-Cola’s famed “I’d like to buy the whole world a Coke” ad emerges.
Angel – “Not Fade Away”
Angel never garnered the acclaim of its predecessor show Buffy the Vampire Slayer – but it should have. And since it was cancelled (instead of ending on it’s own terms), Angel’s season five’s climax was not intended as a series finale – though it serendipitously functioned as the perfect thematic send-off anyway. As Angel and crew gear up for a fight that they know to be a suicide mission, each major character spends their last moments engaged in introspection and reflective conversation. For a finale built around an apocalypse, it’s genius was it’s absence of action and focus on motivation. Angel’s quest for redemption has always inspired him to struggle despite the odds, which is why Joss Whedon’s decision to cut to black just as the final battle begins was such an apropos ending. The series ethos, “If nothing we do matters, all that matters is what we do”, is exemplified here, reminding us that the fight itself doesn’t matter, it’s the decision to fight that’s important.