This article was originally published in 2013, when we asked: What series finale satisfied you the most, and why?
As the final eight episodes of Breaking Bad ran down to a close, it was hard for me to think of much else beyond the show: getting caught up in the story again, being terrified for certain characters’ lives, trying to second-guess Vince Gilligan and his writers (and failing every time), and hoping the last episode would, for want of a better word, fit. Finales are always important, even when they aren’t designed to be. We look for meaning in structure, and read significance into context, so that the last hour (or half hour) of a show has inherent weight to it. “Felina” was designed as a conclusion; what’s more, it was a conclusion to one of the most intensely serialized narratives in the history of the medium, a story that built on top of itself week by week, year by year, until it came to a closing point. If the finale had been weak—if Gilligan and company has strained plausibility too much, if they’d tried to force in one last shocking twist, if they’d made it too happy or too dire, if they pushed in an ironic twist that offered a conclusion without closure—it would’ve been impossible to remove it from the rest of the show. To balance this seemed nearly impossible to me. Long stories are difficult to pull off; perspectives change, personalities shift, and no plan is a perfect plan. The idea that anyone could’ve known exactly where Walter White’s adventures in chemistry were going to end up is absurd, because television is not a static medium. It’s not a novel where an author can go back and fiddle with the first chapters to make sure everything is to his or her liking. “Felina” is simple, sad, and a little goofy. It has its lumpy bits, its moments of inelegance, and it failed to make some grand final statement on power and greed, but that’s fine. “Ozymandias,” the series’ antepenultimate hour, was the true slam-bang climax, the moment when all the horrors came home to roost. The last two episodes are just the slow, lonely shuffle of a man who is finally forced to see who he really is. He gets one last chance to do some good with the only tools he has left. I think I knew it was perfect when I saw Cranston back in the clothes he wore in the pilot. No more Heisenberg. He’s just Walter Hartwell White. And then he’s gone.
The final episode of Angel was kind of a sore spot for fans before it aired, because it was common knowledge that the show, which had hit its full stride since becoming the last active TV outpost of the Whedonverse, had been a viable candidate for renewal that was instead cancelled as a result of the kind of pissing match that passes for creative decision-making in network television. So how it ended counted for a lot. I was in the camp that thought that, by cleaning house and closing on an image of the remaining heroes preparing to do battle against more-insurmountable-than-usual odds, frozen in time like Butch and Sundance but with less knowable results, the series ended perfectly, and that “Personally, I kind of want to slay the dragon” ranks as probably the best next-to-last line in TV history. (Granted, I’m not exactly sure what the competition is.) The fact that Joss Whedon later contrived to continue the series in comic-book form and, in the process, revealed that the dragon was a nice guy and just misunderstood, doesn’t change the fact that I got what I needed from the finale when I needed it.
This is the place where I’d talk about how much I love the Battlestar Galactica, Lost, and Sopranos finales, just to make people mad, then talk about how Deadwood’s finale is actually a perfect ending for the show, regardless of whether it was a planned ending, then probably segue to some talk about how the need for an ending is counterintuitive to what TV does well. But goddammit, the finale of Slings & Arrows makes me cry every time I watch it, and I am not a person who feels emotions. But put that thing in the DVD player or boot it up on Netflix, and I’m weeping heavy man tears from the word go. The series was such a beautiful consideration of what it means to live a full life, and in this finale, it finally takes a stab at an answer: meaningful work, while surrounded by those you love. That it expresses this idea so gracefully is what makes it my pick for most satisfying finale. But I could go on and on about Mary Tyler Moore or Barney Miller or Cheers or The Office (U.K.) or 30 Rock or Friday Night Lights or The Shield or Buffy or Angel or Freaks And Geeks or…
As a TV critic, I can look back on “Goodbye, Farewell, And Amen,” the final episode of M*A*S*H, and see why many of my peers and a substantial number of the show’s fans found it to be a bloated conclusion to a series that had lost a lot of its oomph several seasons before finally calling it quits. For better or worse, though, whenever I revisit the episode—and I do so every couple of years, usually in conjunction with being asked to reflect on the greatest TV finales of all time—I invariably do so through the eyes of the 12-year-old who didn’t discover M*A*S*H until late in the game and rushed home from a Boy Scouts meeting to make sure he saw every blessed moment of the last days of the 4077th. Is it overlong? Well, I don’t know if I’d go so far as to say that, but when it’s over, no matter how much you liked it, you do tend to go, “Damn, that was long!” But that’s not the question at hand. By the time it was over, all of my favorite characters had gotten an appropriate send-off, and I’d shed plenty of tears… and still do, no matter how many times I’ve watched it. If that doesn’t qualify as satisfying, I don’t know what does.
Well then allow me to go on and on about the British Office’s finale. The end of the second season, not the Christmas specials, thank you very much—those two episodes, while giving the employees of Wernham Hogg a pleasant, uplifting epilogue, ought to be treated as more of a sequel, what happens after David Brent finally gets a load of himself via the “documentary” that makes up the show’s first 12 half-hours. It’s the space between those specials that The Office utilized particularly well, the suggestion that the lives of the people created by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant carried on even after the cameras stopped rolling. I usually hate the closure forced onto a TV series by a proper finale, but The Office does it right: Its true climax happens one episode prior to “Interview,” and the end of the series plays out in the wake of David’s redundancy notice. And then there’s the crushing blow of Tim and Dawn’s silent confession scene, the sort of letdown that feels of a piece with the show as a whole and one that speaks to the best way for a television ending to mirror real life. It’s one intensely private moment, treated with the privacy it deserves—and, to me, the proper capper to a series that’s all about living the life you have, not the one you’ve imagined. (So maybe I should take a cue from that and stop being so finicky about the endings TV shows give me.)
Since Erik mentioned the British Office, I’m going to have to go with the American Office. As someone who watched that show religiously from the beginning, I thought the spring 2013 finale really brought the series to a close in a smart, kind way. The Michael Scott cameo was expected, but so heartwarmingly unexpected, and the way the show dealt with the passage of time both throughout the seasons and between the penultimate episode and the finale was just brilliant. I cried, I laughed, and I was reminded once again that ordinary life can be just as beautiful as we all might hope.
In the first season finale of Six Feet Under, a mourner asks the funeral director Nate Fisher, “Why do people have to die?” Nate thinks for a moment and answers, “To make life important.” In a similar way, the final episode of Six Feet Under both encapsulated and heightened the journey that preceded it. The show opens with the literal start of a new life—Nate’s daughter Willa—and proceeds to show the surviving members of the Fisher family figuratively launching new lives of their own. But the episode is remembered most for its closing sequence, in which the series commits to its own premise and flashes forward to the later life and demise of each main character. With a mix of exhilaration and heartbreak, these final scenes are emotionally exhausting—just try not to cry. The show isn’t making a ploy for tears, though. Rather, after we’ve watched these characters struggle to change the course of their lives for five seasons, Six Feet Under grants them some measure of resolution. That makes for an ending that’s as satisfying as they come.
The ending of The Shield wasn’t fully embraced by the show’s fans, because it didn’t tie much of a bow around things. (Also, if you think about it too closely, the fact that Vic Mackey’s confessions end up totally inadmissible and unprosecutable seems a little far-fetched.) But it was also far more appropriate for such a morally ambiguous character to have an ambiguous ending: He’s being punished, for sure, and maybe life as a neutered desk jockey is a fate worse than death for such an alpha-male street demon. Also, don’t forget that Vic now has to live without his family and, maybe more importantly, his honor. It’s clear from the look on Vic’s face that he’s not done with the streets, and that can only lead to more punishment for him down the road. (And yeah, I’d watch the hell out of a Shield movie to see what happened after he left the ICE building that night.)
I wasn’t sure what I wanted from the Breaking Bad finale, but when it was over, I realized it more or less gave me whatever that was. I think my expectations for the Friday Night Lights finale were only slightly more coherent: I wanted it all to work out. As much as I enjoy a good, bleak ending, because that’s the way life sometimes is, man, I couldn’t have handled it with Friday Night Lights. I loved that show and its characters—particularly Coach and Mrs. Coach—too much, and it would have traumatized me if something bad happened to them. Friday Night Lights didn’t end with a title card saying “And they all lived happily ever after,” but it artfully showed how its characters had moved on and changed since viewers first met them. My mind always goes to the shot of the football hanging in the air, the fate of the state championship game riding on it, and the scene cutting before it lands. We learn what happened in time, but it’s not addressed directly—just shots of the people we’d come to know and where they were after time ran out on the clock. In the end, it’s the perfectly bittersweet, lump-in-the-throat finale I wanted. Texas forever, Street.
Like all of Frasier before it, the two-part series finale, “Goodnight, Seattle,” is as fastidious and tidy as sitcoms get—which is only fitting, seeing as how those traits form the core of its main character. But amid the comedic choreography of misplaced manners and airs, “Goodnight, Seattle” finds a deeper order. The same moving man who brought in Martin’s battered armchair in the pilot episode, “The Good Son” 11 years earlier is played by the same actor who takes the chair out of Frasier’s apartment in the finale—a minor detail that seals the emotional circuit of the show’s whole premise. There’s also a satisfying sense of symmetry and renewal to Martin’s wedding and the birth of Niles’ first child—not to mention the attendant high jinks that arise from each, which feel as comfortable at that point in the series as any of the characters themselves. That familiar rhythm is most striking, and most aching, in the episode’s final moments, when a seemingly cheap twist actually nails the most poignant, bittersweet offbeat. And Frasier’s parting recitation of Tennyson’s “Ulysses” works so well because it’s everything the character was always about: using his sonorous, supercilious voice as a source not only of jokes, but of vulnerability.
So few of the shows I’ve loved have had endings that really satisfy me. But BBC’s The Thick Of It, Armando Ianucci’s masterpiece satire about British government, happened to have the resources and wherewithal to execute a perfect landing. The Thick Of It always had an erratic structure—a three-episode season would be followed by two hour-long specials, then a 10-episode order—meaning that the show had the flexibility it needed to tell the story it wanted to tell. That story was the catastrophic fall of Peter Capaldi’s Malcolm Tucker: first his strategy, then his ideology, and finally, his career. As funny as the show always was, the final season and last two episodes lay bare the bleak tragedy at the core of Tucker’s character as he, too, is churned under by the relentless machinery of government. In his final scene, the infamous spin-doctor is reduced to silence. As his onetime protégé Oliver Reeder throws him to the metaphorical wolves of the press, all Tucker can muster is a resigned, defeated silence. The look on his face is how the series ends, which is just what it needed.
As Myles McNutt mentioned while wrapping up his Scrubs TV Club Classic coverage at the end of season three, Bill Lawrence’s hospital comedy abruptly lost its way during the middle of an eight-season run. (Scrubs: Interns doesn’t count, even with Eliza Coupe—you can’t make me!) But when NBC passed on a final season for the main cast that eventually landed on ABC, Scrubs recaptured some of its early goofiness with occasional dashes of searing emotion. No matter how annoying Zach Braff gets as a public persona, I will always laugh at J.D. and his gleefully odd friendship with Turk, or his eventual return to stable romance with Elliot. The finale aired on the night of a final dress rehearsal for the one play I directed in college that suffered through a laborious tech week. After the run finished for the night, I stayed up to put finishing touches on the set, run through the sound and light cues again, and then went upstairs to my room around the time it was getting light outside. I knew I wasn’t going to class that day, and I needed a palate cleanser, so I watched “My Last Day” and shed a few tears as J.D. left Sacred Heart Hospital with hope for the future. The final walk out of the hospital, with Braff encountering the myriad guest stars over the years, made the room a bit dusty, but it’s the final fantasy sequence set to Peter Gabriel’s cover of The Magnetic Fields’ “The Book Of Love” that never fails to get me. I know Scrubs isn’t a great show, but it gave me so much joy during its run that I was completely satisfied when the show managed to stick the landing—at least while Lawrence was still at the helm.
Dawson’s Creek was a show I loved. It wasn’t the best show, or the most profound, but for a few short seasons it sat atop my list of pop-culture obsessions, despite (and possibly even because of) its many strangely endearing flaws. It was the type of show that burned hard and fast, and then limped to an almost-forgotten conclusion where disappointment seemed inevitable. But the craziest thing happened: The finale turned out to be one of the best episodes the show produced in its entire run, satisfying in a way that I didn’t really even think was possible. Much of this was due to creator Kevin Williamson returning to send off the characters he created in style, but the lion’s share of the success was heaped directly on the shoulders of Michelle Williams. Jen was a character long forgotten by the writers, until Williamson swooped in and gave Williams a tragic-death storyline that had the potential to be saccharine in the hands of a less-capable actress. Over the course of the two-hour goodbye, Williams proved that she should have been the focus of the show all along, turning in a gut-wrenchingly sad goodbye for Jen while still leaving the rest of her friends in Capeside a sliver of hope for their own lives. Because it’s set five years in the future it plays like its own independent movie, and it’s an episode I return to often when I need to settle in with some old television friends and have a good cry.
The seventh and final season of Buffy The Vampire Slayer reached a fever pitch in the battle between good and evil—and it wasn’t always clear who was on what side. Buffy’s grating self-righteousness came to the forefront as she readied the potential slayers for battle, Willow became so anxious about her powers that she sometimes refused to use them even for good, and Spike was such a goddamn mess it wasn’t entirely clear what he was capable of. The series could have slipped into an unpleasant or unsatisfying ending, either too neatly or too loosely tied up. But instead, even as Buffy and the gang prepared for the battle royal, the final episode served up humor, heartbreak, and—for a show that trafficked in so much suffering and despair—a surprising amount of hope. That hope comes at the expense of tremendous loss, so instead of pandering to the viewers, the episode shoves them down inside the Hellmouth before lifting them back out. As Sunnydale implodes, the potential slayers all fully realize their powers, and the survivors of the final battle take toll of their physical and emotional wounds, Dawn asks, “Buffy? What do we do now?” Buffy’s smile says it all: Anything. We can do anything.
It may not have been planned as a series finale, but I found the recent end of Bunheads to be a poignant conclusion that addressed the major themes of the show with the same breezy attitude that made me love the series in the first place. I think Amy Sherman-Palladino could have gone overly sappy with a proper finale, but instead Bunheads finished with a simple story about one of the biggest hurdles these young girls will face on their path to womanhood: sex. As the four central dancers explored their fears and anxieties regarding the increasing pressure for physical intimacy in their relationships, their teacher Michelle made her first strides toward returning to a career on stage, and rediscovered the harsh reality of the industry she left behind to become a mentor to the next generation. The episode closed the book on Michelle’s story and left her firmly planted in Paradise, taking on the role of mother for these girls who turned to her for guidance. It was just a delightful example of all the things that made the show great: strong female relationships, clever writing and direction (see: the brilliant sex-ed montage set to Patience And Prudence’s “Smile And A Ribbon”), and most importantly, the wonderful dance sequences. The ending number set to “Makin’ Whoopee” is one of my favorite TV moments of the year, showcasing the unique way this show expressed character and plot through choreography.
I don’t think a sitcom has ever ended more perfectly than Blackadder, even though it ends with every single cast member dying in battle. I’m talking about “Goodbyeee,” the last episode of Blackadder Goes Forth, the final season of the history-hopping show, which was set during World War I. Blackadder et al. have done their best to dodge serious combat throughout the season, but the show is smart enough to understand the inevitable fate that awaited most soldiers of trench warfare, and everyone finally has to go over the top for the big push. The episode is taken up with Blackadder (Rowan Atkinson’s) efforts to avoid doom, of course, but when it comes down to it, the silliness of every character is stripped away, and they run over the top together into the battlefield, the picture then morphing to a quiet field of poppies. It’s a depressing ending, of course, but it’s remarkably powerful, doesn’t feel remotely manipulative, and manages to get across the series’ central point about the ultimate futility of warfare.