I bet writing a TV finale is a torturous challenge. You’ve got to reward meticulous viewers without sounding like a self-indulgent prat, communicate your fondness for the show without producing fanfic, and tie up the loose ends of subplots that just take up extremely valuable space.
I started rambling about the finale of Breaking Bad, but I was making so many comparisons that I’ve decided to split this shiz up. So here are four TV finales that I think utterly succeeded, and four that could’ve done better.
Obviously this post will include the ultimate spoilers for each series mentioned.
4 OF THE BEST
Six Feet Under (2001-2005)
Many TV shows claim “life and death” among their central themes – it’s hard not to. The Wire, The Sopranos, Twin Peaks. Dick and Dom in da Bungalow. But in my opinion, Six Feet Under is the only show that successfully and empathetically explores this huge, ambitious theme.
And its final episode is the best finale of anything I've ever seen.
In the finale of Six Feet Under, literally every single one of the main characters (and there's a lot of them) dies. It's genuinely beautiful, moving, and extremely life-affirming.
Claire: "Oh, I wanna take a picture of everyone." Nate: "You can't take a picture of this. It's already gone."
Friends always got the mix of comedy and sentiment bang on. Seinfeld, while generally funnier, was unapologetically cold. Friends, in contrast, was as toasty as toasty toast-toast (shut up, it’s Monday), and the finale was a fitting and unpretentious tribute to this.
I don’t know how I feel about a female rolemodel giving up a huge career opportunity for a man, but c'mon, it’s Ross and Rachel. You rooted for them even if you hated them.
Often, when closing up shop, sitcoms are concentrating so hard on the "sit" that they forget about the "com". Friends remembered the com, and they remembered it hard. Chandler getting excited about splitting up their unexpected twins made me guffaw like a malfunctioning vacuum cleaner.
“We could give each of them half a medallion, and then years later they'll find each other and be reunited!”I loved the Friends finale. It was a hug goodbye, and with no awkward patting.
Ross: "Did she get off the plane? God, did she get off the plane?!"
Rachel: "... I got off the plane."
Yeah, it grew on me.
One of the most ruthlessly-recommissioned TV shows of all time, Lost was out of control. Although cool and absorbing at first, it essentially became nothing but a vast game of Jenga, stacking the mysteries high and occasionally pulling out one and leaving the others weaker.
It makes sense to add more and more to the mix to keep viewers enthralled (and we mostly were, to be fair, albeit with a quirked eyebrow), but eventually you have to deal with the mess you've created. And they did, with an epic finale that disappointed most fans.
The finale could have been much, much better if they'd finished the series four seasons earlier, but they didn't. The final episode did the best it could do with what it was given.
Sure there was a rather unwelcome and unwarranted religious overtone, but hey, it's America. And everything got very ethereal and mad, but hey, it's Lost. It was ethereal and mad before the end. I've grown to like the finale of Lost, and I don't think they could do better if they re-wrote it.
Jack: "She said we were leaving."
Christian: "Not leaving. No. Moving on."
Jack: "Where are we going?"
Christian: "Let's go find out."
Desperate Housewives (2004-2012)
Desperate Housewives hung on tight for eight seasons, clinging to our collective leg and howling "but I love you!" The show was always saturated with cheeky, gaudy sentiment, and always seemed so self-aware; there was no pretense about it. This, more than anything, meant it could go out on a high.
It successfully tied up a number of loose ends, and delivered a satisfying but curious twist. The heart of the series was the dramatic but unyielding friendship between the Housewives, and it seemed that the central message could be that friendship conquers all - and sure enough, in the end, the Housewives promise they will be friends forever. But wait! The finale reveals that they don't stay friends forever after all. They move on and drift apart. A movingly realistic end to a melodramatic pile of enjoyable bullshit.
"As Susan left her driveway, she had a feeling she was being watched - and she was. The ghosts of people who had part of Wisteria Lane were gazing upon her as she passed. They watched her as they watched everyone always hoping the living could learn to put away rage and sorrow bitterness and regret. These ghosts watch, wanting people to remember that even the most desperate life is... oh... so wonderful."
4 OF THE WORST
The IT Crowd (2006-2013)
Four naturally funny lead actors and one completely silly writer made for a really fun show. But I was hoping for more from the finale.
The Guardian insisted that the IT Crowd went out on a high, but it didn't really go out at all. It ended with a gag disguised as a situation; the IT department swap places with the boss (because reasons) and lead Reynholm Industries to a golden age. Oh yeah, whyzat? Doesn't make any sense. And sure it's a pretty surreal sitcom, but psh, that's not a get-out-of-jail-free card.
There are many reasons to laugh at something - one of those reasons is because it's funny. Another is to show that you understand an in-joke. This final episode was full of in-jokes. That's why we were laughing. It wasn't funny.
Graham Linehan: "Let's just stop."
The final episode of Dexter was truly bad - just like the rest of it. The first couple of seasons of the show were curious and a bit thrilling, but if the point was to get better, the other five seasons were in vain. I watched every single episode. Why?! I literally have no idea. I think it's just because I'm a completist - I had to see it through to the end. We're all so ashamed. I can see it plastered all over the internet.
Dexter is about a vigilante serial killer who hides his bloodlust from his loved ones. In the end, he becomes a lumberjack. He just does.
If we want to be a bit intelligent about it, we could say that Dexter's fate was what he deserved - to dwell alone forever, in misery and shame, hating himself. But this show was never intelligent. It was always stupid. Just stupid. So give us a stupid, simple, satisfying ending - he kills himself because he kills evil people.
The list of what was wrong with this finale is so long that it's pointless to provide it. I've seen blogs that have reviewed every episode of Dexter except the finale, such is the dizzying level of disappointment. Some argue that the final episode asks a lot of questions, but I think the only one that matters is "why did we ever watch this tripe?"
True Blood (2008-2014)
Okay, I'm a cheeky bastard for this, but now that the date for True Blood's final season has been set, I'm going to pre-emptively say that the finale will be disappointing. This fun and bloody tale of vampires and morons has had its moments, but recently it's been like milk that's gone off but people keep drinking it because they think it still might be okay but it's not really and...
Anyway, True Blood has become so bad that no possible finale can be satisfying. No matter who dies, or transforms, or has a revelation. No matter who ends up with whom, or what mythical twists they chuck in at the end. True Blood is doomed to disaster.
And, like a moron, I'll be watching. Maybe it's in the hope that I'm wrong. Or maybe it's just because I really am a moron.
Breaking Bad (2008-2013)
Shh, this is delicate. Breaking Bad was brilliant from its first thirty seconds. A dark, intelligent story of corruption so compelling that it won the 2014 Guinness World Record for highest rated TV show ever.
The finale had that to live up to. It doesn't feel right to call it a "disappointment" - it was a magnificent episode - but it shone a little less brightly than the episodes before. That's what happens when your expectations are higher than a drug reference.
Breaking Bad has always been heavily subtle (if that's not an oxymoron), but the finale was a bit on the nose. "Live free or die" says the car's numberplate. "I guess I got what I deserved", croons the soundtrack.
And then there was Lydia's death. I loved figuring it out on my own. Minutes before the end of the episode, I asked myself "but what about Lyd- OH". It was a stroke of genius.
And then they saw fit to explain it with a phone call. "I've poisoned you", explains Walt. "We know", replies the audience with a sigh.
I apologise for this comparison, but some of that was about as subtle as a Dexter voiceover.
And it doesn’t help that creator Vince Gilligan admitted to the arbitrary nature of some of the decisions. Walt left Jesse’s watch behind to avoid a continuity error. And Jesse was to never kill anyone again, but he killed Todd because moo.
Speaking of Jesse... poor, poor Jesse. He's freed from his tragic enslavement as a meth cook; but only to flee with a roar of manic laughter. He's not laughing because he's happy to be free of Heisenberg or death. He's laughing because he's broken. His loved ones are dead - apart from an orphaned boy whom he has no right to stay in touch with. The moment we "imagined" him sweetly submerged in carpentry, we realised; Jesse is finished. He's not dead, but he's finished. Episode after episode he's been tortured. Series after series. And for what? His torment never ended; it just peaked and then he was cut loose just before the credits rolled one final time.
Walt, the man who did this to him, has a kinder end. He torments his arch-rivals into getting his drug money to his family, and then – quietly triumphant – he dies surrounded by reminders of the empire he cherished.
The final Breaking Bad episode was one of the best episodes of anything I've ever seen on TV. But, absurdly, that not quite good enough. And so prospers the curse of the finale.