Spoilers inbound. If you see the name of a TV show you don’t want spoiled then move on to the next.
Being of a long form narrative, television shows are a journey. A journey for the characters we check in with every week and also for us watching the tale unfold on the small screen. The journey should stand for itself but attention is always placed on the ending, whether fairly or unfairly, in a disproportionate amount. To use just one word that describes what I want from a final episode of a TV show it would be ‘satisfying’. Not everything has to be explained, not everything has to have definitive closure but we should feel content with witnessing the final piece of the journey, even if the journey does carry on afterward, unseen but felt. It’s a hell of a task which is much easier to miss, completely or slightly, than firmly stick the landing. Below are my top four TV series finales which managed to do the impossible and then some.
I admit, the only reason I’m doing this list is so I have an outlet to talk about the finale of The Leftovers. The series, which has once again been almost completely snubbed by the Emmys, has only just recently concluded and so it might look reactionary to place it on this list but screw it, it deserves to be on here. The episode has a completely different feel than the rest of the series and yet manages to be a microcosm of the series’ tone, themes and very nature. For the most part it’s a quiet episode which begins with Nora entering a machine that may send her to where the Departed went or be a death sentence. However we cut away to the Australian countryside just before the experimental process is completed and see a much older Nora living a simpler life. Is this the alternate dimension? Heaven? Nora’s version of the Limbo world Kevin visits? The finale keeps us guessing, especially when Kevin returns, feigning having no knowledge of his past with Nora and a character believed to be dead is shown alive. We discover it is indeed the future with the world seemingly in a better place with time healing the wounds of society but with Kevin lying to try and start his relationship with Nora over again and not screw it up this time. There is also an almost biblical trial of removing sins from a goat and I even have a theory surrounding Kitchen Roll but that’s a tale for another time. Safe to say it’s classic Leftovers culminating in the final scene as Nora tells Kevin of how she traveled to a world where 98% of the world departed, found her children but realised she didn’t belong there and returned to our world. This could be true, finally giving us an answer to the biggest question of the show, or it could be a lie. Like Kevin earlier in the episode and the Nun she works with, Nora could easily be lying, giving her and Kevin a story that delivers closure, manufactured but potent, and allows them to be with one another with the past no longer getting in their way. As they hold hands, Nora’s doves carrying messages of love finally fly home closing the episode and series that ranks among the very best ever produced. A message of love and time conquering all but still flirting with The Leftovers’ defining ambiguity.
Star Trek: The Next Generation
Sticking with an episode that uses old-age makeup, All Good Things – the finale to TNG – is the master of the retrospective series finale. It sees Picard travel between three distinct time periods: the present, the past (his first day captaining the Enterprise during the events of the pilot) and the future where the crew have gone their separate ways. Q is revealed to be the cause and is continuing his trial of the human race that he begun in the very first episode with Picard having to stop the destruction of humanity as a test to prove his race is worthy and responsible of their actions through the stars. It’s no surprise to say that he succeeds, with some classic technobabble too, and the episode manages to hit emotional heights Star Trek has rarely struck before or since. The time jumps allow us to see just how much the characters, especially Data, have evolved just like the show itself had from its lacklustre beginnings. A love letter to the series and its fans the script was actually written very quickly without much thought because writers Ronald D Moore and Brannon Braga were also writing Star Trek Generations at the same time and it’s clearly obvious that this is the better script. A huge accomplishment too is that the episode would likely have been enjoyed by Gene Roddenberry himself had he lived to see it. The episode ends with Picard joining the crew for a poker game, the first time he had ever done so which he expresses his regret at before dealing the cards and proclaiming, “The sky’s the limit”. It’s a shame the four following films dwindle in comparison.
The Office (UK)
Despite only having 14 episodes the characters of the original UK Office became beloved and there is always the temptation of continuing a show which is so popular for too long just like what the US version did. Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant however made the right call, quitting while they were ahead, and giving a perfect send off to the characters. Not only hilarious, the finale, in the form of a two-part Christmas special, underpinned everything with drama and genuine emotion as we said goodbye to Wernham-Hogg. Undoubtedly a happy ending and deservedly a bit predictable, it was pitch perfect as Tim and Dawn finally got together in one of the finest moments of TV and David Brent found love, finally told Finchy where to go and concluded the show by actually making people laugh. I love the episode, and the series, so much and while the recent David Brent movie essentially re-did the finale beat for beat in a much worse way I’ve distanced them in my mind enough so the legacy lives on.
As a journey, Mad Men is one of the best to ever grace television. For seven seasons (kind of 7 and a half) we have seen Don Draper unravel from enigma to one of the most complex characters on TV and the finale of Mad Men finally offers him what we are all striving for: self-actualisation. What this means for him and what he does next however is up for debate. While Don is the focus of the episode all the supporting characters are sent off in a beautiful montage that would feel a bit too clean if not for Don’s ending. At a spiritual retreat Don sits in the lotus position and meditates as the camera draws closer and he opens his eyes before we cut to the 1971 “Hilltop” Coca-Cola advert. Don could have reached his moment of great truth and discovered he is indeed Don Draper, an advertising executive and went on to create the advert, which is set in a similarly looking location to where Don was meditating and with similar looking people, as his ultimate achievement or he could have walked away a changed man towards new horizons. However the advert may be meant to show the cynical and exploitative nature of advertising as people’s spiritual awakening and self-actualisation is used by massive companies to sell products which has always been a theme of the show. Some say advertising was the greatest artform of the 20th century; as for the 21st I’d probably have to say television.
What are your favourite finales in TV history? Let me know in the comments and geek out with me about TV on Twitter @kylebrrtt.