“Review” is notable for delivering a final episode that that was a surprise outside the normal “this season finale is actually the series finale” way. Closing up shop on the series after just the third episode of the Season 3, “Review” captured Forrest MacNeil scrambling to find meaning in his show being canceled. For “Review,” it came at a perfect time after there were no more worlds left to conquer. You can go to space, start your own death cult, and murder someone, but there’s only so much room to go from there. Left to ponder the meaning of life without a central purpose, Forrest ended the show in the only way that he knew how, by continuing to do so. As his life continues to crumble and his office is literally dismantled around him, it’s the perfect encapsulation of what made the show such a twisted stroke of genius: Forrest’s own self-destructive doom is the only thing that made him truly happy.
There are two Joss Whedon finales on this list, and they both represent times when he felt no need to set up the series for future stories — meaning that he felt no compunction whatsoever about burning the mo-fo to the ground. Technically, the final moments of the “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” spinoff function as something of a cliffhanger, but really, it’s pretty clear that Angel (David Boreanaz) and his compatriots are in dire straits. Yet, they’re still fighting, right to the last — a perfect final note for a show that was always about how tough it can be, to keep the struggle going when the odds are against you.
The “Friends” finale may feel cliched today, but it set the standard for sitcoms built around a core romance — and none of the show’s imitators or spiritual successors have done it better. Monica (Courteney Cox) and Chandler (Matthew Perry) finally have the baby – check that — babies (surprise!) they’ve always wanted. Joey (Matt LeBlanc) and Chandler have one last adventure with the foosball table (and new chick and new duck). Though none of the ensemble gets short shrift, everything pales in comparison to Ross (David Schwimmer) and Rachel’s (Jennifer Aniston) will-they-or-won’t-they conclusion. It’s not that they end up together. It’s not that they save the final decision until the very end. It’s that writers David Crane and Marta Kauffman stage a romantic, surprising, and emotionally authentic scene to amp up the humor and tension of a decade-in-the-making moment. Ross would never know what he had to do until the last second, and Rachel deserved more than forcing the issue (yet again) herself. He made the gesture, and she made the choice. He drove to the airport (OK, Phoebe did), and Rachel got off the plane. It may feel familiar now, but you still feel every second of the finale. It works, and it works beautifully.
13. “The Shield”
Punishing and fitting in equal measure, “Family Meeting” delivered a humiliating blow to its main character just by relegating him to a desk job. In an ironic turn of events, Vic Mackey was given immunity, but his friends ended up either dead (including Shane Vendrell in one of the more difficult to watch scenes of the series) or in jail, and his family left him for witness protection. He didn’t even get to say goodbye to his children. For Vic, this was a fate worse than death. Utterly alone and broken, he was taken off the streets on which he thrived and forced into a suit that made him look small. You almost feel bad for him until you realize he deserved every bit of that punishment, and therein lies the tragic brilliance of the series finale. For a show so built on suspense, action, and momentum to end with silence was a gutsy move, but it was thoroughly satisfying in its own unique way.
Bloody, bold, and unbelievably twisted, “The Wrath of the Lamb” was the epic ending that the show may not have deserved (because we all know it deserved a Season 4), but nevertheless satiated fans’ appetites. The majority of the episode is delicious setup as, course after course and scene after scene, we see Will (Hugh Dancy) put into motion a plan that will free Hannibal (Mads Mikkelsen) temporarily in order to be used as bait to catch Dolarhyde (Richard Armitage).
The rich, lip-smacking main course, however, is the final rooftop confrontation in which we see Will and Hannibal work in concert to take down their common foe, the one who would keep them apart. It’s only because of the intimacy of their bond and their macabre mental connection that they’re able to triumph…. together. Their weary and blood-soaked embrace is as much about affection as it is acceptance. “See, this is all I’ve ever wanted for you, Will… for both of us,” says Hannibal, summarizing the murder husbands’ push and pull over the seasons. And speaking of, one last pull sends the duo over a cliff to an uncertain fate. While the post-credits coda (or dessert) features Du Maurier with her severed leg served up, glistening and golden from roasting, it’s implicit who might be joining her to share in the most personal of repasts, if only in spirit.
Answers are often sought, even if they’re not what’s needed. “Rectify” opened on Daniel Holden (Aden Young) being released from prison after 19 years on death row. There was just enough new evidence to get him out, but not enough to say he positively didn’t kill Hanna Dean nearly two decades prior. So for four beautiful seasons, Daniel and his family wrestled with the ramifications of his time in captivity, his questionable reputation (and mental state) upon release, and, yes, the question of whether or not he really did do the deed. (He was too messed up to remember what happened himself.) The finale didn’t offer any concrete solutions; it didn’t reverse the restrictions that came before and give Daniel some inexplicable moment of clarity. It did something even more miraculous. In the final hour, Ray McKinnon’s soulful Southern series defines the souls of its characters. It makes you feel like you know each and every one of them in such a way that you can trust your own beliefs to guide you from that point forward, just as Daniel does, too. For the first time, he’s truly free. And it’s magnificent.
10. “The Wire”
Say what you will about the fictionalized serial killer arc dominating Season 5, the “Wire” finale is filled with moments (big and small) that speak to the series’ penchant for truth. Prezbo (Jim True-Frost) trusts one of his former students, Dukie (Jermaine Crawford), with money to start a new life, only to see him use it for drugs. Bubbles (Andre Royo) is skeptical of Mike Fletcher’s (Brandon Young) profile of him in The Baltimore Sun, but it forces him to recognize his own goodness, arguably saving his life (and getting him in the same room as his sister). Daniels (Lance Reddick) gets promoted to Commissioner by playing the game, only to step down from the position in standing up for his principles. McNulty (Dominic West) gets the wake he’s always had coming. Carcetti is elected governor. Spider takes over Bodie’s corner. An honorary Omar emerges. “The Wire” finale provides an ending without finality for a city in the same condition. It indicates where its characters are headed without cementing their future, just as it does for Baltimore as a city and America as a whole. Both a satisfying season ender and series finale, “The Wire” effortlessly brought together its big ideas for a close that resonates to this day. And for the record, we like the serial killer plot.
One of the more maligned final chapters in TV history, this episode doesn’t get enough credit for finding a human center in a show that had been pulled in a million different directions. “The End” built toward a heightened surreal gathering place for the many characters who had woven through the show’s six seasons. That final act of communal appreciation, before whatever comes next, may have come inside a place of worship, but it captured the idea that what gave these characters hope was faith in each other, not necessarily any specific entity or tradition. Whether tied together by divine intervention, fate, or chance, the survivors of flight Oceanic 815 were always going to be bound together, be it the characters in the show or the actors who played them on screen. Gathering all of these people together — well, at least most of them — was the culmination of a season-long reunion that gave life to the idea that no matter the circumstances, some unifying force would find a way to bring loved ones and compatriots together in some way after life on Earth. It might be overly sentimental, and it might not be a satisfying ending for those who lean more towards the former part of the “science vs. faith” debate the show always engaged with. Leaving the audience as it made that final case might be the finale’s greatest weakness, but is undoubtedly its greatest strength, too.
8. “Breaking Bad”
Perhaps one of the most adeptly balanced and crafted finales ever, “Felina” brought all the closure viewers wanted while also slamming them with the emotion they needed for a truly complete experience. It was note-perfect from start to finish, even including the music, beginning with “El Paso” and ending with those last lyrics heard in Badfinger’s “Baby Blue”: “Guess I got what I deserve … /That special love I have for you/ My baby blue.”
But really, just seeing Walter White go out on his own selfish terms (he finally admitted it) in a blaze of bullets and glory, was as satisfying as one could’ve hoped for. And then the show gave fans one more high: a reprieve for Jesse after a farewell scene with Walter. It was almost, dare we say, uplifting? Detractors may not have liked everything being tied up so neatly, but to those critics, we say: