I don’t know if you’ve heard but a little show called Game of Thrones is coming to an end and people are just a little bit excited. Thrones has captured its audience’s attention unlike any other show in recent memory. People love to debate and celebrate HBO’s fantasy epic and now, after eight seasons, it’s wrapping things up.
Series finales are tricky. In the grand scheme of things, the majority of finales generally tend to range from “awful” to “just okay”. Most series finales just don’t satisfy viewers for a number of reasons, from a lack of closure to bizarre character choices to just a general sense of a abruptness. It ain’t easy, just ask any showunner.
But there have been some amazing final episodes over the years. Let’s dissect some that had people talking for the right reasons. There are more than just the ones I’ve listed below but this a good sampling of the series finales that had audiences applauding instead of groaning.
Some people say The Wire is the greatest American television series of all time and some people may be right. The sprawling HBO crime epic was strong throughout its entire run and even though its last season was possibly its weakest, things came together in the last episode. We said goodbye to characters but the thing that makes the Wire finale so strong is that you get a sense that they’ll all go on living their lives. That’s a key component for a proper send-off. The final episode is an ending, of course, but it also feels like a beginning for many on the show. We see them starting to take on new roles and make good and bad choices that’ll affect their futures. We may be leaving them but they will keep on surviving in the mean streets of Baltimore. Sadly we just don’t get to see them anymore. It’s a bittersweet but very real ending to a painfully real show.
The West Wing
Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing was about President Bartlet’s tenure in the White House so of course the final episode would be about his last days in office. The season preceding the finale was all about the election to choose Bartlet’s successor and the finale, titled “Tomorrow”, gives us a taste of what’s to come for the new president. Meanwhile President Bartlet makes peace with his time in Washington and looks ahead. “Tomorrow” really does feel like the end of an era, the end of a presidency you felt lucky to be a part of. It’s a comforting episode, full of people trying to do right by America and its electorate. It leaves you with hopefulness and a pang of regret that you won’t see what lies ahead for the incoming administration. Lacking any shocking twists or turns, The West Wing wraps up with a feeling of optimism, something we could desperately use in this day and age.
One of my favorite shows ever, the finale of The Shield felt less like a TV episode and more like a giant sigh of relief because the roller coaster was over. This show was always intense but the last episodes were full of more shocking moments, backstabs and reveals than all the seasons of Survivor combined. Things kept building and building and you just knew everything was going to come to an extraordinary end. Sure enough, the series finale includes some heartbreaking deaths and stunning twists of fate for certain characters. The show’s writers pulled absolutely no punches and seemingly got pleasure from the pain they were inflicting. This was worst-case scenario for many characters and fans were left speechless. When the credits ran, viewers felt the adrenaline die down and their hearts finally slow. What a ride.
You knew this one would be on here.
Perhaps one of the most controversial endings of all time, you have to admit that the series finale of The Sopranos is a spectacularly solid piece of filmmaking. Say what you want about the ending (it’s fantastic) but it guaranteed that this show would live on forever. I won’t get into it again, we all know what happens in the last scene. I almost feel like they’ll talk about this finale in history classes for years to come. To end on such an ambiguous and brave moment forced viewers to draw their own varied conclusions about the fate of Tony Soprano. So, in a way, the show has never ended. It’s revived to this day anytime people bicker about it. The ending for The Sopranos wasn’t an ending at all. It was a suitable choice for Tony, a man who learned to live on shaky ground - both physically and emotionally. The Sopranos left its main character — and audience — in eternal limbo.
Another controversial ending (no surprise that Matthew Weiner of Mad Men worked on The Sopranos) the conclusion of Mad Men was brilliant because it felt so much like a typical episode. Loose ends were tied up, of course, but Weiner and company insisted on avoiding typical finale tropes. The most talked-about moment involved Don Draper, of course, and how the show decided to say goodbye to him. The final scene and shot of the series is vague and open to MUCH interpretation. Shockingly, the series still refused to let you into Don’s mind or heart and you couldn’t tell if there was any true development in that troubled head. You leave Mad Men asking yourself if Don ever really changed at all, which is a sad question and one that is absolutely fitting for such an enigma of a character. Mad Men never compromised, even in the end.
The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien
While not a typical series finale or show, the last episode of The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien was special because it was so earnest, human and bizarre. After only a few months hosting the historic talk show, Conan was essentially pushed out by the execs at NBC. In the process of his fight with the network, O’Brien became something of a folk hero and won over the hearts of many Americans. The final episode wasn’t full of NBC-bashing though. Instead it showcased O’Brien having fun, inspiring his heartbroken audience and promising fans that he would return in one way or another. It was a news-making moment, for sure, but it was also an honest, raw look at a man dealing with a bizarre, unheard-of situation. You knew you were watching history be made during this series finale and you felt special to be a part of it.