Staff Inquiry: Best TV Series Finales

Often one of the stranger episodes of a series, the ending of a TV show is difficult to manage because it goes against what the medium does best. These are serialized stories, structured to go on and on even as minor and major arcs get wrapped up. How, then, does one put a final bow on something that by design always teases what’s coming next? We’re just supposed to be happy when it suddenly stops?

The difficulty of finding a satisfying ending combined with the long-term investment you bring to a show makes the few who do wrap up cleanly all the more sweet, so this month for our Staff Inquiry, we’re highlighting some of the series that left us feeling just right.

Stephanie Archer – Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003)

Staff Inquiry: Best TV Series Finales
Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) – source: The WB/UPN

A series is as good as its conclusion. When someone asks you if they should start watching a series, if the finale is bad, you let them know. Nothing angers a devoted fan more than a poorly executed conclusion to the series they have loved.

There have been many throughout the ages that are good, but nothing tops Josh Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer – a conclusion that leaves the viewer satisfied while launching continuing adventures in a different medium. Buffy’s series finale brings a conclusion to each and every one of its characters – even old favorites returning for one last reunion (Angel!). While some may not have survived the battle, there is a tension in not knowing who will make it to the end. Even Buffy seems on the chopping block.

There is a tension and relief, a crescendo that has been building since the series first premiered in 1996. What really stands out is the elevated sense and showcase of female empowerment. Buffy the Vampire Slayer had always been known for its female empowerment, a teenaged girl chosen to fight the vampires and demons. Yet, as she fights the forces of darkness, she is the leader and the strength. With the finale of Buffy, she is no longer just the chosen one. Instead, she chooses to use her power to strengthen and empower the women around her. Where she was given the strength to stand and lead, to fight back against those who would oppose her, now so too can all those girls, teenagers, and women who may not have been chosen to do so before. Buffy changes the rule, the dictation of men. “From now on every girl in the world who might be a slayer, will be a slayer. Every girl who could have the power, will have the power. Can stand up, will stand up. Make your choice. Are you ready to be strong?”

Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s final moments are epic and unforgettable. As the curtain closes on the Scooby gang one last time, there is a desire for more but a feeling that you can finally let Buffy rest. For a series that had always pushed the envelope, embraced artistic creativity and promoted progression, as we say goodbye to our beloved brand of fighters, you will find yourself mimicking their final words: “What are we going to do now?”

Lorna Codrai – 12 Monkeys (2015-2018)

Staff Inquiry: Best TV Series Finales
12 Monkeys (2015-2018) – source: Syfy

12 Monkeys, the Terry Matalas/Travis Fickett helmed project based on Terry Gilliam’s 1995 film of the same name flew relatively under the radar during its four-season run from 2015–18. However, the time-travelling show is one of the greatest — and most criminally underrated — sci-fi series of all time. Aaron Stanford steps into Bruce Willis’ shoes as James Cole, a scavenger who travels back in time to stop a deadly virus that will end the human race. Amanda Schull is Dr. Cassandra Railly, a virologist in the present day and the key to discovering the plague’s origins.

Time travel is a tricky thing. Finales aren’t easy either. But a time-travelling finale? How on earth do you close every loop, while still maintaining the integrity of the series, and satisfy audiences? Season four, its last season, was extraordinarily complex in terms of plot structure and character development. 12 Monkeys was a blink-and-you-miss-all-the-information type of show. You had to pay attention, but the pay off was worth it.

Its two-part finale, The Beginning Part 1 and Part 2, was an adrenaline-fuelled, emotional roller coaster. Every circle was complete, every character had their moment in the sun, but, in the end, it was all about Cole and Cassie. The two that started it all, and it was glorious. The complexity of the writing is just awe-inspiring. This is not a series to watch once, it’s not possible. It burrows away into your brain and demands a second, hell even a third, viewing to catch every detail and clue. The finale is flawless but so is the entirety of the show. There are very few series I would call perfect, but 12 Monkeys is among them. I just wish more people had seen it.

Jesse Nussman – The Sopranos (1999-2007)

Staff Inquiry: Best TV Series Finales
The Sopranos (1999-2007) – source: HBO

It feels slightly ironic to think of the divisive finale of The Sopranos as the best in TV history. That’s because it’s a criticism, a middle finger if you will, to the very idea of a finale as “important.” One of the discouraging and depressing aspects of TV discourse has been the emphasis on sticking the landing, a notion that the finale recalibrates our perception of a series legacy. It’s a viewpoint that places unnecessary pressure on a show’s final moments while discounting the very thing that made us fall in love in the first place, the ever-evolving narrative, playful digressions, and relationships with characters.

By the time The Sopranos enters its final minutes, as Tony Soprano and his family gather at Holston’s diner for some onion rings and Journey jams, a mob war has broken out, and several members of Tony’s crew have been killed in the process.

Creator David Chase understands that his groundbreaking mob series could only end one of three ways:
Tony lives.
Tony dies.
Tony gets arrested.

But, instead of showcasing any of these outcomes, Chase cuts us to black. It’s a jarring, disorienting moment, one which left many viewers at the time wondering whether their television sets had broken. However, this allows Chase to push back against the pressure put upon his series’ final moments. Those last seconds shouldn’t determine how years of material is remembered. After all, we all know it could only end three ways.

Manon de Reeper – Battlestar Galactica (2004-2009)

Staff Inquiry: Best TV Series Finales
Battlestar Galactica (2004-2009) – source: Syfy

I know this might be a slightly controversial pick, as the ending of Battlestar Galactica is/was a hotly debated one, many complaining about the Deus Ex Machina ending, preferring a big battle, bla bla bla, and I feel like I’m in the minority of folks who loved the ending, exactly because of those complaints. Battlestar Galactica, a sweeping, epic sci-fi, touched upon themes of religion, AI sentience, civil rights, the war on terror, and was incredibly critical of the war and occupation of Iraq at the time; the creators were overly clear about this fact and even purposefully recreated the Abu Ghraib scandal within the story.

While the show premiered with an epic battle against the Cylons (a sentient race of robots and android, created by humans) and was largely about that war in the first 2.5 seasons, the show later developed into something more metaphysical and philosophical. It more often debated humanity’s origin and purpose, as well as the consequences of having near God-like power in creating other sentient beings, and there were far fewer big explosive battle scenes as the show progressed. In my opinion, it was par for the course that the show would have a smaller, more meaningful ending, one that had a forewarning tone about our own future. It touched me very deeply and to this day, it’s the finale I remember best, and most fondly.

Battlestar Galactica ended after only 4 seasons. The show was followed up by a spin-off series, Caprica, as well as a number of miniseries, as the expansive BSG universe had so much more to offer. While writing this, I found out that a straight-to-web reboot of the show was ordered by NBCUniversal in 2019, produced by Sam Esmail. I am so in!

Kristy Strouse – Six Feet Under (2001-2005)

Staff Inquiry: Best TV Series Finales
Six Feet Under (2001-2005) – source: HBO

There are a lot of fantastic finales, so it is challenging to choose just one to write about. Six Feet Under is one of many amazing HBO series, one I fear that gets lost in the mix sometimes, but shouldn’t. This show deserves to be appreciated. It starkly confronts the things we often are too scared to acknowledge in a beautiful, funny and truthful way. It combines dark comedy with real dramatic, family dynamics, all set within the conceit of a family-owned funeral home.

Creator Alan Ball delivers a finale “Everyone’s Waiting” worthy of the Fisher family, giving us the perfect close to the show. The ending is much like the beginning, full of life, love, and especially loss. After the death of one of their family members, the final episode has those left coping in their own way, reconciling their past traumas, while also taking steps towards their future. All of the Fishers, and other integral characters throughout, all get a close here that shakes them out of their usual choices (often self-destructive ones) and yet complement their story. All of the acting, which has always been incredible, is truly amazing in this last hour, especially that of Lauren Ambrose.

With keeping to the structure of the show and capturing death in its various forms, we gain closure to our cast. In the final heartbreaking five minutes, as Claire drives across the country starting a new journey, we see flashes of the future to Sia’s “Breathe Me.” In startlingly moving contrast, it is an ending that perfectly encapsulates what Six Feet Under worked to accomplish, while cutting any loose ends. It’s heartbreaking, resonating, and ultimately aptly fitted to the show and its intent: We all die, but we are also unique in our lives and those we love. There are imperfections in the execution, but the feelings and artistry (for which there are many of) overwhelm that. Well done, Six Feet Under, your finale is truly standout.

Jake Tropila – The Shield (2002-2008)

Staff Inquiry: Best TV Series Finales
The Shield (2002-2008) – source: FX Network

When it originally premiered in 2002, The Shield quickly became the breakout television series for up-and-comer station FX. Shot in a gritty, handheld aesthetic and leaning into more explicit content (with strong violence, language, and drug use), what really separated this police procedural from its predecessors was its compelling central character, Detective Vic Mackey. Brilliantly portrayed by Michael Chiklis, Mackey was the corrupt leader of the LAPD Strike Team, a crew that was not above robbing drug dealers, planting evidence at crime scenes, and even beating confessions out of suspects. Mackey was akin to an unleashed pit bull while on the job but was also a fiercely devoted family man, one who would do anything for the well-being of his wife and kids. It was this precarious balance that always made the series fascinating to watch.

If you have not yet seen The Shield and are interested in doing so, please stop reading now, as massive spoilers lie ahead. Okay? Okay.

“Family Meeting,” the title of the final episode and the greatest season finale ever, hits like a freight train. After seven seasons of illicit policework, Mackey’s past (which includes the murder of a fellow cop) finally catches up to him, resulting in half of the Strike Team dead, the rest imprisoned, and his family separated and placed into the Witness Protection Program. Mackey himself doesn’t go down in a blaze of glory; his downfall is more of a ritualistic disembowelment, finding the disgraced former detective stuffed into a suit and tie and placed at a menial desk job for the remainder of his police career. It’s a fitting end to a series that has cherished potent storytelling and characterization for its entire run and has influenced a plethora of shows about anti-heroes in the process.

And that Concrete Blonde song that plays over the final montage is perfect.

Emily Wheeler – Futurama (1999-2013)

Staff Inquiry: Best TV Series Finales
Futurama (1999-2013) – source: 20th Century Fox Television

This is a bit of a cheat, because I’m going with the first series finale of Futurama, “The Devil’s Hands Are Idle Playthings”. Futurama, as you may recall, is one of those series that was revived after years off the air, and despite its second run giving fans a decent return to the bumbling but lovable crew of Planet Express, nothing can compare to the perfect note that the series hit with its first exit.

Instead of wrapping up every loose end, the episode focuses on the long-gestating romance between Fry and Leela, with Fry making one last foolhardy attempt to win her over. He makes a deal with the Robot Devil (a riotously funny recurring character) to switch hands, allowing him to write an opera documenting his love. Through a series of tricks, the Robot Devil messes up his plan (he’s a devil, after all), culminating in a literally operatic musical number.

Without getting in the way of a standalone episode, “The Devil’s Hands” hits on many of the things the series does best: lightning-fast jokes, a mix of high- and low-brow references, and a sneaky amount of heart. For a series about a bunch of misfits, the joy was always in seeing them come together, and the ultimate ending of Leela and Fry’s relationship, while not cloyingly simple, is every bit deserving of its grand final number.

And it teaches you the definition of irony, so it’s educational too!

Tynan Yanaga – M*A*S*H (1972-1983)

Staff Inquiry: Best TV Series Finales
M*A*S*H (1972-1983) – source: 20th Century Fox Television

There was formerly a day when TV shows just ended unceremoniously without great pomp & circumstance. They were totally episodic rather than serialized. Now the industry is saturated with so many epic grandstanding final episodes, it’s even more difficult to deliver the goods since expectations run so high.

However, if there’s one definitive case of a show ending on a spectacular and fitting denouement, it would be M*A*S*H’s “Goodbye Farewell and Amen,” the granddaddy of all television finales. It’s no fluke that for many years it held the greatest viewership on par with the Super Bowl. It has the scale of a film, running well over its typical 30-minute format, and it crams in all the creative minds who made M*A*S*H a feast of both wit and humanity. It’s ripe with so many storylines and yet each one strikes its note perfectly, reminding us how personal, even intimate, this show was at its very best.

To be honest, it’s been a while since I’ve seen the episode in its entirety, but there are recollections – these very palpable feelings I carry with me. What’s more, we are continually reminded of the tragedy of war – that is loss – and how it affects so many people in a myriad of ways, whether physically, psychologically, relationally, etc. No one is left unscathed. To evoke one of Father Mulcahy’s most poignant lines, “How could anybody look upon it and not feel changed?”

Because goodbyes are hard even when it means leaving a place you loathed and closing the book on an enervating police action. However, amid all the horrors and daily drudgery, the relationships were all the more profound. And so when buddies bid farewell with tears and laughter, we resonate with the moments. Not only since we’ve experienced the same, but the members of M*A*S*H became our friends too. That’s the beauty of it.

That’s it, our favorite TV finales. What are yours?

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