As high-profile series “The Big Bang Theory,” “Game of Thrones” and “Veep” come to an end with finale episodes that received mixed reviews from fans and critics alike, it becomes that much more apparent that the more invested someone is with a piece of programming, the more personally they will take the goodbye — for better and for worse.
Wrapping up multiple seasons of complex characters in heightened worlds that have provided escapism, or even more simply comfort and reflection, to millions around the world is no easy feat. But over the years there have been a special selection of series that more than stuck their landing, sending their stories off on a high note and raising the bar for others who were following behind. Here, Variety selects the best series finales through the years.
“30 Rock” (NBC)
“The Last Lunch” (Originally aired January 2013)
What made this series-ender so satisfying was that the show-within-the-show was also coming to an end, so the audience didn’t feel like they would be missing out on any “TGS” adventures. Tina Fey and Tracey Wigfield, who wrote the episode, packed the half-hour full of callbacks as well as perfect last moments for all of the quirky characters, from Liz (Fey) “having it all” with her kids, her husband and a new show, to Jenna (Jane Krakowski) preparing an emotional musical number, to even Lutz (John Lutz) getting a rare win and being allowed to select the lunch order. But most importantly it paid off something Jack (Alec Baldwin) had projected at the series start: that eventually everyone would be working for the former Page, Kenneth (Jack McBrayer).
“The Americans” (FX)
“START” (Originally aired May 2018)
Family or country? That was an essential dilemma in Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg’s Soviet spy drama, and after sixth seasons, the harsh truth was finally, definitively revealed. Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth (Keri Russell) made plans to leave America for the USSR with their daughter, who had become more involved in espionage as years went on, but not their son, who still remained innocent. The episode also delivered a couple of quintessential moments of truth: First when Stan (Noah Emmerich) confronted his friends, forcing Philip had to face that he was going to lose his only friend, and then when Paige (Holly Taylor) stays behind after all — and her parents let her.
“Breaking Bad” (AMC)
“Felina” (Originally aired September 2013)
Walter White (Bryan Cranston) had good motivations, but for five seasons he did some very bad things. Walter White was dying of cancer, but he was determined to go out on his own terms. That’s why, even though he lay dying on the floor after being hit by machine gun fire at the end of the drug drama, the corners of his mouth were turned up in a bit of a smirk. He did what he had to do — including getting in one last conversation with Skyler (Anna Gunn) — and he wasn’t going to wither away but rather go out in a blaze of glory. While some viewers may choose to believe he had a pulse when the police officer checked, it feels much more poignant if he does not.
“And in the End…” (Originally aired April 2009)
While often characterized as a medical procedural, it was the cast of characters that made up the fictional County General Hospital. Sure, the series finale delivered some big-deal, emotional medical cases (such as a teenager with alcohol poisoning and a HIV-positive patient who learns he also has terminal cancer), but more importantly it allowed the audience to pull up a chair as some of the most important players through the show’s 15 season run had drinks together. And of course, it wouldn’t let us forget the ones who were no longer with us, namely Mark (Anthony Edwards), whose all-grown-up daughter returned to the hospital to interview for a position and allowed everyone to linger over just how far the show had come.
“Halt and Catch Fire” (AMC)
“Ten of Swords” (Originally aired October 2017)
The AMC drama started seemingly centered on two men who were out to change the computer industry, but soon enough revealed that the women were a real driving force, too. As the show went on, it was the power of four characters that made it magical, but after losing one (Gordon, played by Scoot McNairy) earlier in the season, the remaining trio finally had to acknowledge and move on from what they once were. While it has gone unwritten as to whether they are happier and healthier characters outside of that uber-competitive world, it was nice to see them end on a high note, especially when Donna (Kerry Bishe) called out the true heart and soul of the show, her partnership with Cameron (Mackenzie Davis).
“Happy Endings” (ABC)
“Brothas & Sisters” (Originally aired May 2013)
The third season finale of David Caspe’s friendship comedy wasn’t explicitly intended to be a series finale, but the show had been on the bubble for its first two seasons, so the writer-producer was smart enough to create a close-ended story that included the modern classic hijinks for which the show had become known, such as Penny (Casey Wilson) and Max (Adam Pally) changing the news cycle with a number of rumors to keep the truth about a breakup from getting out, but ended on a much more grounded, sweet sentiment as the six main characters all simply danced with each other at a wedding.
“Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen” (Originally aired February 1983)
The war-set dramedy packed a lot into its finale, which was treated more like a film than the 256th episode of the long-running series. The dangers of the setting, such as a runaway tank and a fire from a bomb, still loomed, but there was a sense of celebration, too, that these characters had survived and could make plans for life post-fighting. It was inherently emotional when considering the weight of their professions and what they had overcome (in the final episode alone Hawkeye, played by Alan Alda, still hesitated over a procedure before completing it successfully), but seeing the literal goodbye message, spelled out in rocks, left for Hawkeye as he choppered out was instant tear bait.
“The Last Newhart” (Originally aired May 1990)
For a writer to say “it was all a dream” at the end of a story an audience invested a lot of time and emotion in is usually considered a cop out. But maybe that’s because no one can do it as cleverly as Bob Newhart. At the end of his second self-titled sitcom, his character awoke in bed after one such crazy dream — but he found himself in Dr. Bob Hartley’s bedroom (from Newhart’s first self-titled sitcom, “The Bob Newhart Show”) and the wife laying next to him was Emily Hartley (Suzanne Pleshette). It rendered everything that had happened for eight seasons on “Newhart” just the stuff of his sleeping subconscious, but it paid off for his long-time fans in a completely unexpected way and ended up serving as an extra finale for “The Bob Newhart Show,” too.
“Nurse Jackie” (Showtime)
“I Say a Little Prayer” (Originally aired June 2015)
After seven seasons, viewers should have known that the titular Jackie (Edie Falco) was not going to change her ways — that she did not want to, and wanting to get better is the first step in a true road to recovery. In the end, although Jackie’s life appeared to be on an upswing with a new job at a different hospital, she did not ask for the help she needed and instead went back for one more fix — one that presumably was her last. The end of series saw Jackie ODing and her surrogate daughter Zoey (Merritt Wever) repeating Jackie’s own words to her. The most optimistic people might believe the flutter of movement on Falco’s face was a sign of life, but in some ways that ending would be even more tragic, as it’s clear the cycle would more than likely start all over again.
“Parks and Recreation” (NBC)
“One Last Ride” (Originally aired February 2015)
The two-part ending flashed into the future for each one of its core characters to provide them — yes, even Jerry (Jim O’Heir) — with the positive trajectory they all deserved after spending so many years in the thankless job of civil service. But most importantly, it followed Leslie Knope’s (Amy Poehler) political rise, as she began simply by getting a swing fixed much quicker than she was able to get a park built, then becoming governor of Indiana and eventually, as implied by the Secret Service agents around her in the final scene and the hope in the audience’s heart, President of the United States of America.
“Six Feet Under” (HBO)
“Everyone’s Waiting” (Originally aired August 2005)
In the days of reboot culture, finale episodes are never so finite as to literally kill all of its characters, which made Alan Ball that much more of a risk-taker and a visionary. Although the episode opens with birth, in the final minutes it flashes forwarded through quick milestone events in all of the main characters’ lives, ending on each of their deaths. The deaths weren’t really peaceful — Keith (Mathew St. Patrick) was shot and both David (Michael C. Hall) and Rico (Freddy Rodriguez) had heart attacks — but they were each beautiful in their own ways, starting with Ruth (Frances Conroy) passing surrounded by loved ones, and ending with Claire (Lauren Ambrose) passing similarly, with photos of the whole Fisher clan.
“The Wire” (HBO)
“30” (Originally aired March 2008)
If you look for your television series finales to be tied up neatly in a bow, this is not the one for you. That commitment to verite, however, was what made the series so groundbreaking; the final moments couldn’t be any different. Sure, some characters’ arcs were left in transition, such as Tommy Carcetti (Aidan Gillen) becoming the governor and Ellis Carver (Seth Gilliam) getting promoted to lieutenant; and yes, there was at least one potential happy ending with Bubbles (Andre Royo) getting clean. But add in the next generation following in Bubbles’ footsteps of addiction and it’s clear David Simon drove home that there is still a lot of mess in the world and what one considers victories are greatly influenced by one’s perspective on justice. It certainly was not the most upbeat of endings, but it may have just been the one that made audiences reflect the most.
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