The Five Best Series Finales of the Last Decade

19 Jun

The Sopranos ended 10 years ago, as of last Saturday, with the most talked about and polarizing series finale of my lifetime (Seinfeld is the only other serious contender). To mark the occasion, here are the five best series finales since.

Before I get into the criteria of what makes for a great series finales, a few quick notes on the my digging through past generally. I expected, going through the years, to find more really memorable series finales than I did. The list drops off fast, and most of the better series finales are ones that were very solid, did their job, and closed what were excellent shows in very satisfying and satisfactory ways rather than absolutely blowing me away and leaving me stunned and amazed, but there’s something to be said for how difficult it can be just to meet the hype of ending a beloved show properly, let alone exceed it.

The best series finales are not merely the best final episodes; as shows that were cancelled and finished with a typical last episode that didn’t feel special or different or have a sense of closure or finality are unlikely to qualify.

What else does it mean to have a great series finale? Obviously, this depends heavily on the particularly show that’s wrapping up but there are some general rules that travel across all shows in one way or another.

  1. The finale has to feel appropriate for the show. This sounds obvious, but it’s easy to get away from, especially in shows that have been on for a while and may have lost their way a little as the seasons pass. In tone, in sensibility; this is your last impression on the viewer, it should feel true to what made the show great in the first place.
  2. Solve any unresolved plot points, and answer any questions that need to be answered. Some shows come into the finale with lots of unfinished business that needs to be taken care of, some are either less plot-centric, or take care of much of their plot wrapping up before the finale. Obviously depending on circumstances, some questions are best left open, but some aren’t, and leaving viewers feel like essential questions weren’t dealt with is a serious knock against a finale.
  3. Provide closure for your characters, and memorable final interactions between important characters.

To the list…

1. The Shield

As action-packed and suspenseful as a finale gets. Its breakneck speed allows it to pack in climax after climax before ending on a resolution that has a sense of ending but feels exciting right to the end; a combination many finales strive for but few reach. Most finales have, by the time they get there, at least some sense of inevitability, even if we don’t know the exact details, but The Shields leaves so much open and swerves left and right and then left again. The finale brilliantly calls back to the very beginnings of the show; the tight bonds of loyalty that bond together the strike team. Though Lem’s death at the end of season five started events in motion, in dramatic fashion, in the finale, the Strike team comes apart at the seems, with every last shred of togetherness broken. Shane and Vic sew seeds of each other’s misery, .Shane kills himself, his fiance, and his son after Vic declines a last plea for help, while Shane informs Vic that Corrine is working with the police because she doesn’t want Vic to ever see his children again. Ronnie discovers that Vic has betrayed him at the station, calling out as he’s arrested. And Vic, having gotten his immunity deal, avoids jail, only to be placed in his other personal hell, the office, safe for now, but knowing that with one slip up, his deal would go up in flames. Brilliant, exciting, perfect for the show, dealing with every story line that needed dealing with (Dutch and Claudette make up, for example, in non-strike team business), leaving you catching your breach afterwards, and packing an incredible amount of story. I couldn’t get it out of my head for days after watching. Just thinking about it now makes my heart beat. A fantastic finale to a fantastic show.

2. The Leftovers

I did not come around easily to Leftovers. I was hesitant to watch from the first. I frankly didn’t want to watch anything associated with Lost’s Damon Lindelof and everything I heard about the show turned me off. I largely didn’t love the first season, but I like each of the next two seasons, the third and final more than the second, and if my decision to watch wasn’t justified yet, it was by the finale. I never expected especially a finale this brilliant; that looked hard at what Lost’s finale did wrong, and did exactly the opposite. I don’t like the Leftovers as much as the other shows on this list, but its finale was likely the best episode of the entire series and that’s a very impressive feat. The finale was the opposite of The Shields. It didn’t and didn’t need to wrap up a lot of storylines or feature great suspense or pace. It was extremely narrow in scope, focused almost entirely on the two best characters of the entire show and highlighted by stirring monologue delivered outstandingly by Carrie Coon’s Nora which just brought everything that was good about the show together in just a couple of minutes. That scene, magnificently acted and written, was stirring and heartwarming with well-earned emotion that grounded everything the two characters had been through over the life of the show and left me on a high. A finale that demonstrated that the Leftovers recognized what worked and what didn’t over the life of the show and pulled out everything that did for the last moments that truly counted the most.

3. The Wire

The Wire, possibly the best show of all time, had a bizarre final season. It aired a couple years after the fourth (which wasn’t as common then as it is now), and it, for all of its positives (it is after all the fucking Wire) has the two most confounding parts of the entire show – the journalism angle which never quite works, unlike The Wire’s foray into teaching the previous season (probably because David Simon is too close to the actual industry and the self-righteousness and indignation runs too high), and the invented homeless killer, which is ludicrous and one of the rare moments The Wire really feels like all other generic television. However, almost unfairly because the fifth season is so weird, The Wire’s finale felt relatively more necessary and more satisfying. The show does not end on a strange note but instead returns back to the fold of classic Wire and takes care of all its characters for good and ill. As befits a Wire finale, with only ten episodes in its final season, it’s very plot heavy; a lot is resolved, and while, as would be expected, much of the resolutions are overly depressing, unlike the fourth season finale, there are plenty of notes of positivity to offer some balance. There’s a sense of full-circleness and that the more changes, the more stays the same same which gets to the heart of one of the central themes about the Wire. Still, Carver gets promoted as Daniels is forced to resign, Bubbles makes it out clean even as Dukie succumbs to addiction, McNulty and Freamon somehow escape jailtime. The only major lack for me was that I wanted a little bit more of a juicier final moment between Kima and McNulty, two of the most important characters who both followed their trajectories as far as they thought was best, even in diametrically different directions but this is ultimately a satisfying way to say goodbye to dozens of memorable characters, leaving almost no one behind.

4. 30 Rock

Comedy finales are an entirely different animal than drama finales, and as different as the above three are from one another, 30 Rock is another step away from all three. Comedy finales don’t generally require plot execution or surprises; just a sense of closure and a way to remember our characters, along with a last opportunity to provide the essence of the show in just one episode – why it was funny, what we liked about it, why we kept coming back. 30 Rock’s finale is similar in many ways to a regular episode of the show, with the meta-hook of the last episode of TGS being filmed. The Jack-Liz relationship is the beating heart of the show, and the recurring thread of the episode is Jack and Liz both realizing where they’re unsatisfied in their lives and trying to fix those areas, fighting with one another, and then reuniting and realizing their importance in each other’s lives. This only takes place in a few total minutes of the show but its built on years of chemistry and the scenes work. Jack’s leaving on his boat only to turn around immediately is a perfect 30 Rock moment. Every cast member gets a last couple of moments to shine, and more than anything it’s funny, chockful of the type of silly wordplay that 30 Rock does so well. The only thing that really needed doing was a remarking the Liz-Jack relationship. There’s a short flash-forward montage at the very end, but it’s very quick and very silly, and not like one I’ll complain about in a similar show shortly.

5. Flight of the Conchords

My most out of left field choice. The shortest show on here at just two seasons and 22 episodes, it can be debated if this even really counts as a finale like the others as it wasn’t even obvious it would be the final episode at the time (I’m still holding out hope for an eventual movie). It definitely has elements of a finale though; there’s definitely an obvious sense of finality to it considering the fantastic ending, and there’s the classic finale looking-back as the duo perform in a musical about their lives. Like the other finales on this list, this feels so in tune with the show it’s ending. And the result is, as often in Flight of the Conchords, hard luck in oddly good humor. The boys put on their very meta-musical of their story, which is whimsical and stupid, and a perfect round-up for the series. And, yes, Jemaine and Brett do get sent back to New Zealand thanks to Murary making a colossal fuck up, and end up back on a sheep farm, which would be very depressing in a different kind of show, but the Jemaine and Brett always seem to just take whatever comes in stride. Flight was never a serious show; it was a dry, absurd one, and this was a masterpiece of the qualifies Flight had in spades at all times.

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