The laughs, the heartbreaks, the immeasurable moments of joy – your favorite memories from a television show can all seem for naught if the conclusion is a dud. A finale is an occasion for spectacle. It’s the time where everything you love about a series culminates in an ultimate send-off, giving the characters one last spotlight before they’re gone for good.
We’ve all felt that moment of sheer hopelessness once a show has ended. It’s like we have no clue how to move forward anymore, but we can also feel burned if the writers leave us with too many loose ends. We’ve carefully weighed the options of every finale in television history, choosing the greatest final episodes which left their respective shows on a high note.
Not every series on this list was always at its best, but we stuck through them during thick and thin and we couldn’t be happier with the outcome. We intentionally left out shows without proper endings, meaning if the final episode didn’t wrap up the story, it won’t be featured here. So to honor the best in television, we present to you the 20 Greatest TV Finales of All Time.
20. Parks and Recreation – “One Last Ride”
The final season of Parks and Recreation pulled a gutsy move leading into the last days of Pawnee. Following a three year flash-forward at the end of season six, the show found Leslie balancing her life as a mother with her job as the Midwest Regional Parks Director. It was a bittersweet moment as audiences were finally rewarded in seeing Leslie achieve her well-earned promotion, but sacrificing a long-time friendship with fan favorite Ron Swanson in order to achieve her dream.
Going into “One Last Ride,” Leslie had rekindled her relationship with Ron, shortly before being offered another job at the Department of Interior in Washington D.C. As one last act before leaving Indiana, she rounds up her gang and goes on a mission to fix a swing set at a local park. The episode then flashes multiple times into the future to show each character mature over the years. Ron settles down as a park superintendent, Andy and April finally have children, and we’re given a slight hint that Leslie or Ben could have ended their journey in the White House. It’s a picture perfect wrap-up for the beloved characters, complete with many happily-ever-afters.
19. Mad Men – “Person to Person”
After seven smoke-filled seasons, Don Draper’s journey atop the world of advertising came to a close with a smile and a cut to McCann Erickson’s 1971 “Hilltop” Coca-Cola ad. It was a finale as fitting as viewers could have hoped for a series that had racked up so much acclaim. While Matthew Weiner ultimately left Mad Men‘s series-ending episode open for viewers, each character got their fair share of screen time to cap off their stories.
In the montage leading into the last shot, we witness everyone continuing on with their lives. Pete, Trudy, and Tammy board a plane to their new jobs working for Learjet; Joan can be seen managing her new business while Roger and Marie enjoy their honeymoon in Paris. Meanwhile, Sally has taken up the mantle as woman of the household while her dying mother Betty smokes a cigarette and Peggy is shown hard at at work. It all culminates in Don sitting in a yoga pose at a retreat before the light bulb goes off in his head. His spiritual awakening reveals itself through another sales opportunity and from his reaction we know he will return to his old ways once again.
18. Seinfeld – “The Finale”
Depending on your stance, the final episode of Seinfeld is either another stroke of genius from Larry David or an absolute travesty that doesn’t deserve any recognition on this list. While we understand that “The Finale” still manages to fall miraculously short of the series’ many highlights, we’re also inclined to agree that it’s among the best conclusions in sitcom history.
While we’ve noted the controversy surrounding the last episode in our list of “WTF” television endings, the cast was actually the ones getting the final laugh when all was said and done. In a morality play, Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer are given their comeuppance by facing the many people they’ve ridiculed in the past. By definition, the protagonists of the series were awful people who were only able to stand each other. As a form of punishment, karma catches up to them and they’re sentenced to time behind bars. While it may not have been the tone viewers were hoping for, it fit Larry David’s idea about never truly learning from your mistakes. Nothing could have been more true as Jerry continues doing stand-up from inside the prison, acting completely oblivious to his situation.
17. The Larry Sanders Show – “Flip”
Arriving before HBO became a household name in original content, The Larry Sanders Show provided the first satirical critique of Hollywood. Headed by creator and star Garry Shandling, the series focused on talk show host Larry Sanders as he ran his production from behind the scenes. Alongside his producer and mentor Artie and his announcer sidekick Hank, mostly known for his catchphrase “Hey now!”, the three dealt with the everyday interactions from the show’s staff and celebrity guests.
Inspiring the rise to fame of shows like Entourage, the series’ guest stars often played outlandish versions of themselves. Named after Larry’s phrase “no flipping”, used just before commercial breaks to prevent audiences from changing the channel, the finale embraces the end of the series by throwing one last show. When Larry realizes Jon Stewart (playing himself) is threatening to take over, he schedules a final taping. A bunch of familiar faces show up for surprise cameos as the talk show comes to a close. Of course, the entire taping turns out to be a mess, keeping in tune with the rest of the series, but the final speech provides a heartwarming moment just before the lights go out.
16. Angel – “Not Fade Away”
Although Angel occasionally gets a bad rap as the spin-off series to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, it was every bit as creative and had its fair share of defining moments to separate it from its predecessor. Unlike its sister show, however, Angel went out with an intentionally ambiguous ending that left fans itching for more.
Following the events of the episode “Power Play”, the team believe Angel may have been corrupted by the Senior Partners of the demon-run Wolfram & Hart. Convinced he’s joined the evil law firm as a member of the Circle of the Black Thorn, they question him on his recent behavior before learning he has infiltrated the group, hoping to take them down before they unleash Hell on earth.
In a pact with the team, he sends everyone on their own suicide mission to take down the members of the Circle and upset the Senior Partners’ plans. Knowing they may not make it out alive, they put their lives on the line in a final act of heroism. It all culminates in a last gathering in a darkened alleyway, as the remaining crew prepare for one last stand against Hell’s army, fully aware of the outcome that awaits.
15. Friends – “The Last One”
The heartache of saying goodbye to the cast of Friends can only be measured by the numerous moments of laughter the series gave its fans over the year. From Ross and Rachel’s breakups (They were on a break!) to Monica in a fat suit, each moment invited viewers to become part of the group. That’s why this last sit down at the Central Perk cafe felt like such a big deal to the 52.5 million watching at home.
The series wraps everything up as neatly as expected. Following their reunion in the previous episode, Ross and Rachel make amends but Rachel still decides to leave for Paris for a new job. We’re given a touching moment as Ross stops her at the airport and the couple decide to stay together. Meanwhile, Monica and Chandler adopt twins and pack up the apartment to move to the suburbs, Phoebe settles down with her husband Mike, and Joey gets a new baby chick and duck. Everyone held back their tears as the cast laid their keys on the kitchen counter of the now empty apartment before exiting the room where they had spent countless hours over the last ten years.
14. Battlestar Galactica – “Daybreak”
Before the three hour conclusion of Battlestar Galactica aired, creator Ron Moore knew there would be a fair share of disappointment. His assumption was spot on as many viewers felt the politically charged sci-fi series ended on a baffling note, but Moore was never shy about infusing his series with rich symbolism. That’s why “Daybreak,” no matter what your opinion may be, still manages to stand out as a remarkable and risky feat compared to other shows of its caliber.
From the opening mini-series, there was always a question of whether the show took place in the past or future. In the finale, we learn not only are the characters early descendants from the past, but that humankind is destined to repeat their mistakes. Promising to find Earth by the end of the series, the crew finally lands near a habitable planet to call home, abandoning their technology to start anew with the primitive humans. While questions remained about Starbuck’s mysterious disappearance, it left fans with plenty of room for speculation. In the end, the war against the Cylons held a mirror to our own society’s shortcomings, leaving us with one of the most thought-provoking shows in recent memory.
13. The Mary Tyler Moore Show – “The Last Show”
With enough spunk, charisma and endurance to go around, Mary Richards did something uncommon for ’70s sitcoms: she made it in a world full of men. The Mary Tyler Moore Show was more than a source of constant laughs, it was an indelible fighting spirit for strong-willed women in the workplace and it couldn’t have happened without its leading lady. Almost four decades after the series finale, the final episode is still a touching wrap-up for Mary and the rest of the WJM-TV family.
“The Last Show” begins with the unfortunate news that WJM’s station manager Mr. Coleman is firing a list of employees to make up for the Six O’Clock News’ low ratings. Mary is released from the station alongside her boss Lou and her co-workers Murray and Sue Ann. Huddled together for one last goodbye, Marry delivers a touching monologue to her family for the past seven seasons before finally turning the lights out on the studio and walking away for the last time. The poignancy of the final scene is only outweighed by the accomplishments of Mary, who remains one of the most important female characters to ever appear on television.
12. Star Trek: The Next Generation – “All Good Things…”
It took seven seasons, a number of accolades and an admirable performance from Patrick Stewart as the mature Captain Jean-Luc Picard, but the crew of the starship USS Enterprise finally gained enough recognition among television audiences to go toe-to-toe with Kirk, Spock, and the rest of the original series for the best Star Trek show to date. While it would be a rocky road to start, including some less than stellar theatrical outings, The Next Generation would eventually come full circle to Picard’s confrontation with Q.
Discovering that his mind is jumping between three points in time – the present (stardate 47988), six years prior (just before USS Enterprise-D’s first mission), and 25 years in the future – Picard must resolve an anomaly that could consume space and time. Over the three different time periods, Picard has to find the anomaly and fix it to prove humanity’s worth to the omnipotent Q and the Q Continuum. The story offers a look back at the seven year journey and gives us a glimpse of the years still to come. It concludes with Picard sitting down to a card game with his crew, cherishing the time he has left.
11. Friday Night Lights – “Always”
“Clear eyes, full hearts” may have been the words Coach Taylor spoke before each game, but there wasn’t a dry eye watching the finale. Going into the episode, Taylor had once again coached a winning team to the state championship, but this time the outcome wasn’t important. Friday Night Lights had always been more about the characters and it was never more evident than on the potentially gaming-winning pass. As the final throw is made, the series flashes forward days later to the lives of the cast before audiences can see what happened.
“Always” wraps up each character’s stories neatly with some futures like Tim and Tyra’s still left to the imagination, but it’s Coach Taylor who finally gets to move on. Having seen so players leave Dillon to make a life for themselves, he’s given his chance to graduate. He movies to Philadelphia after his wife Tami is offered a new job. While the East Dillon Lions would win the championship, football didn’t make up the team’s lives. It built character and it was time for all those with love for the game to learn how to apply those lessons to the real world.
10. Justice League Unlimited – “Destroyer”
Juggling an impressive cast of superheroes that spans the entirety of the DCAU is a daunting task, but doing it in a half-hour while spreading the on-screen time evenly among each protagonist is near impossible. Still, “Destroyer” manages to bring a climactic end to Justice League Unlimited while giving everyone their due, but in the end, writer Dwayne McDuffie returns the series to where it all began, with the founders of the DCAU: Batman and Superman.
When Darkseid returns with the powers of Apokolips, the Justice League have no choice but to join forces with Lex Luthor and the Legion of Doom. Everyone from The Creeper to Sinestro have their moments to shine, but the action stays focused on the Dark Knight and Man of Steel as they take the fight to Darkseid. It all culminates in the “world of cardboard” speech from Superman, delivered by the brilliant voiceover performance of George Newbern, as the Kryptonian talks about his constant fear of breaking someone with his inhuman strength before finally unleashing his fury on his opponent. It’s a showdown of epic proportions and a fitting farewell to a series that has long been considered among the finest DC adaptations.
9. The Shield – “Family Meeting”
From the moment we meet the rogue cop Vic Mackey harassing a drug dealer in the pilot for The Shield, it was clear the series finale would not bode well for the character. Always an opportunist, Vic was the definition of a despicable human being, reaping all the rewards he could get his hands on and taking every short cut imaginable. It was a slow and chaotic ride that saw the darkest corners of the police force come to light. Everything from murder to drug trafficking were added to the long list of criminal activities depicted and it all came to a head in “Family Meeting.”
Following the fallout before the finale, Vic finds himself slouched over a desk, confessing every crime he’s committed during an ICE interrogation. Now with his dirty laundry out in the open, he’s lost his family, friends, and job. Stuck behind a desk in a menial office position, he’s angered by the sound of sirens from outside. Keeping with his unpredictability, he grabs a gun from his drawer and walks out of the building as the credits start. Vic’s intentions might not have been known, but from his past actions, we can be assured his ending wasn’t a happy one.
8. Newhart – “The Last Newhart”
If you’re an avid consumer of television, chances are you’ve dreamed of starring in a sitcom like Newhart. For six years, Bob Newhart was one of the most memorable faces on the small screen as Dr. Bob Hartley on The Bob Newhart Show. When the show ended in 1978, he picked the reigns back up with a new self-titled series, taking on the role of a how-to book writer and rural inn owner in a small Vermont town.
Dick Loudon and his wife Joanna would deal with the characters of the town for the next eight years, including the inn’s handyman George Utley and the three brothers Larry, Darryl, and Darryl, who owned the Minuteman Cafe next door. But despite nearly a decade of laughs, the series is most remembered for its last few minutes. Following the purchase of the entire town by a Japaneses tycoon, Dick and Joanna find themselves the only people still sticking around five years later. After being knocked unconscious with a flying golf ball, Dick wakes up on the set of The Bob Newhart Show, revealing the entire series was nothing more than a dream, making the show the longest running gag in TV history.
7. The Sopranos – “Made in America”
Never has a finale to an acclaimed series been more divided than with The Sopranos. In fact, “Made in America” may be the most controversial finale in television history. The debate for the episode stems from how to interpret David Chase’s intentionally ambiguous last scene. In retrospect, whether the episode had you reeling from the journey or utterly confused, it fit well with the show’s experimental nature. Anyone hoping for a straightforward outcome for Tony and his family needed only to look at the character’s dream sequences in prior episodes to know the series wasn’t always so cut and dried.
The final scene at the diner unfolds much like an hallucination inside Tony’s disheveled mind, only this time the burden of interpretation is left to the viewers. For far too long, the New Jersey gangster was left looking over his shoulders, wondering about the next threat. With the final scene, he passes the torch to the audience, making them look at his surroundings from his point of view. No matter what your thoughts on the last moment happens to be, there’s no denying it was a controversial bit of television history that will be remembered for years to come.
6. Buffy the Vampire Slayer – “Chosen”
Anybody who’s ever questioned Joss Whedon’s ability to direct a blockbuster before his days with Marvel needs only to watch the series finale of Buffy the Vampire Slayer to see his genius at work.
On a not-so-big budget, Whedon was able to direct many of Buffy’s greatest hits, including “Once More, with Feeling” and “Hush”, but it was “Chosen” that took on the feel of an epic. Confronted with the threat of an evil known as The First, the Scooby Gang summons the powers of every girl with the potential to be a slayer. Tapping into their strengths, Buffy leads them to a final showdown inside the Hellmouth that lies underneath Sunnydale High.
While the last battle against the dead could be described as a hellish landscape ripped from the pages of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, it was actually the casualties that left audiences aching following the climax. As the town crumbles around them, the gang board a school bus and drive off into the sunset, stopping one last time to look back at the ruins left behind and reflect on seven seasons of memorable moments that we’re still obsessing over today.
5. The Wire – “–30–”
The title to The Wire’s series finale is a reference to a journalist term often used as shorthand to signify the end of a press release, but though David Simon’s realist portrayal of Baltimore’s drug scene was finally at its close, the lives of many of the characters were far from over.
For five seasons, the writers would keep things fresh, shifting the focal point of the series from one perspective to the next, analyzing different lives in the poverty-stricken streets of urban America. From drug dealers to children being brought up through a crumbling school system, the sprawl of the city had many stories that often went untold. The final season would show the war of drugs from the side of the reporters, giving an in-depth account of how the Baltimore Sun covered the topic while struggling to stay afloat in a digital age.
Although the send-off saw resolutions for characters like Bubbles and McNulty, others, like Dukie, were lured back in by the temptations of the streets. Little had changed for the city in its five season story and we’re left reeling over just how much corruption and murder is still going on after such a long time.
4. M*A*S*H* – “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen”
The tragedies of war were always at the heart of M*A*S*H*. Despite the many different jokes, the series’ sitcom elements were nothing more than a means to cope with all the death. For eleven years, characters came and went, but the trappings of the setting remained a constant. The series would eventually delve further into some darker themes, but the writing never became too heavy-handed, keeping viewers informed without beating them over the head with their wartime message.
During their last days with the 4077th MASH, the cast members are each given their own personal story to show the lasting effects of the Korean War, but none are greater than Hawkeye’s, who is being treated at a mental institution following a nervous breakdown. Digging deeper into his subconscious, he finally recalls the repressed memory of a refugee woman on a bus who smothered her infant child to keep it quiet. It was a low point in his life that he tried to forget, but as he finally leaves in a helicopter at the end of the episode with the words “Goodbye” spelled out in rocks below, we know the country will linger in his mind forever.
3. Breaking Bad – “Felina”
Looking back at Walter White’s gradual journey into villainy, we may not have been able to predict the outcome, but there was only ever one true resolution. Everything had been boiling over way before the finale, but the tipping point came two episodes prior, in Breaking Bad’s best episode, “Ozymandias.” Now all Heisenberg had left to do was make amends and check out with a bang.
In the closing moments of the show, we witness Walt finally coming to terms with the error of his ways, even if he’s far too removed from morality to remember how he got to the end of the road. He wraps everything up with a neat little bow, leaving his family a sizable inheritance and rescuing a captive Jesse from his Nazi captors. As police arrive on the scene, Walt passes away from a shrapnel wound in a meth lab. Laid bare on the ground, before a room of tools that ultimately began his path to greed, the kingpin leaves nothing behind but an empty legacy and a family that wishes to forget him. Some wounds take longer to heal than others, but we’re not sure the kind of bumps and bruises this memorable anti-hero left behind are the kind you ever recover from.
2. Six Feet Under – “Everyone’s Waiting”
For many of the episodes on our list, we could provide a moment by which to remember the series, but none are more tragic than the final minutes of Six Feet Under. During the series’ five seasons, we witnessed the Fishers deal with death every week at their family-operated funeral home, but leading into the finale, the family was reeling from a personal tragedy: the death of the family’s oldest son, Nate. As his ghost looms large over the business, the Fishers soon learn that death eventually comes for us all.
In a gripping montage, everyone is shown in the future as they pass away from different causes. Each moment is tragic and sometimes comical as the characters take their final breaths. Ruth dies naturally while surrounded by her children, Keith is killed in an armed robbery, and David passes away at a family picnic. It’s all juxtaposed against images of Claire, her life still ahead of her, driving to her new job in New York. The series concludes as Claire finally dies at the age of 102. Despite how bittersweet the moments are, viewers are left knowing each character had a long life past what we saw on screen.
1. Cheers – “One for the Road”
Tearful, funny, endearing – more than two decades removed from the final episode of Cheers and the series remains as engaging as ever. The bar where everybody knows your name remains the single greatest sitcom location in television history, thanks in part to the eccentric characters that frequented the establishment. With 94 million viewers watching from home, the Boston bar owner Sam Malone would open his doors one more time before making the decision of a lifetime.
Despite being one of the most cherished finales of all time, audiences weren’t always so nice about “One for the Road.” Originally, the episode was called too long and criticized for not having Sam end up with Diane, but as the former Boston Red Sox relief pitcher and his ex decide to part ways once again after a delayed flight to Los Angeles. Sam realizes the error of his ways and returns to the bar. As he finally closes up shop, one last patron stops by for a night cap and the owner turns him down, delivering the series’ last line, “Sorry, we’re closed.” Turning off the lights, he walks into the back room where viewers saw him for the first time so many years ago.