It can often feel as though TV shows are defined by their final moments. This is when a show is supposed to sum everything up and, in whatever way it can, tell viewers what it was about all along. The kind of pressure placed on finales is, to put it plainly, a bit ridiculous. Every TV show works to define itself over the totality of its run, and only the ones that truly last even get series finales. Even so, a lot of expectations are placed on the series finale of a television show, and sometimes, these episodes break your heart.
This heartbreak can come in a variety of packages, from the death of a major character to a stunning reveal, and these moments of heartbreak can either be cathartic and wonderful, or frustrating and ruinous. Series finales are a rare gift. They suggest that enough people love a show to give it a chance to end the way it wants to. When they come, they often bring tears with them. When a series finale breaks your heart, for better or worse, it’s good to remember what made the show great in the first place. It can be a comfort, even if it’s only a small one. Here are the 15 Most Heartbreaking Series Finales In TV History.
Cheers is the kind of show that people lived in for years, and so its finale obviously brought about some distress. When the show closed its door after eleven seasons on the air, there was some natural sadness to the moment. For a moment in the finale, it looks as though Sam will sell the bar and move to California with Dianne, who reappears after a six year absence. Ultimately, they decide that it’s best if they both move on, and Sam returns to the bar.
This ending brings its own kind of heartbreak with it. Sam rejects the change his life with Dianne could have brought him in favor of the comforts of the life he’s lived for the entirety of the show. Sam returns home, and gives up on his life with Dianne. He goes back to a place where everyone knows his name. A man approaches the door. Sam says “sorry, we’re closed.” Eleven years end with the familiar, with all of its comfort, and all of its trappings.
14 Parks and Recreation
It may not seem like a heartbreaking episode upon initial examination, but the series finale of Parks and Recreation breaks your heart with its simple beauty. The episode presents us with an ideal future, one in which Leslie is eventually elected governor of Indiana, Ben is elected to Congress, Ron finds a healthy job within the National Park Service, and April and Andy become parents. The heartbreak here comes from what we don’t see; we only get glimpses of a future filled with light and love, and realize we won't get to witness the journey there.
Parks and Recreation used its finale to tell us about the world its characters were creating, and audiences cried tears of joy and anguish as they witnessed it all. The show broke hearts by promising a wonderful future that its viewers would never get to see. It’s nice to know that the characters end up in happy places, but it’s depressing to know that audiences can no longer follow them in their journeys.
Chuck’s most heartbreaking moments may come in its rather daring series finale. In this two part finale, titled “Chuck versus Sarah” and “Chuck versus The Goodbye,” Sarah loses her memory, and becomes the cold spy she was when Chuck first met her. The history the couple shared was completely erased, and Chuck was forced to convince Sarah that they really did fall in love over the course of the last five years.
For those who had watched Chuck since the beginning, watching Chuck fighting with his wife this way was the ultimate tragedy. What’s worse, the finale ends on a note of ambiguity. The pair exchange a kiss, one which may restore Sarah’s memories. We don’t get to find out whether it does, though, because the episode ends right there. Sarah may have recovered her memories, or she may never get them back. The Chuck finale puts its faith in the viewer.
12 St. Elsewhere
St. Elsewhere’s ending is one of the most famous in the history of television. In the show’s final moments, we get a game-changing reveal. We see Dr. Westphall and his son Tommy inside the hospital with snow falling outside. Then, the scene shifts to an exterior of the hospital, and then to the snow falling inside of a snow globe.
We then discover that Tommy is holding the snow globe, and is severely autistic. Inside the snow globe is the hospital that was the central location in St. Elsewhere. The most common interpretation of this scene suggests that the entirety of the show was imagined by Tommy. The heartbreak here comes from the way the rug seems to be pulled out from the show’s viewers. Does this mean that everything we’d seen over the show’s run was suddenly irrelevant? Of course not. Still, the reveal comes as a shock, one that would change the television landscape forever.
An all-time classic, MASH’s finale is one of the most-watched events in TV history, and it’s still the most-watched series finale of all time. It also broke its fair share of hearts, especially given the eleven seasons millions had invested in the show. The finale shows us a world where the Korean War is coming to an end, and the characters we have met are dealing with their departure.
As the characters go their separate ways following the war’s end, we come to understand the impact the war has had on the characters at its center. MASH was always a show about characters dealing with the realities of war, and with the bonds that you forge there. War is a deeply intense and terrifying experience, and MASH allowed viewers around the world to experience the gritty reality of it. Its ending wasn’t a completely smooth one, but it was true to the realities of that war. MASH used its popularity to send a powerful message, and it succeeded in every way.
10 Mad Men
Mad Men breaks your heart in quieter ways. Most of the characters we know end up alright, even if they do go in separate directions. The really troubling thing about this finale is the deep and abiding cynicism that runs through its final sequence. Don Draper is removed from the toxic world of Madison Avenue that has been central to his character. He’s on some sort of commune, and, as the series comes to a close, he appears to experience something truly genuine. He smiles.
Immediately following, we see the famous “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” ad. Coca-Cola, Don’s last client after he retreated into the wilderness, ultimately got a stellar ad out of Don’s retreat back into nature. This moment is so heartbreaking because it suggests that Don takes genuine feelings and repackages them. He uses a moment of actual release to help him sell a product. It’s a fitting final moment for a character so focused on salesmanship, but it doesn’t suggest any real evolution. Don’s been stuck in a cycle of deceit and depression throughout the show, and he doesn’t move past these things in the finale, he doubles down on them.
9 Six Feet Under
On a show completely obsessed with death, the only truly fitting ending was the one Six Feet Under gave us. After the surprising death of Nathan, the show’s ostensible protagonist, the finale follows each of the show’s central characters through to their eventual deaths in the future, whenever that might be. It’s a deeply upsetting and quietly moving sequence, one which gives viewers a sense of the small sliver of life that we have been given access to over the course of the show’s run.
These deaths aren’t treated with the usual sort of anguish that accompanies death on most shows. Instead, they are seen merely as a fact of life. Death comes for everyone, and Six Feet Under worked hard to remind us of that fact throughout its run. As it came to a close, Six Feet Under used the deaths of its characters as a cathartic release for its audience. After all the heartache and conflict the show depicted, death comes for everyone.
8 Little House on the Prairie
The end of Little House on the Prairie is bleak to say the least, especially for a show that was so continuously wholesome throughout its run. In the end, the show, which was set in the 1870s and 1880s on a small house on the prairie, went down in flames. After discovering that a development tycoon named Nathan Lassiter had purchased the land their town sat on, the people took drastic action.
After fighting the ownership in court and through violence, the town decides to destroy itself in a blaze of passion. Lassiter arrives at the end of the episode to discover the town he purchased destroyed. Little House of the Prairie ended its run, which so often focused on faith and family, with a reminder about the hardships that were so common during that time. It’s a dark reminder of the way good people can be taken advantage of, and of the occasionally dark lengths these people may go to in response.
7 Babylon 5
Babylon 5’s series finale takes a twenty year time jump, pushing ahead to the last days of Sheridan’s life. Sheridan, realizing that his life is near its end, invites all of the characters that we have come to know to one last dinner, where they reminisce about the lives they led together. Afterwards, Sheridan stops at Babylon 5 and discovers that it is being prepared for decommissioning because it is now almost entirely obsolete.
As Sheridan awaits his death, he learns that those who have gone before him are waiting for him. Like the show that came before it, Babylon’s tear-jerker of a finale was all about the future, and the hope that it can bring us. Sheridan’s death is not the end, but the beginning of a new adventure. The show itself wanted to suggest the same in its final moments, telling audiences that the show’s ending, sad as it was, was just the beginning of a new adventure.
6 Friday Night Lights
Friday Night Lights sometimes feels like a show specifically designed to induce tears, so it’s really no surprise that “Always,” the show’s series finale, follows suit. Facing a difficult decision as his team plays at States, Coach Taylor is forced to decide whether he wants to continue coaching for the program. Friday Night Lights always wore its emotions on its sleeves, and the finale follows suit, reveling one last time in the incredibly functional marriage of the Taylors, and on the young people that have been shaped by watching the pair.
Still, the finale is bittersweet, with the pair ultimately leaving the Texas town that was the show’s setting for Philadelphia. It’s about compromise, and about the families that we had grown to love over the course of the show’s five season run. Friday Night Lights let emotions happen. It was honest and sincere and wholesome and good, in every sense of the word.
Parenthood’s series finale was as tear-inducing as the rest of the show’s run. The final five minutes of the episode featured a horribly sad death and a memorial on the baseball field. The death of Zeek, the patriarch of the Braverman family, is a dark way to end the series. Still, in spite of this, Parenthood found a way to make viewers smile through the tears that were slowly covering their face.
The memorial to Zeek involves a baseball game, one which allows us to see the future for each of the members of the Braverman clan. We see a bright future, one filled with joy instead of sadness. Parenthood was always the kind of show that was honest about the sadness that life was filled with without allowing itself to be consumed by it. Parenthood was a show about hope, and its finale ends with a sad moment that is, in the end, filled with optimism.
Lost’s ending was controversial, sure, but it was also deeply moving. Millions of fans had become deeply invested in the show and its characters over the course of six sprawling, confusing seasons. The conclusion was understandably accompanied by high expectations, and they were ones that some felt were not met.
In a sense, then, Lost’s finale could be heartbreaking for two reasons. Either it was disappointing, a final confirmation that you would never get the answers to all the questions you had been puzzling over for six years, or it was a surprising but satisfying conclusion to the show. In the end, the flash-sideways which fans had been puzzling over all season was revealed to be a purgatory, one where all of the characters could reunite and “move on” together. Lost’s final season revealed that it was always about the characters. The mysteries of the show were beside the point. The deaths of all these characters was devastating, but it was comforting to know that they were all still together. Ultimately, that’s the only thing that matters.
Historical sitcoms are a rare enough beast on their own, but ones that end like Blackadder are entirely unique. The show, whose last season was always a commentary on the nature of violence and war, ends with a dark episode that assumes the death of all of the show’s major characters. The finale is set just hours before a British offensive in World War I, and examines the hesitance that many of them have about this particular push.
Once they are forced into the fighting, it becomes clear that Blackadder is the darkest kind of comedy. All of the characters the show has followed go down in a hail of machine gun fire, and audiences are left with some brutal realizations. War is hell, and you don’t get to live through it just because you're funny. It’s a morbid ending, sure, but one which doubles down on the realities of a conflict like World War I. Heartbreaking and real in equal measure.
2 The Wire
The Wire told us what to expect from the beginning. This was a show about broken systems, ones that abandon good people and force them to make awful choices just to get by. The Wire zooms in on the characters that are destroyed by this system, and forces us to reckon with the way in which the world can fail them, even when nobody works toward that goal. As The Wire told us throughout its five season run, it’s the system that’s broken, not the people inside of it.
Perhaps the most heartbreaking revelations of the finale come from the children we met during season 4. These characters assume roles we have become familiar with ever since the show debuted. Young, kind Michael becomes the new Omar, a rogue drug thief who lives by his own moral code. In the same vein, Dookie becomes the new Bubbles, a homeless addict just looking for another hit. The situations we were introduced at the very beginning of the show repeat themselves, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. The Wire shows us a world that is broken, and it doesn’t come with easy answers.
Roseanne’s final season closed with a devastating revelation. The entire show had been nothing more than a book, one written by the real Roseanne, who based the stories on her own life. This means that the stories told on the show are not completely truthful. Instead, they are the things she wished had happened in her own life. It’s a fantasy, one which is based on reality, but not compliant to it.
Her family never won the lottery, as the final season depicts, and they remained the lower middle class family that they were throughout the show. More crushingly, Dan, Roseanne’s husband, died of a heart attack. Although we never lost Dan on the show, discovering that he had died in the reality of the show was a crushing blow. Roseanne wrote an ideal version of her own life, and she invited us inside that version of it, because sometimes reality is just too brutal.