7. “Twin Peaks”
Back when viewers first thought the show had ended in the ‘90s, “Twin Peaks” had left on a massive cliffhanger, and the film follow-up “Fire Walk With Me” unfortunately didn’t really wrap things up. As for the Showtime revival’s finale, well, it didn’t really bring the expected closure either. But when did David Lynch and Mark Frost do anything that was expected?
What the show’s return did accomplish, however, was balance some of the more traditional narrative elements — solving the mystery of a missing woman and vanquishing a foe — with a full-fledged plunge into a freaky but consciousness-expanding adventure that undid everything that came before. The creation of a new timeline posits that the reality we once knew itself might have been just one conceivable outcome. And yet, despite the nightmarish last note, the series ended with hope because of the very fact that it upended the formula of what we thought was possible.
It’s a satisfying end in that we can imagine these characters living on, continuing their journeys on a plane that we may not see, but trust is out there. When Agent Cooper says, “We live inside a dream. I hope I see all of you again. Every one of you,” we can take comfort in that farewell.
6. “Halt and Catch Fire”
As IndieWire said in our review, there aren’t a lot of TV shows that could get away with ending on a Peter Gabriel song — especially “Solsbury Hill” — but then there aren’t a lot of shows like “Halt and Catch Fire.” Christopher C. Rogers and Christopher Cantwell’s earned the overused strumming with one of the most earnest, subtle, and human dramas ever made; so much so that the song’s original power returned in full when it closed out the show. Of course, it helped that the ending also served as a beginning, but that delicate transition demands more words than we have to spare in this blurb. So let’s just say “Ten of Swords” kept its focus on what made the series great: the people and their dreams. It hinted at what they could do without forcing concrete conclusions, as the writers recognized that dreaming is the fun part for Cameron (Mackenzie Davis), Donna (Kerry Bishe), Gordon (Scoot McNairy), and Joe (Lee Pace). All it takes an idea, and anything can spark it — even an old song heard anew.
5. “The Sopranos”
We never knew that a moment of silence could be so deafening, until Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” cut out, mid-chorus, and an entire nation leaped off the couch screaming “WHAT?” The last scene of “Made in America” changed television forever, mostly because it made it clear that television could do whatever the hell it wanted, including refuse to satisfy our expectations.
After all, going into the “Sopranos” series finale, everyone was pretty sure a bloodbath was looming, but instead “The Sopranos” defied any expectations of finality, ending with many members of Tony’s (James Gandolfini) crew compromised or worse, but the core family unit — Tony, Carmela (Edie Falco), Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler), and Anthony Jr. (Robert Iler) — still alive and together. Debate around what that ending means ebbed and flowed in the 11 years since that original airing, but one thing is for certain: “Made in America” made sure we’d never stop talking about it.
4. “The Leftovers”
It was Kevin and Nora in the end. The series began with a look at belief systems on an organizational level, i.e. through the Guilty Remnant, but it drilled deeper and deeper until it ended with a smaller and more personal note of faith. As Kevin and Nora sat across from each other at that table, the series asked us not necessarily about faith in a higher power or meaning, but rather faith in the people around us. Whether or not Nora’s story was true, what mattered was that Kevin chose to believe her. He believed in her as a human being, as a partner, as someone he could live with and fuck up with for the rest of his life. Conversely, Nora believed in Kevin, just like Laurie believed in her kids and Matt believed in Nora. “The Book of Nora” was a finale about finding connection and love in the midst of a bleak and unforgiving world, about believing in the person sitting across from you enough to simply let the mystery be. It was a finale about finally being able to take stock of your situation, look inward, and say “I’m here.” Last but not least, it was a finale about (in theory) getting Carrie Coon and Justin Theroux their well-deserved Emmys.
3. “Six Feet Under”
Some may argue that this series finale is the best of all time, and those final 10 minutes are definitely something to rave about. The rest of the episode that comes before, however, is just fine. Serviceable as it was, given that in its later seasons, the show had devolved into a joyless parade of misery for its characters. In the series-ender, the Fisher family is still in transition, grieving for the death of eldest son Nate (Peter Krause) from two episodes prior while setting up Claire (Lauren Ambrose) to seek out her uncertain future in Los Angeles.
Ah, but then we get to those 10 minutes. Those final, glorious, innovative, and devastating 10 minutes. As Claire heads West, she listens to Sia’s “Breathe Me” in a beautiful moment of diegetic synergy, which provides the soundtrack to a series of flash-forwards that reveal how the rest of the Fisher family and loved ones live out their days. While joyous milestones are glimpsed, what’s so striking are the deaths. Yes, everybody dies in real life, but rarely do we get to see how our favorite fictional characters fall victim to such a grim, inevitable fate en masse. One by one, as each familiar face goes slack, our hearts break just a little bit more. It’s as perfect a coda as anyone could’ve wished for, and it changed how viewers and the TV industry thought of what a finale could do.
2. “Friday Night Lights”
The final state championship game was unlike any other we’d seen. Instead of taking the play by play approach during the game, the episode elected to focus on the faces of the players, the coaches, and the crowd. That stylistic choice made it clear that the show was ultimately really not about football. It was about a community that banded together through thick and thin, appreciating and loving each other no matter the cost. From Julie telling her parents that they were her inspiration to Eric asking Tami to take him to Philadelphia with her, “Always” reminded us that the strengths of family and community always outweighed mere winners and losers. In the words of the immortal Coach Taylor: “Clear eyes, full hearts…eh, we’ll deal with that later.”
1. “Mad Men”
“Mad Men” is a fascinating case study in closing out a series. In many ways, Don Draper‘s world had already ended many times over by the time the show was ready to air its last episode. So instead of a final episode that focused solely on tying up loose ends or giving characters a swell sendoff, “Person to Person” was also focused on writing the prologue to a new chapter that we’ll never see: Peggy and Stan on the verge of a potential new life together, Betty with a dignified end to hers, and Sally beginning to wrestle with her teenage years born out of a pre-empted childhood. Leonard’s refrigerator speech, almost smiling through tears and gritted teeth, gave Don the chance to experience what he afforded to so many others throughout his career. As “Mad Men” had outlined so many times before, happiness and despair and want and desire are so often manufactured by people you will never meet, a creation of men who gave themselves their own collective nickname. Maybe for Don Draper, that zen smile is an elusive sense of fulfillment. Or perhaps it’s the cynical realization that his brand of bliss could be commodified on a global scale. Credit one of the all-time great TV series for giving a lasting finale where both are possible.