Some TV shows work hard to get across the finish line and deliver that perfectly satisfying ending to reward viewers for years of devoted viewing. Others lose their focus and limp to their ends, leaving fans to wonder if perhaps things should have ended sooner. With the passing of the beloved Breaking Bad (and the reviled Dexter) into the TV sunset, we decided to look back at 26 TV finales that worked…or that didn’t.Star Trek“Turnabout Intruder” June 3, 1969
When they were shooting the last episode of Star Trek, they had no idea the series was going to be cancelled. They knew they were on shaky ground, but they certainly had no sense that they should be wrapping things up. As far as they knew they were on a five year mission. Rodenberry probably saw it as a five season arc. The real tragedy about the last episode of Star Trek, “Turnabout Intruder,” is that James T. Kirk was returned to his body. The series should have ended with William Shatner playing a woman starship captain. Whether it continued on the last two years of its mission or not, I find comfort in the idea that Mr. Tambourine Man is out there in space as the Rocket Woman. I think Shatner acted the shit out of that part. Watch it again. His performance is very nuanced. The way he plays with his fingernails, the way he uses his eyes. If only Spock hadn’t stuck his Vulcan ears into things William Shatner would still be playing Janice Lester playing Captain Kirk in the mythology that would have followed. An actor’s dream.M*A*S*H“Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen” February 28, 1983
When M*A*S*H ended people treated it like someone died. It was an event. M*A*S*H was an institution, not that it was around that long…it wasn’t Gunsmoke, it was a different kind of institution. It blew through so many TV taboos so often, mixing satire with comedy with what was becoming a far too encroaching drama, that it held a spot beyond other TV shows at the time. Other shows were just show, M*A*S*H was a national conscience and consciousness. It was smart but it wasn’t afraid of slapstick. Maybe the last episode choked a little too much chicken for a comedy show, nobody really wanted to see Hawkeye pull a Corporal Klinger without a summer dress. It was the tearjerker it was supposed to be. That wasn’t even new for M*A*S*H, they’d done some big goodbyes before. If only to kill off the actors just to make sure they couldn’t come back.
Seinfeld“The Finale,” May 14, 1998
While there was no way that Seinfeld‘s finale could have scaled the comedic heights of earlier seasons (the show had begun to lose a step in its eigth and ninth seasons), and certainly no way that fans would have been satisfied with just about ANY conclusion…what did we expect? One of those slurpy, sentimental endings where the cast all steps out from behind their characters and smiles and waves to a grateful studio audience? Seinfeld made its bones on the absurdity of the uncomfortable, and the morally ambiguous finale (which spends two episodes quite unambiguously revealing what terrible people they are…in case you hadn’t been paying attention), while controversial and divisive at the time, looks right on the money, even daring, 15 years later. “Hell is other people,” indeed.
The lead up to “The Truth” was more disappointing than the actual execution of The X–Files’ final episode. David Duchovny left the show after season eight and only appeared in two episodes during the ninth season. While special agents Monica Reyes and John Doggett were serviceable stand-ins during the final two seasons, many devoted X–Files fans felt they were robbed of a strong finish that justified their obsession with a show that changed the sci-fi genre way back in 1993.
The hour and a half finale saw the return of Agent Mulder, who was put on trial and ultimately convicted in the murder of a “Super Solider.” For years Mulder was discredited and dismissed within the FBI but in his X–Files return, it became clear that he won over more people within the government during his relentless pursuit of the truth. The X–Files couldn’t tie up all the loose ends. In a show where ambiguity reigned supreme and Dec. 22, 2012, the day of the final alien invasion, is unavoidable, all Mulder and Scully could do was cuddle in a motel room and hope. For the partners turned lovers that went through so much together, the final minutes were nothing short of perfection.Buffy The Vampire Slayer“Chosen” May 20, 2003 Much like its entire final season, Buffy’s finale was solid in theory, shitty in execution. There were some great ideas, namely the destruction (by way of magic) of the “one slayer at a time” rule so that Buffy, finally sharing her power and her burden, could be free to choose her own fate. Sadly, by the time we got there, the show’s writing had taken such a nosedive that it was hard to care all that much. The whole thing felt rushed, Angel’s cameo was a wasted opportunity, and Anya’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-it death just felt like a slap in the face. The simple truth is that Season 7 of Buffy coincided with Season 4 of Angel (as well as Firefly), and it’s painfully obvious where Whedon’s energy went. Tragically, for all its quality at the height of its run, Buffy was robbed of the swan song it and its fans deserved.
Sitcom audiences, particularly of shows with arcs anchored by romanticism, demand a sense of closure in finales. That’s probably a good reason why more than 50 million people, tallying the fourth most watched finale in TV history, tuned into NBC to say goodbye to their friends. The finale was bittersweet, if not satisfying because Rachael didn’t get on the plane and hard luck loser Ross finally won something for once. There were plenty of tears for this group of young, hip friends in New York City who bonded over endless cups of coffee, Thanksgiving dinners and a few shared lovers along the way. The real problem with the Friends finale was the aftermath. Negative points are in order for spawning the spinoff Joey.Angel“Not Fade Away” May 19, 2004It’s unfortunate that Angel ended when it did, but if you gotta go, that’s the way to go. Every character got a moment to shine, even Connor, whose brief appearance put closure to his and Angel’s relationship. We got to see Fred one last time, even if it was only a merciful lie, Spike’s poetry was finally appreciated, and Lindsay paid the price for his epic douchebaggery. Sure, some complained about the abrupt ending, but it’s not like we got Soprano’d. We know what happened. They charged into battle. That’s all we needed to know. The entire theme of Angel was sacrifice, the idea that you always keep fighting. Even if there’s no chance of victory, no chance of redemption, you do what’s right because it’s right. It was never about whether the heroes lived or died. It was about how much Angel wanted to slay that dragon.Justice League Unlimited“Destroyer” May 13, 2006
If it seems a little “off” that we’re including an animated series in this list, then clearly, you never saw Justice League Unlimited, or its finale. The final season of JLU was a love-letter to everything that makes the DC Universe great, culminating in all out war between a virtual army of superheroes and Darkseid’s invading forces. Superman beating the living hell out of Darkseid, comfortable in the knowledge that finally, after all these years, he was finally facing someone he wouldn’t have to hold back against not only was payoff for Superman fans waiting for the Man of Steel to shine brighter than his teammates, but even tied up loose ends from Paul Dini and Bruce Timm’s JLU precursor, Superman: The Animated Series. When Hollywood can approach this kind of blend of action and emotion in a Justice League movie, wake us up. Until then…
Six Feet Under“Everyone’s Waiting” August 21st, 2005
Leave it to a show all about endings and the value of mortality to feature the perfect ending… in which everybody dies. The beautifully shot and edited closing montage (set to the evocative “Breathe Me” by Sia) covered the near century it took for all the leads to kick the bucket in a variety of fitting if not necessarily comforting ways. What could have been a depressing heartsuck of an ending was saved by flashing from a dying, elderly Claire, whose life has been full and rewarding, to her 20-year-old self driving down the 10 Freeway toward the beginning of that life. Though the series wasn’t perfect—it did have its highs and lows—in the end, it pulled it all together to give us one of the most satisfying, poetic, and inspired endings in television history.
The bell gives it away, it rings when Tony walks into Holsteins, establishing that we hear the bell every time someone comes in. We hear it when the guy in the Member’s Only jacket comes into the restaurant and looks straight at Tony, but Tony doesn’t hear it because a couple at the table right next to him laughs over it. The audience sees it because it’s one of the few scenes in the shot that’s not Tony’s point of view. As far as the blackness, Bobby referenced it earlier in the season when he was sitting on the boat with Tony and said you probably never even see it coming. Syl experienced it when he was sitting across from a hit and didn’t know what was happening until it was over. It was all there. New York cut off the head. They’d deal with what was left. That Jersey thing was never anything more than a glorified crew anyway.
Avatar: The Last Airbender“Sozin’s Comet” July 19, 2008Aang’s climactic battle with Fire Lord Ozai was beautifully animated and artfully juxtaposed with Zuko and Katara’s team-up against Azula. An entire act of denouement allowed us the time to say goodbye to the characters, offered a few hints of their futures, and finally got Aang and Katara together. Sure, Zuko’s reunion with his mother didn’t make the final cut, but the comics will cover that. The only real flaw in an otherwise perfect finale was the out-of-leftfield revelation of energybending, a lost, ancient art which allowed Aang to defeat Ozai by stripping him of his firebending rather than killing him. Now, finding loopholes and clever solutions around problems was certainly in Aang’s character and could have made for a mind-blowing plot twist. However, the lack of set-up for this Hail Mary turned a potentially satisfying solution into a shameless deus ex machina.Battlestar Galactica“Daybreak” March 13, 2009Let’s see: we got an epic space battle, a rescue mission, revelations, and plenty of death. What was it everyone is still bitching about? Not to mention Bear McCreary’s score, which still offers up chills years later. Nobody was sure that Moore and Eick would be able to pay off all the random imagery born of bowl-smoking that they dropped into the series over the years, but they somehow managed to tie it all together. Every character had a role to play in the story and reached satisfying conclusions to their arc, especially when juxtaposed with those flashbacks of life before the Fall. We got closure out the wazoo, and it was glorious. And whoever had a problem with that last-minute twist had obviously not been paying attention. “Life here began out there.” They say it in the pilot mini-series. Whatever. Haters gonna hate.Dollhouse“Epitaph: Part Two” January 29, 2010 While it was technically canceled, Dollhouse did manage to tie everything up in time to have a proper finale. And it was perfect. It took the characters to their logical conclusions, began the restoration of a world they failed to save, honored the fallen, and ended on a poignant grace note, a perfect touch of symmetry, as Echo lies down to sleep in the pod that once symbolized her captivity, only now physically, psychologically, and spiritually free. The worst thing about “Epitaph 2” was everything it hinted at that we’ll never see, all that meaty story that would have bridged the gap between the main timeline and the post-apocalyptic Epitaph timeline. How did Alpha become an ally and a friend? What exactly went down between Priya and Tony? And how did civilization crumble despite the heroes’ victory against the Rossum Corporation? We’ll never know. Thanks, Fox.Lost“The End” May 23, 2010A finale that gets a lot of hate it doesn’t deserve since what most people resent about it isn’t really its fault. The trouble wasn’t the script, which was very good, or the characters’ shared fate, which made perfect narrative, thematic, and emotional sense. The trouble was that by the final season of Lost, the writers had incurred such narrative debts that every episode they spent not paying them off was more pressure heaped onto the finale’s shoulders. Ask yourselves this: if the episodes leading up to that ending had delivered all those answers we craved and the point of the finale itself wasn’t to answer our burning questions, merely to conclude to the story and farewell the characters, does the episode work? Absolutely. And then some. And so, it could be well argued that the true failure lay not with Lost’s ending, but rather its middle.24“Day 8, 3:00 PM – 4:00 PM” May 24, 2010One hit series that had a less than satisfactory send-off was Fox’s white-knuckled serial thriller, 24. Every week viewers tuned in by the millions to spend an hour with Jack Bauer as he dealt with the latest terrorist threat to national security. Unfortunately, the more hours that passed, the more absurd the premise became. In the eighth and final season of 24, Jack is pulled out of retirement (again) when the newest love of his life is murdered by President Logan…everyone’s favorite TV villain to hate in the 2000s. Working with Russians to cover-up the assassination of a Middle East leader, Logan corrupts President Taylor as he uses this peace as his ticket back to the big leagues. Unfortunately, Logan doesn’t know Jack, who ends up dressing like a superhero when he kidnaps a Russian leader and tortures him to get the truth. The incident causes Logan’s house of cards to come tumbling down, which he acknowledges when he assassinates himself after cowardly killing his unconscious advisor (WTF?). As a result, Jack goes on the run with the U.S. government chasing him, but not before looking with pained loss at a satellite feed to Chloe O’Brian and all the viewers at home.
As much as we loved Logan’s hilariously sniveling end, this may be one of the most lukewarm and anti-climactic endings ever aired. Basically, the series ends with yet another president’s administration left in tatters by terrorists vs. Jack Bauer, i.e. the premise of every other season, and Jack going AWOL. The problem with this is that it is NOT an ending. We have seen Jack Bauer go rogue before! He does it practically every season before CTU or the next POTUS pulls him back in. Hell, that was the premise of Season 7 after the terribly forgotten 24 TV movie, and that is the real issue. This was an intentional non-ending because series producers, as well as Kiefer Sutherland, thought they were getting a 24 movie that never materialized. This explains why the hedged their bets with a weak conclusion that was more limp-wristed than 24’s depiction of ACLU lawyers. Bah! Jack and Chloe didn’t even have a real final scene! But hey, the fake-out closure may have worked out, because 24 returns next year to Fox with Jack retired and on the run. Again.
The Tudors“Death of a Monarchy” June 20, 2010Another historical series that actually enjoyed ending on its own terms was The Tudors. I admire this series for one specific reason: It unapologetically depicts Henry VIII as the monster that he was. Due to his infamy, not to mention siring Britain’s greatest monarch, Elizabeth I, he often gets a free pass in fiction for being a romantic. Instead, Showtime spent four seasons with Henry VIII, a petulant boy who well into old age let his passion, libido and immaturity falter what once could have been a great reign. Granted, they also cast the very un-portly Jonathan Rhys Meyers as the king of six wives, but his good looks make Henry’s callow decisions even in his advanced years all the more pathetic.Hence in the finale, it is so satisfying to watch him live with them. In a Shakespearian touch, the ghosts of three of Henry’s four dead wives pay him nightly visits as the pale rider on the horse approaches. In his dying breath, he is forced to face his failures and sins.Obviously, the most gratifying moments are the return of Maria Doyle Kennedy as Catherine of Aragon and Natalie Dormer as Anne Boleyn. The show honestly never did outlive their departure, particularly Anne’s when Henry had her beheaded on false charges of incest and infidelity in the Second Season Finale. Seeing these two ghosts taunt him is ever so gratifying, Anne even takes up the very guilty Catherine Howard’s defense. But it is not only the wives he directly wronged, but also Jane Seymour’s ghost who warns of Henry of their son’s tender age of death, less than a decade away. Henry refuses to hear the truth, but that is what makes him such a wondrous fool. Nothing is more satisfying than him being confronted with his own lies that he told himself under the gaze of ghostly Anne’s final smirk. Friday Night Lights“Always” February 9, 2011
Each and every season finale of Friday Night Lights could have served as the show’s ending. The writers had a great knack for crafting suitable endings for the seasons’ singular stories, but in the series finale we get a real full-circle moment. The town of Dillon is reunited, Matt and Julie await engagement, Riggins is free to oversee his land, but the real sweet send off is saved for Coach Taylor and his wife Tammi. Proving once and for all that the Taylor’s had the most realistic marriage ever presented on television, Coach Taylor sacrifices his job in Dillon to allow his wife to take a job in Chicago. The final shot sees Coach Taylor teaching a new Chicago team his “Clear eyes” mantra in the rebirth of his coaching career and the perfect ending to an incredible series.
Smallville“Finale” May 13, 2011
Ten seasons. For ten seasons Smallville teased fans with Clark’s “will he/won’t he” put on the Superman costume vacillations. Two full seasons of Clark in a black trenchcoat, a t-shirt, and the worst codename in the history of superheroes. They owed us. They owed us big. And after a season long build-up which included Darkseid and a number of other barely recognizable characters from Jack Kirby’s Fourth World, we got…very little. A CGI Tom Welling in a used Superman Returns costume barely visible on screen for more than a minute, and a cut-to-black shirt rip on the Daily Planet roof set to John Williams’ iconic Superman theme. Those final moments, depicting Lois and Clark some years in the future at the Daily Planet, well into Clark’s Superman (can they call him that now?) career were nothing more than a reminder of what the show could have become had it not been so devoted to keeping everything Superman fans know and love about the character tantalizingly out of reach.
Scooby-Doo: Mystery Incorporated“Come Undone” April 5, 2013
You may not know this, or even believe it, but Scooby-Doo: Mystery Incorporated is more than just the best Scooby-Doo series ever, more than one of the best animated series of the last decade, and more than…well, it’s just more than a Scooby-Doo cartoon. Over the course of 52 episodes, Mystery Incorporated layered plot thread upon plot thread and mysteries within mysteries as it actually (gasp) gave each member of the gang a backstory, a character arc, and genuine a genuine stake in the big story. The finale, which (among other things) deals with an Evil Entity remaking reality and explaining why some animals can talk and others can’t in this world, also has a unique twist which allows Mystery Incorporated to serve as either a finale for EVERY version of Scooby-Doo…or a prequel to all of them…depending on how you look at it. Oh, and Harlan Ellison shows up. Brilliant.The Office“Finale” May 16, 2013 The Office was pretty hit and miss once star Steve Carrell exited for greener pastures, but in The Office’s last season, they really did manage to find out how to exist without their old boss. Picking up about a year after the airing of their “documentary,” the finale allows you to catch back up with the characters, some of which have exciting, and not so exciting, new lives. The whole thing culminates in Dwight and Angela’s wedding, where Jim sets out to anti-prank Dwight along the way, providing sweet, and often funny, moments for the two rivals. The best part comes when Michael Scott appears towards the end. He barely says three lines, but his presence helps immensely. The Office created a finale that mirrored the show in general; maybe a little long and over-the-top at times, but generally sweet and humorous.Dexter “Remember the Monsters?” September 22, 2013
If your final season is a mess, then your finale doesn’t have much hope, does it? Season eight of Dexter meandered about like Dexter character Vince Masuka in the World’s Largest Sex Store. Characters acted more inane then ever, new characters dominated the time we had left with the old ones, and Dexter acted more irrational and selfish as the season went along. In the finale, all the uninteresting plots don’t so much come to a head as they just kind of fizzle out. Then there’s the infamous ending of Lumberjack Dexter awkwardly staring into the camera for the series’ final shot. We would have preferred the whole series to be a dream over that crap.
Season five, the final season of the remarkable series, was an all out assault on viewer’s emotions and nervous systems that saw the already esteemed show reach new heights. In the closing hour, creator Vince Gilligan neatly wrapped up the series, giving each remaining character a suitable goodbye or ticket straight to hell. The only criticism that could be brought up is that the ending was too perfect, too sterile for a season that felt like it was always on the edge of combusting. Regardless, Gilligan crafted a satisfying ending to his juggernaut series.
American Horror Story“Afterbirth” December 21st, 2011 and “Madness Ends” January 23, 2013.
This one is a bit of a cheat, but as every season of American Horror Story follows a new story, how can it not count? With that in mind, we want to praise and condemn both seasons’ “series finales.” The first season of American Horror Story (no colon) saw a dementedly funny ending to a season that was actually scary! The Harmon family, who never missed the chance to squabble in life, has found peace in death. Literally. They’re all ghosts haunting “The Murder House” and scaring potential buyers (victims) out before the bad ghosts get them! It’s perversely adorable watching the four dead Harmons, Ben, Vivien, Violet, and the new baby, celebrate the holidays around a Christmas tree while demon seed like Tate and Hayden watch from the shadows. Meanwhile, even Constance gets her own kooky happy ending with a wink and a nod to The Omen and Rosemary’s Baby.
This is a weird ending that leaves a smile on the face after a tense year with the family. Conversely, the second “series,” American Horror Story: Asylum, ends on an intriguing idea with poor execution. Asylum‘s atmosphere was tense and after an awkward premiere, it quickly found its breakneck, darkly comical pace thanks in no small part to Sister Mary Eunice getting possessed by the devil and teaming up with James Cromwell’s monstrous Nazi doc. It was literally a match made in Hell. But as their relationship flamed out (heh), the final two episodes kind of limped to the finish line. The actual finale attempted to have a “slice of life” closer that spanned multiple decades when Sister Jude’s sanity is not saved, and Laura Winters shuts down the asylum a decade too late. By the time it flash forwards to modern times and her thrown away adult son, a second Bloody Face, has hunted her down to a D.C. hotel, we just did not care. It wasn’t scary or true to life; it was simply lifeless. Here is hoping that this week’s new story ends with a better bang than that final shot.