Ending a TV show is never easy. When fans have been watching a show every week for a few years, following the characters on their journeys across 100 episodes or more, their expectations for the final episode – the conclusion of that story – are almost impossible to meet.
Still, some shows do it, and those are the ones that viewers like to revisit in the reruns, because they haven’t been left with a bad taste in their mouths by the revelation that it was all a dream or something stupid like that. So, here are The 5 Best (And 5 Worst) Series Finales Of All Time.
10 Worst: Lost
No, they weren’t dead the whole time, but they might as well have been. The Lost finale revealed that the island, and all the “flash-sideways” sequences in the sixth season, all tied into a kind of purgatory in which the characters were being judged. The show had lost the plot around the third or fourth season and kept going. By that point, the title didn’t so much refer to the characters as the fans.
Plot threads like the Smoke Monster and the polar bears had been wrapped up in the most predictable way in the last handful of episodes, so all we really got in the finale was a big reunion. Only one thing from the finale was clear: Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse are better at asking questions than answering them.
9 Best: M*A*S*H
The series finale of the medical sitcom M*A*S*H set the template for all series finales to come. After dragging out the Korean War for 11 seasons, the final episode began with a ceasefire. The characters have a party to celebrate, but also realize they’ll have to be parting ways soon. They each say a tearful goodbye to one another before leaving the 4077th behind.
“Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen” is everything a series finale should be: simple, focused on the characters, and conclusive. We’ll miss these characters, just like they’ll miss each other. It’s no surprise that it’s still the highest rated TV episode in history, drawing in more than 100 million viewers.
8 Worst: Dexter
A lot was riding on the Dexter finale. Was the titular serial killer going to face the consequences for his crimes or not? The show’s final episode, “Remember the Monsters?” was universally hated, because every decision the writers made was the wrong one.
Debra died and Dexter just waltzed out of the hospital with her corpse and dumped it in the ocean, just like she was one of his victims, and then he abandoned his kids with a fellow serial killer he barely knew to go and become a lumberjack. As with all the worst finales, viewers were left thinking: “Huh?!?”
7 Best: The Wire
The Wire’s final episode, “-30-,” was not a traditional series finale, but it was the perfect ending for that show. For five seasons, we’d seen a bleak and comprehensive study of crime in the American city and gotten to know a huge cast of characters on both sides of the law.
David Simon gave us closure on each character, but they didn’t all get a happy ending and we didn’t get closure on the overall narrative – and that was the point of the whole series. There will always be crime, the cops will always struggle to contain it, and some people can’t avoid going down that path, thanks to a divided society. It’s not pretty, but it is realistic, just like the show itself.
6 Worst: Two and a Half Men
Two and a Half Men had gone off the rails long before its series finale. In fact, so many viewers had stopped watching by that point that the writers wrapped up every story arc from the entire final season in the first couple of minutes, because they knew that most of the viewers tuning in for the finale hadn’t seen a new episode of Two and a Half Men since Charlie Sheen left – or very shortly after that.
The finale would’ve at least gotten some points for its meta jokes and self-awareness if it didn’t go overboard and have a piano land on a still-alive Charlie Harper and then end with Chuck Lorre himself basically calling us all saps for bothering with his show and giving us the finger.
5 Best: The Sopranos
Okay, okay, so the cut to black at the end is controversial. Fans were annoyed that what seemed to be their TV set losing power was actually the conclusion of their favorite show. But the symbolism behind the cut to black is as brilliant as anything else on The Sopranos. It’s suggested that Tony is killed, but we don’t get to see it. That was always the show’s strength. If we saw Tony getting killed, it would’ve been disingenuous.
The ending works, because we don’t know if Tony was killed – but we know he’s not completely out of the woods, and due to his lifestyle, it’s bound to happen sooner or later. We just don’t know when it’s coming, just like Tony himself. The whole series is essentially set in Tony’s head. If he won’t know when he gets shot in the back, then neither will we. And the episode leading up to that moment is a perfect send-off for all these characters, each getting one last powerful moment with each other and setting up their own future before the curtain is brought down.
4 Worst: Seinfeld
The idea behind Larry David’s script for the Seinfeld finale, which attracted around 75 million viewers in its initial airing, was that the four main characters were terrible people who deserved some comeuppance. But the characters acted decidedly more horrible in the finale than they did in the episodes that preceded it.
They see a guy getting mugged and just make fun of him. Come on, the show is better than that. Its strength was always smart plotting. There must have been a smarter way to get the characters into court than simply laughing at an overweight man getting robbed.
3 Best: The Office
After a rocky ninth season, the final episode of The Office gave every character the ending they deserved. Jim and Pam’s marriage was back on track and they were finally able to leave their jobs at Dunder Mifflin behind. Dwight had achieved his dreams of marrying Angela and becoming Scranton’s regional manager.
Erin met both of her parents. Andy became a star. Kelly and Ryan ran off together. And even Michael Scott returned for good measure and made an immense impact in just a couple of short scenes. The episode was as funny, heartwarming, and sweet as we could’ve expected it to be.
2 Worst: How I Met Your Mother
This is one of the most infamous series finales of all time, probably because a show called How I Met Your Mother already set up the show’s conclusion in its title. Before we’d even seen the pilot episode, we were guessing how it might end. Nine seasons later, we’d been offered dozens of hints – including some that were inconsistent with each other – and the creators went with a finale they’d written during season 2.
The problem is that the show changed a lot between season 2 and season 9. The whole of season 9 was set on the weekend of Barney and Robin’s wedding, where we got to know the Mother, and so the finale brushing over Barney and Robin’s divorce and the fact that the Mother had been dead the whole time felt like a slap in the face. And it had become obvious that Ted and Robin weren’t meant to be together, yet they got together.
1 Best: Breaking Bad
Trust Breaking Bad, the pinnacle of the so-called “Golden Age of Television,” to do a series finale right. Series creator Vince Gilligan didn’t leave too many things ambiguous, but he didn’t close the door on too many things either – he found the right balance of leaving the ending open for fans to interpret without leaving them unsatisfied.
Everything that was set up earlier in the series was wrapped up in the finale. We even got closure on the lingering Gray Matter mystery. The fact that in the pilot episode, Walt celebrated his 50th birthday and was given two years to live, and in the finale, he celebrates his 52nd birthday and gets killed, gives the series a sense of wholeness that few TV shows have.