If there’s one thing I hate, it’s finding a spider in the bathtub. Ewww. If there are two things I hate, then the second one is a story that doesn’t have a good ending. You know the phrase, “it’s the journey, not the destination”? That’s true to an extent, but when it comes to stories, it’s not quite the whole picture. I don’t want to go all Philosophy 302 on you, but one of my favorite Nietzsche quotes is this one:
“Not every end is the goal. The end of a melody is not its goal; and yet: if a melody has not reached its end, it has not reached its goal. A parable.”
Like a great piece of music, when it comes to a long-running, beloved television show, there’s something necessary about a satisfying ending. And it’s harder than it looks. To provide a sense of completion, acknowledging the rich history of the show as well as pointing to a possible future WITHOUT making things feel too neat or contrived…well, it’s a tall order. Few shows get it right. Here are five that did.
**Spoilers, obviously, for all shows mentioned**
Star Trek: The Next Generation – “All Good Things…”
There’s a reason why so few TV shows end well. Unlike movies or books, television shows are open-ended. They end when they end, and when they end is controlled not only by the showrunners, but by the network, the ratings, and the whims of the public. It’s getting more common these days for shows to announce their own end-dates, but this a relatively new phenomenon. Most shows go until they’re no longer financially viable, and when that happens your chances of getting a satisfying ending are relatively low. Most television shows stumble to the finish line in a confused mess of sagging plotlines, creative differences, low ratings, and audience fatigue.
That’s why it’s so surprising that, hands-down, Star Trek TNG had perhaps the best, most satisfying series finale I’ve ever seen. It’s an episode that both addresses and pays homage to the past and points to a possible, but not set-in-stone future. Using the kind of device you can only get away with in sci-fi shows, Jean-Luc Picard jumps between the past, present, and future, trying to put the pieces of a Q-engineered mystery together with the fate of humanity on the line. It’s a great callback to the very first episode, where Q put humanity on trial and challenged Picard to solve a mystery to prove humanity’s worth.
The most amazing aspect of the episode, to me, is how relatively understated it was. There were no huge revelations, no twists that stood the entire show on its head. It was an episode that didn’t oversell its significance. It was very much about the characters. By seeing the show’s past, present, and possible future through the lens of Picard, we see how these important character relationships have changed, and more importantly, where they might go from here.
Of course, they end with the poker scene. The beauty of that scene is that, while it was hugely memorable and highly effective, it was understated. They didn’t need to make a big deal of it. It was just the crew sitting down to play their weekly game of poker, like they always do, and their Captain joining them, musing that he should have done this a long time ago. The significance of the moment carries itself. And it hits the show’s central themes of friendship and comradery as its final note, not indulging in some epic space battle or scenery-chewing speech. Rather, letting the characters go out on a comfortable, warm note. A truly brilliant series finale.
The Office (US version) – “Finale”
(Embedding disabled, watch here.)
I know, I know. Everyone gave up on The Office sometime around Season 5. Can you believe this show lasted 9 freaking seasons? And boy, did it go through some rough patches. In a previous article, I pinpointed the exact episode that The Office jumped the shark, effectively killing it as a viable TV series for me. So how can I say now that it had a brilliant finale?
Because it did. I suspect in ten years when we look back, historically, at all the things The Office did right (and did first), the obvious inconsistency and sometimes whiplash-inducing mood swings will be smoothed over in our minds. For all its flaws, this show had heart, and “Finale” perfectly encapsulated the sometimes frustrating, sometimes eye-rollingly mawkish, but ultimately endearing tone of the show.
You had Erin meeting her birth parents (Joan Cusack in a pretty decent cameo), Jim and Pam finally resolving their legitimately painful and tense relationship issues, Dwight finally acknowledging Jim’s status as a friend by firing Jim and Pam out of friendship so they could enjoy a nice severance package (a perfect Dwight moment if there ever was one), the return of Ryan Howard (his scene where he and Kelly abandon the baby is a perfect example of that mood whiplash where you go, “wait, what?”). But the real heart of the episode was this scene.
For better or worse, The Office was all about Steve Carell. Personally, I think the inherent childishness of his character, combined with his stupidity (the level of which seemed to vary episode to episode, and sometimes was so over-the-top as to be painful) made him an untenable lead character. He was much better suited for the background, the quick hit, the big moment. And here, at the very end, boy did they figure out how to use him right. This is why television can be the most powerful medium. No other place do you have stories that go on for this long. There are some book series that rival 10+ seasons of television, but not many. The sheer weight of these characters, the amount of time we’ve spent with them, makes moments like the above possible, and amazing.
Friday Night Lights – “Always”
Because in the end, even though it was the glue that bound every character together, the game of football itself wasn’t even that important. You would expect the last game of the last episode of the last season, the State Championship, in a show that’s ostensibly about football and references football in its title, to be the definition of epic. To take 15 minutes and show highs and lows, dramatic, tension-filled plays and heartrending halftime speeches. That’s what a good show would do.
But Friday Night Lights isn’t a good show, it’s a great one. Instead of the expected showdown, the final game is soft, removed. The soundtrack is the only audio, and its languid pace sets the distant, almost ethereal tone. As the final, game-deciding pass floats through the air, you get a long shot of almost every character’s reaction, the pass coming down…and then a cut to six months later. Because in the end, it wasn’t about the winner of the game. The show is taking a step back from football, widening the lens. Because the stakes of the episode are more personal, and yet more dramatic than the outcome of the football game. That game takes a backseat to Coach Taylor and the titanic, sea-change of a decision he has to make about the future of his family. Coach Eric Taylor and his wife, Tami, had one of the most realistic portrayals of a working marriage on television, and what more could you ask from a show like this one than to highlight that strength in the last episode?
Of course, the show tells you who won not by saying it, but by quick flashes of the Lions’ state championship rings. It’s the classy way to do it. And there’s the obligatory closing montage. Every character gets a beat, and there’s a sense of resolution without the feeling that things ended too neatly or perfectly or unrealistically. Things change, things stay the same. There’s a shot of the Panthers practicing, and damn it if Buddy isn’t there on his damn golf cart, just like in the first episode. Even with how much he’s changed as a character, there’s a sense that the town itself is a character, that the inertia of its traditions and way of doing things have a life of their own. That things will continue, off-screen, even after we, the audience, have parted ways and moved on. And that, ladies and gents, is how to do a moving series finale.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer – “Chosen”
For a series as fundamentally campy as Buffy, damn did the show have some heart-wrenching moments. Say what you want about some of the choices made in the later seasons, but I believe that fundamentally, start to finish, Buffy was always the show it wanted to be. You can’t say that about a lot of television. Joss Wheadon had a message, damn it, and he stuck to it. If it got a little garbled at some points, if the characters lost their way, well, it’s unfortunate, but understandable. Any show longer than a few seasons is going to have its rough patches.
The last episode, “Chosen,” was the rare finale where the expected felt inevitable and yet so, so right. There’s no subversion of tropes here: it’s an epic, balls-to-the-wall, scenery-chewing showdown from start to finish. There’s the highs and lows of battle, the unexpected character death, the heroic sacrifice, and the gallows humor. Everything you’ve come to expect from a Final Battle ™. It’s the execution that makes it so powerful, though. Buffy, as frustrating a character as she can be sometimes, is purely herself in the finale. She’s everything you want from a female action hero. She’s spunky, but vulnerable. Passionate, but clever. She gets her moments of almost ditzy comedy that are so uniquely her, and she gets to give the Big Speech:
* apologies for the quality. Searching for any kind of Buffy videos gets you 10,000 horrible “two characters set to sappy music” montages for every 1 actual scene.
Engineering a moment like that takes a lot of skill, especially for it to come off as well as it does. And as for the other characters… well, they get their moments in the sun, as well. Of course no one has a “moment in the sun” quite like Spike. No matter what you thought of the incredibly screwed-up relationship between Spike and Buffy, you can’t tell me it wasn’t a perfect moment, absolutely true to their characters, for things to end the way they did. Spike, staying behind to be stupidly heroic and sacrifice himself. Buffy, thanking him in only way she knows how: “I love you.” To which Spike responds, in a moment so perfectly him that you can’t help but choke up: “No, you don’t. But thanks for saying it.”
Firefly – “Objects in Space”
I can hear your screams of indignation. Of all the TV shows there, you know, are, how could this one end RIGHT when it ended so WRONG? And by that, I mean because it ended at all, when it did. Yes, the unjust cancellation of Firefly is a wound that will never heal in the pop culture psyche, and rightly so.
But if it had to end, it absolutely ended on the right note. “Objects in Space” is a tour-de-force. This is what sci-fi can do for you, folks. You can take a concept as existential as “do physical objects posses the qualities we imbue them with?,” give it a physical manifestation, both light and dark, in enigmatic, deadly, flower child River Tam and sociopathic, bounty-hunting Jubel Early, put the crew on a space ship – confined, close quarters, nowhere to run! – and watch the tension ratchet itself up to insane levels.
There’s a sensuality to the episode, a very definite and pervasive focus on things, and people, and the differences (are there any?) between them. Each character is confronted, in their own way, by Jubel, and while ostensibly he’s there to collect a bounty, what he’s really doing is putting a mirror in front of the cast and saying, “Okay, who are we? What kind of day has it been?” Beneath the overt plot is a “taking stock” of where the series has come in its brief, glorious run. Persistent themes are brought to the surface – Book’s mysterious past, Simon ‘growing up,’ Mal and Inara’s comedy-of-errors (and stubborn wills) romance. And River – the ultimate cypher. For the entire series, she’s been an enigma, incredibly helpful on rare occasions, but often a burden or a problem unto herself, her speech, goals, and worldview almost unintelligible. When she saves the day at the end of “Objects in Space,” though, she has a moment, a beat of lucidity that points to some kind of future without taking you there – something that’s a hallmark of great series finales.
Right after pulling off a double-bluff and defeating Jubel Early: (this is directly from the script)
River exits Early’s ship and pushes off, floating down toward Serenity as Early’s ship takes off Mal waits below on Serenity, catching and steadying her as she comes in reach. He holds her hands.
Permission to come aboard?
You know, you ain’t quite right.
It’s the popular theory.
Go on. Get in there. Give your brother
a thrashing for messing up your plan.
He takes so much looking after.
It’s a moment that’s almost out-of-character in its clarity, at least for River. But in the end, amongst the wrap-up surgery and good-natured banter of the crew as they wind down, there’s River, right there in the mix of it, playing a game with Kaylee. Just one of the crew. And if that isn’t a perfect end to a great series, I don’t know what is. Granted, it would have been nice if this was episode 200 instead of episode 14, but, such is life.
Shows that I’ve heard have great endings but haven’t watched:
M*A*S*H – because there are like 16 seasons and they’re impossible to find unless you buy DVDs, and who buys DVDs?
The Sopranos -
Six Feet Under – because I’ve heard that it’s good, but incredibly depressing.
Cheers – because I’ve heard it’s a worse version of Friends, and I didn’t particularly like Friends.
Newhart - I’ve heard from a few people that the finale for this is amazing. I’ve also never heard of this show. Do I just have a huge cultural blind spot, or what?
Sound off below, folks. Agree with my picks? Am I missing a great one? Should I watch those shows I’ve never seen immediately?